By Ron Messenger, Moncton
Lets start with the obvious: How to avoid common
mistakes as a beginner. Have you already
started a stamp collection? Or are you just thinking
about it? In either case, chances are you have
plenty of questions about stamps and stamp collecting,
and are trying to find out more. There are
lots of books and publications on stamps, but they
take time to read.
In the meantime, we've compiled a few hints to help you avoid the most common, frustrating, and sometimes-costly errors many beginning philatelists make.
Over the next number of issues we will cover the following subjects:
2. Using hinges and mounts
3. Learning to use the Catalogs
5. Importance of Catalog Value
6. Stamp Clubs & The Philatelic Press
Logically, many people think that to remove a used stamp from an envelope, all you do is peel it off carefully. This results in lots and lots of thinned stamps, which are considered damaged and un-collectible.
The correct way to remove used stamps is to soak them off in water, and then to dry them on a flat dry surface (preferably a paper towel). There is too much to the art of soaking to tell you here, but much more can be found in any basic reference work on stamp collecting. Soaking stamps with the new "invisible" gum can be very difficult, however, because they tend to retain gum even after being soaked off original paper, and will stick fast to paper on which they are dried. One answer is to dry them face down, with nothing touching the backside, then flatten them out later if they curl. Most other types of gum just soak off in water, and present no problems.
Some stamps should not be soaked without consulting a more knowledgeable philatelist. Anything on an original cover that is more then 20 or 30 years old might be worth saving.Also, don't soak it if the cover looks philatelic somehow -- has a special fancy cancel or was postmarked for a special event, etc. When in doubt, wait before you soak because First Day Covers, envelopes with a special design of a stamp and postmarked on its issue date, can be worth many times the value of the stamp on it.
Needless to say, he did want to sell his collection eventually, and found that nobody would buy it at any price.
Stamp hinges were devised ages ago so stamps could be affixed to album pages, yet could be peeled off later with no damage. There is only one major mistake one can make with stamp hinges, and that is putting so much excess moisture on a hinge that it slops over onto the stamp and glues it to the album page. This can ruin gum on a mint stamp, since otherwise a lightly moistened stamp hinge will leave only a minor disturbance on the gum.
Some collectors prefer to use stamp mounts on mint stamps, so that the gum will not be disturbed in the least. Mounts are plastic sleeves into which stamps are inserted, and in comparison to stamp hinges they are quite expensive. Still, premium prices paid for unhinged mint stamps make them desirable for certain stamps at least.
When you find a stamp listed in a Scott's catalog always be sure to check the footnote to see if another set with the same designs was issued later. That set could have different color shades, watermarks, or perforations, and the stamp you thought was worth $1 could turn out to be just another nickel item.
Check the a and b sub-numbers, etc. between the regular listings that often list perforation and color varieties, etc. Knowing the varieties can pay off in the long run, because it will be easier to spot scarcer stamps among the common ones. For example, the super common coil stamps with the U. S. Flag over the porch are so abundantly used that nobody wants them at any price. However, a few times in every coil roll a tiny number will appear at the bottom center, and these are prized by collec- tors so much that they are worth more than several times the regular issue.
Mainly, however, knowing how to use the catalog, and double-checking anything that doesn't quite look right will pay off hundreds of times over the years. You may even find a valuable error sometimes among common stamps because the catalog tells you it exists, and you remember to look for it. Anything is possible.
These stamps can still be sold or traded if discounted enough, and you can find someone who is willing to accept less-than-perfect stamps.
Stamp hinges are available at every stamp store or through mail order catalogs. They were invented years ago so collectors can affix their stamps to a page and peel them off years later with no damage to the stamp. However, you should be careful when using hinges so that you wet only the hinge and not the stamp. This happens when you use a lot of moisture on the hinge. Then you have licked the stamp to the album page. The best way to wet the hinge is to lick the tip of your finger and then touch the finger to the hinge. This prevents too much moisture on the hinge, but will still be sufficient to attach the stamp firmly to the page. A stamp mount works in much the same way as a hinge in keeping the stamp in the album, but without damage to the back of the stamp. Mounts are actually small plastic sleeves to which stamps are inserted and then the mount is affixed to the page by wetting the glue on the back of the mount.
Tongs are similar to cosmetic tweezers, but without sharp edges that could damage the stamp. Do not use drugstore tweezers on your stamps! Stamp tongs are very inexpensive. The logic of the tongs is that your fingers may damage a valuable stamp, either with moisture or by pulling it when placing the stamp in the correct position.
Here is a good article on the subject:
The Importance of Stamp Catalogs
If you were going to Washington, DC, to tour the city, you would need a guidebook. Without one, you might wander aimlessly throughout the city, from one unidentified building to another, possibly missing the Capitol or the White House or the Washington Monument. You would probably be unaware of the many other attractions available.
Your guidebook for philately is the stamp catalog. Without it, your trip would be less in- formative and less enjoyable. The catalog is your illustrated map, directing you to many stamp attractions and depicting where you are, what you have accomplished, and where you want to be heading.
Since 1867, when John Walter Scott published the modern catalog (a stamp list with prices), a number has been assigned to every stamp issued by every country of the world. Scott publishes U.S. Specialized catalogs and their numbers are used in most other catalogs and price lists in the United States. Scott publishes six volumes of catalogs covering the entire world in addition to its U.S. Specialized Catalog.
But, how do we locate that information for a specific stamp? First, of course, we must identify the country. That done, we should determine the year, or at least the general time period, when the stamp was issued.
For U.S. issues, featuring a person, we can easily determine the time period; armed with the date of death for that person and the knowledge that no U.S. stamp has ever honored a living person. The denomination also can be helpful, since postage rates are generally grouped in a certain sequence. We can quickly thumb through the catalog searching for a grouping of stamps with the same denomination, and begin there.
Finally, scan the stamp reproductions in the catalog for one that matches the stamp we are trying to identify. Be certain to compare all elements -- denomination, color, perforations, variations -- to be sure you have found the correct listing.
The catalog prices that are listed, even in a current publication, should be considered asonly a rough guide. They represent what you might approximately pay for a stamp, and the price for which you could sell it. The condition of any stamp has a great influence on its price relative to the catalog listing. Catalog prices for mint stamps are for those in fine condition and only lightly hinged. A stamp considered superb might sell for several times the catalog value. And naturally, stamps in less than fine condition will sell for a small percentage of the listed price.
The best way to become familiar with stamp catalogs is through use. Try using a catalog from your local library. Read the beginning of the catalog and you will find that it is filled with information about the catalog format and about stamp collecting. Then take the catalog and some stamps from your collection and attempt to locate the listing for each.
Remember that catalogs are much more than just price lists. They are guidebooks containing information about stamp attractions to make your continuing tour of philately more enjoyable.
I recommend The Postal Service Guide to U.S. Stamps to beginners in U.S. It's packed with information for stamp collecting; colored illustrations for all U.S. stamps, post cards, and stamped envelopes; price guide for U.S. stamps, FDCs, plate number block, stamped envelopes, post cards, and the philately products that USPS offers. It only cost $17.95 for 2001 issue and 14.95 (I think) for 1997-2000 issue, those I know of.
Do you have an interest in a subject that has been portrayed on stamps. Maybe you like trains, and have a model railroad in a spare space in your home. Are you a bird watcher, or do you like science? I have just mentioned a few of the possible topic's that you could base a collection on. Check out the American Topical Associations web site for a much larger list of topics. And I am sure that they do not list all possible topics.
Are your albums getting full. The only stamps you need are very expensive. A topical collection can become something new to get you interested in collecting again. With the resources available to do research forming a topical collection is even easier today. The Internet can provide background information and inspiration. With the help of the American Topical Association's web site you can get check lists and and meet people on line (from all over the world) who have the same interest as you.
What topic to collect is your hardest decision. I like science and scientists. I am forming a collection based on this. I really enjoy finding out about a famous person like Copernicus. For me a large part of the fun is the research . I have told you how I collect topicals. But the way I do it is probably not the way you will want to collect. And that is one of the nice things about topical collecting. You can do it your way and in the format you like. No preprinted albums telling you what you have to collect.
At a recent stamp show a gentleman who has most of the stamps he needs for his country of choice was looking through the stock book of 10 cent stamps. He stopped at the section that had space stamps. After a few minutes he started picking out stamps. And he had a smile on his face.
Another thing that topicals are good for is to interest some one in collecting. Maybe a friend was a scout leader. A boy scout collection is affordable and something the friend has a connection to and an interest in. Do you have a child or grandchild that likes sports. Many stamps feature sports and the Olympics
So if you need a boost to get you collecting again, or maybe a reason to start, visit the web site of the American Topical Association and explore this way of collecting.
But most of all remember to have fun. This is just a hobby.