Since the first modern postage stamp was implemented in 1840, a diverse range of unique collectible stamps have flooded the market, each detailing a specific person, place, and historically relevant moment in time. Stamp collecting has become a prominent hobby, and Linn’s Stamp News estimates that more than 5 million people in the U.S. alone collect stamps, from the likes of the late President Franklin Roosevelt to young children.
Because so many stamps have been produced worldwide, avid stamp collectors, also referred to as philatelists, are well aware that only the rarest stamps hold significant value. Experts carefully study factors such as condition, age, and rarity to determine stamp collection value. Below are ways in which you can briefly identify and evaluate the significance of your stamps.
A Brief History of Postage Stamps
Postmarks were invented by Henry Bishop, a Postmaster General of England. They were first used at the London General Post Office in 1661, and are often referred to as the “Bishop mark.” In 1680, William Dockwra and his partner Robert Murray established the London Penny Post, which delivered letters and small parcels inside the city limits for one penny. Confirmation of the paid postage was indicated by the use of a hand stamp, and this is largely accepted as the world’s first postage stamp.
Sir Rowland Hill from England is credited with inventing the first modern, adhesive postage stamp. He also established uniform postage rates which were based on weight. They were first issued at Great Britain’s Penny Post in 1840, with the issuance of the Penny Black featuring an engraved profile of Queen Victoria’s head. This remained on the stamps for the next 60 years, and the United Kingdom remains the only country to omit its name from the postage, using the reigning monarch’s head as identification instead.
The postage stamp and system of mailing was soon adopted by other countries around the world, each creating their own versions and stamp designs. By 1847, the Post Office Department issued its first United States postage stamps: five and ten cent stamps featuring the likeness of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.
How to Identify Stamps
Understanding the context for which a stamp was issued is crucial in determining where your should be placed in terms of value and date within the entire collection. There are a few key components to look for when assessing a stamp.
Determine the country and date. First, determine the country that your stamp came from, and when. Most stamps should have this information printed on them. The Scott Specialized Catalogue of postage stamps is a great resources for U.S. postage stamp identification.
Look for an inscription. While some stamps don’t display the country and currency, they have inscriptions, or letters, words, and numbers that are part of the stamp design. A simple internet search for the inscription on your stamp can help easily identify a stamp’s country of origin. For example, “a cert” is written on stamps from Peru.
Pay attention to the watermarks. Watermarks often appear on paper used in stamp printing, and they can be easily detected using watermark fluid. Simply place your stamp face down into a watermark tray, add a few drops of fluid, and wait for it to dry. Once it does, you can study the designs, letters, numbers, and pictorial elements of the watermarks to help identify your stamp’s origin. Major stamp catalogs provide individual listings for stamps of similar designs printed on papers with different watermarks.
Not all stamps are printed on watermarked paper, and those issued after 1917 do not have watermarks. The last U.S. postage stamps to bear watermarks were issued in 1938, so those with act as a valid determinant of the age of your stamp.
Determining Your Stamp Collection Value
Once you’ve identified your stamp, you can better determine its value. Both the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue display photographs and price valuations, sorted by date of issue. You can also refer to price guides, which are usually sold at philatelic shops. While these guides provide a great estimated value, they generally refer to stamps that are above average condition, so it’s important to evaluate stamp collection value based on the criteria below.
Assessing the centering is the first step in evaluating your stamps. Stamps with nearly equal margins are considered more visually appealing, and thus typically sell for more. The design should be balanced in relation to other parts of the stamp such as the margin and vignette.
Stamps that aren’t centered well were misaligned during the perforation process during printing. A slightly misaligned sheet may result in perforations being close to the design on one or two sides. It’s important to note that stamps from 1857 were originally designed as imperforates, and because the margins are virtually non-existent, the perforations often touch the design even on well-centered examples.
The condition of your stamp is one of the most important factors when determining stamp collection value. Expert collectors understand that perforations missing, faded colors, paper flacks, and other imperfections greatly diminish stamp value. Stamps are generally graded on a scale from superb to below average in reference to the stamp design.
- Superb: These stamps are of the finest quality. They have near-perfect centering, brilliant color, and perfect gum.
- Fine: These stamps are without noticeable flaws, have average centering, light hinge marks, yet aren’t quiet as fresh as those defined as superb.
- Good: These stamps are noticeably off-center, but still fairly attractive with minor defects, thin ares, and heavy hinge marks.
Anything below “good” isn’t worth acquiring for senior collectors; however, beginner collectors sometimes use them as a starting point, referred to as “space fillers.” As with most collectibles, stamps’ values decrease depending on the number of tears, creases, faded designs, and other aesthetic issues that are present.
Stamp gum is the glue found on the backside of the stamp. The highest valued stamps have perfect gum that is still original, undamaged, and in the same state as when it left the post office. This is often referred to as “mint, never hinged.” Generally, the following conditions describe the grade of a stamp’s gum:
- Mint: Stamps with full, undamaged original gum, as sold by the post office.
- Unused: Stamps whose original gum has been damaged, often through the use of stamp hinges.
- Unused without gum: Stamps which have lost their original gum.
There are various factors that determine the rareness of a stamp, which often require philatelist and expert opinion. Stamps that have errors in printing, content, and perforation are considered rare, as are those limited-issue stamps where only a small number exist. Auction price databases are helpful sources in determining how often a stamp appears on the market. Rare stamps are becoming increasingly hard to find since collectors are continually adding them to private collections.
Stamp Collection Storage
Stamps are some of the most fragile, ephemeral collectibles, and can easily tear or damage if not properly cared for and stored. Whether you’ve recently inherited a stamp collection, are new to the hobby, or have long been an avid philatelist, below are some valuable tips on how to protect your investment and preserve your stamps long-term.
- When handling, use stamp tongs. These special tongs feature smooth jaws that prevent tearing, but are thin enough to grab the stamp with ease. Avoid using your fingers as they leave dirt and grease.
- Store in temperatures between 65–72°F. Excessive high or low temperatures can damage stamps, so avoid storing in attics, basements, garages, or other areas prone to frequent temperature shifts.
- Keep humidity levels between 25–55%. Humidity can cause your stamps to warp, mold, and collect mildew.
- Avoid excessive exposure to natural light. Like fabrics, paintings, and other printed materials, natural sunlight can cause stamps to fade, change colors, and crack. It’s best to store them in a dark cabinet.
- Keep your collection well above the floor. This will help avoid water and flooding and reduce the risk of pests from crawling along your stamps.
Storing your collection in a stockbook or album is the safest and most common option. They’re specially printed for an area of concentration and feature dedicated spaces for each important issue. They come in a wide variety of prices and configurations, so be sure to look at things like paper quality, paper color, and binding type before purchasing. There are three common ways to attach stamps to your album:
- Directly: Though stamps can be easily affixed directly to an album, this method ruins the value of the collectible as peeling them off often destroys the stamp.
- Hinging: Stamp hinges are pieces of transparent tape that attach to the back of a stamp. Many leave a residue which can affect the stamp’s value.
- Mounting: Though the most expensive option, stamp mounts preserve expensive issues and store without causing damage.
Famous Stamp Collectors
Since the first pre-paid postage stamp revolutionized the mailing system, the hobby of collecting stamps has intrigued a wide range of collectors. It has even been labeled a “hobby of kings” due to the plethora of famous people throughout history who have been ardent collectors. Below are a few famous stamp collectors (that might surprise you).
Queen Elizabeth II
The British royal family has a long history of stamp collecting. George V started a comprehensive collection which he then passed on to his son, George VI. From there, Queen Elizabeth II adopted the hobby, adding to what is now known as the Royal Philatelic Collection. It features impressive, rare stamps including the legendary Post Office Mauritius and the Great Britain Two Pence Tyrian Plum.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt (commonly known as “FDR”), served as the 32nd president of the United States and as an avid stamp collector. He collected since his childhood as a means to learn about history and explore the world. During the 1930s, he and his Postmaster would pore over his stamp collection, brainstorming designs and themes, and even sketching his own ideas for stamps. In 1946, following his death, his family sold his philatelic estate through Harmer Auction.
English actor Charlie Chaplin was not only a comedian, but also a world renowned stamp collector. He even became the face of many postage stamps throughout countries such as India, Uruguay, Italy, the United States and more.
As a budding musician, John Lennon began collecting stamps after his older cousin, Stanley Parkes, gifted him a partially filled album. He enthusiastically filled it over the years with stamps collected from letters sent from the United States and New Zealand. His collections have been the subject of many museum exhibitions.
Writer and philosopher Ayn Rand began collecting stamps at the age of ten, but was forced to abandon the hobby when she fled the Russian Revolution. Rand returned to philately later in life, enjoying camaraderie among collectors and aesthetics of fine stamps. She detailed her love of collecting in an autographed manuscript, “Why I like Stamp Collecting.”
Stamp collecting is a hobby both rich in design and history. Those with a traceable historical relevance are often considered the most valuable stamps as collectors vie for examples with storied beginnings and historical significance. Building a stamp collection begins with finding rare examples in superb condition. To determine a stamp’s worth, assess its historical context, quality and condition, and consult a specialist when in doubt.