Arcane discussions of stamp identification, condition, and certification leaves inexperienced collectors confused and many other collectors distressed. Let's talk about the real issues.
First, the collector should know that anyone with a modicum of skill and interest can become expert enough to identify 90% of all stamps ever issued reliably. Such a collector can also learn to assess condition equally well for those 90%. All it takes is an appropriate catalog, the ability and inclination to read and understand the catalog, a perforation gauge, tongs, and magnifying glass, and a reasonable sense of color. This is all it takes for at least 90% of all stamps.
90%? Where did I get the 90% from? If I compare the Combined Scott's Catalogue of 1940 (covering the first century of stamps) with the 1999 Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, I believe that the 1999 catalogue is at least 5 times the size of the 1940 catalogue. I believe this suggests at least 5 times as many stamps in 1999 as in 1940. This also means that 80% of the stamps have been issued since 1940. I also believe that for nearly all of the stamps issued in the last 60 years watermarks, papers and printing methods are not significant determinants of stamp identification. I believe that most of these stamps can be identified unambiguously by the illustration, the denomination, the color, and the perforations. These are all easy subjects for any collector to become expert. Further, I estimate that at least half of the stamps issued before 1940 can be equally easily identified. For example, how many problems are there in identifying most U.S. commemoratives from before 1940? [Note: I recognize that this is only a rough analysis and that there are many exceptions; however, the overall assessment that the majority of stamps can be reliably identified by any collector is certainly true.]
Catalog Any catalog will do. It doesn't need to be the most current issue unless the very latest issues and prices are critical to your collecting (you might sometimes ask yourself why if this is the case). You also need only those catalogs which are pertinent to the country/stamps you are collecting. If you are patient, you can forego the latest catalog until you have exhausted the search for stamps in the slightly out of date catalog. In addition, most modern issues are not priced based on rarity because they are not rare -- they are commodities. They are priced based on cost (sometimes not even face value), handling expenses, overhead, inventory cost, and profit.
Read the Catalog The first step on the road to becoming expert is to read the catalog! You have it; read it! Start with the introductory material which will cover how stamps are made and used, how to read the catalog, how to evaluate condition, how to use the tools you've acquired, and introduce other philatelic interests such as postal history. Study and review of this part of the catalog will provide all the expertise necessary to identify and evaluate our target 90% of all stamps.
Tools Buy a perforation gauge and practice using it. This is also a good time to practice the use of tongs which are the stamp collector's tool for safe handling of stamps. In all but a few cases perforations can be measured without any further assessment than one gets from a good gauge. Add a good quality magnifying glass (not necessarily expensive) to permit examination of stamp details and the search for faults.
Color Fortunately for those of us who are color-challenged, not too many stamps in the 90% of all stamps issued can only be distinguished by color. Most color differences are pronounced so that even someone who is color-blind (me) can get the right answer. If you need help, don't hesitate to ask someone for a second opinion. (My wife is patient with my requests for color analysis!) While the catalog color names are sometimes daunting (bistre?, carmine lake?), such names are mostly applicable to the 10% of more difficult stamps.
Country Identification The only remaining problem is to find the right country in which to search for the stamp. In most cases this is easy but sometimes you need to make use of the stamp finder hints in the catalog. If necessary, buy a stamp-finder or make use of one of the stamp finder sites on the internet. There you will find that Magyar has to do with Hungary, Helvetia is really Switzerland, and Suomi is the land of the Finns.
Condition and Conditionitis For the stamps issued since 1940 (80% of all stamps available), condition evaluation is straightforward. For mint stamps, buy stamps which are well-centered with perforations well clear of the design. Hinged is not a four-letter word. You can often find a fine hinged copy for display in your collection at a considerably lower cost than the unhinged variety. BTW, I've never seen a collection which showed only the backs of stamps. If you want never hinged, fine. Careful examination of the gum with a magnifying glass in good light will reveal all but a few of the offending hinge marks. If you are collecting used stamps, develop a taste for cancellations which do not dominate the stamps. Clear, crisp cancellations off the face of the stamp are preferred. For most of these stamps there is no need to buy a defective stamp unless you are looking for a cheap spacefiller. Careful "eyeballing" will reveal most defects. Thins, if present, can often be seen with magnifying glass examination or when held up to strong light. Fakery is infrequent on all but the most expensive modern stamps. Care should also be taken with overprints. Such stamps should be purchased from a trusted dealer. These rules apply to the remaining 10% of the stamps as well but you may need to take additional care. The rule is: the higher the price of the stamp the greater the likelihood that someone may try to "improve" the stamp. Again, a trusted dealer is well worth any premium.
Beyond the 90% When you have completed these steps you will have become a real expert related to 90% of all stamps. These stamps are representative of most of the stamps you will encounter while building your collection. As soon as you have mastered these processes you can embark on becoming expert on other stamps which you find of interest.
Expanding your level of expertise will involve some research. You will have to find relevant literature or articles on the item which interests you. Study these resources, acquire some of the material, and study it. Learn the new skills necessary to recognize these new items. Study the literature to be able to evaluate condition which may have different expectations than you have already experienced. One of the beauties of stamp collecting is that there are books and articles in abundance on all aspects. Some very fine people have devoted their lives to study and writing about philately. The American Philatelic Research Library is a fine resource. There are a number of philatelic literature dealers ready to find some reference for you. Don't forget the periodicals that are available as well. These generally have publishing departments which publish additional reference works for collectors. You also should consider adding one of the excellent handbooks which has been written over the years for a reference work and study guide. Cabeen and Williams have both written excellent works.
Internet Resources Of course, you shouldn't neglect the vast resources of the internet in finding data regarding stamps. There are some wonderful sites that are just collections of useful philatelic links. Ask someone where they are. There are also a huge number of collectors who have put together some wonderfully instructive and entertaining web pages for philatelists.
Price A remaining question is the one of price. I believe the answer is simple. Never pay more than you think the item is worth to you. If you pass up an item because the price is higher than you wish to pay, your patience will likely be rewarded with a better opportunity later. Sometimes you may find that you have to increase the price you are willing to pay but that will be as the result of learning that the market is truly higher than your initial assessment. One should never feel cheated by price alone in an honest auction. One might feel that his good judgment was overcome by enthusiasm or competitiveness but these are different problems.
Expert Services Finally, as you proceed to acquire stamps which are more difficult to evaluate conclusively, ask the experts on-line, your dealer, or buddies at the local stamp club. BTW, if you have been dedicated in the pursuit of knowledge as described above, you may already be more expert than some of these people are. If an item is of considerable value and difficult to evaluate, then you should probably make use of a 3rd party expertization service. In the United States, The Philatelic Foundation, the American Philatelic Expertization Service, and the Professional Stamp Expertisers all have supporters. These services will provide an expert opinion on a certificate with a picture of the stamp for fair prices. When buying such valuable stamps, experienced dealers will provide extensions of their warranty to permit the evaluation of the stamp by such experts. The stamp will still have to be paid for but the dealer will refund your money and any expert fees should the stamp prove to be misidentified or to have unrevealed faults.
Copyright 1999, James Watson