Refresher Course

Should you collect mint, used or covers?

By Michael Baadke

Choosing whether you want to collect mint stamps or postally used stamps is a little like picking out a family pet. You may decide that you want to buy a cat, or you might choose to get a dog. Both creatures have their good points and bad points. Ultimately the decision of which to choose rests with you and your preferences. You might also decide that you want to get both. That's not really a problem, but there is likely to be some added expense and concerns.

Figure 1. Postage stamps can be collected in mint (unused) condition (above left), or postally used (above right). Deciding which way to collect depends on a variety of different factors. Another alternative is to collect covers, which are stamped envelopes, postcards or wrappers. The cover shown on the bottom includes an interesting pictorial postmark. Covers are saved intact, though the example shown here has been photographically cropped. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 2. Collectors often turn to stamp dealers to find the stamps they need for their collection. As these fictitious advertisements show, many dealers specialize in specific areas. Click on image to enlarge.

And there are other possible choices available to you as well. Getting away from the animal kingdom and back to the stamp hobby . . . some collectors are most interested in covers, which are envelopes, postcards, parcel wrappers and the like that have been used to carry mail. These collectors save covers instead of, or in addition to, mint or used stamps.

Figure 1 shows the three basic ways that a stamp may be collected. At top left in the illustration is a mint 5.25-krone Bovbjerg Lighthouse stamp issued by Denmark in 1996 (Scott 1057). The stamp bears no postal markings, and although you can't tell by the illustration, it has the original gum on the back. Those are the main characteristics of a mint stamp, which is as fresh and perfect as the day it left the stamp printers.

A similar stamp with disturbed gum or some other minor defect is usually described as "unused." Shown at top right of the illustration is a postally used example of the same Danish stamp. In this case the stamp was used to mail a letter. After its trip through the mail, a collector removed it from the envelope by soaking it in water, drying it and flattening it. The stamp shows part of a postmark across the design (near the top of the stamp in this case), and during its soak any gum remaining on the back was washed away.

Finally, on the bottom in Figure 1 is a Bovbjerg Lighthouse stamp on a cover (shown in part) mailed from Denmark to the United States. Although only part of the cover is shown in the picture, the entire envelope has been saved intact.

If you travel to a stamp show where exhibitions of collections are put on display, you're likely to come across several exhibits that consist of mint stamps, used stamps and covers together, all arranged to convey the story of specific stamps and their usage. Most exhibitors are fairly advanced collectors who have collected for a number of years and have studied stamps for some time.

Yet beginner collectors still feel compelled to ask, "Which should I collect: mint stamps or used stamps?" This is a legitimate question for any stamp collector, but particularly for one who is interested in building a collection mounted on album pages.

Stamp albums typically have spaces for just one of each stamp from any given country. Many collectors prefer to keep the collection uniform by choosing to save only mint stamps or only used stamps. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, however. There have been many fine collections created that combine both mint and used stamps.

Let's look at the differences between collecting mint and used. Some collectors decide which type of stamp to collect based on very simple likes and dislikes. The collector of mint stamps may find the postmarks on used stamps distracting or unattractive.

A collector of used stamps, meanwhile, may take pride in the fact that the stamps in his collection have all fulfilled their destiny: they were actually used to carry the mail. While a dark postmark may be distracting, the collector of used stamps can look for examples that are lightly canceled, such as the example at the top right of Figure 1.

One important consideration for the collector who is buying stamps from a dealer or at auction is price. For many older stamps, mint ones are more expensive than used examples, sometimes substantially more. For instance, an unused 5¢ Benjamin Franklin stamp of 1847 from the United States, Scott 1, has a retail value of $5,250, according to the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps & Covers. However, the catalog lists a used example of the same stamp at $600.

A quick look through the listings of most countries in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue shows that more often than not the value of mint stamps exceeds that of used stamps. There are, however, stamps where the values for either condition are the same, and stamps where postally used ones are more costly than mint ones. One example of the latter is the 1873 2-skilling issue of Iceland, Scott 1, which lists for $800 unused and $2,000 used in the Scott catalog.

A collector might wonder why the postally used stamp is more expensive, and what would stop an unscrupulous collector or dealer from buying a mint stamp, applying an ink marking that resembles a postmark, and selling the stamp as postally used. Scarcity is often an important factor in determining the value of a stamp. If mint examples of a stamp are more abundant than postally used examples, the postally used stamps are likely to sell for more. In some cases, it is particularly hard to find authentically used examples of a given stamp.

As for faking a cancel, the Scott catalog gives this notice: "In some cases, where used stamps are more valuable than unused stamps, the value is for an example with a contemporaneous cancel, rather than a modern cancel or a smudge or other unclear marking." When there is any question, collectors often submit more costly stamps to a stamp expertization service to determine whether the stamp and cancel are genuine.

If cost is an important factor, the collector should look through the catalog to see if building a collection of postally used stamps would be less expensive than trying to collect all mint stamps. A collector thinking of starting a new collection may be interested only in new issues. Often it is much easier to obtain mint new issues than postally used examples.

Consider the United States Celebrate the Century issue, which consists of 150 different postage stamps issued in 10 15-stamp panes from early 1998 to May 2000. A collector of mint stamps can obtain all 150 stamps by placing a single telephone call to the Stamp Fulfillment Services agency of the United States Postal Service.

But because these stamps have not seen widespread postal use, the used-stamp collector has a more difficult task, mostly by trading with other collectors to try and build a complete set of the Celebrate the Century stamps. Even with a regular source of opened mail, such as envelopes sent to a public utility, it would take many thousands of envelopes to have a chance for completion.

It is possible that after the final stamps in the series are issued May 2, some enterprising stamp dealers may offer complete postally used sets of the Celebrate the Century stamps, but such sets, if they are made available, certainly won't be as plentiful as the mint stamp sets sold by the Postal Service.

In general terms, the collector of used stamps may be able to build his collection from envelopes he receives in the mail or that he obtains from other sources. In this way, the collection grows at virtually no cost, while the collector of mint stamps must pay at least face value for the stamps he gets.

However, finding the specific stamps needed for the collection can be a challenge that not all collectors care to face. When stamps aren't available directly from postal agencies or from the daily mail, collectors often turn to retail stamp dealers.

A local stamp shop may carry many of the stamps the collector is looking for, and mail-order dealers can help as well. Advertisements from stamp dealers, similar to the fictitious ads shown in Figure 2, are found throughout stamp hobby publications like Linn's Stamp News.

Many stamp dealers also buy and sell covers. Mail-order dealers may specialize in a certain area, such as United States, Scandinavia, first-day covers or topical areas. The collector with a strong interest in covers needs to determine how he wants to organize such a collection.

With thousands upon thousands of stamps issued, it may be impractical for a collector to embark on a collection that hopes to include postally used covers of every United States stamp, for example. However, a collector may choose to save covers of a specific era or a specific series.

Other possibilities include collecting modern first-day covers, covers demonstrating payment of specific rate classifications or fees (such as overseas rates or registered mail), or covers that fit into a thematic or topical collection.

Different types of collections generally mean that different kinds of collecting supplies will be used. If a collector only wants postally used stamps of the British Empire from 1840 through 1940, he'll be able to set up his album pages and not have to worry about annual supplements, for the structure of his collection is unlikely to change much over the years. He can use stamp hinges to affix his stamps to the album pages, and the same set of binders should suit him for many years.

A collector of new issues from Japan, Germany or some other country may wish to put his stamps into transparent mounts that protect the stamps without disturbing the stamp gum, as hinges do. As long as he wishes to keep up with new issues, the collector may purchase album supplement pages and perhaps new binders as the years add more pages to his collection.

A cover collector may look at cover albums, storage boxes and transparent sleeves to protect the items in his collection. Sometimes the investment in supplies can be costly, but it is important to use only supplies specifically designed for the stamp hobby that will not cause harm to the stamps or covers being saved. Cutting corners by using improper storage materials may be more expensive in the long run if the items in the collection are damaged by harmful plastics, adhesives or other substances.

There are many different factors to weigh when building a collection, but in the end it ultimately boils down to what will please the collector. Try to think in the long-term when designing your collection. Will you be happy with your choices a year from now, or 10 years from now?

Your best bet is to start by putting careful thought into the kind of collection you want to build. By satisfying your own interests and tastes and working within a budget you can afford, you're likely to create a collection that you will enjoy for many years to come.