Stamps

7 Things to Know About Stamp Collecting

By Sotheby's
Stamps Online (from 2-11 April) offers an unprecedented opportunity to acquire some of the most historically significant stamps ever issued in the United States. The single-owner, online-only sale includes exceptional Postmasters’ Provisionals as well as rare Federal Hunting Permits.

1. The origin of stamps:

The first stamp in history is believed to be the One Penny Black of Great Britain from 1840. It was created at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, bearing the likeness of the young monarch. Stamps were originally introduced as labels, so that mail could be pre-paid by the sender.

Great Britain, 1840 1p Black, Plate 11, PK-QL block of four (Scott 1, S.G. AS73). Sold for $20,000.

Prior to this innovation, the recipient paid for all mail, which made for an expensive and inefficient system. Almost ten years later, stamp usage had become ubiquitous throughout the world, with almost every major country issuing its own stamps.

2. Who collects:

Since the introduction of labels in 1840, stamp collecting has consistently ranked as one of the world’s most popular hobbies. In the United States, stamp collecting reached its peak in the mid-20th century; at the time, one in seven families owned a collection.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an avid stamp collector and member of the American Philatelic Society, works on his collection in the Oval Office. Photo: Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images.

Notwithstanding millions of schoolchildren worldwide, seasoned stamp collectors are largely diverse in background. Notable collectors include world leaders, such as King George V of England, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy or entertainment stars, exemplified by John Lennon and Freddie Mercury.

3. Why collect:

In comparison to other collecting fields, there are two major advantages to acquiring stamps: initial cost and memory association. Frequently, precocious collectors gather their first stamps at no cost – the collectibles are delivered via post to their homes and mailboxes.

In addition to low cost, many collectors associate stamps with joyful childhood memories, as stamps are regularly attached to gifts or postcards. These small, skillfully executed prints are not only aesthetically pleasing, but they additionally have the ability to transport a collector to the past. Each stamp illuminates a story – whether it is its designer, printer, edition, or function. It is no surprise that the earliest recorded stamp collection was a Geography instructor’s teaching tool.

4 . What to collect:

There are almost unlimited options when acquiring a stamp collection. One can collect mint stamps, used stamps, stamps attached to envelopes, singles, pairs, or even full sheets. It is commonplace for a novice to focus their efforts on the stamp selection available in their home country, and then later narrowing or expanding their collecting confines to an individual specialty.

A collector may hone in on a specific theme; in recent years, collecting themed stamps has increased in popularity – today almost every subject has appeared on a stamp – from animals, coins, and cars to fine art, famous figures, sports, sciences, or even stamps printed on stamps.

Once a collector accumulates a reputable collection, the individual often centers their future procurements to stamps that are more difficult to obtain. In the United States, a collector may search for a few of the country’s original issued stamps, which date to 1847. If one hunts even further, they may find stamps that were produced in 1845 and 1847, as certain Postmasters distributed their own stamps or so-called Provisionals. As with most collectibles, early stamp issues are more valuable due to their delicate nature and rarity.

 

Postmaster's Provisional, Baltimore, MD. 1845 5c Black on bluish (3X3). Estimate $30,000–40,000.

5. How to identify stamps:

For almost every country in the world, publishing houses release catalogues that survey stamps issued in their respective nations. For Britain, Stanley Gibbons is responsible and in the United States, Scott is the publisher; in France, the catalogue is from Yvert and Tellier and within Germany, the company is known as Michel.

The Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps is published annually and lists every stamp issued to date. It is both informative and well illustrated; the catalogue serves as a tool to help identify and grade every stamp. It offers information on Provisionals, Regular Stamps, Air-Post Stamps, Possessions and Territories, Civil War Confederate Stamps, Official Stamps and Revenue Stamps, as well as Essays, Proofs and various other areas. Significantly, the catalogue provides a retail price for each stamp – an invaluable asset to any collector.

The British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta. Sold for $9,480,000.

6. What are the most famous stamps:

The most well known stamp in history is widely considered to be the storied, used 1856 IC Black on Magenta from British Guiana, which was discovered by a school boy in 1872. It most recently sold at Sotheby’s in 2015 for $9.4 million.

The Inverted Jenny Locket. United States Air Post 1918 24c Carmine Red and Blue, Center Inverted (C3a). Sold for $164,500 in association with Stacks Bowers.

In the United States, the most renowned stamp is believed to be the 1918 24c Inverted Jenny. The Inverted Jenny, which refers to a printing error that occurred in 1918, is an edition of the original airmail stamp. When the airmail stamp was first issued in 1918, a full sheet of 100 Inverted Jenny stamps were discovered at a post office in Washington D.C. and subsequently divided into singles and blocks. Inverted Jenny stamps are beloved among collectors; near perfect single copies now sell for over a million dollars each.

Lastly, history’s first stamp, Great Britain’s 1840 Penny Black, remains a highly desirable collectible.

7. How to collect:

A substantial amount of resources are available to any prospective stamp collectors. Once a collector selects an area of desired stamp specialty, reading materials are especially beneficial, such as past auction catalogues, as they outline the availability and value of specific stamps.

Many stamps and covers (envelopes) have marks and notations from their previous owners, which may serve as invaluable information on the piece’s provenance.

It is additionally useful to locate an established auction house or trusted dealer, preferably a professional who is a member of the American Stamp Dealer’s Association, which is an organization that sets high standards for its membership.

Finally, one can always scour the mail – where it all began.

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