Stamp Collecting Basics
This is hard to write! Why do people collect stamps, and why should you join our number?
One of the great things about stamp collecting is that it truly can be enjoyed by many different people, with many different interests, varying amounts of spare time, and varying amounts of money, too! You don't need to have anything special, and you don't need to be anyone special, to be a stamp collector - it really is a universal hobby.
Plus it is one of the few hobbies out there that actually can involve its members in both buying and selling - indeed it seems that some people get more fun out of the trading than they do out of the collecting side of things. (Note that I say "fun" - many people enjoy trading, but few people get very wealthy at it!). And, for younger people, stamp trading teaches them valuable lessons in terms of the best use of their money, and how best to buy and sell, and so on.
Collecting stamps is educational - but not boring! Indeed, the educational aspect of stamp collecting - the almost imperceptible slow learning about foreign countries and cultures as you collect their stamps and notice their native plants, animals, ethnic customs, festivals and holidays, famous people, etc.
Many people find that their interest in stamps evolves to an interest in the countries that issued the stamps they collect, and stamp collecting provides an excellent way to encourage younger people to develop a broader interest in and awareness of the wider world around them.
Collecting stamps can be a family pasttime, and even a family business. It can be a great common interest shared by the whole family, and can form a basis for mini-vacations when the family travels to exhibit and trade at stamp shows around the country (and even around the world, too).
Collecting stamps can be as affordable as you choose, or as expensive as you wish! Whether your budget is $2 a week or $2000 a week, you'll find plenty of ways to spend it, and will get plenty of pleasure in return.
Collecting stamps can tie in with other (thematic) interests. If you are a dog lover, maybe you will collect dog themed stamps. If you really are a rocket scientist, then maybe you'll collect space themed stamps. If you like old cars, then guess what - you'll find lots of old car stamps also to collect. Adding a philatelic extension to your other hobbies can be a fun way to enjoy your other interests more fully, and at low cost - for example, it is much cheaper to collect old cars on stamps than as real cars!
Stamp collecting is an excellent antidote to high-stress modern life. I was/am, myself, your typical "Type A" aggressive workaholic and spent way too much of every day hard at work, and way too little time relaxing and calming down from the tense demands of high pressure work. Stamp collecting is the complete opposite to such horrible things - it is hard to get too stressed over a stamp, isn't it! And the quiet slow careful sorting through of stamps, identifying them, mounting them in albums; all of this is a wonderful way of relaxing and enjoying life at a much calmer pace. Welcome to the hobby!
The short answer - "It depends" The slightly longer answer - "Unfortunately, Not very much"
Usually when people want to know how much their stamp collection is worth, there is an implied issue that they don't want to spend a lot of time or trouble to find out the answer themselves. The interesting reality is that the more time you invest in valuing your stamps, the higher the value you can establish for them.
When you want to know how much your stamps are "worth", that depends on whether you want to know replacement cost - how much it would cost you to replace the stamps - that is, an insurance valuation, or the resale value of the stamps - how much you could get if you sold them. But, before we get to the details of the valuing process, here first is a quick rule of thumb approach to give you at least a first indication of what you might have.
Some people seem to think that old stamps become more valuable as they get older, and I get lots of emails from excited people talking about having just inherited an old collection of stamps, perhaps from a grandparent. Time for two reality checks :
Firstly, stamps don't automatically become more valuable as they get older. Valuable stamps - that is, stamps that have always had a high value - may tend to increase in value, but ordinary stamps of low to no value will stay, sadly, at low value points, probably for ever! So just because you have a collection of old stamps does not mean your collection is automatically valuable.
Secondly, and it is really a repeat of the first rule, only collections of stamps that have always been valuable will be valuable today. In other words, if the original collector was buying stamps, while actively collecting, that were 'expensive' and 'valuable', then you are in luck, but if that collector was buying cheap inexpensive stamps, they are probably still cheap and inexpensive today. Now, for a 'trick' - you can often times tell what type of stamps are in the collection just by quickly looking at how the collection is presented. The more care that that collector put into displaying his (her) collection, then the more likely that some of the stamps are to be valuable. So if you have a few ordinary commercial albums of stamps with lots of gaps missing on the pages, you probably don't have a valuable collection, but if you have lovely albums with crafted pages and lots of complete sets and duplicates with minor variations, etc etc, then you're more likely to have some good valuable stamps in among them.
Now, let's look in some more detail at the valuation process, starting first with the replacement or insurance value determination for the collection.
If you are not thinking of selling the stamps, but just want to get a value for insurance purposes, then that is fairly easy. You can use any catalog as a basis to establish the value of the stamps, simply by adding up the catalog values of all the stamps you have. After you have done that, you may possibly want to adjust this final total figure downwards to reflect the general marketplace reality that most stamps can be conveniently purchased for less than full catalog price. Generally if you add up the catalog values and then reduce by perhaps 20%, you'll probably have established a fair replacement value figure. If you have specially valuable stamps, you might want to list these separately and calculate their values one by one (some might even be worth more than catalog price).
For insurance purposes (note I have no specific experience here, so if this is an important consideration for you I strongly suggest you speak with your insurance broker) you will probably find that your regular householder's insurance policy has very limited coverage for stamps, and you will need either to buy a special extra policy for your stamps or get a specific "rider" added to your main policy. In my case, I found the insurance offered through APS to be much better value than adding a rider to my regular insurance policy.
If you have a fairly high value of stamps, so as to make sure you have no insurance problems if you have a claim, I'd recommend you to videotape some of your collection - film yourself slowly turning through the pages of your albums, and you can speak out loud and point to specific stamps as you do so - saying things like "this is a rare stamp, Scott number 9999. which is worth $55" and so on and so on. That way you have at least generally established the size and nature of your collection; of course, if you have a very valuable collection with lots of individual high value stamps, you probably should get a photographic record of these individual stamps. Whatever you do to document your collection, be sure that you don't store the documentation with the stamps! That way, if your stamps are stolen/destroyed, your documentation to support your insurance claim will hopefully be safe somewhere else.
Don't forget to include the value of your albums as well in any such calculation - the cost of albums, pages, mounts, etc, can sometimes end up being nearly as much as the low value stamps within them!
Maybe you inherited a collection of stamps and have no interest in them and know nothing about them and just want to sell them. What is your collection worth in such a case?
The sad answer to that is "very little, and a lot less than you would think". Most stamps (certainly Russian stamps, and probably true for most stamps of most countries) are worth very little, whether they are new or used. Indeed, you can buy very old mint, unused, US postage stamps for less than their face value! Used stamps are usually worth even less than new ones (although nice clear postmarks on very old stamps can sometimes add to their value).
The value of stamps in a collection when sold all at once can sometimes also depend on how they are currently stored and displayed. If they are all neatly in albums with each stamp clearly given a catalog number, then it is easy for someone who buys the collection to know what they have and to either resell it or mix it into their own collection. If the stamps are just loose, and with some of them still on pieces of envelopes, then they are worth a very great deal less.
In general terms, a collection of 1000+ stamps can be expected to have a value somewhere between 2c-10c a stamp when sold in bulk. If the collection is predominantly newer and used stamps (ie stamps from about 1960 onwards) then you can expect a value of probably between 1c-4c (for a sale on eBay); if the stamps are nicely displayed or organised, and if there are more older ones, then you can expect a value to be closer to 5c-10c each.
You probably can best sell such a collection on eBay. Describe it in as much detail as you can, show images of lots of the pages of the stamps, and explain that you know nothing about stamps and just inherited or whatever the collection and that it hasn't been "picked over" (ie an expert hasn't gone through it and pulled out the occasional really valuable stamp already). This method will take very little of your time, and may bring a good return. Good luck!
If you have a bit more time, you could sell the collection in a series of smaller lots. For example, you could sell one part as all Tsarist era Imperial Russia, another part as, perhaps, pre-World War 2, another part as WW2-1960, another part as 1960-1991 (the end of the Soviet Union) and another part as newly independent Russia and the other CIS countries. This may increase the total value that you get from selling the stamps, because it means that people can bid specifically on the types of stamps they most want, and also, by breaking down what might be a very large collection into a series of smaller lots, you make it more affordable for more people to bid on various parts of it.
The ultimate in breaking down stamps is to sell them set by set. This is probably not sensible for low value sets - the cost of an eBay listing fee, the postage costs, and everything else, mean that for a set worth 50c you would end up getting next to nothing net back to you, and the buyer would end up potentially paying 50c + 34c postage to you + 34c your postage fee to send the stamps to him - he would end up paying twice what they are worth. But for higher value sets, this makes sense, and also even some of the lower value sets can be grouped into two sets per lot or whatever.
This can get you up to 25%-50% of the catalog value of the stamps, depending on the particular stamps, how well you display them, etc. But the time it all takes is massive, and your hourly rate actually will go down compated to the earlier two sales strategies! If your time has little value (eg if you are retired) then this makes sense, but otherwise, if you are busy, it probably does not.
Which leads to the strange circumstance - the stamps are probably worth less than the cost of determining exactly what they are worth! How much is your time worth per hour? The chances are it will "cost" you more hours of your time trying to maximise the value and sales value of your stamps than you "earn" in extra return from selling in a more detailed manner.
Especially if you are unfamiliar with the stamps to start with, and have to buy a catalog and then carefully research each stamp, you'll be spending huge amounts of time to make trivially small amounts of money over and above what you'd get if you simply sold the entire collection in one single lot on eBay.
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I hope this rather brutal assessment is - while not what you hoped for - at least of some assistance.