Refresher Course

Buying stamps and covers via the Internet can be fun, fast and easy

We must surely be living in the best time ever to be a stamp collector.

In the past decade, the Internet has become an amazingly effective stamp bourse that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Figure 1. A folded letter mailed March 9, 1859, from Cincinnati, Ohio. The addressee and sender of the letter are prominent figures in Cincinnati history. The author bought this cover from the American Philatelic Society's online stamp store. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 2. The back of the folded letter shown in Figure 1. The back of the letter is signed and dated by the sender, Nicholas Longworth, an Ohioan who domesticated the Catawba grape. Click on image to enlarge.

You can buy stamps from vendors in Australia, India, Singapore or Brazil with just a click of your computer's mouse. You can pay for those purchases just as easily. Within a week, or maybe a little longer for orders coming from overseas, you have a new treasure for your collection.

As more vendors enter the online market place, it just gets better and better. I confess I have become addicted to the Internet philatelic wonderland.

Probably the most well-know, much-discussed, best-loved and most-disliked of all the Internet auction sites is eBay at www.ebay.com.

You can buy almost anything on eBay, not just stamps and covers. Great bargains can be found there, as can disappointments. Buyers should always beware when buying stamps or covers.

The left side of the home page of eBay offers links of items for sale by category. The categories are listed in alphabetical order. Near the bottom of the page, you will find the "Stamps" link.

Clicking on the link takes you to the stamps category page with more links to stamp subcategories.

The subcategories are the United States, Australia, Canada, other British Commonwealth, United Kingdom, Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, Middle East, publications and supplies, topical and specialty, and worldwide.

The subcategories are further divided, for example, with links to individual European countries under the Europe subcategory.

Searching the eBay listings is something of an art.

Choosing a good keyword or keywords is crucial to getting the right results. Keywords should be specific enough to narrow down the results to a manageable level, but not so specific as to accidentally exclude what you are looking for.

You can do a general search of the entire site. This maximizes the number of hits that you get for the searched-for item, but the results might be too massive to allow easy browsing.

Searching within categories or subcategories limits the number of hits and makes the results you receive more manageable. But for this to work, you have to correctly guess how the seller listed the item.

You can search for items you are looking for with a number of different keywords in a number of different categories, until you get the results you are looking for.

On eBay, you can limit your search to just the titles of the items being offered, or you can choose to search titles and descriptions. Choosing the "titles and descriptions" search option will return hits if the keyword is found anywhere in the listing, not just in the title.

Although best known as an auction site, eBay provides only the marketplace. It is not a seller, and eBay offers only limited help if something goes wrong with the transaction.

How does it work? Sellers place items for sale on the site, usually for seven days, and the highest bidder wins the lot. The seller describes the lot, provides one or more pictures of the lot, establishes an opening price or a reserve price and sets the conditions of sale. You have to read the terms of sale for each lot, because different sellers have different conditions of sale.

As a buyer you must be aware of return policies in case the lot you buy is not satisfactory. You must find out how payment is to be made, especially if the seller is in a different country.

Read what the shipping charges will be. Some sellers charge the actual costs of postage. Others add a hefty handling fee. To avoid unpleasant surprises, know before you bid.

Buyers and sellers are encouraged to leave feedback for each transaction.

Feedback can be of some help, but don't place more trust in it than it warrants. Because of the fear of retaliatory negative feedback, many users are reluctant to leave negative feedback, even when the transaction was unsatisfactory.

Bidding is easy. Before you can bid you must register with eBay. Complete step-by-step instructions are found on a link at the home page. Reading the "frequently asked questions" section is also a good idea. Just browsing the listings is fun. If you know exactly what you are looking for, the search feature can help you find it.

Literally millions of people throughout the world buy and sell on eBay. The offerings change by the minute, and unexpected treats can pop up unexpectedly.

You can create a favorite search and eBay will e-mail you when new items are listed that match your search. This saves a lot of time, and you don't have to keep checking back, unless you have become totally addicted to eBay.

Some sellers have established stores on eBay and do direct retail sales from their store listings. You still access the offerings from pages that look like auction listings, but instead of placing a bid you click a button that says "Buy it Now" and purchase the item immediately at the listed price. Some sellers also accept a "best offer" where you can make a counter offer to the seller's listed price.

The American Philatelic Society's stamp store at www.stampstore.org has more than a quarter million stamps, covers and philatelic books that have been submitted for sale by APS members.

The APS stamp store is also accessible from the APS home page at www.stamps.org.

Thousands of new items go up on the site every week. You can browse the site or search it using country, keyword, catalog number, stamp type or combinations of those parameters.

Anyone can look at the APS stamp store offerings, but only APS members can buy or sell from the site.

I was glad I was an APS member during a recent browsing of the offerings at this site. I searched for my hometown Cincinnati and found the cover shown in Figure 1.

At first blush the cover looks pretty ordinary. The folded letter is franked with an 1859 3¢ dull red George Washington stamp (Scott 26) postmarked Cincinnati, March 9. There is no year in the postmark, but the back of the folded letter, shown in Figure 2, is signed and dated March 8, 1859, by the sender.

I had a hunch about this cover as I pressed the "Add to Cart" button that would hold the item for me until I checked out. My hunch paid off. When it arrived a couple of days later (they get these things out fast), the first thing I did was open the folded letter and read the message it contained.

The letter offered corrections to an article that had appeared in "the Gazette." The letter is addressed to "John H. James Esq."

An Internet search led me to a site with biographical information about John Hough James at www.ohiohistory.org.

James was born in 1800 and died in 1881. He was president of the Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad Co. A sort of Renaissance man, James was a lawyer, banker, Whig congressman, stockbroker, editor, lecturer and writer. He was also interested in horticulture and lived in a huge 22-room house in Urbana, Ohio, where he edited the Citizen-Gazette newspaper.

What I found out about the recipient was interesting, but my hunch was on the sender: the letter was signed "N. Longworth."

Nicholas Longworth was a titan in Cincinnati's history. He was born in New Jersey in 1782 and moved to Cincinnati in 1803, where he became a successful and wealthy lawyer. Longworth had a keen interest in horticulture, something he shared with James.

Longworth was responsible for domesticating the Catawba grape that began the wine-making industry in Ohio. Longworth lived in a mansion that is now the Taft Museum. It is considered to be one of the finest small art museums in the country. Longworth's gardens are still there.

Longworth's namesake grandson married Alice Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt's daughter) and was a representative, majority leader and later speaker of the House of Representatives.

I was pleased as punch to add this cover to my Cincinnati collection.

An up-and-coming philatelic auction and direct sale web site is found at www.stampwants.com.

It was from this web site that I purchased the Gorilla Pants advertising cover pictured in the Feb. 26 Refresher Course.

The web site functions very well and is easier to use than eBay. Each lot has a thumbnail image, and when you roll the cursor over it a larger image pops up.

The web site is running an enticing promotion. At the end of the year it will give away a genuine U.S. inverted Jenny airmail error stamp (Scott C3a). A prize like that is well worth registering for, and you might find a few treasures for your collection.

Many stamp dealers and auction firms have web sites. You can shop whenever you like, and it is fun just looking to see what is available.

Give it a try, but do make sure you read all of the fine print before you place your first stamp order.