How to Value A Stamp Collection

The most common question that I get asked as a dealer is "How much are my stamps worth?". It is question that requires professional expertise and knowledge to properly answer. So, if you are serious about obtaining a valuation for your stamp collection, there is no question that you will need to consult with a professional. 

Unless you are an experienced collector it is very unlikely that you will be able to value your collection reliably by yourself. Even if you are experienced as a philatelist, there is potentially, but not always a significant difference between the catalogue value of all the stamps in a collection and the actual commercial value of the collection, sold intact, today, for cash. The difference can go either way, and knowing what that difference is requires specialized knowledge of the broader market for stamps. 

Before you even consider taking your stamps to a dealer or an auctioneer, it is important to acquire some basic understanding of the economics of the hobby and the professional trade of stamp dealing. This is necessary in order to understand the basis on which the professional is valuing the collection, and it will also help you decide if the trip to the dealer or auctioneer is even warranted. 

Generally speaking, the vast majority of stamps issued since 1840 have minimal commercial value, which means that the wholesale value is nowhere near what dealers will sell them to you on an individual basis for. Now, this is no different than what is true of most forms of merchandise. Much of the value in most merchandise lies in the service provided in selling it to you -  the marketing, the packaging and so forth. In the case of stamps, it is the labour and overhead involved in breaking the collection down and offering every stamp for sale individually all over again. This cost is very significant to all dealers, and it has to be recovered somehow. This is why most dealers will generally only offer between 10% and 30% of catalogue value for most collections. There are exceptions of course, such as very scarce stamps and covers that the dealer has an immediate customer for, but they are the exceptions rather than the norm. 

Most auction houses have significant overheads to cover also, which in addition to salaries, include premises rent, printing and distribution costs for their catalogues, and venue costs for the auction itself. Because of this, they generally won't offer individual stamps for sale unless they are expected to bring a minimal dollar amount, which is usually over $250 per stamp, or set. Everything they receive that is worth less than their minimum generally gets sold in bulk. So, the realizations on these stamps tend to be about the same as selling to a dealer, or maybe a bit less once you factor in their commission. 

So, it is important before you go calling on the professionals to have some understanding of what you have in general terms, so that you can decide whether it makes more sense to consult a dealer, or an auction house. Although you may not have the technical expertise to value stamps, there are some general guidelines you can follow that will help you decide whether it is worth calling on a professional, and if so, who. 

Before you even get into the actual stamps themselves, it is important to start by looking at the overall level of organization of the collection, and the quality of the stamps in the collection. This does not give you a definitive answer of course, but it does give you clues. Collectors are generally creatures of habit, and with few exceptions, their collecting tends to follow fairly established patterns that do not change much over the years. This tends to be true whether the collector was an accumulator, a single country collector or a specialist. 

Generally speaking if you see a very messy and disorganized collection with a lot of loose stamps, shoe boxes and ziploc bags, chances are very good that you are not dealing with a valuable collection - certainly not something that an established auction house or dealer will be interested in buying for any significant sum. Of course you will have to look at the stamps to be sure, but if you see this, it should prepare you for the very strong possibility that the collection is not valuable. Owners of valuable collections generally take a great deal of pride in ownership, and so because of that you would generally find such collections well organized and displayed. 

Also, if you see a lot of damaged and heavily cancelled stamps in the collection, this is another indication that it likely isn't valuable, because damaged stamps, for the most part have little to no commercial value, unless they are extremely rare. 

So, once you have tackled that question, you are ready to look at the actual stamps. There are four things to look for right out of the gate:

  1. Are the stamps mint or used?
  2. Are they from major industrialized countries or are they from exotic countries? Is there any China or India?
  3. What time period are they from? Do they appear to be from after World War II? Before? If before, are they pre-1900?
  4. Do they include any obviously higher face value stamps?

So, let's consider these four questions:

Generally speaking, mint stamps are worth more than used when the stamps come from a major industrialized country like Canada, US or the UK. The reason should be obvious, but it is worth stating: it is because the majority of stamps issued and sold are used for postage. Relatively fewer mint stamps survive. Also letter writing was the most common form of communication in the 19th and 20th century, and the mail volume was colossal compared to today. This is why a lot of used low value denomination stamps from 100 years ago are worth very little, because they are so common. Mint stamps from before World War II and just after into the 1950's can have significant value. It depends on the answers to more questions which I will cover after I deal with these first four. Mint stamps from before 1900 almost certainly have value if they are in any decent condition grade. So, if the collection you have in front of you is mostly mint stamps, then it very likely does have value. 

If the stamps are mostly used, then the next three questions become vital. If the stamps are all low denominations, which is to say that they are all the lower unit of the country's currency (cents rather than dollars, pence rather than shillings or pounds, pesos rather than pesetas and centimes rather than francs), then they are probably not worth very much. This is because the lower values were all mainly used to mail postcards and first class local letters and are all very common. If the stamps include higher values, then they may have value if the quality is good. If the stamps are mostly from smaller island countries, dead countries and regions with small populations and include high values, these may be worth more than mint stamps from those countries, due to the scarcity of postally used stamps. China and India are both very hot markets right now, and while there are inexpensive stamps from both, it requires expertise and experience to value them. So, if your collection includes China and mint India, there is very likely some value to it. 

After you have considered these questions, the next question to consider is: are most of the stamps commemoratives, or definitives. Definitive stamps are the regular use stamps that are usually one or just a few utilitarian designs, that are sold at the post office for several years before being replaced by new issues. Because of this, quantities issued tend to run into the hundreds of millions to low billions, in major industrialized countries. For this reason, collections of used definitives that are all low values tend to have very little commercial value. High value definitives in excellent condition have a value regardlesss of whether they are mint or used, but a collection of predominantly mint definitives will have value. 

Commemoratives, on the other hand, are those stamps that are only on sale for a short period. The designs tend to be larger and more attractive. They are issued in smaller quantities, but most survive in mint conditon. For this reason they tend not to be valuable, being worth face value, or a small premium over face value for most stamps. Used commemoratives are better, especially for those stamps issued before 1960. So, a mint collection of modern, post 1945 mint commemorative stamps will have value, but not high value. A collection of used commemoratives from after 1945 may have value if the sets are complete, otherwise the stamps should be from before 1945, and in good condition. You can educate yourself about quality and grading by visiting the pages dealing with my grading system, and seeing for yourself what top notch quality looks like on a stamp. 

Stamps on entire envelopes are called covers. If the covers are to exotic foreign destinations and are more than just basic first class postage rates, then they may have value, with the value being very significant sometimes. If, on the other hand, they are all low denomination first class letters and are from after 1900, they likely have little value. 

The last question to consider is whether the collection is specialized and appears to contain notations about printing varieties, errors or flaws. These collections likely will have value for either professional, depending on what philatelic area is covered by the collection. 

So to summarize:

Your collection likely has sufficient value for an auction house if:

  1. The stamps are mostly mint, from any country and issued before 1900. 
  2. The collection includes significant amounts of China in mint or used condition, and mint India, as well as Indian states.
  3. It is a specialized collection from any period before 1945.

Your collection likely has sufficient value for a dealer if:

  1. The stamps are mostly mint from after 1900. 
  2. The stamps are used, but include a lot of high values, or are in top notch condition, include a lot of smaller, more exotic countries, and are issued before 1960. 
  3. If it is a specialized collection from after 1945.

Of course, a collection that is suitable for an auction house will also be suitable for a dealer, but your net realization might be greater than what a dealer would pay. The main consideration here is the time value of money: when you consign to auction, you could be waiting up to a year to get paid, whereas if you sell to a dealer, you get paid right away. 

Your collection likely does not have sufficient commercial value to warrant the trip to either a dealer or a collector if:

  1. It is mostly used stamps from the major industrialized countries from after 1900 and mostly all low values. 
  2. It is mostly incomplete mint and used commemorative sets from after 1945.
  3. It consists of disorganized accumulations of the above. 
  4. If most of the stamps appear to be damaged.

There you have it: a quick and dirty guideline for deciding whether to go and see a professional and if so, who you should see. Doing this exercise should take you no more than an hour or two at most, unless the collection is very large. 

What I would NOT advise you to do is go to the library and get the Scott catalogue. I believe this to be a waste of time. The reason goes back to what I said above about the economics of the stamp trade. The Scott catalogue is  intended to be used by dealers for pricing the stamps they sell YOU at retail. It is completely meaningless when it comes to what you can expect to receive from a complete collection sold all at once. In fact, in doing so you will spend a significant amount of time, that you will not be paid for and what you get out of the process will be a figure that is not realistic (may even be too low for some specialized collections). This will only serve to complicate and hinder your negotiations with the dealer or auction house that you are consulting with. 

How Do I Tell The Age of My Stamps?

This is an excellent question. Unfortunately most stamps do not have dates printed on them, and unless you want to spend hours and hours looking them up in stamp catalogues, which to me is a waste of time, you need to develop a quick and dirty way to tell:

  1. Which stamps were issued before 1900.
  2. Which stamps were issued after 1900 and before 1940.
  3. Which stamps were issued during World War II.
  4. Which stamps were issued after World War II and before 1970. 
  5. Which stamps have been issued since 1970.

Stamps issued before 1900 will tend to be either very crudely printed if they are from places like Nepal, Indian states or Afghanistan, or they will be finely engraved. Engraving was the standard method of printing used during this period, followed by typography, which is also known as surface printing. Almost all stamps issued during this period depict monarchs. So, knowing who the monarchs around the world were during this time will help you identify the stamps. Commonwealth stamps will generally depict Queen Victoria on them , US stamps will have mostly Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, as well as other government figures from the 19th century. The very earliest stamps from this period will have straight edges on all sides, which is referred to as imperforate. 

There will be very few commemorative stamps from this period, with most all stamps being definitives. Designs will tend to be quite ornate, with fancy frames that contain lots of scroll work and other ornamentation. Colours will generally be deep and rich for most stamps as well and nearly all stamps will be printed in one colour only.  Cancellations on used stamps will tend to be barred numeral or other numeral types, cork cancellations, or other types without dates. If you look through the collections on this website for Niger Coast Protectorate, Lagos, and Canada during Queen Victoria's reign, you can start to gain an appreciation of the aesthetic to the point where it should be familiar to you if you see it in your collection. 

Between 1900 and 1940, typography becomes much more prevalent as a printing method due to the fact that it is a much less expensive way to print. Again, most of the stamps are definitives, but there are also a large number of commemoratives issued during this period. Up to 1925 or so, the designs are similar to the earlier stamps, not as ornate and fancy looking. Colours start to get duller as well, and there are lots of shade variations around World War I due to the problems that printing firms had in securing dyes which had previously been sourced from countries like Germany, where they were normally manufactured.

The subject matter still consists of mostly monarchs and politicians. Commonwealth Stamps have either Edward VII, George V or King George VI on them. US stamps still have those early presidents on them, but you also get 20th century presidents like Harding, Taft and Wilson being shown. Also, many US stamps from this period are commemoratives. The common US definitives from this period generally depict either Washington or Franklin. By the 1940's the designs have lost almost all their ornate elements, being clearly old looking, but kind of drab and boring at the same time. This is also the period during which the wavy line machine cancellation first appears, so that most stamps that you might otherwise think belong in the pre-1900 period actually belong in this one if they have a wavy line cancel. By the 1930's and 40's wavy line and slogan based machine cancellations become the norm and this persists into the 1980's. 

Stamps from World War II generally have a very strong military flavour. They tend to include a lot of fascism symbols, like the swastika or fasces. Mussolini, Hitler and the SS and Emperor Hirohito figure in very heavily also. Designs tend to be quite plain, as are most colours. It was a period of austerity, so the stamps are very "toned down" compared to before.  There are a lot of military occupation stamps as well, as the borders of the various countries shifted temporarily and chaos ensued. Many of these occupation issues are earlier stamps that have been overprinted to indicate that the territory has been occupied by a military force. There is also quite a bit of propaganda on the stamps too: references to victory and both military and economic strength. 

Toward the end of the 40's we start to see the modern minimalist design aesthetic, with sleek lines and plain, plain frames. This later aesthetic creeps into the 1950's as well, so that if you see less than exciting stamp designs printed in somewhat duller colours, chances are you are dealing with the early post World War II period prior to 1960. 

By the 1960's printing is done mostly by modern multi-colour photogravure. But the photogravure of this period did not generally blend colours. Rather, you will see stamps printed in a variety of often bright and sometimes clashing colours that have been printed in sequence, one colour next to the other, or one on top of the other, to produce the desired effect.  Designs from this period have that early minimalist modern, Mad Men era type look usually. There are still a fair number of engraved stamps from many of the European countries including France, and most of Scandinavia, as well as French Colonies in Africa and Oceania. Again, the colours used tend to be bright and vibrant. 

By 1970, you start to see the advent of modern printing as we know it today, with blended colours, rather than layering, and designs appear more consistent with what you would expect to see today. The main difference though is how low the face values are on stamps for the 1970's. Generally, they are under 10 cents for US and 8c-14c for Canada. Most other countries will have issued stamps for roughly equivalent amounts in their unit of currency. But, by the time you see face values over 80c-$1 or equivalent, for most stamps, you are dealing with the early 2000's. 

So this hopefully gives you some idea of what to look for when you are viewing the collection in front of you. Of course, in the case of used stamps, if you can see dates on the cancellations, that will be very helpful.