By Michael Baadke
Many stamp collectors will tell you they collect stamps for the fun of it, but most are aware that those little pieces of gummed paper they save have at least some intrinsic value. Determining that value can be significant for the collector who wants to buy a stamp at auction, from a dealer or a fellow collector.
How do you know what you should pay for that stamp? Are you paying too much? A story on page 1 of last week's Linn's Stamp News (March 20) described how the next edition of the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue will show an increase in the minimum retail value for any listed postage stamp. Currently that minimum retail value is set at 15¢. The 2001 Scott catalog will set that minimum at 20¢.
Does this mean every common stamp you own is worth at least 20¢? Probably not. The Scott catalog value reflects the retail price that you can expect to pay for a stamp in the grade of Very Fine with no faults. Generally, a stamp grade of Very Fine means the design is well-centered within the margins of the stamp.
For common stamps, the minimum catalog value takes into account stamp dealer expenses for handling common stamps and preparing them for resale. If you walk into a stamp store and request a common older commemorative stamp, such as the United States 4¢ Higher Education stamp of 1962, the stamp dealer is likely to charge you 15¢ (or 20¢) for the Very Fine grade stamp that he has in stock. The few pennies profit he makes on the sale won't go far toward paying the rent on his store, his insurance, his employees' salaries or his utility bill.
There's a chance you might encounter that same stamp for sale in a big box marked "FACE VALUE" the next time you go to a stamp show. The fact is there are plenty of these stamps to go around. The stamp you find in the face-value box may not grade Very Fine, or it may sport some fingerprints or bent perforations. It's even possible it will be in great shape and you can use it to fill an empty space in your album.
Some dealers can sell minimum-value stamps for just face value because they aren't catering to a customer's specific need. They don't have to watch for condition, they don't have to organize and carefully store the stamps, and they don't have to worry about replenishing their stock if they run low. When a collector seeks out stamps that retail well beyond the minimum, determining the proper value becomes more important.
Let's say a collector is putting together a nice mint-stamp collection of the 1922 definitive series from the United States. These are the stamps some collectors refer to as the "Fourth Bureau issue" because it was the fourth full definitive series printed by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
To begin with, our collector should determine the grade of stamp that he wishes to collect. While a stamp grading Very Fine (VF) is superior to a stamp grading Fine Very-Fine (F-VF), it is also likely to be more expensive. The collector must determine what his budget can afford while planning a collection that he will enjoy.
A mint ½¢ Nathan Hale stamp, Scott 551, will probably cost no more than 25¢, even in Very Fine grade, but the cost of other stamps in the series is substantially more. For example, Figure 1 shows the 25¢ yellow-green Niagara Falls stamp from the 1922 series, Scott 568.
In the 2000 Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps & Covers the 25¢ Niagara Falls stamp lists for $18 unused, and $29 never-hinged. The catalog listing for Scott 568 is shown in Figure 2.
Why is there such a difference between the unused and never-hinged values? It's a matter of condition, and a matter of supply and demand.
The term "unused" often describes a stamp that has gum on the back, but it's gum that has been disturbed in some way. Even the small mark left by a removed stamp hinge will change a stamp's condition from mint to unused. A collector who insists that his stamps have undisturbed gum often will have to pay more for the condition he demands. A collector who is unconcerned with minor gum disturbance can enjoy paying the smaller of the two amounts.
Remember, too, that the Scott catalog lists retail prices that you may expect to pay if you purchase a VF grade stamp without faults from a stamp dealer. If you want to sell the same stamp to a dealer yourself, he'll normally pay you considerably less than catalog value. If he didn't, he'd have no way to make a living.
The stamp catalog is just a starting point for determining values, however. Other resources can help you decide if the price you're looking at is too high, too low or just right. One resource is available to you each week in the pages of Linn's Stamp News.
The regular feature Trends of Stamp Values provides a detailed list of values for stamps from one or more countries each week. Trends is not a listing of stamps for sale. It is a guide that provides average values for stamps, based on material actually being offered for sale by dealers, not theoretical market prices. This week's Trends listing for the stamps of Iceland appears on page 34 (in print).
In the March 6 issue of Linn's, the Trends listing covered the first 110 years of United States stamps, from the first two issues of 1847 (the 5¢ Benjamin Franklin and the 10¢ George Washington, Scott 1 and 2, respectively) through the 3¢ Brussels Exhibition stamp of 1958 (Scott 1104).
Along with current values for stamp grades not found in the Scott U.S. specialized catalog, Linn's Trends also provides up-to-date commentary on factors affecting the stamp market and a review of how values are changing.
Figure 3 shows that U.S. Trends listing, and highlights the values for Scott 568, the 25¢ Niagara Falls stamp. Note that the values are provided for unused F-VF and used Fine examples.
The unused stamp is listed in the recent Trends at $20, with a small plus symbol following it. The plus symbol indicates that the value has increased since the last time the stamp was listed in Trends. The minus sign for the used stamp indicates that the value has declined.
Why is the Trends listing for an unused F-VF 25¢ Niagara Falls stamp higher than the Scott listing for an unused VF stamp? Both resources rely on reports of retail sales and price lists to determine catalog values, but they arrive at their conclusions independently.
Even though Scott Publishing Co. and Linn's Stamp News are owned by the same parent company, they conduct separate evaluations of the stamp markets to assemble their valuing data.
The Trends listings are also based on data received long after the publication of the Scott catalog. This doesn't take away from the catalog, which provides detailed collector information that is not included in Linn's Trends listings. Both resources are useful to the collector, and both should be considered when contemplating a stamp purchase.
Collectors can also consult dealer price lists, auction listings, advertisements and other resources when researching stamp values. After all, the more pricing information the collector has about the stamp he wants to buy, the better chance he has to make an informed buying decision.
For collectors of foreign stamps, the values listed in specialized catalogs from other countries can be useful, but it's important to understand if the values are compiled from retail price listings, if they are theoretical market prices, or if the catalog publisher is also a stamp dealer and the catalog is doubling as a retail price list.
One source of price information for Trends editors is Linn's Zillions of Stamps searchable Internet shopping center, located at www.zillionsofstamps.com on the World Wide Web. Stamp dealers around the world use Zillions of Stamps to offer their stamp inventories to collectors at set retail prices.
A collector looking for a specific stamp can easily comparison shop on Zillions of Stamps to find the stamp in the condition and price that suits him best. As this column was being written, Zillions of Stamps listed 18 mint examples of the 25¢ Niagara Falls stamp offered by 10 different stamp dealers, at fixed prices ranging from $7 for a stamp grading Fine (noticeably off-center on two sides) to $23.40 for a F-VF mint example. The Zillions of Stamps listings for the 25¢ Niagara Falls stamp are shown in Figure 4.
When it's time to spend money carefully on stamp purchases, it's important to research the many differences between stamps. As the examples given here show, it is possible for collectors to find examples of similar stamps that sell for prices that are substantially different.
Consider all of the factors that are involved: grade, condition and scarcity when evaluating your information. The stamp catalog is an important starting point for determining stamp values, but the knowledgeable collector uses additional information to find the best value for his money.