What to look for when you're looking for stamps

April 20, 2015 05:20 PM

  • Two stamps from Finland, issued in 1967. Both would look nice on a stamp album page, but there are characteristics that make them different. If you're buying a stamp for your collection, whether inexpesive or pricey, always take the time to examine it carefully.
  • Sometimes it is easier to check the perforations on a stamp by flipping it over and looking at the back. Other flaws might become visible as well. This stamp has a minor crease in the stamp paper.

The two stamps pictured together here are common stamps issued by Finland in 1967.

But if you look close enough, you'll see small differences between these two similar stamps.A used example of this 40-penni Mannerheim Monument stamp has a value of 50¢ in the 2015 Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, and that's about what you could expect to pay for either one of these stamps if you found it in a dealer's stock.

Even with inexpensive stamps like the Mannerheim Monument commemorative, choosing the best available example means your collection is improving in quality.

Taking the time to examine each stamp closely before you buy ensures that the collection you're building is something you can be proud of for years to come.

That's true when you're picking out common commemoratives, and it's even more true when you start looking for pricier items to fill those album pages.


It might be hard to tell from these illustrations, but one of these Mannerheim Monument stamps has a slightly sharper central image, that part of the design that collectors call the “vignette.”

The top stamp looks just a little bit fuzzy or blurry around the edges of the statue of Field Marshal Mannerheim, while the design on the bottom stamp shows more detail in the statue.

That part of this stamp's design was printed by offset lithography, and one characteristic of multicolor stamp printing is that on some stamps, different colors don't always line up perfectly. When that happens, you might have a stamp that doesn't appear as sharp as others showing the same design.

The offset colors in the stamp at right also seem to be a little stronger; the sky is a slightly deeper shade of blue.

During the course of any print run, some ink used to print the stamp might print a little lighter or darker. It can be hard to tell exactly what the intended color is supposed to be, but with a close look at your stamps, you can decide which variety you think looks the best.

Other factors that can affect color include lengthy exposure to sunlight or room light, which might fade colors and make them pale.

The purple frame on the Mannerheim Monument stamp is engraved and intaglio-printed, created by a different printing method than the vignette.

Single-color intaglio printing can show different shades and degrees of color, and in some instances intaglio-printed color varieties are cataloged and command premium prices.

On common stamps you can check for solid color and bold, sharp printing.


The way that a design is centered on the stamp is a large part of what collectors and dealers refer to as its “grade.”


A stamp that is nearly perfect in its centering, with equal amounts of space on all four sides of the design, might be considered “Extremely Fine” by a dealer or stamp expertizer.

A stamp with a design that is only slightly off-center, but still neat and attractively positioned, might be described as “Very Fine,” which is the grade that the Scott catalog editors use to establish stamp values.

The retail value for an extremely fine stamp is usually more than the catalog value for a very fine stamp.

Both of the Mannerheim Monument stamps pictured here are a little off-center. The design of the top stamp is centered a little bit high, and slightly to the left. The bottom stamp is shifted a little higher, and just slightly to the right.

If your stamp dealer has several examples of a stamp to choose from, look closely at all of them before you make your selection. If one has terrific centering (and is also sound in other ways), that might be the best choice for your collection.


If you're only collecting mint or unused stamps, you won't have to be concerned about postmarks. But if you are collecting used stamps, postmarks can make a big difference in how your collection looks.

Some collectors search out stamps that have fully struck postmarks that show the entire date clearly. Others prefer to just have a light cancel that doesn't obscure the design.

Unless a postmark is particularly scarce, it's best to avoid a heavy or smeared obliterating postmark.

Both of the Mannerheim Monument stamps shown here have fairly light postmarks, with one covering the lower left corner, and the other showing more information and striking the bottom half of the stamp.

The corner postmark barely intrudes upon the design, but the larger postmark has an interesting feature: the name of the city where the stamp was used. Pellinge is a little island community in the very south of Finland. For some collectors, a postmark like this makes the stamp much more interesting.

In this case, personal preference will dictate your choice. Which kind of postmark do you like?


Stamps that are damaged should be avoided unless there are no alternatives. Though it might not be obvious, the Mannerheim Monument stamp shown at bottom is damaged in a couple of different ways.

At the upper left corner, a bit of the perforation was nipped off, probably when the stamp was removed from the sheet.

Short perforations are a regular problem with mint or used stamps, so check the perforation teeth carefully to see if they look full and even. Most collectors don't want perforated stamps that have been cut with scissors, though; the stamps should be neatly but naturally torn from the pane.

By flipping the stamp over, you can look at the perforations from the back, and not be distracted by postmarks or the stamp design. Against a dark background, the perforations are much easier to see.

You can also look for other concerns while the stamp is flipped over, including thinned paper, or disturbed gum on unused stamps.

This Mannerheim Monument stamp shows a crease through the back of the stamp. It isn't severe, but it's certainly worth looking for a better example, without any creases.

Even when the damage is slight, it detracts from the appearance of the stamp, reduces its overall value, and doesn't look as nice on your album page.

So now it's time for you to decide. Do you like the top stamp? It has no damage, but the printing is less sharp. Or do you like the bottom stamp, which has the missing perforation, but also has the readable postmark and sharper vignette?

Or do you think you should keep looking?