What is the true value of your collection?

Apr 19, 2004, 12 PM

By Janet Klug

Stamp collectors sometimes have an obsession about how much their collections are worth. We are blessed with a multitude of catalogs and reference materials that will tell us values based upon overall condition and grade.

These catalog values are what we could reasonably expect to pay in the retail market for stamps in very fine condition that we want to acquire.

I have often heard from collectors who have totted up the catalog values of their collections before offering them for sale. After offering them to several dealers, they become irate because they were offered a fraction of the catalog value.

They wrongly accuse dealers of being less than honest. The disappointed sellers say wrongly that dealers are aided and abetted by catalog publishers who inflate prices for the benefit of dealers. The list of complaints goes on.

If you have your heart set on retiring in Tahiti based on the catalog value of your stamps, you will be disappointed.

Let's say your collection has a catalog value of $50,000. Catalog value is not the criterion that drives the marketplace. The marketplace is driven by supply and demand.

If your collection is made up of 250,000 stamps, each of which has minimum catalog value of 20¢, then your collection has a catalog value of $50,000. But that collection is probably not going to bring you more than a few hundred dollars when you sell it.

Let's say your collection is specialized, and you have totaled up $50,000 in catalog value. But the stamps you purchased were seconds in less than optimum condition and grade. You formed a collection that quite likely will be difficult to sell and that will bring a fraction of its catalog value if it does sell.

Remember that in order to stay in business, stamp dealers must make a reasonable profit. They must charge for their time and their overhead that includes all the costs of doing business: advertising, postage, insurance, utilities, labor, rent and travel.

And yet you are probably wondering about those items you read about inLinn's that sell at auction for several times more than their catalog value. Why is that?

It's supply and demand, condition and grade. A stamp in excellent condition that is in short supply in a market for which there is great demand will bring better-than-expected prices.

If you are looking to maximize the value of your collection for the best possible realization when you go to sell, then the best advice I can give you is to buy outstanding quality from popular countries and preserve that condition.

On the other hand, a great many collectors, perhaps most of us, collect purely for the joy of it.

Catalogs are consulted for identification and information. We might swap with other collectors based on catalog values, and we use catalog values as a guide for how much to pay when we buy something. The real value of our collections comes from the joy of acquisition, the enrichment obtained from study of the subject, and from the people we meet on this journey. How do you put a price on that?

Let's go back to that collection of 250,000 stamps, each of which has the minimum catalog value. Yes, the resale value of this collection is not great, but think of the fun the collector had assembling the stamps and hinging them in place in the albums, one at a time.

If the owner of the collection took the time to investigate further even a fraction of the stamps, the added knowledge gained has value beyond compare.

Do you doubt what I say? Let's look at a few common stamps. Figure 1 shows a used 3-pfennig stamp with minimum catalog value of 20¢. It is from Bavaria, Scott 77, issued in 1911. It bears a portrait of a bearded gentleman. A lot of stamps depict bearded gentlemen, a category of stamp subjects some collectors call "old dead guys" or ODGs.

Some ODGs are more interesting than others. This one happens to be Prince Regent Luitpold, who was forced into the Bavarian regency against his will when his nephew King Louis II was found unfit to rule. A few days after Luitpold was named regent, King Louis II died. The succession would have gone to Luitpold's younger nephew Otto, but Otto was insane and himself was declared unfit to reign.

So Luitpold reigned as Prince Regent of Bavaria for the next 26 years until his death. This period is considered by historians to be the golden age of Bavaria.

Were it not for a minimum-catalog-value stamp from Bavaria, I would never have known about the unwilling Luitpold and his unfit family. It is a little royal soap opera that lives in my stamp album. That's worth a lot more to me than minimum catalog value.

Great Britain issued the world's first postage stamp in 1840. The stamp was printed in black ink, had a face value of 1 penny and bore the portrait of Queen Victoria. The stamp picked up the nickname "Penny Black." It is not a minimum-catalog-value item, but considering its historical importance, a Penny Black is still affordable for most collectors.

Queen Victoria is the female version of the ODG, or "old dead gal." She appeared on many of British and colonial stamps issued during her 63-year reign.

An especially interesting, inexpensive Queen Victoria stamp is shown in Figure 2.

The 1-anna Official stamp, issued in 1885, is Scott Nabha O7, an overprint on an Indian stamp for the Indian state of Nabha.

Nabha, in the Punjab region, is listed in the Scott catalog in a section called "Convention States of the British Empire in India," just after the listings for India. What this means is that the Indian Native State of Nabha was one of several states that signed an agreement with British India that permitted them to have their own stamps and currencies.

Each of these states would make an interesting stamp collection. Nabha is particularly interesting because of a lawsuit filed by its ruler Maharaja Pratap Singh against the British crown jewelers, Garrard. The suit charged that Garrard, which to this day holds a royal warrant, failed to return 175 diamonds; 203 rubies; 11 pearls; 256 emeralds; and 19 sets of necklaces, earings and bracelets.

In 1997, another lawsuit was filed in the Punjab to reclaim the fabulous Kohinoor diamond that is one of the British crown jewels. Queen Victoria's commissioner of the Punjab district acquired the diamond and sent it to the queen.

The 108-karat diamond was re-cut and put on display and eventually set into Queen Elizabeth's crown, which is on display in the Tower of London. But the question remains, was this diamond legally acquired by Victoria's Punjab commissioner? What about all those gems in the crown Victoria wears on this stamp? To whom do they really belong? Another stamp mystery.

According to the National Geographic Society, only 17 percent of Americans can find Afghanistan on a map, and 11 percent of young Americans cannot find the United States on a map. This geographic illiteracy problem is easily and painlessly combated using common postage stamps.

When my nieces and nephews were young, they would come to stay for a few days or a week during their summer vacation. I would take a world map supplied by National Geographic and a box of loose stamps and we would play the map game.

The kids would dip into the box of stamps and pull out a handful. First they would attempt to identify the country the stamp came from using all sorts of clues, such as flags, coats of arms and currencies. I remember distinctly one of my young charges puling out a stamp from India that said "3 pies."

"You mean they had to bake three pies in order to get this stamp?" she asked. We spent much time thinking about the kind of world it would be if we paid for things we bought in pies, chocolate bars or ice cream cones.

The objective of the map game was to see who could find stamps from the most countries and then find those countries on the map. The rules changed at will. Maybe we would concentrate on finding stamps from Africa and then we would have to figure out if Togo was the same as Tonga or if either of them were in Africa.

It is a game you can play with your children or grandchildren. Teachers can use it in their class work and combat geographic illiteracy on a shoestring. It's fun. Kids don't even realize that they are learning. What value can you put on that?

Figure 3 shows a 10-heller carmine Pictorial stamp, Scott 35, issued by Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1906. It also has the minimum catalog value of 20¢. This stamp is from a very attractive and beautifully engraved set of 16 stamps. This value shows the Vrbas Valley. Other stamps in the series show other Bosnian scenes of beauty and Old World charm.

The Scott catalog tells us some interesting information about these stamps. They can be collected in a variety of perforation gauges, including compound perforation gauges in which each side of the stamp has a different gauge of perforation. They also exist imperforate.

Those looking for collectible varieties and a relatively inexpensive and yet thoroughly engaging set of stamps in which to specialize would do well to remember this set.

However, the real beauty for me is found in the placid scenery illustrated on the stamps. Who could tell from the peaceful scenes displayed on these stamps issued during the Austro-Hungarian administration that a few years later World War I would begin with an assassin's bullets in Bosnia? Or that a few years after that Bosnia would be part of Yugoslavia, and that in 1991 Bosnia would be back in the news because of a civil war that pitted Serb, Croat and Muslim communities against one another?

Figure 4 shows three used Seal of the Colony stamps of the former British Crown Colony British Guiana, now the South American independent republic Guyana. The stamps might look alike because they are all denominated 2¢, but the colors are different.

These stamps came to me in quantity in a lot I purchased many years ago. I wondered what I would do with 50 or more of each stamp when I got them, and I wonder still. I have only managed to line them up like soldiers on a stock page. But it is interesting to look at their color varieties and they bear lots of different cancels.

I have about 500 of them, all of which catalog 20¢ to 90¢ each. That means I have about $100 worth of stamps. Right? Wrong. I'm sure I could not even get a 10th of that, especially taking into consideration the mixed condition of the stamps and the revenue cancels on some of them, which many consider less desirable.

Shown in Figure 4 from left to right are British Guiana Scott 132 in lilac and orange, Scott 133 in lilac and rose, and Scott 134 in violet and black on red. The total catalog value for the three stamps is $1.35. But the stories these stamps are waiting to tell. What are they worth?

Questions shoot through my head. Why were there all these stamps in different colors issued in such a short time for the same denomination? Why is the Latin quotation from Horace's Epistle to the Pisos "damus petimusque vicissim" (we give and seek in return) inscribed on the stamps above the ship? And what is that ship?

There are a lot of different postmarks on the stamps, so there are probably stories there too. There are definitely some mysteries here for me to solve, and when I have solved them the stamps will still have a catalog value of only $1.35.

But think of the value they will have been to me.

When considering how much your collection is worth, maybe the true value lies not in what it will bring when sold, but what it has brought you while you have owned it.