Stamp collecting - buying, selling, valuing rare philatelic stamps

The Three Skilling Yellow - one of the world's most valuable stamps

Stamp collecting, also known as philately, is an incredibly popular hobby, yet one that can appear confusing to a newcomer.

From Penny Blacks to postal history, the options available through auctions and dealers are astounding. Our complete guide equips you with the information you need to get started. 


The world's first adhesive postage stamp is, of course, the famous Penny Black. Issued in Great Britain in 1840, the stamp revolutionised communication throughout the world and prompted almost every country in the world to produce its own stamps.

The release of the Penny Black was as important to the public in 1840 as it is to collectors today. As such, a number of enthusiastic individuals began collecting as soon as the 1d Black arrived in post offices.

By 1860, the world had legions of dedicated collectors and the first collectible stamp dealers were established, most notably Stanley Gibbons, the London-based merchant that remains in operation today.

The hobby has withstood the test of time, and once counted British King George V among its most passionate devotees. Today, there are estimated to be around 60 million stamp collectors worldwide.

What makes a stamp collectible?

People collect stamps for a number of reasons, but when choosing a top-end stamp, they are all looking for the same thing - quality. With the ephemeral nature of postage stamps, this can vary, but ideally, a collector will want to see a combination of rarity, prestige or importance, good condition, good printing (ie the quality of the stamp's margins and centring), authenticity and provenance. If all of these factors are impeccable, you can be sure that the stamp is of an "investment grade".

It is important to remember that not all collectible stamps are worthy investments, with only a small percentage at the very top of the market likely to make a good addition to a portfolio.

The best way to quickly and easily identify the stamp's attributes is a grading certificate, which should be issued by a respected grading company and accompany any high value purchase. Ask for this when buying any stamp, especially where provenance or authenticity is an issue.

Learn more about how to grade your stamps.

Where to buy

Rare stamps are usually bought at auction and through dealers, though many collectors will cut out the middle man and sell to fellow enthusiasts. There are also amazing finds to be discovered in yard sales and the like, with many one-time collectors now selling off their albums - often with little knowledge of their true worth.

Some of the most popular auction houses and dealers include:

Stanley Gibbons
Robert A Siegel Auction Galleries
InterAsia Auctions
Paul Fraser Collectibles
Warwick and Warwick
Glen Stephens

For more information on where to buy and sell stamps, visit the Philatelic Traders Society.


The stamp collecting community is bolstered by hundreds of clubs and societies, allowing collectors to meet each other face to face and share their interest. As well as national clubs, there are also a range of regional societies to join. Some of the most popular include:

American Philatelic Society
Great Britain Philatelic Society
National Philatelic Society (UK)
National Duck Stamp Collectors Society
International Society of Worldwide Stamp Collectors
American Airmail Society

Collecting specialities

Stamp collecting is an extremely broad area: you'll never get anywhere if you try and collect stamps from all around the world with no kind of specialism. That's why many collectors focus on one specific area, including:

Definitive stamps from a particular country or region
Airmail stamps
Commemorative stamps
Postage due stamps
Revenue stamps
Postal history
First day covers

Other collectors may decide to collect a certain group of stamps based on the subject of their designs, such as those that feature famous people, insects, birds or ships.

Famous collectors

Stamp collecting has been a popular pastime for almost 200 years, and has welcomed a host of celebrity names:

John Lennon
Theodore Roosevelt
King George V
Ayn Rand
Freddie Mercury
Ronnie Wood
Maria Sharapova

Famous stamps

It's not just the collectors that get all the attention, there are also some incredibly well-known stamps that have made it into popular culture:

Penny Black - the first adhesive stamp
Inverted Jenny - a US stamp released in 1918, accidentally showing an upside-down airplane
Three skilling yellow - the world's most valuable stamp sold at auction (at least $2.3m - in 2010)
Mauritius 2d "Post Office" Bordeaux Cover - unique item that sold for more than $4m in 1993
Great Britain 2 1/2d Prussian Blue - a renowned and rare error stamp

Pricing guides

Stamp collecting catalogues
Scott catalogue (US)
Michel catalogue (Germany)
Stanley Gibbons catalogue (UK)
Yvert et Tellier catalogue (France)
Brusden-White catalogue (Australia)
Ma catalogue (China)

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