Buying stamps

What stamps to buy and where to buy them

By Janet Klug

Buying stamps is an integral part of being a stamp collector. Unless you are fabulously wealthy, you will want to find the best deals. Every collector needs to know how to get maximum value for the money available for stamp collecting.

Figure 1. Mixture dealers are as close as the classified and display ads in this print issue of Linn's Stamp News.
Figure 2. Part of a dealer's price list of stamps for sale.
Figure 3. Circuit books from the American Philatelic Society and other clubs allow you to shop for stamps at home.
Figure 4. Page from a mail auction catalog showing auction lots of Serbian stamps. Click here for a larger image.

Where and how you should buy stamps depends on the type of collection you are building and how far along you are in the process. A general worldwide collector's needs are quite different from those of a specialist. A novice collector has vastly different needs than someone who has been spending time and money on a collection for years or decades.

Large mixed lots can be a great value for general collectors who are in the early, formative stages of their collecting activity. If you buy by mail rather than in a face-to-face transaction, you need to know for certain the meanings of the terms used to describe the stamps being sold.

Mixture is a general word. Unless it is further described, assume it will include heavy duplication (multiple copies of the same stamp) of worldwide stamps on paper. An on-paper mixture contains clippings from envelopes and packages with the stamps still attached to paper from the envelopes. You have to soak the stamps to remove the backing paper. Off-paper mixtures have had the soaking step completed for you. You will receive loose stamps ready to mount in an album or stock book.

Kiloware refers to stamps sold by weight. A kilogram is about 2.2 pounds. Some U.S. dealers sell kiloware by the pound or fraction thereof. Regardless of which measuring system is used, kiloware means a stamp mixture that is sold by weight. Buying smaller lots is usually a good way to sample the stock before buying an entire kilo. More than two pounds of stamps on paper will require a lot of soaking, so start small.

The term mission mixture originally meant on-paper stamps collected by churches or other charitable organizations and sold in great bulk to dealers to raise money for the charity. Such mixtures usually are heavy on definitive (regular-issue) stamps. Today, any on-paper mixture with heavy duplication and a preponderance of definitive stamps is often referred to as a mission mixture, regardless of the method or source of collection.

Bank mixtures are getting harder to find these days. Old-fashioned bank mixtures were stamps that had been clipped from the correspondence of banks and other commercial institutions that received lots of registered or certified mail bearing high-denomination stamps. These days such business mail is generally metered.

"Unsorted" means that the mixture is sold just as it was received from the source. The high values, commemoratives or other more desirable stamps have not been reaped from the mixture. It also means that obviously damaged stamps have not been culled out. Mixtures may be offered in single country lots or by region, such as Scandinavia or Africa. It is also possible to buy mixtures that contain only commemoratives. You should expect some duplication in all mixtures.

Packets and collections can offer excellent value for some collectors, but it is wise to read the descriptions to be certain what you are getting. Packets usually contain off-paper stamps. They may be mint, used, canceled-to-order (stamps canceled by postal authorities without doing postal service that are sold to dealers at a discount from face value) or a combination of all three. Packets may be sorted by country or region, or offered as a worldwide assortment. They are sold by stamp count rather than weight and may contain duplicated material unless specifically advertised as all different stamps.

Some dealers refer to their packets as "collections." Strictly speaking, a collection should be a grouping of stamps organized and formed into some sort of cohesive unit by a collector. Collections may be worldwide, by country or by topic. They may be offered in an album, on pages, in a stock book or in glassines.

It may contain mint stamps, used stamps or a combination including CTO stamps.

Buying a collection in an album or stock book has several distinct advantages. Because it is already organized, you can quickly determine the extent and general condition of the collection. Use some care in this evaluation. The collector who mounted the collection may have misidentified some of the stamps. If there are expensive stamps, make sure they are what they claim to be by checking genuineness, perforations and watermarks before making the purchase.

Often such collections are in very serviceable albums or stock books. You may get a nice album with a lot of life left in it that you can use for your own collection or trade or sell to another collector. If you are thinking about beginning a single-country collection, buying another collector's specialized album is often a smart move.

In buying mixtures, collections or packets you will acquire duplicates to trade or sell that will help offset the expense of stamp purchases. Each issue of Linn's Stamp News has hundreds of advertisements, both display ads and classified, such as the ones shown in Figure 1, offering mixtures, collections and packets. If you have questions about what you are ordering, ask first before you send money. If you receive an unsatisfactory reply or no reply at all, look for another dealer who is more responsive.

Sooner or later there will be spaces in your albums that cannot be filled by purchasing mixtures or collections. Whether the stamps that go in those empty spaces are expensive or just elusive, some will never show up in mixtures or packets.

To fill those spaces you should make a want list and begin trolling dealer stocks, price lists, auctions, sales circuits and other avenues that may be available to you. Dealer price lists, such as the one shown in Figure 2, are easy to obtain. You don't have the opportunity to examine the stamps before making a purchase, so know the return policy before you buy. Gathering together several different price lists is a good way to comparison shop from the comfort of your home.

Purchasing sets and singles from a dealer at a bourse, stamp show or shop has the advantage of allowing you to examine the stamp front and back, check the condition, and make certain it is exactly what you want before you hand over the payment.

Local stamp clubs and larger organizations such as the American Philatelic Society, Box 8000, State College, PA 16803-8000, offer sales circuits to their members. An APS sales circuit book is shown in Figure 3. Upon request, the organization will send books filled with stamps for sale from the areas you select. Choose the stamps to purchase, fill in a transmittal slip that you return to the organization along with payment for the stamps you kept and forward the books on to the next person on the circuit. You can also sell your duplicates through such circuits.

One benefit of purchasing stamps from a sales circuit is that you can actually see the material you wish to purchase before you buy it. Because this is done in your own home you have the opportunity of checking your collection to make sure you need the stamp you are contemplating purchasing as well as time to examine the stamp. Remember that the cost of forwarding the circuit to the next collector in the circuit adds to the cost of the stamps.

You will eventually want to try your luck at auction bidding. You can buy mixtures, packets, and collections at auction, in addition to individual stamps and covers. A page from a mail auction is shown in Figure 4. Before you attempt auction bidding be certain to read and understand the terms of sale before placing a bid. If you have any questions about how an auction sale is conducted, contact the auction firm directly before bidding.

You must know the return policy, how to pay for the lots you purchase, how they will be delivered to you if you are successful, what your rights are if you wish to have an item expertized and whether or not there is a buyer's premium. Many auctions charge successful buyers a fee, usually a flat 10 percent in addition to the auction price. This information is found in the terms of sale.

The Internet has opened a whole new marketplace for stamp collectors. Stamp dealers conduct auctions, have net price sales and offer a variety of mixtures, packets and collections from their own websites. Here is the address for Linn's own Internet sales site, Zillions of Stamps. The American Philatelic Society offers stamps from its sales division online at the APS Stamp Store, located at www.stamps.org. You must be a member to use this service.