Introduction to Stamp Collecting

I Have This Stamp Collection!
What do I do with it?

By Jim Watson

One of the most frequently asked questions is what to do with a stamp collection which has been received through gift or bequest from a loved one. The recipient doesn't know anything about stamp collecting and would like to turn the collection into cash. This is the problem.

The first, and most pleasant, suggestion is to become a stamp collector yourself. The collection suggests that the collector had interest in the items. The person's gift to you suggests that they thought you might find stamp collecting to be a wonderful hobby. Many of us have found that stamps and things philatelic have held our interest for many years. It is a constant source of learning and provides pleasure as we complete collecting goals. You will also enjoy meeting many other interesting people who collect stamps. If you take some time to learn about what you have, you will likely find stamp collecting to be very rewarding.

If this is not your intent and you want to just sell the collection for the most money possible, then you will need to do some work. The first step is to evaluate the collection.

A few principles should guide your initial evaluation:

1) Valuable collections generally show that a large amount of effort (and probably cash) went into gathering and organizing the collection. Most of the stamps will be mounted neatly in sturdy albums. Ring binders are acceptable, but preprinted pages or carefully annotated blank pages in large albums are probably better indicators. Scott's International and Specialty albums as well as those by Minkus, Washington Press, and foreign publishers indicate solid intent to organize the collection. A box of stamps cut off of envelopes does not meet the criteria of organization.

2) Another proof of the application of effort to the collection is the presence of "philatelic literature" in the donor's library. Books about stamps which are more than just Scott's or Gibbon's catalogues are a good clue that intelligence was expended on the collection. Further, ask to have the books if there are any. They may have quite a bit of value. Philatelic literature (as they are called) is always in demand by wise collectors.

3) The stamps should be carefully mounted in the albums. They should be mounted with hinges or commercial mounts which have clear plastic fronts. Scotch tape has sometimes been used with disastrous results. Its use makes the stamps not worth salvaging except in the case of very valuable stamps. Most people who spend appreciable amounts on stamps also mount the stamps carefully to preserve the stamps. Mounting is important because the collector's experience is confirmed by the selection of proper, safe mounting systems. The collector's knowledge is a key to a good collection.

4) Covers, that is, envelopes with stamps which have gone through the mail, should not be ignored. Good stamps on covers, particularly old stamps, can be quite a bit more valuable than just the stamps. Covers are often not mounted like stamps - it takes more effort. They are likely to be organized by category - 19th century, airmail, special usages, territorial cancels (these are covers which were posted when an area was still a territory before it became a state), wartime covers, and so on. Don't just throw them out or tear the stamps off. Also, leave the contents with them.

5) Many pages which are completely or nearly completely filled with stamps indicate value -- particularly if the stamps were issued before World War II. Complete pages of 19th century stamps are even more likely to be valuable. These stamps will generally be identifiable by printing or writing on the page. Collections showing this level of completion are more likely to be worthy of your attention than collections with just modern, brightly colored stamps - no matter how attractive the newer stamps may be

6) Condition is a prime determinant of stamp value. Stamps that are badly off-center relative to the perforations, torn, dog-eared, scraped, thinned, pinholed, heavily canceled, or otherwise damaged are generally of no interest. Only scarce stamps which have such defects can be sold and then only at a sharp discount. Defective common stamps should be destroyed after it is confirmed that they are common - they are too much work for what they are worth, and their presence detracts from the overall impression of the value of the collection.

Not a principle, but also important to remember is that supply and demand determine the price of stamps just like any other item. Of these two, Herman Herst states that demand is far more important. He suggests that there are a number of stamps of which only one is known, but none command the price of the British Guiana 1 magenta which has the distinction of being the most sought after single stamp in world. Other singular stamps just don't have the aura to command such a price.

Another idea to explore is whether the collector had a spouse or collector friend who could help you understand the collector's objectives and experience. You might even be able to enlist a collector friend to help you. Collectors will often help someone in your situation so you might look up a local stamp club and attend a meeting and explain your plight. You might ask at your place of work -- there are more stamp collectors than you think!

With these thoughts in mind, you should do a first reconnaissance of the merit of the collection. Is it orderly? Are the stamps neatly mounted? Is there a stockbook with unmounted stamps organized in an orderly fashion? Are there covers which will have to be evaluated but which appear to be clean and orderly? Are the early pages (years) of the collection relatively complete? Is there anything that shows special study like various cancellations which have been written up on the page? Are the stamps relatively flawless? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you need to do some work to complete the evaluation.

If the collection has shown merit, you must make a major decision. Assuming that you don't want to become a stamp collector, you must decide how to dispose of it. There are several choices. The first, and most often easiest, is to contact a nearby stamp dealer who is a member of ASDA (American Stamp Dealers Association) and/or APS (American Philatelic Society) regarding the sale or evaluation of the collection. Dealers do this regularly because it is the source for their merchandise. Remember, too, that you are asking a dealer to spend time on doing a task you can't do as effectively.

Stamp dealers, as a group of business people, have a reputation for honesty and fairness. Do not hesitate to try a couple of dealers to convince yourself that any offer is fair. Don't forget that the dealer's offer must take into account the work that has to be done to complete the organization of the collection, verify the identity of each worthwhile stamp, and to prepare it for sale. The amount you are offered will also reflect the dealer's feeling regarding the difficulties of selling the stamps and the current market values. After removing the stamps which are to be sold individually, the remaining low value stamps will probably be offered as a collection remainder. Selling to a reputable dealer is the quickest way to get a fair price for the collection.

Next, if there is evidence that the collection has great value, confirm this by doing some research with the Scott's catalogues which can be found at your local library or can be obtained through the interlibrary loan service. You need to learn how to read the catalogue (there are instructions in the introduction) and then embark on cataloguing the key stamps which are those in the early years of the collection.

If you find that you can confirm many stamps which have a catalogue value of $100 or more, then you need to give serious consideration to finding a national stamp auctioneer or a regular eBay dealer to professionally auction the material. This is absolutely the best way for a collection of high value. Such auctioneers can be found in the stamp journals like Linn's and by browsing the listings pages for Stamps at eBay. In no event should you try to sell the collection at any local auction which sells other things than stamps. Such places haven't the clientele to get good prices nor the skill to know what they are selling which is essential in selling stamps.

Lastly, if the collection is fairly ordinary with no items of great value, you might try to auction it yourself. This is fun but it will require you to learn a lot about the stamps. This knowledge is necessary to write up the stamps properly. Stamps which are offered by non-collectors sell for sharply less than those offered by experienced collectors. The reason is that the sellers don't know how to properly describe the item so that the collector will gain the confidence that the offerors know what they are talking about. This often leads to painful misunderstandings and people discount prices if they expect problems.

Furthermore, the law expects sellers to know their merchandise. This means you must know enough to identify the stamp properly as well as any faults which may not be apparent in a scan. For example, you may have to learn to tell the difference between a single line and double line USPS watermark; a Crown CA and multiple Crown CA watermark; perf 12 and perf 11; compound perforations; and roulette. Perhaps in the process you may just learn enough to find how enjoyable stamp collecting can be and get caught up in the magic of stamps! 



A Brief History
Why People Collect Stamps
Major Stamp Categories
Factors Influencing Value
Tips for Finding and Buying Stamps
Tips for Listing and Selling
Displaying or Storing
Stamp Collecting Tools
Caring for Stamps
Insuring Your Collection
Books and Other Sources
Building a Collection
Describing Stamp Condition
I Have This Stamp Collection...
Appendix I: Tips for Finding
   and Buying Stamps on eBay

Appendix II: Tips for Listing
   and Selling Stamps on eBay

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