Old stamps are pieces of history, with many bearing the images of celebrated personalities, commemorating great events of the past and offering tributes to culture and science. Postage stamps usually pay for the sending of letters and packages, but the purposes of stamps are many, including helping to fill treasuries and finance wars as well as launching educational campaigns and stimulating patriotism. Each nation issues its own stamps, and many are issued specifically for collectors. Desirability, condition and age determine the worth of old stamps.
The value of old stamps varies according to place of origin. Stamp collecting is often very much a national affair. Each country has its own philatelic societies and issues of interest. Collectors in the United States tend to favor the many pictorial and commemorative issues that represent aspects of American history and culture. Sets of stamps that show images of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago are easily worth $2,000. For British and Canadian collectors, commemoratives tend to mean Queen Victoria Jubilee stamps and other images related to royalty or the Empire. Complete sets of Canadian 1897 Diamond Jubilee stamps are listed for more than $34,000.
Stamps also conform to a rather narrow time frame that can directly affect demand and price. American stamps from prior to the Columbian Exposition are not true commemoratives but are merely pictorial issues that show specific individuals and events. A pair of mint condition 1847 George Washington stamps sells for more than $2,400. British and British Empire stamps change from pre-decimal to decimal currency at various points in time. Only the earliest Canadian issues are pre-decimal (before 1859). Stamps from the United Kingdom remained in pound, shillings and pence until the 1970s.
Old stamps fluctuate in value according to market trends. Websites such as Stamp Catalogue and Find Your Stamp's Value (see Resources) can help collectors to determine the price of particular issues. Buyer and sellers enter descriptive information and receive full details on the stamp's appearance and current estimated value. Extremely rare and expensive stamps include a 15-cent Abraham Lincoln stamp from 1867 worth $220,000 used and a 1908 1-cent issue of Benjamin Franklin valued at $100,000 unused. Other stamps are prized because of errors during the printing process. A British Guiana magenta stamp from 1856 was long the considered the rarest stamp in the world. In an attempt to stave off a severe stamp shortage, a local newspaper printed the stamps haphazardly on poor quality paper. In 1980, one was sold for $935,000.
The value of particular issues depends not only on demand but also on condition. Stamps in "superb" condition are perfect specimens of their kind, in that the stamp is precisely centered, the glue is intact, the ink is the proper color and, if used, the stamp has been canceled in such a way as not to obscure the artwork. "Fine" stamps are nearly as good, with ordinary centering and no hinge marks. Stamps that are slightly off-center and have messy glue or small imperfections in the ink can be considered "good." Illegible issues, crumpled edges, strongly visible hinges and other noticeable imperfections denote stamps of poor quality that will be worth considerably less than higher quality stamps.
Buyers should be careful when buying or selling stamps at auction. Not all old stamps are genuine period pieces. Many are copies worth considerably less than the originals. Beware of unusually low prices for known rare issues. Check with catalogs and philatelic societies to gauge the availability of prized issues. Happening upon an unusual stamp at an auction may represent a rare find, but that rare find may also be a fraud. Collectors might consider expert certification for any stamp listed at more than $300.
Brian Adler has been writing articles on history, politics, religion, art, architecture and antiques since 2002. His writing has been published with Demand Studios, as well as in an online magazine. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Columbia University.