Few countries are, philatelicly, as well documented or actively organized as Mexico. Its attraction is its rich and often violent history which is well represented in its postage stamps. It is also of high interest for stamp investors for a variety of reasons, the main one being that its early stamps are tremendously undervalued. But first, some background.
Mexico was a country that embraced the concept of revolution and took it to new levels. It suffered occupation by the French and ruled by Maximillian as emperor until he was overthrown. Then a variety of revolutionary leaders took power and had to fend off internal challenges to their leadership. The US was also a factor, primarily in its ambitions for Mexican territory. Governments came and went at a rapid pace, but not without leaving their footprint in philately. For example, most countries issued only about 200 different stamps from their inception in 1840 until 1916. For Mexico, the number of primary listings is some 600, and the varieties therefrom number in the thousands.
The early postal system was organized into 54 geographic districts and, as a way of controlling stamp theft by highway robbers, stamps were overprinted in Mexico City with each district's number and year before being shipped and then manually overprinted with the name of the district on safe arrival. Hence, if the stamps were stolen, they could be identified by the printed district number and determined to be invalid by the lack of the overprinted name. That was the plan, but actual execution fell well short. As a personal undertaking, I decided to determine just how rare one issue of such stamps was. I selected the two sets of stamps issued from 1879 to 1883 which were specifically printed to handle international mail.
In 1879, Mexico joined the Universal Postal Union and thus had to collect the rates set by the UPU, which rates were lower than those for Mexico's internal mail. To handle the rate difference two sets of stamps were printed; the first set picturing President Juarez and a later set with just the rate numeral. During this period 54 different district numbers and various year overprints from 1879 to 1883 resulted in the printing of some 2,000 different combinations of overprints for stamps, but are listed in the Scott catalog as only 26 varieties.
What really makes these stamps a good investment is their absolute rarity. Mexico in the 1880s was not a land of high literacy rates where few people traveled abroad or knew anyone outside their immediate vicinity. Most stamp usage was commercial. Postal authorities had to guess how many stamps would be needed in each district and they started modestly, by which I mean they printed only 50 to 100 stamps in 1879 for many districts and even those quantities proved excessive. Districts with higher demand had follow on printings dated 1880 and 1881. In 1882, a general recall of unused stamps was made and replaced with new stamps bearing that year. Postal records show that many districts and values had almost no usage during 1879-1882 and all were returned unused. All such supplies were eventually sold off to stamp dealers in 1889. They cancelled many of the unused stamps to fill collector requests for used stamps since mint stamps were not as popular. This led to many stamps which exist only as Cancelled To Order (CTO) with few if any surviving postaly used examples. Many varieties of stamps and errors also exist. Chief among these are stamps which were returned and redirected to a different district, termed Habilitado issues. They bear two sets of district and date numbers, generally with the second district overprinted in red. These stamps are even rarer because they were prepared from returned or unneeded stocks, which were usually very small.
StampFinder created a catalog for these stamps and then priced the individual stamps based strictly on known or derived quantities without setting new highs for those stamps clearly recognized as rare, i.e. $300 with a few exceptions. Excluding the most metropolitan areas of Mexico, stamp quantities numbered only in the hundreds and that was quantities printed, not quantities that survived after 130 years.
What makes these stamps a compelling investment is that their pricing by dealers is totally out of touch with their rarity. Existing pricing guides are based on a historical lack of information rather than rarity. It's a classic case of underpricing based on perceived comparables without realizing that the only comparables are derived from trading in the issues from the half dozen large districts. I suspect most dealer pricing is based on what they paid for a collection without researching individual items. My catalog is thus a treasure map for picking up stamps for pennies, stamps which can only appreciate once their rarity becomes better known. If you want to join the treasure hunt, go to www.stampfinder.com and get the catalog titled "Mexico Catalog of Foreign Mail Stamps 1879 to 1883". Its finding these treasures that makes stamp investing both profitable and fun!