Building up a Stamp Collection

How to Avoid Common Mistakes as a Stamp Collector

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Have you already started a stamp collection? Or are you just thinking about it? In either case chances are you have plenty of questions about stamps and stamp collecting and are trying to find out more. There are lots of books and publications on stamps, but they take time to read. In the meantime, we’ve compiled a few hints to help you avoid the most common frustrating — sometimes costly — errors many beginning philatelists make. 

Collecting For Profit

The first rule of stamp collecting is: If you collect for fun, you will have lots of it. But if you collect for profit you will have very little profit or fun. Making money on stamps is like investing in the stock market; there is money to be made, but you have to know what you are doing, study the market trends, and be able to invest enough money at the right times. Lots of people make money on stamps, but it takes a lot of hard work and knowledge. Collect for fun first and foremost, and you will never be disappointed. But if you don’t know the basics of philately first, you can lose bundle trying to invest in stamps. 

The Relevance of Catalog Value

The standard of collectors in the U. S. is the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, which gives prices on most used and mint stamps. However, these prices are only general guidelines as to what someone might pay under the right conditions, and are just estimates. Few collectors ever go by listed catalog value when buying stamps. Consider that when a 20¢ stamp comes out, Scott lists it at double face value immediately. Also, consider that the most common stamps in existence, as of the 1994 catalog, are listed at no less than 15¢ each, and sell wholesale for about 30¢ per 100 to packet makers. You should also be aware that at auctions, some stamps in prime condition from “desirable” collecting areas sell for far in excess of catalog value.

One thousand of the cheapest worldwide stamps now catalog a minimum of $50, yet sell for a tenth of that. Offers in the philatelic papers quote prices of 1/5 to 1/10 of catalog value for assortments of stamps worth 30¢ and up. Yet, a newly issued mint set from a foreign country may be a good buy at 2/3 catalog value, and first day covers at a full catalog value. It’s all relevant to what it is and what somebody else is willing to pay, and there are no easy guidelines except to learn more about the market by comparison pricing before you make purchases on catalog value.

Learn to Use the Catalogs

When buying, trading, or selling stamps, you must know proper identification techniques or you could be ripping yourself off for quite a bit of money. Never assume that the other collector knows everything about correctly identifying stamps, either — a little double-checking never hurts. When you find a stamp listed in Scott’s catalog always be sure to check footnote to see if another set with the same designs was issued later. That set could have different colour shades, watermarks, or perforations, and the stamp you thought was worth $1 could turn out to be just another nickel item. Check the “a” and “b” sub-numbers, etc. between the regular listings which often list perf and colour varieties, etc. Knowing the varieties can pay off in the long run, because it will be easier to spot scarcer stamps among the common ones.

For example, the super-common coil stamps with the U. S. Flag over the porch are so abundantly used that nobody wants them at any price. However, a few times in every coil roll a tiny number will appear at the bottom center, and these are prized by collectors so much that they are worth more than several used commemoratives. Mainly, however, knowing how to use the catalog, and double-checking anything that doesn’t quite look right will pay off hundreds of times over the years. You may even find a valuable error sometimes among common stamps because the catalog tells you it exists, and you remember to look for it. Anything is possible.

“Free” Stamp Offers

There are many “free” stamp offers advertised, but some of them are not actually “free.” Here is a general guideline:

If a gift is free to “approval applicants,” this means you will also receive an assortment of stamps on approval, from which you may purchase, or return without buying. However, you get to keep the free gift no matter what.

If a gift is free to “approval buyers,” you may only keep it if you by something from the other stamps which are sent. Other times, an ad may say something like “free gift to introduce you to our fine approvals (or price lists, catalogs, etc.),” which does not obligate you to make purchases in order to keep the gift.

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