Stamp Collecting 101

Stamp Collection 101

As one of the world's most popular hobbies, philately, also known as stamp collecting, has been around almost since the issuance of the first postage stamp: the Penny Black (U.K.) in 1840. Within 20 years of this, the hobby had spread throughout Europe, America, and much of the British Empire. 

Originally a hobby of children and teenagers, philately soon became a grownups' pastime as those same youth reached maturity and poured their passion into literature on the topic. Notable early collectors included Londoner Stanley Gibbons, who opened one of the earliest philatelic stores in the 1870s, and Parisian Philipp von Ferrary (1850-1917), who amassed the world's most thorough collection of stamps during his lifetime. By the early 20th century, philately was firmly established as a serious, high-brow pursuit and form of expertise. Today, stamp collecting is enjoyed by tens of millions of people worldwide.

Collecting Stamps for Beginners

To get started with collecting, you may want to examine the market and the types of stamps currently available on the collector circuit. If this is easier said than done, don’t get discouraged! Remember, most collections are formed by an already developed interest in a specific country - perhaps where your ancestors came from, or a specific topic (cleverly called "topicals") such as horses or flowers on stamps. As you are forming the collection for yourself, you get to be the one to make up the rules. If you are the one to choose what to collect it will be much more suited to keeping your interests piqued. And, often times, your own interests will suit your budget a bit better as well.

Next, you will need to buy your first set of stamps and a stamp album in which to place the stamps. A package with thousands of stamps does not need to be a lot of money, and while the stamps in question won't necessarily be collectible in terms of value, the point at this stage is to get a feel for stamps. Lots of stamps! True collectors often gain much of their expertise by handling thousands of stamps and getting to know their designs, watermarks,  perforations and all the different aspects of a stamp that makes it unique. Philately, after all, is driven by people with a true passion for stamps.  

As you sort through your first package of stamps, you'll need to have a stamp guide on hand. This will help you identify the origins of many stamps, which can be a tricky process considering how some countries mark their stamps in odd ways. For instance, stamps from the U.K. don't list their country of origin, while Swiss stamps are identified as coming from Helvetia, the landlocked nation's Latin name. Throughout the process of examining lots of stamps, you'll also develop a knowing eye for shades, color and paper all of which can make a huge difference in terms of a stamp's issuance, authenticity and value.

How to Handle Your Stamps

Handling stamps is best done with blunt-end tweezers also known as "stamp tongs" or "tongs". While an advanced collector might handle stamps with his or her bare hands, it isn't a good idea for anyone to do so. The reasons are twofold: for one, it's hard to lift a stamp without bending its corners or ruffling its perforations, either of which could cause a stamp's value to plummet significantly. Secondly, even the cleanest fingers contain oils that can leave prints on the face or gum side of stamps, and that's a major faux pas in the world of philately.

Regarding the physical durability of stamps, consider the material they're made from: paper. As a paper product, stamps have a certain amount of flexibility. Unlike with porcelain antiques, it's not the end of the world when a stamp drops onto the floor, providing the floor is dry. If a stamp gets slightly bent, it can spring right back to flatness; when bluntly bent, though, the stamp is left forever creased. Once creased, a stamp will generally hold half the value that it would've listed for in perfect condition.

How to Mount Your Stamps Into an Album

how to mount stamps into an album

Stamp mounting techniques have changed a lot since the early days of philately, when collectors simply glued or sealed each stamp straight to an album. That method, of course, makes it virtually impossible to remove or trade a stamp, but early collectors had no idea that their stamps would ever have resale value. The safest, easiest way to place stamps into an album is with polymer-faced, back-hinged stamp mounts.

To apply, stick the top hinge into place on the album page, then lift the lower flap and slide the stamp into place. If the flap adhesive proves insufficient, use one of the specially made mounting glues sold in stamp stores; don't use regular craft glues.

An alternative to the stamp mount is the hinge, which sticks directly to the back of a stamp. To apply, moisten the short hinge, and let it partially dry. Then, attach it to the upper-backside of a stamp, just below the perforation. Moisten the long hinge and affix it to the album. Cheaper than mounts, hinges are easy to apply, but they can cause more difficulty if and when you choose to remove a stamp from an album. Unfortunately, in this day and age, collectors do not prefer stamps that have been hinged into their albums and there is actually a large premium on stamps that are "never hinged".

Using Catalogues to Start a Stamp Collection for Beginners

Now that you have your stamps, album, and mounts/hinges, it's time to hit the catalogues. In the world of philately, there are several major catalogues, each of which caters to certain territories. The four biggest catalogues, and their respective markets, are as follows:

  • Stanley Gibbons – England
  • Yvert & Tellier – France
  • Michel – Germany
  • Scott – U.S. and Canada

For the North American collector, the Scott catalogue is an invaluable source of information on stamps of every country and design type. Each stamp is assigned a catalogue number, which makes it easier to communicate about a given stamp with other collectors worldwide. The prices, however, should only be seen as ranges of what a stamp is likely to go for on the market. Actual prices vary widely, but most stamps will sell for between 25-35% of the amount listed depending, of course, on the condition. Some items can sell over catalog value fetching as much as 200% at auction! (A more accurate set of prices can usually be found in dealer price guides, but even that can be affected by disparities between value and condition. If a stamp is valued at $400 but is in poor condition, it might only be worth $80.) 

Where to Buy Stamps

One of the oldest and most popular routes for buying stamps is through auctions and net price sales. Sales are generally held on a regular basis in bigger cities throughout North America and the U.K. These days, many auctions also take place online. The Apfelbaum, Inc. online selection allows you to browse thousands of stamps and buy the ones you want. When you're new to philately, a knowledgeable seller can even offer guidance and help you get started on your collection. An esteemed seller will even refund your money if you're not satisfied with a purchase.

Philatelic Grading

philatelic grading

The grading of stamps has become increasingly strict over the years, but especially during the last decade. Currently, there are three levels in the philatelic grading system:

  • Sound — This type of stamp is void of faults or defects.
  • Faulty — A faulty stamp has a minor imperfection, which could include a slight rip, a small corner crease and more. The seller of the stamp should inform you of the true condition of the stamp, including its faults.
  • Defective — A defective stamp has major imperfections. The stamp might be full of small rips, blatant creases, stains, pin-holes and more. If you’re considering purchasing a defective stamp, you should confirm that the condition of the stamp is the same as what the seller described — the seller should not be classifying the stamp as “sound” if it’s faulty or defective. 

Another important factor that affects a stamp’s grade and price is the centering of the design. A stamp can be classified as:

  • Superb (S) — This stamp should be perfectly centered.
  • Extra Fine (XF) — The stamp may be perfectly centered on each side, but the top or bottom of the stamp is a bit off center.
  • Very Fine (VF) — The stamp is well-centered from top to bottom, but the sides of the stamp are slightly off center.
  • Fine-Very Fine (F-VF) — A stamp that is subtly off center in two directions is classified as F-VF.
  • Fine (F) — A Fine stamp is noticeably off center. The design’s frame may even touch the perforation holes.
  • Average (A) — If the perforations are cutting into the design of your stamp, it is classified as an Average stamp. 

There are many exceptions to the above classification system. For instance, many early Classic stamps were printed extremely close together on the sheet. This meant the perforations regularly cut into the stamps’ design.

Grading, of course, can also be somewhat subjective; one seller's "Extra Fine" might be a given buyer's "Very Fine." Sometimes, the overall quality of a stamp is too close to call. To get around this problem, some sellers now cross-grade stamps between adjacent levels. With a grading like "Fine-Very Fine," a collector can get more of a general idea of the quality in question, and then make his or her own judgment as a potential buyer. Even then, philatelic dealers can range from conservative to liberal in their grading standards, though most seasoned collectors prefer to buy from sellers who grade conservatively.

How Stamps Downgrade

Stamps are one of the most fragile collectibles, simply because they're printed on paper: a fragile substance prone to scrapes, creases, and tears. Even when paper is stored properly and never handled, it can and probably will still deteriorate over time. For all of these reasons and more, it's nearly impossible to find stamps from the 19th century that are in perfect condition. With that said, there are basically three faults that make stamps subject to downgrading:

  • Thins/Scrapes. When a scrape occurs on the back of a stamp, it's called a "thin." Scrapes along the faces of stamps are simply called scrapes. Thins are often caused by stamps getting torn off envelopes, while scrapes can be caused by various kinds of mishandling or poor storage choices. 
  • Creases. A self-explanatory flaw, which was often caused in the early days of postage, where letters were sent as folded sheets of paper, and then refolded sideways for filing purposes by the recipients.
  • Tears. The most serious of flaws, a tear could be as small as a perforation or run the length of a stamp edge. The former could lower a stamp's value by half a level, while a major tear could render a stamp valueless.

Tears and scrapes are the easiest flaws to spot on any given stamp. In order to tell if there's a thin, it's best to have a fluorescent light on the subject. If a thin is present, more light will show through the thinned-out area. A crease will show as a lighter mark when held to light. Most flaws can also be detected by using watermark fluid. Repair methods do exist, but these are techniques for the advanced handler. For instance, creases can be ironed out, and thins can be filled with egg white-based solutions. However, such methods are not worth the effort on valueless stamps, nor should such methods be attempted by novices on stamps of serious value. Any time a stamp has been repaired, it must be noted as part of that stamp’s description as repairs decrease the value of any item significantly. 

Perforations

In the early days of philately, perforations were disregarded by collectors, most of whom primarily cared about the image on the stamp face. These days, however, many collectors want perfection in their stamps (or at least as much perfection as they can afford), and the quality of a given stamp's perforation is a major determinant of its grading and asking price. As such, perforations are preferred to be fully intact and evenly aligned along corresponding sides. If one perf is slightly shorter than its neighbors, it's called a "nibbed perf." When a perf tooth is missing entirely, the stamp is described as having a "pulled perf." Both of these faults, as well as all faults, will decrease the value of an item by a percentage of its catalog value depending on the severity of the fault and the collactability of the item 

Time to Hone Your Philatelic Savvy

As you start your collection it's important to be sure you get what you pay for each time. To get a better grasp on what you’re buying, you'll need to closely examine each seller's inventory and make comparisons — in terms of grades and prices — with identical items from other sellers.

With your devotion to philately firmly established, you may now want to join your local philatelic society. Groups like these exist all across the United States; you can find the nearest one by checking online or in the Sunday philatelic column of your local newspaper. This will plug you into a network of others who share your same interest, many of whom may have extensive experience with the stamp dealers in your area. This can be one of the most reliable ways to help you learn more about your hobby and engage you, locally, with other philatelists.

To further guarantee a seller's trustworthiness, check whether he or she is registered with the American Stamp Dealers Association (ASDA) and/or the American Philatelic Society (APS). Comprised of more than 1,000 stamp sellers, the ASDA holds its members to strict ethical guidelines for the good will of the philatelic world as a whole.

ASDA members

Registered with the ASDA, Apfelbaum, Inc. is one of the world's leading buyers and sellers of stamps. Since 1910, we have offered a full array of competitively priced, conservatively graded stamps in every area of specialty. With our expert staff, huge and varied inventory, and free shipping within the U.S., collectors from all over the world come to us to fill their philatelic needs. To learn more about our Stamp Store and Buy It Now sales, browse our site today. 

You can also check out our blog at Apfelbaum's Corner — John posts a new blog several times a week and we regularly update it with the latest news about stamp collecting!