Refresher Course

How do I learn about stamp collecting?

By Michael Baadke

There are a lot of great ways to learn more about the stamp hobby, including doing what you're doing right now: reading Linn's Stamp News.

Figure 1. A new policy from the U.S. Postal Service has made it harder to find new stamps in the local post office. Click on image to enlarge.
Figure 2. USA Philatelic is a free mail-order catalog offering new postage stamps from the U.S. Postal Service. Click on image to enlarge.
Figure 3. The 20¢ Streetcars stamps issued in 1983 were discovered with the black lettering completely missing. Four of the error stamps are shown in the top illustration. A normal block of four stamps is shown at bottom. Click on image to enlarge.

Asking questions is another way to get the information you need to enjoy the world's greatest hobby.

New collectors often ask a lot of questions, because there are a lot of interesting areas to explore. Some collectors are drawn to postage stamps from around the world, while others may have only an interest in mailed covers (envelopes, postcards and so on) from one particular country.

There are huge general questions, like "How do I get started?" to more specific questions, like "How do I tell if that spot on my stamp makes it an error?"

Here are a few of the "How do I . . ." questions that collectors sometimes ask.

How do I learn more about stamp societies?

There are hundreds of specialty stamp societies and study groups all over the world, including many in the United States.

These groups usually study one special aspect of the stamp hobby, whether it is a single country, or a special topic that is depicted on stamp designs, or a special type of stamp, such as coils or booklets.

Some stamp hobby societies don't even study postage stamps: they study other related collectibles like cinderellas (stamplike objects that aren't actual stamps), revenue stamps (a stamp issued as a tax receipt), and so on.

Most specialty societies publish journals monthly or quarterly. The journals provide members with information they need to learn more about their favorite specialty.

But back to the question: How to learn more.

The American Philatelic Society has many affiliates and chapters and can provide contact information for interested collectors.

On the Internet's World Wide Web, visit http://www.west.net/~stamps1/aps.html and click on "Affiliates & Chapters" for more information.

If you don't have Internet access, you can write to the APS and request information about an affiliate or chapter in your area of interest.

State your interest clearly in a short note and be sure to enclose an addressed, stamped envelope for your reply.

Write to the American Philatelic Society, Box 8000, State College, PA 16803.

If you're not an APS member, be sure to ask for information about APS membership benefits. There are a lot of great reasons to join.

How do I get the new United States stamps that I want?

Getting new U.S. stamps used to be easier than it is now. There was a time when you could walk into just about any post office, ask for the newest stamps, and the clerk would be able to sell you exactly what you were looking for.

A lot of post office clerks still try their best to help collectors looking for stamps, but they just don't have the stamps in the post office any more.

Yes, that's a little strange, but a new Postal Service policy that started this year limits the sales of certain stamps to post offices in only one state or by mail order.

For instance, you can't get the 32¢ Wisconsin Statehood stamp in your post office, unless your post office is in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Statehood stamp is shown in Figure 1.

Sometimes new stamps just aren't available in your local post office, because they are sold out and don't expect more to come in.

One place to find the U.S. stamps you want is at the philatelic center in a larger post office. Try asking your local clerk if he knows where the nearest philatelic center is located.

Most clerks at philatelic centers are familiar with the many new issues the Postal Service creates and can help you get the stamps you're looking for.

They even carry stamps like the Wisconsin Statehood stamp that aren't otherwise available.

Another alternative is to order U.S. stamps by mail through the USA Philatelic catalog.

The Fall 1998 edition of this Postal Service mail-order catalog is now available. To get your copy, write to Information Fulfillment, Dept. 6270, U.S. Postal Service, Box 419014, Kansas City, MO 64141-6014; or telephone toll-free, 800-782-6724 (800-STAMP-24).

The front cover of the USA Philatelic catalog is shown in Figure 2.

You can also find lots of dealers who sell unused U.S. stamps in Linn's classified advertising near the back of each issue. Classified section 5 is "U.S. unused for sale."

By reading the advertisements, you'll see that there are a lot of dealers who specialize in different areas. One may carry just the stamps you're looking for.

How do I find out if a stamp is a valuable error?

Whether you're looking at a stamp you may want to buy, or you've bought a stamp that you think looks unusual, it's a good idea to know what is a stamp production error and what isn't.

Stamp errors can be valuable because they are unusual, they are usually scarce, and there are many collectors who like to own them.

With those three characteristics, there is a pretty good market for error stamp material.

But some individuals have offered items for sale described as "errors" that really aren't errors at all.

Here's one definition of an error, from the 1998 Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps.

"Error — stamps having some unintentional major deviation from the normal. Errors include, but are not limited to, mistakes in color, paper, or watermark, inverted centers or frames on multicolor printing, missing color or inverted or double surcharges or overprints, imperforates and part-perforates, and double impressions. A factually wrong or misspelled inscription, if it appears on all examples of a stamp, even if corrected late, is not classified as a philatelic error."

Some recent stamps have been found with faint lines printed upon them or with small areas of color printed faintly or partially missing.

Such items are generally classified as freaks, not errors, and do not normally carry the substantial premium value that errors sometimes command.

For example, the Scott description of "missing color" refers to at least one color entirely missing from the stamp.

An example of a true color-missing error, the 1983 Streetcars issue with black omitted, is shown in Figure 3. The stamp is listed as Scott 2062b.

If you're not sure if the stamp you want to buy is a true error, you should check with an expert before you buy.

Changes in stamp production methods have created some unusual stamp errors and varieties on modern United States stamps.

A number of stamp dealers specialize in the trade of stamp errors. Many of them advertise in Linn's classifieds, under heading 287, "Wanted to Buy U.S."

To return to the message at the beginning of this column, the collector interested in stamp errors can learn more about them by reading the EFO Collector, a quarterly journal of the Errors, Freaks, Oddities Collectors Club.

For a sample copy, send $3 to EFOCC, 138 Lakemont Drive, Kingsland, GA 31548-7603.