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.

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.


Stamps in poor condition can always be obtained at fantastic bargains or huge discounts off catalog value. But most experienced collectors will advise you to always go after the best condition stamps you can. Collections are always much harder to sell at a good price if the stamps are not sound. So the “bargains” you can get on slightly defective stamps are never really bargains at all in the long run.

It takes time to cultivate an appreciation for what is and what is not a good condition stamp. Thins, cuts, tears, creases, more than one or two perfs off, stains, scuff, etc., can all ruin a stamp’s value. If the defect is noticeable on the face of the stamp, it may be impossible to trade or sell at any price, unless it is a very high catalog value item. If the defect is not noticeable on the face, it may be useful for someone as a space-filler, until a better copy can be found. These stamps can still be sold or traded if discounted enough, and you can find someone who is willing to accept less-then-perfect stamps.

Isolation: Clubs & The Philatelic Press

One of the big problems many new stamp collectors have is that they do not know other philatelists, or may not even have a stamp store or club nearby. The major philatelic periodicals are one answer to overcoming this problem, because they provide educational feature on basics of collecting, information on new issues, questions from readers and plenty of ads from people willing to exchange stamps, sell, supply stamp hinges, catalogs, albums, etc. Lots of things can be done by mail. If your local library does not subscribe to one of the major stamp publications, it may be worth investing in a subscription. For current stamp periodicals check the JPA web page listed on the front cover. Whether or not you are in contact with other collectors you may wish to consider joining a national philatelic society. The Junior Philatelists of America is run by and for young people.

Adult, non-voting, supporting memberships are also offered. The American Philatelic Society is the largest society of stamp collectors in the U. S. The American Topical Association is for those collectors who save their stamps according to the subject matter on them. There are many other organizations for collectors who specialize in certain aspects of philately — something for everyone. All offer a newsletter or magazine to help members keep in touch with each other. One of the great things about stamps is that a couple hundred can go back and forth in the mail for the same price as a first class letter, so if you can find other collectors with similar interests, exchanging through the mail is one exciting possibility.

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