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Thursday, October 04, 2012

Mysteries in Stamp Buying

Like most stamp collectors these days, I get many of the new stamps for my collection from an assortment of online sources. After almost 20 years of using the web as a resource, there are things that continue to mystify and confound me.

Top of my list of mysteries is sellers who try to sell stamps without a photo. Just how is that supposed to work? If I can't see the stamp-- especially if it's a stamp you're expecting me to pay more than US $5.00-- why would I want to buy it?

I hear millions of rationalization about how much time it takes to scan things, followed by other rationalizations that I "can return anything I don't like." Whereas that is fair enough, it still misses the point for me. I don't want to deal with the hassle and time wasting of returning things.

VF? Perhaps, but these are NOT "the same" stamp.
Of course, I collect postally used stamps. And (I believe) the faulty assumption that underlies for sale listings without images is that collectors "don't care" what the stamp looks like.


Not only do I want to see what the postmark looks like before I buy, I want to be able to see your "definition" of what Very Fine might be.

Indeed, the photo at right may show two copies of "the same" VF stamp from Denmark-- but they are definitely NOT "the same," are they? Not only is the postmark quality vastly different, the stamps are different colors, meaning they came from different printings of the stamp. Without a photo, how would I know what I was buying?

Fortunately, I do have a choice, in terms of who I buy from-- and I buy from those who have scans of their stamps. Delcampe has been an excellent site for buying for me, because pretty much everything is photographed. BidStart is a good source, as well, as can be eBay, although with the latter one must be careful as many stamps are offered by non-collectors who are not aware of the importance of a good quality photo. Finally, there is private dealers Poppe Stamps-- who, as a seller, is an illustration of how it IS possible to have all your stamps scanned, regardless of price-- they have over 1.5 million items to look at!

Another mystery in my buying experience is the ambiguity of "condition."

No faults? No way! Toned perfs, round corner, corner crease...
I can appreciate that-- at least in the USA-- terms like "Very Fine" and "Fine" ultimately are only referring to centering. Thus, the Danish stamp pictured at left is-- technically speaking-- "VF."

But that's not really the "mystery." The mystery is how well-respected major dealers can list such a stamp with a picture and the description "nice stamp, no faults" when you can clearly tell from the scan that there are  toned perfs on at least three sides and a rounded corner and a corner crease at upper left. On what planet is that a stamp with "no faults?"

Is the seller just hoping to "get lucky" that someone will actually pay 50% of catalogue value for a damaged stamp... or is this genuine ignorance of what makes up stamp condition?

A "smaller" mystery is the strange sellers of "random stamps." What do I mean by that? Well, these are the people-- often on smaller auction or fixed price sites-- who will offer little lots that might contain five stamps from a country, two of them mint, three of them used; three in good condition, two spacefillers; none of them even from the same set. Almost as if the seller went through a collection and randomly pulled out stamps and offered a lot of "stamps."

Who BUYS stamps like that? It may be convenient for you-- as a seller-- but it's a meaningless offer to 95% of the collectors looking at what you have for sale.

A somewhat related mystery is "complete sets."

I realize it's kind of nifty to finish out a set in your collection. But notice something about that last sentence? The words "finish out." I don't think I've ever bought a "complete set" of stamps except when it was a new issue from the post office.

The reality of most collections is that collectors typically already have six spaces in a set of ten filled-- perhaps from packets, or trading or sales circuits. "Complete sets" are a hard sell...

... and if you think about it, have you ever noticed how most of the major catalogues actually list "complete sets" at a discount from the price of the individual stamps, added together? A lot of people will argue that the higher price for singles is a "service charge" for breaking the set... but I just don't believe that to be true. I believe the TRUTH is that sets are priced lower because there's less demand for them.

Thankfully, we have choices, when it comes to buying online... and many more choices than we used to have.

Still, when I think back on the earlier days of buying stamps for my collection, I never bought stamps I couldn't see-- except for "mystery box lots" from auctions. I never once responded to any of those endless "price lists" in Linn's Stamp News or other publications... that were just typed lists of catalogue numbers and prices. All my stamps came from shows, circuit books, stamp club or dealers-- where I could examine the stamps before buying.

Remember, you always have a CHOICE when buying stamps. And the hard-earned money you spend on your collection is like "voting" for the sellers who are doing a good job!