Be a wise consumer when buying stamps and covers

May 1, 2021, 4 PM

By Janet Klug

It doesn’t matter what you want or need — a house, a suit or a steak dinner — the essential point always comes down to the value (the importance, worth or usefulness of something) in relation to the cost (the amount that has to be paid or spent to acquire that something) of what you are considering.

Because stamps and covers are no exception to this rule of consumerism, how should stamp collectors decide when the price is right?

Many factors come into play when determining if a stamp, cover or an entire collection is a good deal. Collectors often say they “need” a certain stamp.

Realistically and honestly, you “need” a stamp only if you are planning to mail payment for your electric bill, for example. True, collectors might want a stamp that fills an empty space in an album, or they might feel that a certain stamp or cover nicely completes a page in an exhibit they are making.

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Try to separate your wants from your needs by being systematic about the process. Make a list of the stamps and covers you would like to acquire and decide how much you are willing and able to pay for the items you have placed on your want list.

Be sure to add the catalog number and the current catalog value for mint or used examples of the stamps. Although catalog values have the potential to change annually, in the latest edition, having values from a reasonably current catalog on your list will give you some idea of the intrinsic worth of the stamps.

Don’t rely on your memory — be sure to cross off stamps or covers on your list as you buy them, and avoid the chagrin and wasted money of purchasing something you already own.

Many collectors don’t bother to read the introductory pages of the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue or the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers. This omission is a mistake, if you want to expand your knowledge base as a collector, because there is a wealth of information in the front pages of the Scott U.S. Specialized catalog that relates to catalog values and the factors of grade and condition that affect the price of a stamp. Grade refers to the centering of the stamp image. Condition includes all other aspects of a stamp: perforations, color, condition of the paper, postmarks, gum and so on.

The Scott U.S. Specialized catalog uses U.S. stamps to illustrate grade and condition, and the volumes of the Scott Standard catalog contain similar pages using worldwide stamps to show the differences in grade and condition. For example, the illustration shown nearby is taken from the introductory pages of the Scott Standard catalog and demonstrates differences between a stamp in the grade of fine-very fine and one in the grade of extremely fine.

Why does it matter if a stamp is hinged or the gum shows previous hinge marks? Who cares if the design of the stamp is perfectly centered or not? Well, you should care, because the philatelic marketplace cares.

Stamps, like any other antique or collectible, have value largely determined by their condition. An expensive antique vase that has a small chip will be worth considerably less than one in perfect condition. Similarly, a stamp that has been heavily hinged or is not well-centered is not worth as much as a stamp that is beautifully centered with no faults.

Get to know in detail the catalogs that you prefer to use as reference tools for your stamp collection: how that specific catalog determines values, what information is included in the listings, etc. Most catalogs will give values based on retail prices of mint and used stamps. The Scott catalog values for mint and used stamps are based on stamps in the grade of very fine, unless noted otherwise in the catalog listing.

Often, but not always (depending on scarcity of a specific issue, for example), mint stamps will have a higher value than used ones. The Scott U.S. Specialized catalog expands its value listings for classic U.S. stamps, adding never-hinged, used on cover and a host of varieties. All of these additional factors can make a big difference in the value of a stamp. It is interesting and sometimes surprising to read through the listings for different stamp issues and see the difference between mint and used catalog values and how much a specific stamp is worth on cover.

Remember that the values shown in stamp catalogs are not actual prices — catalogs are not dealers’ price lists. The catalog values are approximations of what the stamps are being sold for in the retail market.

And that brings us back to the question of how much you should pay for a stamp that you want. Let’s suppose you have always wanted a Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. The predominantly black 1-penny stamp depicts Queen Victoria and was issued by Great Britain in 1840. An example is shown nearby.

If you want a mint, never-hinged Penny Black in excellent condition, you will probably pay several thousand dollars for an example. If you want one that was postally used, with a nice cancel and otherwise in excellent condition, you can expect to pay several hundred dollars.

However, if your personal standards for stamp grade and condition allow for heavy cancels, small creases, heavy hinging and other factors that affect the visual beauty of a stamp, then you might be able to pick up a Penny Black that suits you for less than $100.

A lesson to take with you is that condition counts, and counts a lot, if you are keeping an eye on future returns on your current purchases. Buying stamps with a grade of very fine and in excellent condition is likely to benefit you in the future, should you choose to sell the collection. You can purchase stamps with faults at a lower cost, but remember that the monetary return for a collection of faulty stamps is much lower than the return on a better quality collection. A good general rule is to buy the best you can afford.

When you start to shop for a specific item, keep a figure in mind for how much you are willing to pay. Use the same skills you use when you buy a new car or household appliance or outdoor equipment: that is, do your homework. Comparison shop, look at stock from several dealers. Ask about grade and condition. If a dealer tells you the stamp is very fine, examine it closely and see if you agree. Sometimes repairs have been made to stamps and covers to fix condition problems and make them pretty again.

If you plan to spend a significant amount of money for a stamp or cover, it is smart to have the item certified by an expert. The experts will be able to identify and document any repairs or condition issues and determine genuineness. Ask the dealer/seller if the stamp or cover has ever been expertized, and if so, what the expertizing certificate (the experts’ report on the item) says.

If the item has not been expertized, inquire about the seller’s terms for submitting an item for this service — will the seller pay or will you be charged, and who pays if the item gets a “bad” certificate, i.e., is found not to be genuine or has substantial problems.

There are several well-known expertizing services in the United States, most notably the American Philatelic Society’s American Philatelic Expertizing Service (APEX); the Philatelic Foundation (PF); Professional Stamp Experts (PSE); and Philatelic Stamp Authentication and Grading (PSAG). These and others offering authentication services can be found in Linn’s advertisements and online.

When you are certain that you are ready to buy, make an offer that fits your budget. It is certainly okay to offer to negotiate a price, and settle on one that satisfies both seller and buyer. 

Whether you choose to purchase stamps and covers from brick-and-mortar stamp stores, stamp show dealers, mail order or Internet dealers, auctions or other collectors, train yourself to be a savvy shopper.

Look around the marketplace for similar material, carefully check the condition and grade of stamps you are offered, and be as certain as possible about the genuineness of the stamps and covers. Then, judge how much you are willing to pay and buy accordingly.