Assessing an Inherited Stamp Collection

1 comment Jan 30, 2024

So you’ve inherited a stamp collection – perhaps from a family member or friend, or found in the attic of your new home, or it’s your long-forgotten childhood collection that been stuffed in an old dresser for 40 years. Congratulations – it could be the start of a new hobby!

But whether you’d like to keep your new collection, sell it, or pass it onto the next generation - one of your very first questions will be – “how much is it worth?” That’s very natural! I did exactly the same when I inherited my family collection.

The short answer is – most likely very little. Sorry! Most stamps were printed in the hundreds of thousands, millions and even billions. Before our more modern methods, the mail system was the primary means people communicated and sent items for over a hundred years. It stands to reason most stamps that have survived until now will be the most common ones.

We’ve put together some tips – in rough order of importance - to assist you in determining whether your inherited collection may have some value.

The more organized it is, the better. One of the key things that separates a serious stamp collector from a stamp accumulator is how they’ve cared for and organized their collection. A collector typically desires to organize their collection in some logical fashion. Look for stamps tidily organized in albums, stockbooks or pages. That alone doesn’t make a collection valuable, but it is quite unusual to find a disorganized accumulation with significant value in it.

Older is (almost always) better. As a rule, the older a stamp is, the more likely it is to be valuable. Put another way, very few stamps after the 1940s have any significant value. A mint 5c Canadian stamp from 1955 is worth 5c – so feel free to stick it on the next envelope you’re mailing in Canada. Later stamps with value do exist, but they are the tiny exception. If the stamps are in an album or stockbook, always look to the oldest ones first.

However, there’s a big caveat to this – most very old stamps are cheap too! For example, the common 4 cuartos Spanish stamps of 1855-56 can be bought in used condition for $1-$2. Why? Because they were produced in great numbers as the common stamp of the day for a major European country where everyone used the postal system for their communication needs. So even now, more than 165 years later, there are many many thousands of them still existing and easily purchased. So don’t assume that just because your inherited collection is full of old stamps, it has much value.

Bigger is not always better. I recently went through an entire large bin stuffed full of stamps that was a family collection and the value was almost nothing. Hundreds, even thousands, of exceedingly common stamps, randomly stuffed in envelopes and mixed together, do not make a valuable collection, just a large accumulation of common stamps. On the flip side, I’ve viewed some excellent small collections, where the collector carefully selected stamps for quality, not volume.

Condition is key. Stamps are small bits of paper, and the used ones were sent through the mail. Given that, it’s no surprise that many of them are in very poor condition. Most stamp collectors care deeply about condition of a stamp, so the same stamp could be worth $1 in poor condition and $10 in excellent condition. If your inherited collection is full of good looking stamps, nicely placed in an album, the condition (and value) will be much higher than if the stamps are stuffed randomly into envelopes.

You do not have an “Undiscovered Gem”. An accumulation will not have an undiscovered gem. Sorry, if you’re hoping there’s a $100,000 rarity hiding in that large carton of stamps, it isn’t. Assume that you always have the most common version of a stamp, unless you can prove otherwise. For older stamps, stamp experts have identified and documented existing rare varieties – and the chances that one is hiding in your grandfather’s school boy album is next to nil.

Online prices can be very misleading. Anyone can ask anything for anything – whether it is online or in a store. The key is how much collectors will pay for a stamp – so it is better to review sold prices. eBay asking prices in particular can be ridiculous for very common stamps. I would recommend checking Hipstamp or Delcampe stamp marketplaces – the asking prices tend to be far more reliable than eBay.

Catalogue prices are confusing. You’d think that stamp catalogues, such as Scott, Michel, Stanley Gibbons, or Yvert & Tellier, would be reliable guides to real world prices for stamps. Unfortunately not, and this causes a lot of confusion both to new collectors and those who’ve inherited a collection. Catalogue prices are traditionally for an “ideal” stamp – actual market prices range from 10-40% of catalogue value, depending on condition, demand and other variables. Factor this into your assessment, if you are using a catalogue for your inherited collection.

Fakes and forgeries abound. Almost as soon as governments started printing stamps, people started making forgeries of them – to defraud the postal system or to fool collectors. For common stamps, this is not usually a concern, but if you think you’ve found some rare variety, it is very possible it’s a forgery. Specialist resources exist to determine whether a rare stamp is genuine and this is where an expert can assist.

Reviewing the tips above will hopefully provide you with some insight into what you have and whether it is likely to have significant value or not.

At On the Ridge Stamps, we get many emails and calls from folks asking what their collection is worth. We love hearing from people & love looking at stamps, so always happy to help people in our corner of the world (SW Ontario) with an initial free appraisal.


1 comment

  • Mrs Livingston February 6, 2024 at 12:54 pm

    Good read – thank you!!

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