Expand your horizons: attend a stamp show

Apr 30, 2021, 3 AM
Figure 2. A show cover with cachet and special cancellation from the 1961 Wabash Valley Stamp Club's annual exhibit. Click on image to enlarge.

By Janet Klug

Stamp shows come in all sizes. Some are simply bourses that are organized by a club or a dealer in order to offer a venue to buy and sell stamps.

A bourse might have a few dealers who set up tables from which to sell their stock, or it might have many dealers and lots of options for the shoppers who attend.

Some small club-sponsored shows have exhibits of stamps and covers in frames that you can enjoy in addition to shopping. The exhibits might be judged for prizes, or they might be there just for fun.

Larger shows often add other features, such as how-to seminars, speakers who talk about their collections, youth activities, slide programs and society meetings.

Figure 1 shows a photograph of a how-to session showing kids at a stamp show learning how to soak stamps.

Many stamp shows offer one or more souvenir covers in connection with the show. These are usually cacheted (with added design) and have a special postmark to commemorate the show's theme.

Some collectors want all show covers from a given show or shows. Others collect show covers when they fit into a topic or theme that they collect. A souvenir cover from the 1961 exhibition and show of the Wabash Valley Stamp Club is shown in Figure 2.

If you are a stamp collector and have never been to a stamp show, you probably don't know what all the hoopla is about, and you sure don't know what you have been missing. A stamp show is something like a shopping mall for stamps, with entertainment and a museum as added features.

Going to a stamp show is a lot of fun, but if you have never been to one, you can easily be overwhelmed by too many dealers, too much to see and too much to do. How in the world can you possibly go through every dealer's stock looking for the items you need?

How can you look at exhibits and attend the meetings and seminars and do all of this before they toss you out to lock up for the evening?

Even more pressing is, how do you interact with the dealers? What do you ask for? Will you be paying the right prices?

If the show you are attending has a printed program, make sure you pick one up and spend the first five or 10 minutes at the show reading the program. This will help you plan out your day.

Circle the events you want to attend and the exhibits you wish to see.

Fortunately, most show programs list the type of stock each dealer carries, so circle the dealers who seem most likely to have what you are looking for. As an example, it would probably be a waste of time to ask for classic U.S. stamps or covers from a dealer who handles only German States stamps.

Circle the names of dealers with whom you have done business in the past, and make a point to renew your acquaintance with them. Circle one or two dealers you know nothing about who carry material that you don't normally look at. If there is time in your day, pay them a visit. Seeing what they offer can be a learning experience and you might just find a new collecting specialty.

The photograph shown in Figure 3 pictures dealers and customers at a show happily engaged in stamp commerce.

Casually stroll by the dealers' booths, again with your show program handy, and circle any dealer who has an attractive display that requires a more thorough investigation or who has a crowd of collectors there. A feeding frenzy at a dealer's booth often means there are bargains to be had.

Now you can begin shopping. Remember to bring your want list. It is very helpful to do your homework in advance, so if you have no want list, make one.

If you are looking for U.S. stamps, make sure to review the values in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue or the Scott U.S. Specialized Valuing Supplement. Knowing how much specific stamps generally sell for (their catalog values) is very helpful when making buying decisions at a show.

If you don't have the valuing data, you will have to comparison shop before making your purchases. Dealers expect this to some extent, but its not a good idea to keep coming back to the same dealer over and over without making any purchases.

If you see something you like, it is perfectly okay to haggle a little over the price, especially with more expensive purchases.

There are smart ways and bad ways to do this. Be smart. Don't insult the dealer or you might end up missing out on something you really want. A good approach might be to simply say, "I'm cheap. Is this your best price?" or "Can we work a deal on these items?"

If a dealer's best price is still too high for you, the most effective response is "No thanks."

Insulting the dealer with "Holy smokes! That's highway robbery!" would only make him angry. Other collectors standing nearby to transact business with the dealer also will not appreciate such a comment.

Lots of times dealers will show you their stock, and you won't find anything that interests you. Don't feel obliged to purchase something.

Hand the material back to the dealer and thank him for allowing you to look. There is always a next time.

While treating dealers with courtesy, it is only fitting that you should expect the same in return. You will find that more than 99 percent of stamp show dealers will be friendly and helpful.

Unfortunately, just as there can be a few rude buyers, there might be a few rude sellers. If you encounter one, make a note on your show program to remind you to avoid that person in the future. A rude dealer probably won't stay in business for too long.

Some collectors have good luck finding bargains late in the afternoon on the last day of the show.

Your best bets for sizeable mark-downs are large lots in bulky boxes, because dealers would rather not have to haul them back home.

This practice has its adherents, and I've seen such buyers traipsing in on Sunday afternoons at about 3:00 p.m. to begin circling the tired dealers like hungry sharks. It obviously can work.

Set a budget and stick to it. If you lack will power, you can curb your spending by limiting the amount of money you bring with you and by leaving your credit cards and checkbook at home.

Another method I sometimes use is to bring only three checks with me. This means I must carefully consider my purchases. Once the three checks are gone, I'm finished shopping: Instant will power.

Pace yourself with your time as well as with your money. Take periodic breaks from shopping to attend those meetings or seminars you circled in your program. You will meet other collectors and get to know more about your areas of interest.

The people who present these programs are folks just like you who love stamp collecting, so see what they have to say. Introduce yourself, if you're comfortable doing that. You will find that if you take an interest in what they are saying, they will pay you back by sharing their knowledge and expertise.

Some specialist societies may be convening at the show. If you are a member, attend the meeting and get to know the officers and some of the other members. You will enjoy reading the society journal even more once you get to know the people who are the most active in the group.

You ought to save some time to look at the exhibits you circled in the program. Collectors have spent years forming the collections you will see on display. In the photograph shown in Figure 4, two stamp show attendees are seen looking at the finer details of an exhibit.

At most shows, judges will evaluate exhibits and make awards based on specific criteria. There sometimes is a best-of-show award.

It can be a lot of fun to look at all the exhibits before the awards are posted and see if you can guess what award each exhibit will receive.

At larger national shows there will be a critique. If you have an interest in creating your own exhibit, attend the critique and listen to the kind of advice that is given there. You may agree or disagree, but the exercise will give you insight into how judges evaluate exhibits.

The U.S. Postal Service often has a sales booth at stamp shows where you can buy current issues. If you have difficulty finding the latest commemorative stamps at your local post office, this is a golden opportunity to catch up with those stamps you have been unable to find locally.

If you find yourself at a really large show, you will almost certainly realize that you need more than one day to do it justice. National shows are usually three days long, so attending for two or three days is certainly an option you should consider.

The largest annual show in the United States is the American Philatelic Society's Stampshow. This year it will take place in Sacramento, Calif., Aug. 12-15.

Stampshow has many added features that make it even more enticing to attend.

Often several new stamps will be launched at first-day-of-issue ceremonies, both new U.S. stamps and ones issued by other countries.

At Stampshow, beginners can take a half-day course that covers all the basic how-to instruction necessary to get off on the right foot.

Stampshow usually has about 170 dealers (most from the United States but some from overseas) and more than 800 frames of exhibits. Each day is packed with scheduled seminars and meetings.

Plan a vacation trip to include a few days at Stampshow. Sacramento is about equidistant between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, so it offers a wide range of tourist possibilities in addition to a great stamp show. More up-to-date information on Stampshow is available on the APS web site at

If that show isn't big enough for you, plan to attend the once-a-decade international stamp show that will be held in Washington, D.C., May 27-June 3, 2006. Although still more than two years away, the organizing committee has been hard at work for years.

All of the latest information on the show is available on the web site at or write to Washington 2006, Box 2006, Ashburn, VA 20146-2006 for more information.

Going to a stamp show is one of the best perks of being a stamp collector. Check out the listings of shows in this issue of Linn's and make your plans to attend one soon.