Stamp collecting is a popular pastime. Individuals collect postage stamps, and similar items, of varying age and origin. Some collections are arranged according to theme. Collections might contain stamps of a single nation, or period in national history. Others might include only stamps that feature pictures of national heroes, plants, or animals. Still other collections encompass rare, or unusual, issues such as stamps that were printed incorrectly. The worth of stamp collections varies with the value of the stamps they contain.
Rarity is probably the primary factor in determining stamp value. Particular stamps are rare either because they were issued in very small numbers or because they have long since been superseded by other, later, issues. Valuable stamps include the world’s very first, the Penny Black, with its portrait of Queen Victoria. First issued in England in May 1840, examples in mint condition are worth $200 or more.
Far rarer is the American stamp, the Benjamin Franklin Z Grill. Issued in 1867, only 2 are known to exist. One sold in 1988 for $930,000, while in 2005, the other example was traded for 4 other extremely rare stamps worth an estimated $3 million.
Stamps are produced on printing presses in sheets, or blocks. Occasionally errors occur. Among the most valuable error stamps are the blocks of 4 traded for the Benjamin Franklin Z Grill. The Inverted Jenny stamps are 24 cent United States air mail stamps that feature an upside-down biplane. A block of 4 Inverted Jenny stamps, issued in 1918, was sold at auction in October 2005 for $2.97 million.
Tete-beche stamps are stamps printed in a block where one appears inverted next to the other. A pair of 1849 Bavarian 1 kreuzer tete-beche stamps can command $125,000, while a pair of 1849 French tete-beche 1 Franc Vervelle stamps fetches $500,000.
Series of Stamps
Philatelists, or stamp collectors, frequently try to assemble complete series of individual stamps. Governments increasingly issue special themed commemorative collections. Since 1970, the United States has issued an enormous number of commemorative series, a fact that makes most of these series of little value.
Older series, however, can be worth large amounts. A full set of 1893 Columbian Exposition Stamps from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair are America’s first true commemoratives. They include denominations ranging from 1 cent to 5 cents. Complete sets originally cost $16.34. Today, they are valued at upwards of $2,000.
Proofs are made during test runs of the stamp dies. Dies are inked and pressed onto sheets of India paper to test the fineness and correctness of the image. The post office produces proofs for sale to the general public. Full series of old proofs can range in value from $8 to $35, depending on the denomination featured.
Collecting of proofs has been popular for decades. During the Depression, many collected proofs in the hope that the sheets would soon be worth more than the actual issues. Unfortunately, many older proof collections are actually worth less than the stamps themselves.
Stamp condition also affects stamp value. Stamps are given ratings that range from superb to extremely fine, or extra fine, to very fine, and so on, down to average and poor. Superb stamps are those in absolutely perfect condition. Few stamps qualify as superb. Extremely fine stamps feature clear designs, rich colors, careful centering, and neat perforations.
In contrast, good or average stamps will show off-center images along with perforations that may actually interfere with the stamp design. These stamps are also canceled, with the cancel marks actually obscuring the stamp image and text. Poor stamps are generally worth almost nothing at all, and are difficult to decipher.
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.