If you’ve found this page after Googling that question, welcome! I’ll have your answer shortly. But first, a few variations:
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, I know. You want to know how rich you are and you want to know NOW. But the internet 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, who will probably leaf through it and tell you it’s worthless. But you’ll know 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, right? No problem! Take it to another dealer and relish the déjà vu. Alternatively, contact a local stamp club or philatelic society, where you might find someone who is prepared to take a look and tell you the same thing, albeit possibly based more on guesswork than knowledge.
But you’ve clicked on this Google search result late at night, so no dealers and stamp clubs are open, and you’re CONVINCED you’re the exception, right? Sigh.
Here’s the deal. The stamps you now possess are valuable if lots of people want them and can’t get them. Your stamps are not valuable if no one wants them, or 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. 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.
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. Old means nothing. Old, rare and wanted by collectors: now we’re talking!
You: But they have Hitler on them!
Why does every knobhead think Hitler stamps are worth something? Third Reich stamps are like any others – some are valuable and lots of them aren’t. Achtung Dealer.
You: But I saw a valuable stamp on the internet and this looks exactly like it!
Wow, it MUST be the same stamp! But wait… 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.
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, and now 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 comb through the entire collection with a fine-toothed comb trying to find it for you. It’s just not worth their time.
But you can try to find it yourself. For now: go to bed. But in the morning, 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 or confusing, a local stamp club (or “philatelic society” if they’re posh) might be happy to help you out. Alternatively, there are numerous 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. And don’t post up scans of your album and expect anyone to be able to tell you that you’re rich – 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, and you’ll be one of us. Welcome to philately!
Good luck with your hunting! Now GO TO BED.
Cheat notes! I intend to put up occasional posts alerting readers to valuable stamps to look out for. They are filed under a category called ka-ching! There aren’t many yet, but I’m just new.