Refresher Course

Selling your stamps? Consider all the options

By Michael Baadke

This Refresher Course column is on the subject of selling your stamps, but let's start out with a statement that may startle a lot of collectors. Being a stamp collector will not make you rich. It will make you smarter, it may help you relax and it will doubtless provide you with countless hours of enjoyment, but don't count on it making you rich.

Figure 1. Stamp collectors at dealers' booths during a stamp show. A collector with stamps to sell can visit with many different dealers to get a sense of the market for his collection.
 
Figure 2. Individual higher-value stamps of superior quality may sell well as individual auction lots. Shown is a wonderfully well-centered unused copy of the 1¢ Franklin stamp of 1869, United States Scott 112.
 
Figure 3. The stamp club auction is one way to dispose of individual items and sets from a collection. Stamp collectors are always looking for a bargain, so items at smaller club auctions are likely to sell at levels far below catalog values.
 

Yes, sometimes you hear that a stamp collector scored a tidy profit when he sold his collection, but those stories are outnumbered by tales of stamp collectors who thought the sales of their collections would bring in much more money than they did.

For those who decide at some point to sell some or all of a stamp collection, the experience can be difficult in more ways than one. Not only are they letting go of a lifetime pursuit, but they may have trouble finding someone who is interested in buying what they have to sell. And when it comes time to sell, many collectors learn that the monetary value they place on their pastime is quite unrealistic.

Did you pay full catalog value for every stamp in your collection? Probably not. And whoever buys those stamps from you won't want to pay full catalog value for them either. If your buyer is a stamp dealer, he probably won't be able to sell most of those stamps at full catalog value. He'll have to sell them at a discount.

And he has to buy them from someone at an even deeper discount, so he can make enough profit to pay his staff, his travel expenses, his store rent, insurance, utility bills and all other overhead, property taxes, income taxes, and maybe even put a little food on the table.

But don't be naive and sell your stamps for next to nothing if they actually have some value to collectors. A smart collector has to look at the many selling options that exist, compare the offers that he hears for the stamps he wants to sell, and decide how much time and effort he wants to invest in selling his collection.

There are many ways to go about selling your stamps. The easiest methods will generally net you the least amount of money, because you're passing the work on to the buyer. Selling strategies that may bring in more money for your items will probably take up a lot more of your time.

The interest potential buyers may have in your collection will depend on many different factors. Is there an active market for the stamps you want to sell? Are your stamps in excellent condition? The values you find published in catalogs are for undamaged stamps, usually in very fine condition. Condition and grading problems will affect that value in a big way.

When it comes time to sell some of your stamps, your main options are to sell to a dealer or to sell to collectors. Here are some of the most popular selling options for you to consider.

Selling directly to a dealer. There are many ads in Linn's Stamp News from dealers who are buying stamp collections. Sometimes they will sell the collections they buy intact to another collector or dealer. Often they have to spend hours taking the collection apart to stock their inventory of single stamps, or approvals books, and so on.

Ads from dealers interested in buying stamps are found throughout Linn's and among the "Wanted to Buy" headings among the classified ads. Look through these ads to find dealers who may be interested in the kinds of stamps you hope to sell.

When you speak with any stamp dealer on the phone, be prepared with your facts, and be completely honest. The stamp dealer will need an accurate description of the stamps you have, including an approximate catalog value, and he'll likely ask you many questions about your collection. He may want to see it. Your patience will make the whole process easier for yourself and for the dealer.

If you have purchased your stamps from a few specific stamp dealers over the years, they may be the dealers that you need to consult when you are interested in selling. If there isn't a stamp dealer near you, try to attend a stamp show in your area. Linn's Stamp Events Calendar tells each week where upcoming stamp shows will be held.

Figure 1 shows collectors visiting dealers' booths during a large stamp show in Canada. At the stamp show, you will find a number of dealers who can tell you if they are interested in looking over your collection or individual stamps. Some may be willing to give you an offer.

Don't be insulted if the offer you hear is far less than you expected. The dealer is factoring in what he has to do to resell your collection, and he may have to discount your stamps considerably.

Be polite if you decide to reject a dealer's offer. There's no point in creating ill will just because you think you should get more money than you're being offered.

What's the best thing about completing an outright sale to a dealer? You give the stamps to the dealer, the dealer gives you payment, and the deal is done. There's no waiting to see if the sale is successful.

Auction firm. Auction houses that specialize in stamps handle everything from single stamps to the largest collections. Every auction transaction is different. Some collections are auctioned intact, while others are broken into individual lots.

Figure 2 shows the 1¢ Franklin stamp of 1869, which catalogs unused at $700. This type of excellent stamp is likely to appeal to auction buyers as an individual lot.

You can learn much more about consigning your stamps at auction by calling one of the many firms advertising in Linn's and consulting with an auction house representative.

Consignment means the auction house will try to sell the stamps on your behalf at a scheduled sale. If they do not find a buyer, the stamps go back to the original owner.

If the stamps sell, the auction house will take a portion of the sale price to cover its expenses in handling the sale. Ask the auction house representative to describe the charges you can expect to see.

Many auction houses accept only larger lots, but if you have some individual high-value, high-quality stamps to offer, the auction house may be interested. Auction house representatives are often present at larger national stamp shows.

Club auction. If you want to sell smaller groups of less valuable stamps, you can consider participating in a stamp club auction, as shown in Figure 3. If there is interest in your items, club members will bid to purchase them. Most clubs also take a percentage of the sale price to support the club.

Club members are probably looking for a bargain, so your stamps may sell for far less than catalog value, but the club auction can be a good way to dispose of duplicates and unwanted stamps that others may appreciate.

Club circuits. Circuit books are offered by the American Philatelic Society and some other clubs as a means for members to sell individual stamps and covers. An example of an APS circuit is shown in Figure 4.

The seller has to identify and price each individual item, mount each in the circuit book, and return the books to the sponsoring organization. The books are then sent around to other interested collectors who review the offerings and make purchases, if they wish.

You may sell some or even most of the stamps that you place in the circuit, but you also may sell very few. And it often takes many months before the final tally comes in from the organization, because the stamps have to go from collector to collector to generate sales.

In the end, you may find that your good stamps have all sold and you have a number of stamps remaining that no one is interested in. You can always consider donating these stamps to the youth collecting programs of the American Philatelic Society or the Junior Philatelists of America, or to one of the schools or organizations requesting stamp donations in the pages of Linn's.

Information about APS stamp sales circuits is available from the American Philatelic Society, Box 8000, State College, PA 16803.

Online sales. Since the late 1990s, the Internet's World Wide Web has opened up a number of selling opportunities for collectors who want to sell their stamps themselves. They're not always successful, and there can be some hazards. Again, collectors must properly identify and price each item or group of items they want to sell.

Internet stamp sales options include selling at set prices or at online auction. Fixed-price sales can be conducted through retail databases such as Linn's zillionsofstamps.com. Collectors can set the price for their stamps, and for a fee the sponsoring organization handles most of the actual sales transaction.

Online auction sales are handled through firms such as eBay, amazon, Yahoo and others. Again, the seller must pay a fee to sell his items, and must properly describe what he is selling. Here the seller handles the transaction. The auction site simply supplies the venue and charges a fee.

Remember, if you are selling the stamps yourself, you may have to contend with a buyer who is not satisfied with your stamps once you complete the transaction. That means you may have to conduct a refund and resell the item again.

Selling stamps is rarely easy: that's probably why the professional stamp dealer calls it work. Every online sales venue is different. Check with the sponsoring organizations for specific details.

Every stamp collector who is selling his stamps would like to find a simple and very profitable way to do so. Sometimes a transaction with a stamp dealer will bring about this happy conclusion, but it's not always that easy.

Consider the many options that are available when it comes time to sell your stamps, and proceed cautiously to ensure that you find the deal that is right for you.