Building up a Stamp Collection

How to Avoid Common Mistakes as a Stamp Collector

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Stamps Are Delicate

It often takes time to learn how to handle stamps properly because they are just delicate little pieces of paper, and anything but a gentle touch can do some sort of damage. Some good ideas are to: wash hands before handling, keep away from food or drinks, direct sunlight (causes fading), etc. Some useful tools of the trade include glassine envelopes, to keep stamps flat and away from the elements when stored instead of being in an album; stock books and stock cards, which have pockets for holding stamps; tongs, which are tweezers with flat, un-grooved, ends, for picking up and sorting through stamps, particularly the more valuable ones.

This is because even when you wash your hands, there is always some oil on the skin, and this can eventually cause stamps to start disintegrating. Developing a careful touch can keep stamps from getting creased, which is just one of many things that can make a stamp less desirable to collectors.

Using Hinges and Mounts

As one beginning collector said, “They’re my stamps, and I can do anything I want with them. besides, I’m never going to sell them.” He proceeded for the next year to tape every stamp to the page with Scotch Tape, and later used rubber cement when he ran out. Needless to say, he did want to sell his collection eventually, and found that nobody would buy it at any price. Stamp hinges were devised ages ago so that stamps could be affixed to album pages, yet could be peeled off later with no damage.

There is only one major mistake one can make with stamp hinges, and that is putting so much excess moisture on a hinge that it slops over onto the stamp and glues it to the album page. This can ruin gun on a mint stamp, since otherwise a lightly moistened stamp hinge will leave only a minor disturbance on gum. Some collectors prefer to use stamp mounts on mint stamps, so that the gum will not be disturbed in the least. Mounts are plastic sleeves into which stamps are inserted, and in comparison to stamp hinges they are quite expensive. Still, premium prices paid for unhinged mint stamps make them desirable to certain stamps at least.


Logically, many people think that to remove a used stamp from an envelope, all you do is peel it off carefully. This results in lots and lots of thinned stamps, which are considered damaged and un-collectible. The correct way to remove used stamps is to soak them off in water, and then to dry them on a flat dry surface (preferably a paper towel). There is too much to the art of soaking to tell you here, but much more can be found in any basic reference work on stamp collecting. Soaking stamps with the new “invisible” gum can be very difficult, however, because they tend to retain gum even after being soaked off original paper, and will stick fast to paper on which they are dried.

One answer is to dry them face down, with nothing touching the back side, then flatten them out later if they curl. Most other types of gum just soak off in water, and present no problems. You can easily ruin hundreds of good stamps by soaking stamps with magenta, red, or purple cancels (such as those used on registered mail) in the same bowl with others, because after a few minutes these cancellation inks usually start to run, and stain everything. Separate these out first, soak them separately, use cold water only, and try to trim off every bit of the coloured cancel you can from the surrounding paper.

Then be prepared to take them out of the water immediately as stamps separate from backing paper. Some stamps should not be soaked without consulting a more knowledgeable philatelist. Anything on an original cover that is more then 20 or 30 years old might be worth saving. Also, don’t soak it if the cover looks “philatelic” somehow — has a special fancy cancel or was postmarked for a special event, etc. When in doubt, wait before you soak because First Day Covers, envelopes with a special design of a stamp and postmarked on its issue date, can be worth many times the value of the stamp on it.

Repairs & Forgeries

Detecting counterfeits, repaired stamps, forgeries, and so on can be very difficult, even for collectors with years of experience. Basically, the more a stamp is worth, the more it is worth for someone worth to fake or repair it. Postmarks are especially easy to counterfeit, so they are no guarantee that a stamp is authentic. First of all, does Scott catalog say that counterfeits exist? If so, beware. But Scott does not list everything. Is the stamp repaired? Hold it up to a strong light and look for tears that have been artfully glued back together, or thin spots that have had small pieces of paper stuck over them.

The major philatelic societies have “expertizing” services, groups of expert collectors who meet regularly to decide if stamps are genuine. Because of the fees involved, it is simply not financially worthwhile to send in stamps for expertizing which are worth under $50. So the best advice is to be very careful. Some rip-offs can be reasoned out. For example, a scarce coil stamp fake might be attempted by taking a regular stamp with perforations on all 4 sides, and cutting them off the top and bottom. Or an “imperforate” stamp might be created out of a lower-value perforated one, by just cutting off the edges. Always compare the lower value ones and try to imagine how someone might fake a scarcer variety.


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