You have a stamp, and you want to know what it’s worth. What is the value of my stamp?
We get asked this question all the time.
There is a short answer to that question.
And a lot of quite complex questions that go into providing that answer.
So let’s take a look at the basics of stamp valuation.
How do I know if my stamp is valuable?
Unless your stamp is exceptional it is not valuable.
Most stamps aren’t. Even very old ones. And especially very beautiful ones.
Stamps were mass produced extremely cheaply. Print runs in the millions and even billions are commonplace in stamp printing.
Even the Penny Black, the first stamp ever issued, is not rare.
This Penny Black has special appeal because it comes from Plate 5, but you'd need to be an expert to see that.
More than 68 million were printed, of which stamp experts generally reckon about 5% survive.
This huge number despite the fact that the stamp was replaced with the Penny Red after just a year.
That doesn’t mean that some Penny Blacks aren’t extremely valuable. They famously are: the very first one, attached to the Wallace Document, was listed with an estimate of around £6 million in 2021 (though it failed to sell). A Mulready Letter - the first prepaid stationery - is going up for auction shortly with an estimate of £2 million.
Equally, you can buy yourself a relatively presentable Penny Black now for 10s of pounds. This is surprising and welcome news for many beginner stamp collectors.
What makes value?
The pricing principles that apply to all collectibles define whether a stamp is valuable or not.
Your stamp is valuable if it is rare or unusual in some way; if it is in short supply; if it is in good condition; and if it is desirable to buyers.
There are special, philatelic-specific dimensions to each of these price drivers, but they apply equally to a record, autograph or piece of art.
Let’s look at them in the stamp world.
Stamp value: rarity
Rarity is hard to come by in the stamp world.
The first Mauritius stamps were printed locally not by imperial authorities in London and this makes them incredibly rare.
Stamps are very specifically and deliberately a mass-market product. They were invented in order to open up the postal system to everyone. They were designed to be cheap and throwaway.
Most stamps are printed in their millions. In the US, China, or Russia - country’s with massive populations - they commonly come in the billions.
So how do they become rare?
Some philatelic rarity is artificially created by post offices. Stamp collectors are a source of revenue, and providing what they want - scarcity - is a good way to get money out of them.
Canada’s 1897 Jubilee ½c black stamp was so limited in some values that a US stamp magazine wrote: "Of all the swindling, outrageously mismanaged, worthless issues of stamps that were ever made available for postage in a civilised country, they are the worst."
First Day Covers are also an attempt at managed scarcity, though as they are designed to be bought by collectors it is scarcity of a quite limited kind.
There are some territories that have issued very small numbers of stamps.
But much more likely is the scarcity of process.
This is even the case for the famous British Guiana 1c magenta. It most recently sold for more than $8 million.
British Guiana in 1856 was not a place that required large numbers of postage stamps. But the 1c magenta is as valuable as it is because it is a special issue, printed locally when an expected delivery of stamps from the UK didn’t arrive.
Scarcity may also be generated by mistake.
Probably the most famous philatelic rarity - in part because one just sold for over $2 million - is the Inverted Jenny.
The Inverted Jenny ticks all the boxes for high value stamps, including enormous rarity and visual appeal.
It’s “inverted” because a two-stage printing process produced an upside down image. It’s particularly scarce because a sheet was bought on the day of issue by a collector, who told the US Post Office about the error allowing them to swiftly withdraw it.
The stamp printing process is often complex and can produce errors.
Stamps can be perforated wrongly or not at all - imperforate errors.
Colours can be missed.
But it’s also a carefully regulated and complex process. Errors are usually stopped - so used error stamps may be more rare and valuable than unused ones picked up and kept by the printers.
And this complex process also produces a series of proofs and imprimaturs (the final print from a printing plate before it goes into production) that are themselves rare and more valuable.
Occasionally, stamps are withdrawn quickly, or designs abandoned, and the preparatory design phases of these stamps may become rare.
Even if a stamp is itself common, like Penny Blacks, very specific examples may be rare.
We know a huge amount about Penny Blacks and their production. The final plate used to print them - plate 11 - produced just 168,000 stamps (plate 7 made more than 8 million).
And stamps were made in a particular way and to be used in a particular way.
Groups of stamps. Sheets of stamps. Marginal strips of stamps. Stamps with printer’s marks on their margins.
Stamp supply and demand
While printed in large numbers, not all stamps survive in large numbers.
A particular issue for collectors of stamps from some countries is that hot, tropical weather is awful for paper.
Stamps from China are produced in massive numbers. And rot in enormous quantities too.
The high face-value of this stamp makes it rare and unusual and valuable.
Some stamps with high face values are rarely used, so may be more expensive once they’ve been stuck on an envelope and cancelled (as stamp collectors call post marking with a hand stamp to confirm use).
Stamp markets are as prey to fashion as any other. The most consequential trend in stamp trading in recent years has been the emergence of China as a huge and very rich market. A stamp you might have struggled to sell in the 1970s may now command enormous demand and a big price tag.
If you can spot the next such trend you could be in the money.
The first stamps introduced the first problem of stamp condition for collectors.
Penny Blacks predated perforation and had to be chopped from the sheet by post office workers.
Some were more careful than others. And that makes the size of the margins around the printed face of the stamp an important factor in judging its condition.
And, when a stamp is used it is usually defaced.
Some postal marks - which are usually location and date specific - have their own attraction and rarity for collectors.
But all of them mean applying a large, visible mark to what may be a very beautiful design.
Where that mark is and how it interacts with the stamp’s mint image may affect its condition rating.
Once perforations were introduced they added an extra fragility. They are tiny extrusions of paper and very likely to be damaged in use.
Stamp printers have done their best over the years, and the process is extremely good, but some stamps are better than others from birth. Slight slips, or different amounts of ink on presses may make a difference in early stamps, not all of which have the crisp, sharp rendering of a design that a collector might want to see (while perhaps becoming desirable errors).
Colours fade in sunlight. Paper suffers in damp, cold, heat…. Stamps are fragile and if they are not stored with care will deteriorate over time.
Then you need to turn your stamp over.
Yes, the back can matter as much as the front. Stamps with full, undamaged gum (especially very old stamps) are far more valuable than those without in most cases.
Generations of stamp collectors damaged their own prized pieces by licking and sticking hinges on them to affix them into their album.
Mint unhinged is the best grading for a gummed stamp.
There have been attempts to produce a standard grading system but there is no universally accepted one.
You can pay to have your stamp’s condition graded and it will probably add to its value and make a sale easier. However, buying a stamp that you yourself assess may get you a better deal with no compromise on condition.
What makes a stamp a distinguished piece of philately?
There is no single answer to this question.
There are lots of them.
Many rather subjective.
A good design is desirable.
Nice colours are desirable.
Landmark issues are desirable - firsts of any kind get collectors excited.
High value stamps are often desirable.
Controversial stamps are desirable. South Africa famously had to withdraw a stamp that wrote the name of god in Hebrew, offending religious Jews.
Stamps from territories that didn’t exist for very long - occupied territories, for example - can be desirable.
It’s something that is hard to define. Collectors chase particular pieces for all sorts of reasons (and one way to make your own stamp collecting hobby more rewarding is to find a theme of your own).
How do I know if my stamp is valuable?
Your stamp is valuable if it is of a rare type (for any number of reasons), if the supply is constrained somehow, if it is in good condition, and if it is appealing to collectors for its philatelic or aesthetic qualities.
And yet, your stamp could tick all of those boxes and still have very little value.
This die-proof is desirable because it's an early stage in the design process.
Valuing your stamps
Expert advice is the best answer to this question for any specific stamp.
As you've seen stamp valuation can be complex.
You’ll find plenty of information online.
And good dealers - we’re here on email@example.com - are usually happy to help, particularly if you’re a genuine seller.
If you are thinking of selling a stamp you should also consider its personal value to you. Many of us start stamp collecting through inherited collections. If a stamp came from your parent, or records their enthusiasms, or world travels, then perhaps its personal value outweighs any monetary returns and your best investment is to use it as the starting point for your own collection.
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