How to get started in stamp collecting
By Michael Baadke
"I'd like to begin collecting stamps. How do I get started?"
If you've never collected stamps before, you'll find that you have a lot of interesting choices to consider. The following paragraphs discuss the basic choices we all face.
Mint or used?
The picture in Figure 1 of two 33¢ Polar Bear stamps pretty much tells the story. The stamp at left is in mint condition: the front of the stamp is clean and unmarked, and the back of the stamp has its original gum. The stamp at right in the illustration was used to mail a letter. It has postmark lines across the design and the gum on the back of the stamp is gone.Many collectors decide early on if they are going to collect mint stamps (fresh uncanceled stamps sold at the post office), or postally used stamps (those that have been used to send mail).
The used stamp was clipped from an envelope and then removed from the paper by soaking in warm water. After the stamp floats free of the paper (it shouldn't be peeled off, because that can damage it), it is rinsed by a short soak in clean water, air-dried, flattened under a heavy book, and is ready to add to a collection.
Why choose to collect one way or the other? The fact is, you can collect both ways and create a perfectly fine collection. Some collectors prefer that their stamps fall mostly into one category or another (mint or used), but that's a personal preference. Mint stamps may cost you more money. If you think about the two Polar Bear stamps in the illustration, one cost 33¢ at the post office, and the other was free because it came on the mail.
You'll probably not find all the stamps you want on the mail, however. What if you really like the Polar Bear stamp, but no one sends you mail with a Polar Bear stamp on it? That's where trading, buying and selling stamps comes in.
United States or another country?
A lot of people in the United States collect only U.S. stamps, because they're the easiest to find or because they have designs showing subjects that are particularly interesting to Americans.
Many people collect stamps of a different country or even a group of countries.
Some people try to collect stamps from every country in the world.
Figure 2 shows two stamps picturing exotic fish. The 33¢ stamp at left was issued June 24, 1999, by the United States as part of its Aquarium Fish set of four self-adhesive stamps. The 75-franc stamp at right was issued in March 1999 by Comoro Islands, an African archipelago off the northeast coast of Mozambique.
Deciding on a country to collect depends a lot upon your interests. If your ancestors are from England, Spain, Germany, Japan or some other country, you may find collecting stamps from that country appealing.
You can find such stamps available from retail stamp dealers known as "new-issue dealers," from an agency representing the foreign country in the United States, or directly from the philatelic bureau of the foreign country's postal service. Linn's Stamp News offers a list of addresses of worldwide postal administrations and their agents. A printed list can be obtained by sending an addressed, stamped No. 10 envelope to Linn's Postal Administrations, Box 29, Sidney, OH 45365.
Many issues from other countries can be purchased from new-issue dealers who advertise in Linn's Stamp News.
Postally used stamps from other countries can be clipped from mail and soaked off envelopes, or they can be purchased individually or in packets from stamp dealers. Many dealers have classified ads in Linn's under the headings Foreign Stamps for Sale; Mixtures for Sale; and Packets, Lots, & Collections.
Collecting the world
It takes an organized person to collect stamps from all over the world, but many people enjoy it very much. Of course, you can't collect every stamp, but that's part of what makes it fun: you never run out of stamps to look for.
Some worldwide collectors choose to look for stamps whose subjects showcase a specific topic.
The two stamps shown in Figure 2 both depict fish, for example. A collector might choose to build a collection entirely of stamps showing different fish, or one specific kind of fish. This type of collecting is known as "topical collecting." Some topical collectors look for stamps related to their occupation (such as medicine, writing, construction and so on), or a recreational interest such as sports or movies, or some other topic altogether.
You don't need a lot of supplies to start out collecting stamps. You literally can start collecting without any tools at all, but a few items will make stamp collecting a little easier.
Stamp supplies are available from mail-order dealers who advertise in Linn's, from stamp dealers who have a table at a local stamp show, or from local retail stamp dealers. To find a stamp dealer near you, look in the telephone book yellow pages under the headings "Stamps for Collectors," "Hobbies" or "Coins and Stamps for Collectors."
Here's what will help you get started.
Stamp tongs: A tool that looks like a long pair of tweezers, used to pick up and hold stamps. Why not just use your fingers? Because no matter how clean your hands are, your fingers can leave natural skin oils that can eventually stain stamp paper. Picking up a stamp with your fingers may also bend corners or crease the stamp. It's easier to scoop up a stamp with tongs than with fingers.
Don't use regular tweezers for this job, though. Stamp tongs have polished rounded tips, while tweezers have sharper edges and ridges that can damage stamps. A pair of stamp tongs in use is shown in Figure 3.
Stock book: Also shown in Figure 3 is one page from a stock book. This specially designed book has horizontal strips across each page to organize stamps and hold them safely.
This is one of the best ways to make sure you can look at your stamps conveniently while also protecting them from damage such as creasing, dust, and so on.
Catalog: A stamp catalog will help you identify and value the stamps you collect. There have been hundreds of thousands of stamps issued around the world, so worldwide stamp catalogs are very big. The Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue covers the entire world and is published in six volumes. Many public libraries have copies of the Scott catalogs.
For new U.S. stamp collectors, a pocket catalog may be a good starting point. Two such catalogs are shown in Figure 4. Both the Postal Service Guide to U.S. Stamps and the Scott Pocket Stamp Catalogue show U.S. stamps in color, with each stamp identified by Scott catalog number.
The catalog also lists when each stamp was issued and provides an approximate retail value for mint and used copies. Both books sell for less than $20 each.
A more detailed catalog, the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers is available for $44.99.
What about an album?
You don't need an album right away when you start collecting, but if you know exactly what you want to collect, there are several different album manufacturers who offer different kinds of albums. Some are fairly inexpensive, while others may cost a couple hundred dollars for binders, pages and supplements.
Look over the options carefully before you make the decision to commit your collection to a specific album. Browsing at a stamp store or local stamp show is a good way to get a look at stamp album options.
A stock book is a great way to keep your stamps safe and accessible for viewing until you decide what kind of stamp album you would like to use.
Covers: If you cut apart envelopes to soak for stamps, watch for interesting markings, such as certified mail, postage due, and others. Many collectors save such envelopes (also known as "covers") without cutting off the stamp or marking on it in any way. Often a complete cover has greater value than the stamp alone.
Stamp clubs: Joining a local stamp club is a great way to learn about how people collect stamps. Ask your local postmaster if he's aware of a stamp club near you, or send an addressed, stamped envelope to the American Philatelic Society, Box 8000, State College, PA 16803, asking for the address of a club near you. The APS will also send you information about joining that group if you request it.
Stamp shows: Stamp collectors often get together at shows that take place in different locations across the country. A stamp show usually includes stamp dealers selling stamps, covers and supplies, as well as exhibits of stamps created by other collectors.
For information about stamp shows in your area, check the Linn's Stamp Events Calendar each week.
Reading: Reading Linn's Stamp News is a great way to learn more about the hobby, and the ads throughout the paper give you a chance to do plenty of stamp shopping from your own home.
You can also order Stamp Collecting Made Easy, a handy illustrated booklet from Linn's that reviews the basics of stamp collecting in simple terms. It's available for $1 from Stamp Collecting Made Easy, Linn's Stamp News, Box 29, Sidney, OH 45365 or online
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