How to start a stamp collection knowledgeably
NEW YORK – There are few collectible categories that encompass art, history, culture, language and national identity and pride quite like postage stamps. They reflect almost every topic, from royalty and cultural achievers to scientific discoveries and wildlife. They tell us who we are and how our societies have evolved.
Since the first issue in 1840, stamps have attracted collectors from all walks of life. Despite the rise of email and texting, postage stamps remain universally appreciated well into the 21st century. Stamp collecting remains one of the top 10 hobbies, and rare stamps are still considered stalwarts in many investment portfolios.
Prior to the advent of postage stamps printed on sheets of paper, post offices relied on a rubber or cork cancellation image its employees would hand-ink directly onto the letter itself. These early handstamps, first created in 1680 by merchant William Dockwra for London mail at one penny a post, are a collectible category in and of itself. There was a bit of a problem with the handstamp approach, though. In that era in the United Kingdom, postage was paid by the receiver, not by the sender. If the receiver rejected the letter or package, the delivery went unpaid, and the post office lost money it needed to underwrite its operations. The postage stamp changed that.
Who, exactly, deserves the credit for the invention of the postage stamp is a murky topic, but by 1840, the United Kingdom issued the first such stamp with adhesive to affix directly onto packages and letters. It was known as the Penny Black and featured the profile of a young Queen Victoria. Each stamp had to be cut from a sheet; perforations finally appeared in 1854. And in replacing the handstamp with a printed, paper stamp, the postal service shifted the burden of paying for postage to the sender instead of the receiver. This change allowed for a more organized and profitable postal service. Other countries in Europe soon adopted Britain’s approach.
Postage stamps debuted in the United States in 1845, but these early issues were created by individual postmasters. Two years later, the United States released its first official postage stamps, which sported portraits of Benjamin Franklin on a red 5 cent stamp and George Washington on a black 10 cent stamp. By 1860, the success of the UK and the United States postal systems had prompted virtually every nation to issue their own postage stamps. The notion of collecting stamps as a hobby gained ground around this time as well. John Edward Gray, an English zoologist who was one of the first collectors of note, began his postage stamp collection in 1862, and The Philatelist, the first publication about postage stamps, was already going strong by the 1860s.
The two main reasons people create stamp collections is for fun or as an investment. All seasoned stamp aficionados know there are four main identifying components of a stamp: the image, the perforations, the denomination and the country name (except for the United Kingdom, which uses an image of its monarch as a stand-in). Handling a stamp requires a few basic essential tools: tweezers or long tongs, a magnifying glass, a stamp album made from archival material and an odontometer, or perforation gauge.
It’s perfectly fine to dive in and begin gathering stamps without having chosen a specialty to focus on. Just seek affordable stamps of any type that seem interesting, sort them, review them, and categorize them one or two at a time. Seeking stamps will introduce you to varieties featuring flags, monarchs, insects, animals, minerals and other attractive subjects. You can also wait and simply enjoy acquainting yourself with the many different formats of stamps – which range from first day covers, stamps on letters, plate blocks of stamps, postcards with stamps, special event stamps, hunting stamps, revenue stamps, error stamps, commemorative stamps and hand stamps – before you zero in on a favorite to pursue. It will soon become evident why presidents, kings, rock stars and regular people have all embraced stamp-collecting as a relaxing pastime.
Stamp-collecting need not center on acquiring one or two stamps at a time; it’s possible to secure entire collections of stamps at auctions. Stamp collections, whether completed or not, are routinely consigned by estates whose heirs decline to keep them. Buying a collection lets you advance your understanding of stamps through comparing the differences within a large, preassembled group. Which ones are you missing, and which ones can be traded or sold for another that is in better condition or has a higher value? It should be said, however, that such questions may be more suited to investment-minded collectors because filling the holes in an incomplete collection requires finding the rarest and most valuable stamps, not the most engaging or delightful.
But are postage stamps a solid investment today? According to Forbes.com, they deliver a means to diversify an investment portfolio, but, of course, price fluctuations are the norm in any postage stamp auction. Wealthy investors target stamps that have higher values, freeing up most stamps for the casual collector whose pockets are not as deep – which is a great thing for both camps of collectors.
While most casual collections may not have the investment value of those intended as assets, a study by StampFinder.com has shown that postage stamps with values of $25 and up have consistently outperformed stocks and even gold during the past 25 years. The basic rule for investment-grade stamps is to buy at no more than 30% of the catalog price at auction and sell near the catalog value. Casual collectors, in contrast, should buy the best stamp they can afford.
All stamps are graded first and foremost on rarity; for this reason, older stamps perform better at auction than newer ones. Condition plays a major role as well. Examples with few or no defects are the ones collectors want most. As with any valuable object, postage stamps are the targets of counterfeiters. It is important that collectors of all stripes learn how stamps were made at the times they were issued and verify that any stamp that interests them is correct on its complete construction, from its image to the ink used to print it. Finding stamps of historical significance will help with the overall value of a collection, too. Stamps issued with an error or those with short production runs will merit a higher value if the rest of the criteria under discussion have been satisfied.
If you aren’t sure how to begin a stamp collection, it is best to visit one of the many associations, online groups and websites devoted to postage stamps. The American Philatelic Society (stamps.org), the United States Stamp Society (usstamps.org) and Stamp Collecting World (stamp-collecting-world.com) provide in-depth assistance and resources. You might also consider attending a nearby stamp show listed at stamps.org.
Postage stamps remain coveted collectibles because they take countries and the myths they create about themselves and condense them into a tiny, flat, nearly weightless rectangle. Designed to be portable, they inspire the holder to dream about a stamp’s adventures as it crossed borders, ventured across mountains, plains and oceans, or even just flitted a few doors down the street. Postage stamps can lead you to dream about distant lands and intriguing cultures, and they work this magic without requiring you to leave your favorite armchair. Such is their power.