Introduction to Stamp Collecting

Factors Influencing Value

By Jim Watson

While catalogues provide guidance on the value of stamps, the marketplace ultimately determines value. The price that an informed seller realizes for a stamp offered at an auction (that has informed and willing buyers) is the best market price available. From that standpoint, maarket historical prices are good guides to stamp values in the marketplace. Caution should be exercised, however, since sometimes inexperienced buyers and sellers can lead to misleading prices when extrapolated to the general market, or even to the next offering of similar items in the same marketplace.

One of the key determinants of value is the condition of the stamp. Scott's Catalogue prices are based on what Scott defines as very fine condition. The catalogue discusses, in the introductory sections, the factors affecting condition, and illustrates centering. (See "Describing Stamp Condition.") Stamps issued since the 1930s are generally expected to be in at least fine or better condition.

First and foremost, the stamp should be defect-free. Defects which detract greatly from stamp value include thins*, scuffs, tears, missing pieces, trimming, short perforations, holes, creases, faded colors, dirt, and dog ears. Care should be taken with the purchase of any valuable stamp to assure that the stamp is sound and free from defects. Defects are often repaired quite skillfully, and sometimes even the seller doesn't have the skill or the time to do a thorough evaluation. Stamps having such defects should generally be destroyed. However, in the case of stamps which otherwise are deemed valuable, the stamps can be used as "space fillers" until a better copy can be found.. Such stamps are sold at a considerable discount from the catalogue value.

The factors which make up condition include: impression, color, centering, gum for mint stamps, and the cancellation for used stamps. A clear impression is always preferable. As the plates from which stamps are printed wear, the crisp lines of the engraving become blurred. A sharp, detailed stamp that is well printed and post office fresh is often a striking sight. Such impressions command the highest prices.

Color should be bright and properly representative of the original color in which the stamp appeared. Often, different printings will be made with different shades of ink which create identifiable varieties. Also, colors sometimes change with time or exposure to chemicals. Such off-color or dull colors should be considered as defects whose effect on value is dependent on the severity of the problem.

Centering is the evenness of the space between the stamp impression and the edge of the paper or perforations on the stamp. Even, generous margins are preferred. In the case of imperforate stamps, the best stamps have a margin beyond each side of the design. Such stamps are called clear four sides. Since perforations were developed along with stamps, early stamps did not emphasize the modern desire for well-centered stamps. Early stamps often are found with perforations touching the design because the designs were printed so close together. Therefore, centering categories adjust with the issue. Scott's Catalogue shows examples of what constitutes Extra Fine, Very Fine, amd Fine-Very Fine centering in the introductory sections of their catalogues. Beginning collectors are advised to read the material and look at the stamps to help develop an eye for evaluating centering. Centering is subjective, and no two people will always agree on how a stamp can be graded. This is why the images found on the Internet can be of use in making your own judgment of acceptable centering.

The gum on mint stamps is the subject of much attention when evaluating a stamp. An unhinged stamp (NH for Never Hinged) is one which has never been touched by a hinge. The tracks of hinges are considered very lightly hinged (VLH) if the hinge mark is only revealed by careful examination with magnification and proper lighting. Hinge marks which are clear but do not disturb much of the gum's surface may be considered hinged. Heavily hinged stamps (HH) are those which have gum which has been disturbed by the hinge. This disturbance may be seen as lack of gum or unevenness under the hinge mark. If a portion of the hinge is still attached to the stamp, it is described as having a hinge remnant (HR).

Gum is also subject to other problems. Most of the unused stamps of the 19th century do not have original gum. Many mint stamps had the gum intentionally soaked off to avoid the possibility of damage due to cracking of the dried gum. Many experts believe that very few U.S. stamps before 1890 have original gum. Although many may appear to have such gum, careful, expert examination will reveal that the stamp has been regummed. Modern techniques make regumming quite difficult to detect. Certainly, collectors who pay high prices for original gum on early stamps should buy only on the condition that a confirming expert opinion can be obtained. Generally it is best to assume all such stamps are regummed. While gum is the subject of much debate, it is much easier on the pocketbook to accept lightly hinged, quality stamps for your collection.

A crisp and small cancellation on a used stamp is most desirable. Identifiable cancellations such as fancy cancellations (stars or geometric shapes), and town or slogan cancellations can add to the value of a stamp. Smudged and heavy cancellations reduce the value of a stamp. Cancellations in colors other than black are sometimes found, especially on early stamps. These command a premium. The specialized catalogues list cancellations which have particular value.

Often we see the word superb used to describe the condition of a stamp. This term should be used only if the stamp is truly perfect in every respect. The stamp is expected to be almost mathematically centered, the impression should be from an early usage of the plate with no smears, and the color should be bright and post office fresh. Mint stamps should have flawless original gum, and used stamps should have sharp, small cancellations. Such stamps from early issues are truly rare and, in the case of many stamps, non-existent.

* Words in red are defined in the Glossary section - see link under Outline at right.



A Brief History
Why People Collect Stamps
Major Stamp Categories
Factors Influencing Value
Tips for Finding and Buying
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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