Stamp Collecting 101
Philately: The Art of Stamp Collecting
Stamp collecting is nearly as old as the postage stamp itself (that’s 1840!). Stamp collecting – or “philately” – has evolved in many ways. The hobby has something to offer anyone, regardless of age, experience, knowledge, or financial wherewithal. Traditionally viewed as a solitary or even antisocial activity, it is true that stamp collecting can be done alone. Philately can also be a socially intense hobby, with collectors meeting regularly in stamp clubs, congregating at stamp shows, corresponding with one another or meeting in online stamp forums. It’s a hobby for intellectually curious people: we like to think of stamp collecting as the “liberal arts college of hobbies.”
Philately is a such a big tent that there really is only one rule: have fun! If you feel like you need a second rule, a good one might be to take good care of your stamps to avoid damage. Everything else is up to you and your interests.
Many collectors enjoy the structure of a collecting hobby – the act of bringing order out of chaos is a common and important psychological underpinning of many collecting hobbies. For many stamp collectors carefully arranging stamps into their proper places in an album satisfies that desire for organization. Other collectors enjoy the process of gaining and sharing knowledge by creating stamp exhibits or writing articles and books. Still others enjoy the thrill of the hunt – whether it’s the missing stamp to complete a page in an album, a new item for an advanced collection, or a previously unrecognized rarity. There are as many different paths in stamp collecting as there are stamp collectors.
That said, this course is designed to
- explain the material encountered by collectors
- teach some stamp basics
- offer some suggestions about common paths and methods of collecting
- identify the typical tools of the trade used by collectors, and
- point out some areas for further pursuit.
The sessions listed here are short bursts of information (with some additional resources for further exploration) to help guide you along the highways and byways of philately, to share the pleasures of a hobby enjoyed by millions around the world, and to provide some guidance on what can be a lifetime of learning. Feel free to use the glossary of philatelic terms to help your understanding of our lessons.
Let’s start with the basic question: what’s a stamp? At its simplest, a postage stamp is issued by a postal authority to allow for the payment of a postal service. Postage stamps are almost always paper, and usually have some kind of adhesive on the back. They (almost always) include text or symbols identifying the authority that issued the stamp and the value or denomination of the stamp. They are (most often) applied to envelopes to show that postal fees have been paid.
For example, the stamp shown here is a 1981 stamp from France. It includes the country name at lower right, and a 1,80 franc denomination at upper left.
Stamps come in all colors, shapes and sizes in a bewildering variety of designs, types, and formats, but they share these basic attributes in common.
The first adhesive postage stamps were issued by Great Britain in 1840. Great Britain also issued the first postal stationery (envelopes, cards, or sheets with stamps already printed on them) in 1840. The first stamps for nationwide use in the United States were issued in 1847.
“Mint” and “Used”
Stamps can be collected both “mint” and “used.”
A “mint” stamp is one that has not been used for a postal purpose, or one that is in the same condition it was in when it was sold at the post office. A “mint” United States stamp these days is a self-adhesive stamp that is still on its original backing paper. Older stamps typically have water-activated gum. We had to lick them before sticking on an envelope.
A “used” stamp, by contrast, has been through the mail or otherwise has performed its job of paying for a postal service, most often to have a letter delivered. Stamps, when used, are typically cancelled to prevent re-use (usually with ink, sometimes by other methods). Cancellations themselves can be quite collectible and interesting in their own right, but more on that later. The United States stamps shown here have been used and show cancellation marks.
Basic Types of Stamps
Definitive stamps are everyday “workhorse” stamps that pay common rates or serve frequently needed purposes. These stamps are typically small in size, issued in large quantities, and remain on sale for longer periods of time, often several years.
Commemorative stamps are issued to honor a specific person, thing, subject, or event. They tend to be larger in size and more prominent in appearance. In the United States, they are printed in smaller quantities and on sale for shorter periods of time than definitive issues.
Special stamps are hybrids of definitive and commemorative stamps, combining the regular use of a definitive issue with the color and appeal of a commemorative. Typical examples include holiday stamps, some international rate stamps, and certain high value stamps for priority and express mail.
Sheets: Most stamps, whether definitive or commemorative, are sold in rectangular flat “sheets” or “panes.” Most current US stamps come in panes of 10 to 20 stamps.
Coils: Some stamps are available in rolls, also known as coils. These stamps are only attached to each other at the ends and are intended for high-volume stamp users. The postal service manufacturers coils of up to 10,000 stamps for some purposes. Coils are frequently collected in pairs or in longer strips.
Booklets: Stamps are sometimes sold in bound, folded, or stapled booklets for customer convenience, which allow the stamps to be more easily transported and protected.
Most stamps are intended for use on “first class” mail – letters, postcards, and the like. But stamps have also been issued to pay for a number of special services and for other purposes. Move on to Lesson 2 for more!
We learned in lesson 1 that most stamps have a denomination (that is, an indicated value). Usually this is the form of a numeral and currency; sometimes it is a letter or word denoting a specific class of mail. For example, most current U.S. stamps bear the word “forever,” meaning that the stamp will always be usable at the then-prevailing first-class letter rate (as of 2020, 55 cents).
Stamps are available in different denominations to allow postal customers to make up different rates or to pay for different services; postal rates also change over time, which require the periodic issue of new stamps. Postal rates and services can be the basis for significant specialized collections.
Some stamps are dedicated to a specific postal service or purpose. The stamps not only pay specific rates, they help to identify mail intended for a specific service. The following list is not exhaustive.
Semi-postal: Also called charity stamps, these stamps include a charitable donation in their purchase price and, therefore, cost more to buy from the post office than the value the stamp bore for postage. Many countries indicate their semi-postals by the use of two denominations, such as “10c + 5c.”
Airmail: Many countries have issued special stamps for airmail service. The United States issued separate airmail stamps from 1918 until 1993; some more modern stamps are treated as airmails because they pay for international mail delivery carried by air. At some times in the past, regular stamps could be used to pay for airmail, but airmail stamps could not be used to pay letter rates.
Postage Due: Postage due stamps were used by a post office to show underpayment of fees on mail that was not correctly paid when sent.
Special Delivery: Special delivery stamps indicated the payment of an extra fee to secure prompt delivery of a mail item.
Official: Official stamps were used only by government offices as an accounting measure.
Registration: Many countries have issued stamps to pay for the special service of registration, which provides additional security for valuables sent in the mails.
Revenue: Stamps are also used to show the payment of a wide variety of taxes (from everything from stock transactions to taxes on bottles of wine and beer). Revenue stamps are a huge field all to themselves.
Collectors occasionally have to remember that the postal service issues stamps to meet the needs of its customers. Stamp collectors are important, since they often purchase stamps and save them rather than using them to send letters. But the designs, paper, glue, printing methods and so on, are all focused on customers who use stamps for their intended purposes.
We’ve previously discussed that stamps generally include the name of the authority issuing the stamp (usually, but not always, a government) and a value or denomination, in addition to other design elements. Stamp collectors also consider several other physical attributes of a stamp for identification and collecting purposes. Minor differences matter to advanced collectors: tiny differences in paper, color, design, or other attributes frequently reflect different practices in printing or distribution of the stamps and therefore help to tell more of the history of a particular stamp issue. Of course, any collector is free to ignore the minor varieties and focus on bigger differences if they choose! Physical attributes of a stamp can also be very important in the evaluation of condition (see lesson 7).
Here are a few more things that collectors look at:
Paper: Some stamps were printed on more than one type of paper, including colored or chalky papers, or sometimes paper with different textures, such as wove paper and laid paper. The paper type can be used to distinguish different printings or issues of stamps that were used over periods of time.
Watermarks: Many older stamps have watermarked paper as a security feature. The mark shows in the paper when held to light as a bright design or spot due to thinner paper in certain areas.
Printing Method: Some stamps were produced by different methods of printing over time – such as engraving or lithography. Different printing methods result in visible differences in stamp design and appearance, and sometimes in size. For example, when the United States changed from flat-plate to rotary presses, the need to produce curved printing plates for the new presses resulted in stamps that were a slightly different size than the earlier flat-plate varieties.
Perforations: Perforations (or now die cuts) are the holes in between stamps so that they can be separated for use. Philatelists count the number of perforation holes in 2 centimeters (usually between 10 and 14) as an identification tool.
Gum: While rarely useful for identification, the gum on the back of a stamp is a very important attribute for condition and value. Most collectors prefer their mint stamps to have complete, undisturbed gum, just as it came from the post office. Missing, disturbed or damaged gum reduces value. Of course, not all stamps were issued with gum in the first place!
You might also enjoy this glossary of stamp terms available from the website of weekly stamp newspaper Linn’s Stamp News.
Most stamps were intended to be used on mail. Collectors call an envelope that was used to carry mail a “cover.” Of course, mail can take forms other than envelopes – postcards, packages, and the like.
Covers and other mail items form the basis of “postal history” – traditionally viewed as the study of postal routes, rates, markings and systems. Beyond the stamps on a cover, a postal historian will study the postal rates paid by the stamps, the cancels and other postal markings on the stamps and cover, the post offices that handled a mail item, and the routes that a mail item followed from its origin to destination.
Mail existed before the use of stamps. So-called “stampless covers” show postal markings and rates, but there are no postage stamps attached. These covers, especially before 1850, are usually folded sheets of paper, literally “folded letters.” Because the writers just folded their letters and wrote the address on the outside, many of these letters still include their letter content inside.
Cancels and postal markings are popular areas for both stamp collectors and postal historians. A stamp collector might be interested in different colors or shapes of cancels on a particular stamp issue. Postal historians might seek all the different postmarks used in a particular town or city, or look for other postal markings that show how a cover was handled in the mail stream or what may have happened to it en route. The earliest postal markings were manuscript – pen and ink. Postmasters also used a wide variety of handstamp devices (wood, cork, metal or rubber). Later in the 19th century, machines were developed to cancel larger quantities of mail.
Special types of mail – such as airmail, mail carried by steamboat or by railroad – are also popular areas for postal history collecting.
“First Day Covers” are another popular area to collect. These covers demonstrate the use of a stamp on its first day of issue. Most United States stamps have had dedicated first days of issue (on a specific date, in a specific city) since the early 1920s, though now many stamps are available nationwide on the first day. Since the late 1930s, most issues have had dedicated “first day of issue” cancels available. Some collectors enjoy making their own first day covers, including creating their own art printed or drawn on the envelope to accompany the stamp and postmark. Collectors call that added art a “cachet.”
When it comes to what to collect, there are no rules. Collect what you like! It is, however, easier for many collectors to focus or to specialize.
Most collectors start by collecting worldwide stamps, or whatever is available that they can acquire. Worldwide collecting is a great way to learn about stamps and to experience the wide variety of learning available in the hobby. The stamp world has endless variety, however, and it can be overwhelming. Narrowing one’s focus makes it easier to keep a collection in order and to develop one’s expertise.
The two most common ways to collect are by geography and by topic. Many collectors focus on the stamps of one or more countries, or on the postal history of a specific place or area. It’s also possible to collect by time period (such as worldwide stamps issued during World War II). These collections have the advantage of easier access to printed albums and reference literature (such as stamp catalogs listing all of the issues of a particular country). Many countries have a few expensive or rare stamps that may be beyond the financial means of most collectors, which can be frustrating if completion is a goal.
By contrast, topical or thematic collecting uses stamps to tell a story about the subject of the stamps – whether it’s ships, butterflies, U.S. Presidents, or the space stamps shown here. Stamps can be found for virtually any subject, and some topics have literally thousands of relevant stamps. Advanced collectors add to their collections by finding cancels, postmarks and other postal-related items beyond just stamps. In topical collecting the collector sets the topic and the scope of the collection: completion is whatever the collector says it is. Here’s a nice article on topical collecting. Alternatively, you can visit the website of the American Topical Association for a wealth of information!
Endless other variations are possible: some collectors collect only specific types of stamps (such as airmail) or limit their collection to specific stamp issues (such as the United States definitive stamp issue of 1902). Anything is possible!
Philately is infinitely scalable. You can collect stamps without spending any money at all. You can spend millions of dollars on a single stamp. There are stamp collections for any budget. Here are a few sources for stamps.
Your Mail. You may find some initial stamps for your collection in your own mailbox. While stamps are less common on mail than they used to be (and fewer people write letters), you may still find stamps on some of your incoming mail, including stamps intended for special bulk rate or nonprofit mail uses. Older gummed stamps can be removed from their envelope paper by soaking in a bowl of warm water. Self-adhesive stamps, particularly those issued in the last 15 years, are more of a challenge to remove from envelope paper. See here for some tips on removing self-adhesive stamps from their envelopes. Of course, you can collect the stamps still on cover!
Friends and Family. Your friends and family may have stamps put aside, and they receive mail as well. Start writing back and forth and your pen pal correspondence becomes a source for collectible used stamps! Some collectors are able to acquire incoming mail from businesses, but due to privacy concerns over names and addresses this is less common than it used to be.
The post office. You can buy new US issues directly from your local post office if you want to collect mint stamps.
Stamp clubs and other collectors. If you know other collectors, you can trade with them for stamps that you want. Local stamp clubs may be a good source of other collectors who are willing to trade with you. You can find a searchable list of stamp clubs at the American Philatelic Society website, stamps.org.
Stamp dealers and stamp shows. Brick and mortar stamp shops used to be common, but now are few and far between. There are, however, still many stamp dealers who do business at stamp shows, by mail, or on the internet. You can find stamp dealer directories at the American Philatelic Society and the American Stamp Dealers Association.
Auctions. Valuable stamps and collections are frequently sold at public auction. There are a number of specialty firms that focus exclusively on the auction of rare stamps and postal history. Stamp Auction network aggregates the auctions of most of these companies. When considering buying at auction, remember that you are likely to pay a buyer’s premium (generally 15 to 20 percent) over the “hammer” price of the auction. You should carefully read each auction firm’s terms and conditions to ensure you understand the transaction, and expect that an auction firm that you have not previously done business with may require references or a credit check.
Online. Many stamp dealers sell online. In addition, there are several online forums where collectors can sell in addition to professional dealers, including eBay, hipstamp, and the APS StampStore. Be careful to read descriptions and look at images when buying online! While most sellers are honest and reliable there are always some risks to doing business with sellers not known to you.
Condition is particularly important for valuable stamps. Stamps are delicate creatures, and especially for classic material, few pristine examples have survived. For some collectors, condition is a matter of connoisseurship or pride of ownership, and many stamp collectors seek stamps in the best condition available (or within budget). This devotion to condition may even cause a collector to upgrade a stamp to a higher-condition if a better example comes along.
As with all other parameters of collecting, YOU set the standard for what you collect. If damaged or less than pristine stamps are not objectionable to you, feel free to collect them – just keep in mind that a damaged stamp has much less value than a perfect example both when you buy it and when you sell it. Stamp collectors look at a variety of factors in valuing stamps:
Freshness: Stamps should have bright color and not be stained, faded, smeared or toned.
Centering: Especially in earlier material, many stamps have designs off-center or impacted by the perforations. All things being equal, most collectors prefer stamps with large and even margins around the edges of the design to stamps with small or uneven margins.
Cancel: Used stamps are generally more valuable when they have light and unobtrusive cancels. There can be exceptions for unusual or fancy cancels, or when a postmark is struck directly on a stamp, which collectors call “socked on the nose.”
Perforations: A stamp’s perforations should be even, with no short or missing (referred to as “pulled”) perforations.
Gum: Collectors prefer their mint stamps to be in post-office fresh condition, with complete, undamaged and undisturbed gum (“never hinged”). Missing or disturbed gum – even if it’s just a small spot from being hinged in a stamp alum – can mean a steep reduction in value. Unscrupulous sellers over the years have “regummed” many expensive stamps in an attempt to make them look never hinged.
Thin spots: Traditionally, stamps were mounted in albums using small folded pieces of glassine paper (“stamp hinges”) that left marks on the gum of the mounted stamp. Improperly removed hinges, or stamps that otherwise that get stuck to other paper, can develop “thin spots” where portions of the stamp tear away when a hinge or other paper is removed. These spots are considered significant damage.
Other damage: Stamps should not have folds, creases, holes, stains, tears, or anything else that damages the paper. Any of these negatively affect the value of a stamp.
There are many ways to keep and maintain a stamp collection. At first, envelopes or a cigar box might do the job. As a collection grows, you will find other tools to make your collection easier to organize and to examine. One thing to keep immediately in mind is that stamps are made of paper and are easily damaged. It’s best to avoid handling stamps directly with one’s fingers due to the risk of fingerprints, smudges, and other problems. Special tweezers, referred to by collectors as “tongs,” make handling stamps easy while protecting them from dirty fingers.
Commercially available printed albums are commonplace for worldwide collectors or for collectors of specific countries. Album pages and binders are available at a wide variety of price points and configurations, and either show images of the stamps or contain numbers or other descriptive text allowing collectors to match stamps to a proper place in an album. Completing an album page is a great pleasure and accomplishment for many collectors. Printed albums can, however, be expensive, and they lack flexibility – someone else has arranged the material so the collector is left to follow the arrangement, with limited ability to add additional stamps or to remove spaces for stamps that are unavailable, out of budget, or not of interest. Other collectors make their own album pages (either hand drawn or using computer software), which can be time consuming but allows for great flexibility.
Stamps can be mounted in albums using hinges or mounts. Hinges are small folded strips of gummed glassine paper that can be moistened to attach to a stamp and then to the album page. They are inexpensive but less protective of stamps and can lead to damage if improperly attached or removed. Mounts are generally plastic (such as polystyrene) that covers the front and back of a stamp and shield it from damage or from falling out of an album. The mount is then attached to the page. Mounts are far more expensive than hinges and add weight and thickness to stamp albums, but can make an attractive presentation. Some stamp albums are available as “hingeless” albums with mounts already placed and ready to receive stamps.
Larger items can be affixed using hinges, large mounts, or sometimes (such as with covers) with mounting corners (gummed or self adhesive) similar to those used for scrapbooking or photo albums.
Stamps can also be placed in stock pages or stock books, which have pages with glassine or acetate strips, or multiple pockets, where stamps can be arranged to suit the collector’s needs. Products vary widely in pocket size and the visibility of material placed within. Pre-bound books provide a convenient and affordable flexible option; stock pages are more expensive but can be freely arranged in a 3 ring or other binder.
However you choose to mount your stamps, keep in mind that (most) stamps are made of paper and are relatively fragile. When you store your collection, do your best to avoid extremes of heat and cold, as well as humidity (which can be controlled in small areas with silica gel or another desiccant). Similarly, light exposure can be rough on stamps, especially red shades, and lead to fading. A dark space away from natural light is best.
Store albums upright and not too tightly compacted; stamps can develop gum damage or get stuck in humid environments or under pressure. Water is very dangerous to stamp collections. At the same time, some air circulation is useful to avoid brittleness. Stamps are also sensitive to mold, mildew, smoke and other contaminants and odors, and it’s always a good idea to keep food and beverages away from your stamps when working on your collection.
It’s also worth noting that most stamp albums and other paper products are not acid free or lignin free. Therefore, they may not be archivally safe for long term storage. Some plastics contain softeners or plasticizers which can also be dangerous to stamps in the long term. Mylar, polystyrene or other archival materials cost more, but are the safest option for valuable material.
For another take on storage and display, here’s a more detailed article put together by dealer Brixton-Chrome Inc.
As with most other hobbies, stamp collectors have developed a number of tools to assist them in handling and identifying stamps. Most of these are optional, but they can be very helpful in dealing with your collection.
In addition to mounting supplies (covered in lesson 8) and reference literature (covered in lesson 10), there are several items in most collectors’ toolboxes:
Stamp tongs: These are a must. Like tweezers, but with smoothed tips, tongs allow you to easily pick up stamps and handle them without touching them with one’s fingers. Tongs come in a variety of lengths and formats, included spade, rounded, and pointed tips, even angled tips for removing stamps from stock books or pages.
Magnifiers: Philately is frequently a hobby of details. One or more good magnifying glasses (or even a digital microscope connected to your computer) can be very helpful in checking for damage, reading small text, or just for appreciating the fine details of stamp designs. A wide variety of styles is available both within and outside the hobby.
Identifier: It can be difficult to determine what country a stamp is from. This is accentuated when other languages are used, or particularly when different alphabets (Cyrillic, Arabic, others) are the only clues to a stamp’s origin. A variety of glossaries and guides have been published that list key identifiers for stamps and/or show images of tough-to-identify countries or issues. The Scott Catalog includes an identifier, as do many general or beginner stamp reference guides. One online identifier is here.
Perforation gauge: Collectors have developed special measuring tools to quickly measure the gauge of perforations on stamps, usually determined by the number of perforation holes in 2 centimeters. Most gauges involve lining up a stamp’s perforation holes with a series of printed dots or lines. Gauges frequently include other features (such as rulers) and can be paper, clear plastic, or even metal.
Watermark tray and fluid: Watermarks can be difficult to see. A black tray and watermark fluid (which can wet a stamp and quickly evaporate without disturbing or dissolving gum) can help make watermarks visible, as well as make creases, thin spots, or damage easier to spot. Watermark fluids are typically hydrocarbons similar to lighter fluid. Ronsonol is a popular and less expensive substitute, but many lighter fluids may have contaminants or other ingredients that leave residue on a stamp after evaporation.
Ultraviolet lamp: Ultraviolet light (both long-wave and short-wave) can help detect cancels, damage and repairs to stamps. Many modern stamps are also responsive to ultraviolet light and have fluorescent “taggant”; it’s this coating that allows modern postal machinery to quickly identify and cancel stamps on mail. Collectors can use a UV lamp to check for this feature of their stamps (and to identify varieties of stamp that differ only in their “tagging.”)
Philately likely has the broadest array of literature and the deepest scholarship of any hobby – whole libraries exist that contain nothing but books and journals about stamps, postal history and postal services. A wide variety of publications exists to assist any collector:
General books: A huge number of guides to stamp collecting and general reference literature have been published over the years. Several are likely available at your local library. Many cover topics similar to this online guide. Others contain more details about printing methods, collecting techniques and more. One book that is enthusiastically suggested for any collector of United States stamps is the Encyclopedia of United States Stamps and Stamp Collecting, the second edition of which was published in 2016 by the United States Stamp Society, edited by Rodney Juell, Lynn R. Batdorf and Steven J. Rod.
Catalogs: Stamp catalogs identify stamp varieties (typically using a proprietary numbering system) and place values on them. The standard catalog brand in the United States is Scott, published by Amos Media. Its worldwide catalog now extends to 12 volumes and costs hundreds of dollars (recent catalogs are, however, frequently available at your local library). Scott also publishes a specialized one-volume catalog of just United States material, and a single-volume worldwide catalog covering the first century of stamps, from 1840 through 1940. Electronic versions of the Scott catalogs are also available. Other major catalog producers exist in other countries (and are particularly specialized in their own home country’s stamps), such as Unitrade (Canada), Stanley Gibbons (Great Britain), Michel (Germany), Yvert et Tellier (France), Bale (Israel), Zumstein (Switzerland), Facit (Scandinavia) and several others.
Newspapers and Magazines: Several general interest stamp publications are available in the United States (and others are available elsewhere) that contain a wide variety of articles and news items devoted to the world of philately. Linn’s Stamp News is a weekly hobby newspaper; American Philatelist is the monthly magazine of the American Philatelic Society. American Stamp Dealer & Collector is published by the American Stamp Dealer’s Association. There are several others.
Journals: Specialty magazines, journals and newsletters are published by a myriad of societies devoted to specific areas of focus in philately. For example, The Chronicle is published by the United States Philatelic Classics Society, which is devoted to the study of 19th century U.S. stamps, while First Days is published by the American First Day Cover Society and focuses on first day covers. Many society journals have tremendous amounts of research that cannot be found in any other source and have significant value to advanced or specialized collectors. See “Helpful Links” elsewhere on our site to find several of these societies and their journals.
Specialty reference works: All sorts of books have been published about very specific areas of stamp collecting. Books can be found about specific stamps or issues of stamps, about postal rates of a country, about post offices of a particular state, and thousands of other subjects. The American Philatelic Research Library (affiliated with the American Philatelic Society) maintains a searchable online catalog.
Lesson 11: Stamps and the Internet
The internet contains a wealth of resources for all aspects of stamp collecting. The best thing to do is simply to go explore! The Garfield-Perry website contains a “Helpful Links” tab that lists a few major websites, but there are many resources available. Here are a few ways you can use the internet to enhance your hobby.
Reference and Research: Many stamp societies publish online newsletters or make information available on their websites, and there are many websites devoted to various aspects of stamp collecting. You can also use the internet to research stamp designs, the history of countries that you collect, printing methods, the sender or receiver of mail items, original postal records, and much more. Garfield-Perry’s links page includes many examples, but a couple of great resources are the American Philatelic Society and the United States Philatelic Classics Society, which has free access to back issues of its journal and a library of digitized reference books.
Buying and Selling: Many dealers have websites, plus of course there is eBay, hipstamp, listings from public auctions, and other resources. eBay allows even a new collector to also be a dealer. Of course, when buying online you don’t always know who you are dealing with, and online images are not always a substitute for direct examination. eBay in particular provides abundant protection against loss, fraud, or nondelivery, but there is no substitute for dealing with someone you know and trust.
ebay – likely the largest single marketplace for stamps anywhere.
Hipstamp – a specialty online auction and sale site devoted to stamps.
Stamp Auction Network – links to upcoming public stamp auctions.
Interact with Other Collectors:
There are several online forums and chatboards where collectors can interact, share material, and ask questions. For example:
Delphi Stamp Forum: Long-lived forum with a focus on first day covers but many other topics.
Stamp Community Family: Large, vibrant forum with US and worldwide topics.
Philamercury: Advanced chat board focused on US postal history
Particularly now in this pandemic era, many organizations and clubs have also started meeting online, using Zoom, gotomeeting, or other tools. For example:
APS Stamp Chat upcoming live presentations. There is also an archive of previously recorded sessions.
Online Club Meetings – APS listing of stamp clubs with online meetings.
Lesson 12: Value
Value is somewhat of an elephant in the room. While some collectors are not particularly interested in the value of their collections, others maintain fastidious records of what they paid and the catalog value for their collections. Friends, relatives and acquaintances frequently ask questions about value or “what’s it worth” when they find out that someone is a stamp collector. And, of course, values must be set any time stamps are bought and sold. Here is some general guidance.
Condition: Condition is discussed in more detail in lesson 7. A damaged stamp may only fetch 10% of the value of a pristine example, and a mint stamp that is never hinged may fetch multiples of the value of a hinged stamp. The spread of values is typically accentuated for rarer or higher-value material. The Scott U.S. specialized catalog includes a section that prices stamps in different “grades.”
Supply and Demand: Like any other goods or services, and as a matter of economics, prices are set at the intersection of supply and demand. For most basic material, prices are relatively stable. The “supply” of many rare stamp items (and even more so in esoteric areas of postal history) is very limited, but so is the number of collectors who are interested in an item. In many specialty areas, there are so few advanced collectors that the entry or exit of a single collector can significantly influence prices.
It’s worth noting that the stamp “market” is highly imperfect. Stamps are not commodities, and dealers have different information and business practices. You can expect to see wide variations in pricing between dealers, at auction, and so on. Do your homework before seeking out expensive material, and keep in mind that frequently if a price is too good to be true, there may be something wrong with the seller or the item.
Catalog Values: Catalog values are only a guide. While Scott catalog values are intended to approximate the retail price of a stamp from a dealer, those catalog values only apply to stamps in very fine condition (stamps in better condition can be expected to sell for more, while inferior examples sell for less). It is typical for dealers to sell at a discount from catalog value (40 to 70 percent of catalog is not uncommon), and deeper discounts tend to occur online or at auction. When buying from a dealer, keep in mind that the dealer must make a profit to stay in business, and you are paying for the dealer’s time in locating and organizing material so that you can readily find it. As a related point, most catalogs have a minimum value for the most common stamps – Scott now has a minimum value of 25 cents. You should not assume that a common stamp is worth 25 cents, either when buying or selling, or that four minimum value stamps are worth the same as a single stamp with a catalog value of one dollar.
Collections and packets: Buying stamps in collections or packets is frequently more affordable than buying stamps individually. Collections and packets tend to sell at lower percentages of catalog value, but of course you may have to buy duplicates or material you don’t want along with the material you do want. Packets may include only stamps of a particular country, subject matter or time period, and may include as few as ten stamps or many thousands. Be alert to claims of “all different” or “all complete sets” or similar descriptions as possible indicators of the quality of stamp packets.
Wholesale vs. Retail: As a related point, expect that when you sell a collection to a dealer (or even another collector), you will sell at a wholesale price. Dealers must buy at a lower price than they sell. It’s common for collections to sell at a low percentage of catalog value; dealers tend to have an overabundance of common material and are usually more interested in acquiring specific material that they know they can sell or don’t already have in stock. For this reason, it can be difficult to make money on your collection.
Investment: Many people buy stamps as an investment, hoping that they will increase in value. This is a risky proposition, because it’s difficult to predict where and when prices will go up and when they will go down. Stamps are not a commodity and many factors go into values, plus if you buy at retail you will have to face the potential for resale at a wholesale value. For most collectors, it’s best to think of the money spent on a stamp collection like you view money spent on movies, or golf, or dining out – the money is spent on an experience, not as an investment. That said, stamp collections almost always have a residual value, which can be significant, even if it’s not the full amount that was paid by the collector to assemble the collection.
Inherited or Donated Collections: Non-collectors frequently are left to deal with abandoned collections or collections left behind by deceased family members. As a general rule, well-maintained collections where a collector spent significant resources on the collection (for example buying at auction) or was a specialist, are more likely to have resale value. Many large collections actually have surprisingly little value in the end because common material remains common. Most United States mint stamps after 1940 have not appreciated in value beyond their issued “face value” and in fact sell at a discount below face value, to be used as postage. For more general guidance, here are a few articles:
Stamp Collecting Fun: A Beginner’s Guide
As you peruse the lessons on this page, you may find some helpful pictures in this presentation that add to your understanding.