Refresher Course

This is the place to start looking for stamps

By Michael Baadke

What's the one thing that every stamp collector wants?

Figure 1. Many stamp collectors regularly gather boxes full of postally used stamped envelopes from local businesses, agencies or schools that would otherwise throw them away.
 
Figure 2. A worldwide stamp mixture may yield on-paper stamps like these. Some dealers offer packets of mint or used stamps, or approval selections sent through the mail.
 
Figure 3. Stamp collectors find plenty to look for at stamp shows, where dealers gather to sell stamps and supplies.
 
Figure 4. The Internet provides a number of different ways to buy stamps. Collectors who use the Internet for their stamp purchases should pay attention to security concerns.
 
Figure 5. Postal authorities around the world create and distribute illustrated mail-order stamp catalogs like these colorful examples from Denmark, the United States and Ireland.

If you guessed stamps, you're probably right. While there are some stamp collectors who only look for covers (mailed envelopes, postcards and similar items), most of the people who call themselves stamp collectors are on the lookout for stamps.

Some stamp collectors find stamps for free nearly every day, while others pay thousands of dollars for just one stamp.

Can you really find stamps for free? The answer is yes. One appeal of the stamp hobby is that you can begin your collection by saving the postally used stamps that come on your daily mail.

You can harvest stamps from greeting cards and letters that you receive from friends and relatives. Let them know that you're a stamp collector, and you'll find that many will be willing to save the stamps from their daily mail, including the mail they get from you.

Ask your friends to save entire envelopes for you. That way, you can watch for unusual postal markings or interesting mailing uses, such as registered mail, that you may want to save on an intact cover.

You may be surprised by the number of people who remember that they have a stash of old stamps or old envelopes, or even a stamp collection that's been abandoned for decades. They may be happy to give them to you because they know you will appreciate them.

Your own daily mail may not yield a stamp landslide, but there are many businesses that get lots of mail every day from bill-paying customers or other correspondents who use stamps. If you can approach someone at such a business and ask them to save their empty envelopes for you, you may find a rich source for all kinds of interesting stamps.

Think of the possibilities: a business running a write-in contest, your insurance or utility company, your doctor's office, your child's school office, your church or synagogue, even your city's tax office. You can probably think of other potential sources that will yield boxes of stamped covers like the one shown in Figure 1.

For this type of collection program to succeed, you must collect the envelopes promptly so they aren't in anyone's way.

Some stamp collectors look for discarded envelopes in office dumpsters or in the trash containers in post office lobbies. There's even an amusing name for this activity: it's called dumpster diving.

As strange as it may seem, some collectors have found great prizes this way, such as Express Mail envelopes bearing high-value stamps or registered mail envelopes from overseas.

It's always a good idea to obtain permission from someone in charge before you do your dumpster diving, whether it's at the post office or any other public place.

Hunting free stamps can be fun, but at one time or another most collectors wind up buying stamps to add to their collections.

You might begin with stamp mixtures and packets advertised for sale in Linn's Stamp News. A modern worldwide on-paper mixture may yield a great selection of stamps like those shown in Figure 2.

While mixtures often contain duplicate stamps, packets of stamps are usually off-paper and all different. Carefully read the stamp dealer's description before you place your order.

Other Linn's advertisers offer stamp approvals, which are stamp selections sent to your home for examination. If you wish to purchase some or all of the stamps, you send payment to the dealer, along with the remaining stamps that you did not purchase.

Read over the approval terms carefully so you know the kinds of stamps the dealer will send you, how long you may examine the stamps, whether postage costs are paid by you or the dealer, and so on.

If you are lucky enough to have a retail stamp dealer doing business in your town, he may be an important source for the stamps and supplies you need for your collection. Look for stamp shops in the yellow pages of your telephone book under the headings "Stamps for Collectors," "Coins and Stamps" or "Hobbies."

The local stamp dealer may stock different packets and mixtures that you can examine before buying. Most also carry sets and individual stamps for purchase.

If you talk with the local stamp dealer and let him know your interests, he may be able to help you track down the kinds of stamps you are looking for.

You'll find many stamp dealers attending stamp shows and exhibitions that are held each weekend all over the country. The stamp show gives you a great opportunity to look over the selections of several dealers and make new contacts for future purchases.

Figure 3 shows a number of collectors at a stamp show examining the offerings at a stamp dealer's table.

If you've never been to a stamp show before, you're sure to be amazed at the great selection of stamps you'll find.

To find a stamp show in your area, check Linn's weekly Stamp Events Calendar, which appears in this issue on page 64.

Many stamp dealers now trade on the Internet, and stamp collectors are finding out there are several online stamp shopping options.

Linn's Stamp News hosts Zillionsofstamps.com, where stamp dealers list stamps and covers for sale at fixed prices. Anyone may look over the selections or purchase items, and the site includes a convenient searchable database. A collector is shown viewing the Linn's site in Figure 4.

Other online stamp sales sites include the American Philatelic Society's new Stampstore.org, a service reserved for APS members. Nonmembers may browse the selections, and APS membership details are available at the organization's regular website, www.stamps.org.

William F. Sharpe reviews the APS Stamp Store in his Stamps on the Internet column on page 52 of this issue.

The APS may also be able to direct you to a stamp club in your neighborhood, where you can look for stamp bargains and opportunities to trade with other members.

A number of collectors also enjoy bidding at online auctions, such as eBay and amazon.com. Of course, anyone purchasing items over the Internet should be cautious when dealing with individuals they do not know.

Traditional stamp auctions have been a popular method of purchase among collectors for many years.

Some of the world's greatest stamp rarities have been sold through established auction houses, but there are many auctions that offer more affordable stamps as well.

Auction houses provide catalogs that tell the date, time and location of the auction and describe the items in the sale. Buyers may request copies of the catalog by mail from auction houses advertising in Linn's. Some catalogs are free, while others may cost a few dollars.

You can place your auction bid by mail in most cases. Anyone new to auctions can learn more about participating by carefully reading the details provided in the auction catalog.

Collectors looking for brand new stamp issues will also find many different options. New-issue stamp dealers frequently advertise in Linn's Stamp News, as do agents of postal authorities worldwide.

Some postal agencies regularly produce illustrated mail-order catalogs showing their latest stamp releases. Catalogs from the postal services of Denmark, the United States and Ireland are shown in Figure 5.

You can learn more about contacting postal authorities directly by reading Linn's weekly World of New Issues column, which in this issue appears on page 58.

The stamp sources described here will get you started. As you read the pages of Linn's and talk with other stamp collectors, you'll find that looking for stamps can be almost as much fun as adding them to your collection.