"Stamp collecting dispels boredom, enlarges our vision, broadens our knowledge, makes us better citizens and, in innumerable ways, enriches our lives"- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
And, as one of history's most famous philatelists (or stamp collectors), FDR knew what he was talking about. Stamp collecting is a hugely rewarding hobby and it is open to all. For instance, some online 'How To' stamp guides recommend that you begin your stamp collection by removing stamps for the letters you receive in the mail.
While, on the other hand, you have international news reports announcing that a rare stamp has just sold at auction for a whopping $2.3 million.
But, let's say you want to get into stamp collecting as both a hobby and as an investment. Where do you begin? Here are a few tips from Paul Fraser Collectibles to get you started…
Study auction catalogues
The market is awash with all kinds of stamps, most of which make lovely keepsakes - like the recent Duke and Duchess of Cambridge Royal wedding stamps, for instance. But they won't have any real value attached to them.
The 1847 Mauritius 2d has appeared
Where can you find valuable stamps? Reading auction catalogues is a great way to learn which stamps carry value, while also educating yourself about philately. Top auction houses like Spink take great pride in their sale catalogues, including detailed information and images. Or you can view catalogues online.
There is much you can learn. Take for instance the two 1847 Mauritius 2d. deep blue stamps which appeared in Spink's 2011 auction of the legendary Chartwell Collection in London. One was listed with a £30,000 pre-sale estimate, the other was estimated at just £250. Why?
Answer: it's down to rarity, quality and presentation (more on these later). The £250 stamp had been used, messily cancelled with an ink stamp, was creased, and had a badly cropped right margin (the stamp's white border).
The other one, meanwhile, was completely unused. This makes the latter stamp just one of six of its kind in the world, and likely worth more than £30,000.
Choose your subject wisely
Compared to his predecessor, Edward VII, King George V wasn't very intellectual. Yet his knowledge of the British Empire was unsurpassed and earned him respect around the world. George focussed this knowledge into his stamp collection and became known as "the King of Philately".
In other words, why not take a subject which already interests you and apply it to your stamp collection? Patriotic King George focussed his collection entirely on British Empire stamps, and subsequently built the Royal Philatelic collection into one of the world's finest.
So, do you like transport? How about the Wild West? Or perhaps even space exploration? Stamps from all of these eras - be they rare 1960s transport stamps, 18th century US specimens delivered by the Pony Express, or even Apollo 11 covers signed by astronauts - are all highly sought-after.
Make sure you do your homework
As with any type of collectible, it's vital that you know what you are doing before you enter the markets. Are you familiar with terms like "mint", "die cut", "cut to shape" or "tête-bêche"? Fortunately, these can be easily researched on the internet, and will also help you fathom the stamp catalogues.
Better still, stamp enthusiasts are among the most informed, friendly and helpful collectors around. Get involved in online forums and chat to other collectors. This can help you build confidence and knowledge before you participate in real-life auctions. Or check out your local stamp clubs.
You'll also find many collectors with "subject" or "topical" collections, just like George V and his British Empire stamps. Whether their collections are themed by religion, transport, Charles Lindbergh ("Lindberghiana") or President Lincoln ("Lincolniana"), these collectors can offer you inspiration.
Stamps come from a variety of subject niches... Even space, like this
Fully-investigate a stamp's provenance
Literally, where has the stamp been? Can you guarantee that it is authentic? Who else has owned either this specimen or others like it which have sold previously? Does the provenance include any great collectors or institutions?
However, if you take one piece of advice from this article then make sure it is this: if in doubt about a stamp's provenance, always ask a trusted expert for their advice.
Condition is crucial to your stamp's value
You don't need to be an expert to guess that a stamp ripped in half is worth less than a whole one. But a stamp's condition can refer to a number of things…
For instance, a stamp should ideally be unused with its adhesive gum intact. The stamp's design should be well-centred with even margins on all sides. Its small, round perforations should be without blemish, with no missing teeth.
Used stamps should be in the same condition (though will lack their gum). Also, ink cancellations on stamps should be very light and preferably well-centred upon the stamp. This is otherwise known as "socked on the nose".
Of course, finding a modern stamp which meets these criteria is easier than finding a 19th century stamp, hence the latter's greater value. The term "superb" is applied only to 19th century stamps with these criteria, while the term "very fine" is applicable to 19th and 20th century specimens.
Look out for 'First Days'…
Collectors are obsessed with 'firsts'. Whether it's the first man on the Moon, or the first-ever posted stamp of a particular issue. "First Days" are covers - like postcards or envelopes - to which a new stamp was attached and delivered on its first day of issue, as signified by a first day cancellation mark on the stamp.
Some collectors devote their entire collections to First Days. These specimens are especially rewarding, often bearing special cancellations, envelopes or other mini-artworks to mark the first-ever day of that particular stamp.
What to buy?
If you have little hope of finding investment-grade stamps in your attic, or of being left any by a relative, then there's always the stamp dealer. By and large, dealers sell stamps in mixtures, packets, sets and in single specimens.
Mixtures, packets and sets each offer a 'wholesale approach' to buying - mixtures, for instance, can contain thousands of stamps of negligible quality. Your chances of finding investment-grade specimens in mixtures or packets are very slim.
Stamps are a truly global hobby
Instead, you're better off researching the markets and opting for single specimens or sets containing rare and top quality stamps. Interesting sets often crop up at actions. Examples include an "All World" collection comprising mint and rare specimens which appeared at German auction house Christoph Gärtner Philatelic, last year.
Thanks to its top quality and sheer range - featuring rarities from Europe, Great Britain, Hong Kong and the US - the collection sold for £117,340 ($180,200). That was 134.7% times its £41,350 ($63,500) presale estimate.
Of course, that example is from the market's higher end. It is also worth investigating sets in the lower price ranges when they appear for sale. Which brings us to our final point…
Set your budget limit, and spend it well
As with art, the old maxim 'spend as much as you can afford' also applies to stamps.
Carefully plan your budget, how much you're willing to bid or spend, and stick to it. And investors remember: the value of a stamp in good condition rises at a far greater rate than a poorer version.
So, while it may be tempting to buy ten Penny Blacks dated to 1840 (the world's first-ever adhesive postage stamp), you're much better off holding out for a single £100 specimen in top quality.
Bear in mind the above tips, and the apparently-daunting world of stamp collecting could be one of the most pleasurable and profitable pursuits you've ever explored.
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