Buying and sorting stamps in box lots is fun

Nov 15, 2004, 6 AM

By Janet Klug

At a recent meeting of my local stamp club, I succumbed to the irresistible call of the shoebox full of off-paper worldwide stamps, shown in Figure 1. This happy purchase proved to me yet again that I am hopelessly compulsive about stamps.

I couldn't wait to get home and dig in.

Processing such a large lot of several thousand stamps can be time consuming, and there are a few good ways to go about it, and one really crazy way. The results are the same.

Let's start with the crazy way, because it is the simplest to describe. You have a box of stamps. You have a stamp album or, more likely, a group of stamp albums. You also have some mounts or stamp hinges. Take the lid off the box, dip your stamp tongs in, pull out a stamp and mount or hinge it into the appropriate album space for instant gratification.

Repeat this process until all of the stamps are mounted.

Now, what is wrong with this method? If you have thousands of stamps to go through, this is going to slow you down. Changing albums, flipping through multiple catalogs to identify tricky stamps, and having no method to separate the stamps you already have adds a lot of time to the task and will become very frustrating after a short while.

It also adds unnecessary wear and tear to your albums.

Another method is to estimate how much time you will have to work on the mixture in one sitting and pull out as many stamps as you believe you can handle. Begin sorting that smaller grouping by country of issue.

You can buy stamp-sorting trays that help significantly with this task. The trays, such as the one shown in Figure 2, are shallow boxes with dividers to keep the sorted stamps from intermingling.

The sorting trays also have lids. If you are interrupted, you can put the lid on and put the whole thing away until you can work on it again.

Once the stamps are sorted by country, you are ready to begin the process of mounting them in an album. This is usually straight forward, with one stamp going on one space.

Even entry-level collectors soon find that many stamps have look-alike cousins.

Stamps that have the same design might have different perforations or watermarks, or they might even be a different color or shade.

When you see annotations in your album that state "similar to 1928 issue" or two different listings, one for a 20¢ cerise and another for a 20¢ rose, you would do well to consult a catalog and find out precisely what stamp you have, so you can put it in the correct spot in your album.

You might wonder what difference that would make. Most obviously, when another similar stamp comes along, you could have already filled the space with the wrong stamp.

Less obvious is that an album in which the owner carelessly mounted stamps in the wrong spaces is, to be blunt, worth less money when the day arrives to dispose of it.

I prefer a third method for handling a large mixture. That is, sort the whole lot first before beginning to mount.

This has several advantages. You will get a sense of the bulk of the lot and which countries are strongly represented.

If, for example, you find that the mixture has a lot of German stamps, you can make up sorting groups within Germany that will help later to catalog and mount the stamps.

For example, Germany could be further sorted into 19th century, inflationary issues, Hindenburgs, Hitler-era, Berlin and other subdivisions that relate to the stamps you find in the mixture. The more thorough job you do in sorting, the easier and more enjoyable will be the mounting of stamps in the album.

Remember, a key part of the sorting is to keep the stamps sorted. The stamp-sorting trays mentioned work well. You can also purchase similar plastic boxes with dividers, such as the one shown in Figure 3, at crafts shops. These boxes work equally well.

Most households have a variety of small plastic containers with lids. These can be used for sorting, as long as the containers are thoroughly clean and dry.

Your sorting will almost certainly net you some stamps that you can't readily identify. Put them into a separate pile for later investigation.

In most cases, if your item is a postage stamp, you will find it can be identified by country using the identifier in the back of each volume of the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue. Other stamps might necessitate consultation of a more detailed stamp identifier.

You might also find stamps that are beyond the scope of the Scott standard catalog, including revenues, locals, charity stamps and other seals or labels collectively known as "cinderellas." At some point, you will have to make a decision what to do with them, because most postage stamp albums don't have spaces for such stamps.

A good solution is to obtain a stamp stock book or stock pages and safely house the stamps there. In a short time you will find you have accumulated an interesting, albeit slightly puzzling, new collection of what I like to call "et cetera."

If your box lot is large, as mine was, this sorting process can take days, weeks or even months to complete. This further reinforces the need to keep the sortings separated in containers.

Have you ever been sorting on the dining room table when someone walked by, causing a draft that sent stamps everywhere? Containing the sorted stamps eliminates this, as well as the wagging-tail remix and the sneeze scramble.

Pace yourself. You don't have to finish any of this in one sitting. I needed reminding of this myself one evening when, at 3 a.m., my disgruntled spouse inquired if I had turned into a nocturnal animal. I got the hint, and suddenly it occurred to me that I really was quite tired. Stamps will keep. It always amazes me how one can become so absorbed in these little bits of paper that time can stand still.

I find sorting stamps to be quite relaxing. There is always that treasure hunt aspect of rummaging through a bunch of stamps. But let's face it, the really fun part is sticking the stamps in the book.

With the proliferation of stamps today, most worldwide collectors have multiple stamp albums, arranged by country, region, or even alphabetically. To minimize flipping back and forth between albums, consolidate the sorted stamps to coincide with the way you organize your albums. Then you can begin placing stamps in the albums in a systematic way.

Hinges or mounts? That's your decision. Hinges are cheap, but the quality of stamp hinges is not what it once was. For used stamps, hinges have a great price advantage and don't add nearly as much bulk to an album. Using hinges on mint, never-hinged stamps damages the gum. That disturbed gum likely will reduce the value and desirability of the stamps, if you intend to sell them some day.

Mounts also are safer for stamps. If you select the correct size and cut and moisten them properly, they will protect your stamps from damage. On the other hand, mounts are much more expensive, and usually they cannot be removed without damaging the album page.

Never cut a mount to size with the stamp in it. One misstep will ruin the stamp. Use minimal moisture on the top back of the mount, making sure any moisture does not overlap the slit in the back of the mount and ruin the back of the stamp.

What do you do with the inevitable duplicates? The obvious answer is to box them up and sell the box lot again. You could place them in stock books for later study and enjoyment, finding interesting flyspeck varieties or cancels.

You can also donate stamps to worthy charities, such as the American Philatelic Society, 100 Match Factory Place, Bellefonte, PA 16823, which uses such donations to support youth and beginner programs.

Box lots are a great way to add many stamps to your collection at one time. It is a real treasure hunt. You never know what you will find, but I know you will enjoy the pursuit. Happy hunting!


Linn's guide to philatelic symbols and abbreviations

To help the philatelic newcomer,
Linn's presents this list of most frequently used symbols and abbreviations:
s or * — Mint
u — Used
4 — Block
p — Piece
c — Cover
ABNC — American Bank Note Co.
APO — Army Post Office, Air Force Post Office
APS — American Philatelic Society
ASDA — American Stamp Dealers Association
Av. or Avg. — Average
BEP — Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Bklt. — Booklet
BNA — British North America
BOB — Back-of-the-book
BPO — British Post Office
Canc. or Ccl. — Canceled or Cancellation
CDS — Circular Datestamp
CMS — Complete Matched Set
Comm. — Commemorative
Cpl. — Complete
CTO — Canceled to Order
CV — Catalog Value
Def. — Definitive
DPO — Discontinued Post Office
EFOs — Errors, Freaks and Oddities
Est. — Estimated
F — Fine
FDC — First-Day Cover
FFC — First-Flight Cover
FPO — Fleet Post Office
G — Good
GD — Gum Disturbance
GPO — General Post Office
HH — Heavily Hinged
HPO — Highway Post Office
Imperf. — Imperforate
IRC — International Reply Coupon IC — Iron Curtain
LH — Lightly Hinged
LP — Line Pair
MB — Minimum Bid
MC — Maltese Cross
MD — Minor Defect(s)
ME — Mail Early
Mi. — Michel catalog
MI — Marginal Inscription
MNH — Mint, Never Hinged
MPO — Mobile Post Office
MPP — Mailer's Precancel Postmark
M/S — Miniature Sheet
MS — Matched Set
NG — No Gum
NH — Never Hinged
OG — Original Gum
Opt. or Ovpt. — Overprint
P — Poor
PB — Plate Block
PCL — Precancel Perf. — Perforated or Perforation
PM — Postmaster or Postmark
Pmk. — Postmark
PNC — Plate Number Coil
PS3 — Plate Strip of 3
PS5 — Plate Strip of 5
RG — Regummed
RPO — Railway Post Office
S or Sup. — Superb
S/A — Self-adhesive
SASE — (Self)-addressed, Stamped Envelope
Sc. — Scott catalog
SE — Straight Edge
Seten. — Se-tenant
SG — Stanley Gibbons catalog
S/S or SS — Souvenir Sheet
UNPA — U.N. Postal Admin.
USPS — U.S. Postal Service
UPU — Universal Postal Union
VF — Very Fine
VG — Very Good
VLH — Very Lightly Hinged
w/o — Without
Wmk. — Watermark
W/W or WW — Worldwide
XF — Extremely Fine
Yv. — Yvert et Tellier catalog