Welcome, fortune-seeker! My data suggests you’ve probably found this page after Googling that question, or something similar, like:
I inherited a stamp collection! Am I rich?
I used to collect stamps when I was a kid and the album is lying around somewhere. Am I rich?
The answer to all of these questions is….
Well, probably not. But also, maybe. Welcome to stamp collecting!
I know, that’s no help. You want to find out exactly how rich you are and you want to find out NOW. Thing is, an internet search can’t tell you that. Only a careful inspection of your album by someone who knows their stuff will be able to confirm that you can quit your day job. (Spoiler: probably not.)
So, take it to a stamp dealer. But be prepared for the likelihood that they will tell you it’s worthless. And if you think they’re just angling to buy it from you for a bargain basement price so they can sell it and make the millions that are rightfully yours, no problem! You have a right to a second opinion. Take it to another stamp dealer. Or contact a local stamp club (or “philatelic society” if they’re posh), where someone might be prepared to take a look and tell you the same thing, albeit possibly based more on guesswork than knowledge.
What’s that? How can I be so sure? Ya got me, I can’t. I’m just going on probabilities. And I don’t want to shatter your dreams on your first foray into philately, so how about I give you a quick overview of how likely it is that you’re sitting on a fortune? Then you can get to bed and decide how quickly you want to spring out of it in the morning.
PUNK’S QUICK GUIDE TO HOW RICH YOU ARE
Here’s the deal.
- Your stamps are valuable if lots of people want them and can’t get them.
- Your stamps are not valuable if no one wants them.
- Your stamps are also not valuable if all the people who want them can get them easily.
End of story.
Here are two quick questions to help figure out if you might have something:
1. When are the stamps from? Before about 1930? Proceed to question 2. After 1930? Hit the sack, you’re going to work tomorrow.
2. Did the album belong to someone who spent their childhood soaking stamps off the mail and stashing them in an album in random order, but who then stopped collecting for the rest of their life, occasionally mentioning their old album and how it was probably “worth a fortune now” – the typical story for most inherited grandparents’ albums? Go to bed, it will be rubbish. (Yes, I know, they’re really old, and in a moment I’ll explain why that doesn’t count.) Did it belong to someone who went to the post office and bought nice fresh stamps when they were released, and kept collecting until the day they died, and laid out their stamps carefully in an album with detailed notes? Oh hello. NOW you might have something.
Statistically, the sweet money is in mint (unused), very old, high-face-value stamps. (Face value is the value on the front, or face, of the stamp. “1c” or “1d” stamps are not high face value. Pounds or dollars are a start.) There are exceptions to every rule, and a very small number of used, modern, or low-face-value stamps will be valuable. But they are needles in the haystack. Probably not your haystack.
Are there any questions?
You: But these stamps are old!
It’s a common misconception that old equals valuable. Think about life before the telephone. People sent mail to each other ALL THE TIME. It was how they kept in touch, made plans to meet, and if the mail service was frequent enough, how husbands would inform wives they would be home late from work. Thousands were sailing, and letters home were the Facebook status updates of the day. There are MILLIONS of old stamps, especially the lower values, soaked off letters, sitting around in old albums. Old means nothing. Old, rare and wanted by collectors: now we’re talking!
You: But they have Hitler on them!
Why does everyone think Hitler stamps are worth something? Third Reich stamps are like those of any other nation: some are valuable and most of them aren’t.
You: But I saw a valuable stamp on the internet and this looks exactly like it!
Whoa there, Sherlock. Does it have the same perforations, paper, watermark, colour, shade, or that one subtle error that the untrained eye can’t see? No idea what I’m talking about? If you’re new to stamps, they can be much more complicated than they look. Often the valuable ones look just like the worthless ones. Take it to a dealer.
You: But I saw a valuable stamp on the internet and this comes from the same country!
When I was a kid, I knew the most valuable stamp in the world was a used 1c stamp from British Guinea. Then someone gave me an album that contained an unused, 4c stamp from the same country. I treasured it because I figured that if a used 1c stamp was valuable, surely a mint 4c stamp was worth four times as much! I was seven years old and I was a fucking idiot.
You: But I read an old stamp catalogue that said this stamp was valuable!
If you found exactly the right stamp (see above re watermarks, paper, perforations etc), well done you. But catalogue values can change a lot over the years, and they don’t always go up. Even if your stamp still has a high catalogue value, don’t expect that as your paycheck. Catalogue values supposedly represent the full retail price from a dealer. Unless your stamp is VERY rare, that’s not what you’ll get for it, because dealers need their margins to make a profit. Expect to sell for waaaay under catalogue.
You: My stamps are still on the envelope. I should soak them off, right?
STEP AWAY FROM THE STAMPS. Nearly all stamps – including otherwise worthless ones – are worth more if they’re still stuck on the envelope (or ‘cover’ as we call it). The whole envelope, not just a cut-off corner. And don’t go doing anything stupid like trimming the perforations off to make them look “pretty” (it’s happened).
You: This is depressing. Is there really no chance I have anything special?
Congratulations! Through sheer desperation, delusion, or hope, you have persevered through this relentless negativity. You are now one of us! Here’s the bit where it pays off.
The fact is, you never know. Even a page of unremarkable-looking stamps might harbour one with a tiny variety, or flaw, or even a rare postmark, that won’t jump out, even to the eye of an experienced dealer. And no dealer in the world could know everything about the stamps of every nation in the world. (Bear that in mind if your album seems to hold a carefully curated collection of an uncommon country – it might be worth seeking out an expert in that country’s stamps, rather than taking it to the first dealer you find.)
But the chances of finding that one freak discovery are so slim that it is unfair to expect a dealer to pore over the entire collection with a fine-toothed comb, trying to find it for you. It’s just not worth their time.
So, why not try to find it yourself?
YOUR TREASURE MAP
You won’t be able to do it overnight, but with the right attitude, some patience, and an appreciation that the gold may not be there to be found, you might yet be able to strike it rich. Or at least make enough for an ice cream.
You will need to familiarize yourself with philatelic terms, so some sort of beginner’s guide to stamp collecting (in book form or online) will be useful. You will also need a specialist catalogue, which lists all the stamps of a country or region plus their known varieties. (Specialist catalogues can be a little pricey. A regular, garden-variety – ie cheap – catalogue will only list the basic stamps, not the varieties. If you’re a total newbie it would be a good idea to start with a basic catalogue and work your way up. Your local library might have a catalogue, if you’re lucky.)
If you find it all a bit overwhelming, a local stamp club or collector friend might be happy to help you out. Alternatively, there are online stamp forums that can be Googled just like you Googled this page. Some of them are friendlier or more open to beginners than others, so lurk for a while before jumping in. DO search old threads to see if your question has already been answered (it almost certainly will have been). DON’T post up scans of your stamps and expect anyone to be able to tell you what they’re worth. It just doesn’t work like that.
This won’t change your chances of having a valuable stamp, but it will improve your chances of finding one if it’s there to be found. Even if none show up, perhaps by the end of the search, you will have found that you’ve come to appreciate the noble and fascinating intellectual pursuit that just fell into your lap. Welcome to philately! Follow my blog.
Good luck with your hunting! For now: GO TO BED.
Update: YouTube channel Exploring Stamps has a great guide for what to do if you inherit a stamp collection. (It includes a crucial tip that I neglected: store it properly!) Watch it here.