Collecting used postage stamps isn't quite as simple as it might seem

Apr 27, 2021, 1 PM

By Rick Miller

Pick up a stamp catalog. Any postage stamp catalog will do.

Open the catalog and look at the listings. There are always at least two columns of values. Sometimes there are three or more, but there are always at least two. Of these two, the first column is for stamps that are unused. The second column is for used stamps.

Unused and used are the two basic conditions in which stamps are collected.

Stamp collectors define used stamps as stamps that have done postal duty. More specifically, a used stamp is one that has been used to pay postage on a letter, parcel or other mailpiece that went through the mailstream.

Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? But not all used postage stamps are created equal. The way a used stamp was canceled and whether it was actually used for postage can make a big difference.

Some collectors prefer lightly canceled stamps, with the cancellation touching one corner. Most collectors would be happy with the lightly canceled Lithuanian 1-litas Adolfas Jucys stamp (Scott 761) shown in Figure 1. The cancel does not obscure the design, but it is cleanly struck with enough of the postmark legible to ensure that it is genuine.

Some collectors prefer stamps with socked-on-the-nose or bull's-eye cancels. Such stamps have the advantage of showing when and where they were canceled, even after they are removed from their covers. The first-day-of-issue Sturgis, S.D., Aug. 7, 2006, bull's-eye cancel on the U.S. 39¢ Chopper stamp shown in Figure 2 would be sure to please such a collector.

Collectors call dark, heavy or messy cancellations that obscure the stamp design "killers." Stamps with killer cancels, such as the British nondenominated second-class Loch Assynt, Sutherland stamp (Scott 2141) shown in Figure 3, are generally worth much less than catalog value and are considered to be space fillers.

Collectors call stamps that pass through the mail without receiving a cancel "skips." Once a skip has been removed from its cover, it is usually impossible to differentiate it from an unused stamp without gum. Most collectors of used stamps would find a skip to be unacceptable for their collections.

Since 1840, postal clerks have often found it expedient to cancel stamps with a pen, when no canceling device came readily to hand. Pen cancels on older valuable stamps are acceptable to most collectors, even though a stamp with a normal cancellation usually is still more valuable and desirable.

But most collectors find modern pen-canceled stamps, such as the Iranian 20-rial Reza Shah Pahlavi and Shayad Monument stamp (Scott 1829) shown in Figure 4, to be unacceptable except as space fillers.

Canceled-to-order stamps are stamps that were canceled en masse so they could be sold to stamp dealers at a steep discount from face value. CTO stamps never performed postal duty and usually have full gum.

In some cases, the cancels might be printed on the stamps at the same time that the stamp design is printed. A CTO Chad 30-franc Mandrills airmail stamp (Scott C122) is shown in Figure 5.

CTO stamps are generally worth much less than catalog value. The introduction to the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue says: "The Scott Catalogue values for used stamps reflect canceled-to-order material when such are found to predominate in the marketplace for the issue involved. Frequently notes appear in the stamp listings to specify items which are valued as canceled-to-order, or if there is a premium for postally used examples."

For example, the Scott standard catalog notes that Montenegro Scott 1-110, H1-5 and J1-26 are valued as CTOs and that postally used stamps sell for considerably more.

The 1920s to the 1980s was the heyday of CTOs. More recently, some postal administrations have been offering new-issue stamps that are canceled without having done postal duty but that are not sold at a discount from face value.

Such stamps are not CTOs even though they did not do postal duty, because they are not sold at a discount from face value. Collecting stamps in this condition has gained some popularity in Europe, but it has not caught on in the United States.

A precanceled stamp bears a special overprinted cancellation that allows it to bypass normal canceling. Some precancels include the city and state of the issuing post office. A precanceled U.S. 25¢ yellow-green Niagara Falls stamp (Scott 568) is shown in Figure 6.

Precancels are, by their nature, used, but Scott catalog values are not for precanceled stamps unless so stated. Most collectors of used stamps would avoid adding a precanceled stamp to their collections if used stamps exist that are not precanceled. Precancel stamp collectors prefer examples that do not bear an additional cancel.

Stamps that were not issued or not valid for payment of postage sometimes receive a cancellation when a cooperative postal clerk applies the cancel as a favor. Such stamps are considered to be favor-canceled rather than used.

Cuttings from first-day covers are sometimes distributed in kiloware mixtures. A Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus 70-kuru Europa stamp soaked from an FDC cutting is shown in Figure 7.

Some collectors are perfectly happy with such stamps, but others prefer to collect used stamps that franked mail for delivery.

Some stamps are valid for payment of taxes as well as payment of postage. Revenue stamp collectors prefer that such stamps bear revenue cancels, but the stamps generally sell for much less than the catalog value of postally used stamps. A Victoria 1-shilling 6-penny orange Queen Victoria stamp (Scott 168) with a Bank of Australia revenue cancel is shown in Figure 8.

Stamps with telegraph or railroad cancels also sell for much less.

Used values in the Scott catalogs are generally for stamps used in period. This is crucial when the value of a stamp in used condition is much greater than that for the same stamp in unused condition.

The introduction to the Scott catalogs warns: "An example of a warning to collectors is a stamp that used has a value considerably higher than the unused version. Here, the collector is cautioned to be certain the used version has a readable, contemporaneous cancellation."

Because virtually all U.S. postage stamps issued since 1861 are still postally valid and because many U.S. stamps issued since 1930 are still available unused in quantity, out-of-period uses of many U.S. stamps are common.

The cover shown in Figure 9 is franked with a U.S. 3¢ Coffee Pot coil stamp (Scott 3759) and two 18¢ Statue of Liberty airmail stamps (C87). The cover bears a sprayed-on Fox Valley, Ill., postmark dated Aug. 14, 2006. This is an out-of-period use for the two airmail stamps, which were issued Jan. 11, 1974, more than 32 years before they were used.

Even if soaked from the cover, the airmail stamps would still obviously be an out-of-period use, because the type of sprayed-on cancel they bear only recently went into use.