Refresher Course

How much is your stamp collection worth?

By Joe Kennedy

Here is something that I have heard many times in a variety of forms: "So you are a stamp collector. I didn't know that. My uncle left me a collection several years ago. Wonder if it is worth anything. Will you take a look?"

Figure 1. These common definitive stamps from Spain, Belgium and Germany each carry the minimum catalog value of 20¢, but they generally will sell for much less than that. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 2. Stamps such as these (a recent Spanish Andorran commemorative, a Dutch semipostal and a high-value Costa Rican airmail) have higher catalog values than common definitives do and are generally in greater demand. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 3. Many United States commemorative stamps issued in the 1950s and 1960s, such as these three, can still be bought or sold in full panes for less than face value. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 4. A collector trying to sell a collection of Slovakian stamps such as these probably wouldn't have much luck in trying to sell them to a dealer who specializes in U.S. classics. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 5. A collection of damaged stamps has little theoretical value and would be difficult or impossible to sell. You might have trouble giving away these damaged stamps. Click on image to enlarge.

Here's the answer.

If the collection was formed in the normal way by soaking stamps off covers gleaned from the mail and purchasing cheap stamp packets and individual stamps from dealer nickel boxes, count the stamps and multiply by 2¢. That's how much such a collection is probably worth.

This is an easy way to do a rough evaluation, but is it reasonable?

Each week in Linn's in the Kitchen Table Philately column, various authors writing under the pseudonym "E. Rawolik" review stamp mixtures ordered from Linn's classified section and other sources.

A recent series of 12 consecutive mixes averaged out at costing the buyer 2.2¢ per stamp. A different dozen might have produced a different result, but the estimate of 2¢ is in the ball park.

A mixture for which Rawolik had to pay more than 10 percent of catalog value will generally bring unfavorable comments.

Some stamp dealers offer stamps at 1¢ or 2¢ each in quantities of 5,000 or 10,000. That dealer price is a good starting point for an evaluation of your stamps.

But it is just a starting point. There are other factors to consider as you estimate the value of stamps.

If you examine a collection and see mostly common definitive stamps such as those from Spain, Belgium and Germany shown in Figure 1, then move that decimal point to the left another place. Yep, five for about 1¢ for stuff like that, maybe less.

But if you see lots of stamps similar to the Spanish Andorran commemorative, the Dutch semipostal and the Costa Rican airmail stamp shown in Figure 2, shift the decimal point in your estimation one place to the right.

Recent commemoratives, semipostals and high-denomination airmail stamps frequently have a much higher catalog value than common regular issues (definitive stamps) and are generally in much greater demand.

There are other factors to consider in estimating the value of a lot or a collection.

Each collector tends to evaluate a group of stamps in terms of his own collection, his own interests and his own pocketbook.

Suppose Adrienne, a collector of mint French airmail stamps, sees a group of 100 postally used common Swedish definitives. Her evaluation of what that group is worth to her will be a flat zero. The stamps have no value for her, because they aren't mint, they aren't French and they aren't airmails.

Bardell, a collector of used Swedish regular stamps, looks carefully at the same 100-stamp group and sees about 50 that duplicate stamps already in his own collection, so he will offer only $1 for the lot. Uncritical duplication can turn a collection into an accumulation.

Then there is Colleen, who has not previously considering collecting the stamps of Sweden but is instantly fascinated by the stamps and wants to add them to her collection. She is willing to pay $2, maybe even as much as $2.50 to acquire the lot.

Most of us have similar preferences, although we may not be able to fully justify them. If a stamp lot looks good to you, don't hesitate too long before plunking down your cash for it.

Beauty is in the eye of the holder as well as in the eye of the beholder.

Bjorn, the owner of this hypothetical lot of 100 stamps, fondly recalls collecting them many years ago as a young lad. They remind him of his family and his ancestral homeland.

Because he has so much emotional involvement with the stamps, he is hoping that they will bring at least $10. Unfortunately for him, most collectors are not willing to pay for his emotions when they buy his stamps.

There are special cases. A collection made to earn a Boy Scout merit badge that is worth $2, might be worth $3 to you, if you know the person or the family.

The saddest version of "what's my collection worth" that I hear is, "My husband said these stamps would be worth something someday and now that he has passed on, I need the money."

There is just no easy way to tell the lady that most of the mint panes of United States commemorative stamps from the 1950s and 1960s that her husband bought are still being sold for discount postage at less than face value. Some examples of such stamps are shown in Figure 3.

Only after talking to several dealers and collectors and hearing the same story from all of them would she be convinced that everyone isn't in cahoots with their offers.

Offer her 75 percent of face value and hope that you can break even by selling them as discount postage.

The solid stack of mint panes stored under the bed in high heat and humidity, known in the hobby as the "stamp brick," is even worse, of course.

When offered a stamp brick by an obviously needy seller, philately conflicts with philanthropy.

Using such stamps on mail will require soaking them apart and affixing them with glue: tedious and time consuming. You might be able to resell them at a very steep discount from face, but you might not. Do what you have to do.

Talking to an experienced dealer is one of the best ways to find out what your collection is worth. If those guys don't know, they won't stay in business for very long.

Remember that not every dealer will be interested in every collection. When you are selling, you should find a dealer who deals in the types of stamps that are in your collection.

A dealer's clientele, his existing inventory and his available capital for restocking his inventory will all affect his evaluation of what a collection is worth to him.

For example, try offering a collection of Slovakian stamps such as those shown in Figure 4 to a dealer whose stock and trade is U.S. classic issues in unused, original-gum condition. Even though it is a nice collection of desirable stamps, you will get a reply along the lines of, "Sorry, Bub, but that's not my style." If you sell to such a dealer, he most likely is quickly going to resell the stamps to another dealer.

In some cases, a dealer who specializes in Eastern Europe and who has customers for such material might turn you down because he already has more than an ample supply of such stamps in stock.

When selling to a dealer, you should shop your collection around until you find the right one.

You won't make a good sale if you are trying to carry coal to Newcastle.

Dealers have to cover overhead and make a profit, so their evaluations must reflect such costs.

So far, we've mostly looked at supply and demand. But there are two other factors that are absolutely crucial in determining what a collection is worth: grade and condition.

For common stamps, even an estimate of 2¢ each is too high if the stamps are poorly centered or not in good condition.

Look at the poor wounded soldiers shown in Figure 5. These sad-looking stamps demonstrate a multitude of sins.

Among them are stamps that are very poorly centered, heavily canceled or damaged.

The damage includes stains, tears, creases, trimmed perforations, blind perforations, pulled perforations and thins. You will not be able to sell a collection that contains many stamps such as these. You might even have trouble giving them away.

Other types of damage include used stamps that have had the cancels removed, stamps that have catalog numbers or values written on their backs and color changelings.

You would have to have been asleep for the past 35 years not to know how important gum condition is in collecting unused stamps. Watch out for regummed stamps.

If by a slim chance you run across a collection advertised as being very old, in very good collection and once owned by someone's sainted grandfather, step back and think.

Unless you are experienced in such material, you can easily spend big bucks on big fakes. Remember, old stamps in mint, never-hinged condition are scarce. Suspicious grills, odd perforation varieties, funny watermarks and stamps that are not the right color are suspect.

Show such stamps to a knowledgeable friend, or better yet, send them for expertization.

Of course if you happen to have spare money to throw away, if you are a gambler and if you wish to impress your club, then go right ahead. Keep the results of the expertizing to yourself unless it turns out all right, but don't be surprised if no one seems interested in buying the stamps.

Stamp evaluation is easy: start at 2¢ per stamp and adjust for scarcity and condition and further modify the value by the stamps in the buyer's own collection, collecting interests and financial situation.

Of course, none of this applies to a collection of stamps with high catalog values that was carefully formed one stamp at a time, each chosen for being in the best condition and grade available.

Such collections will often leave dealers and collectors drooling and bring top dollar at auction.