July 2022

The Pitfalls & Pleasures of Buying Stamps on eBay

Buyer Beware

Our philatelic experts discuss the pitfalls and pleasures of eBay…

Buying fraudulent stamps on eBay hit the headlines in 2019. Barnsley couple Paul and Samantha Harrison, and their one-time dental technician accomplice, Graham Rought, appeared at Birmingham Crown Court. Their crime? Bulk buying used stamps, removing the frank marks and selling them as new.

The fraudsters sold an estimated 700,000, costing the Royal Mail £421,000 in lost income. The judge handed down one jail term and two suspended sentences to the trio.

Fakes and Frauds

Like the Royal Mail, the philately world is no stranger to scamsters out to make money from devious practices. The Stock Exchange forgery of 1872-1873 saw cunning clerks create fake one-shilling green postage stamps. They pocketed the company money intended to purchase the real thing and used the fakes instead.

In 1930s America, Henry Jarrett tried to sell a fake Annapolis Maryland postmaster’s provisional stamp to a prominent philatelist. A forgery workshop was uncovered and Jarrett was sentenced to one year in jail.

Fast-forward to 1995 and beyond, and the new player in the collecting world is the huge online marketplace that is eBay. It boasts an estimated two billion daily transactions. This makes it difficult to police. Should collectors avoid it and its imitators all costs? We sought expert advice…

“It can be a minefield, but there are occasional diamonds in the rough” - George James

Victoria Lajer, Managing Director of Philately at Stanley Gibbons, is reasonably relaxed about the idea. “Purchasing from a site like eBay is fine,” she says, before adding the caveat: “But you need to know what you’re doing and you need to accept the stamps won’t always come as described.”

George James is our Head of Commonwealth. He also suggests there are benefits to browsing such online sites. “It can be a minefield, but there are occasional diamonds in the rough,” he says. Other experts, however, sound some stronger notes of caution…

Bad Bids

Auction Operations Assistant Andrew Ellis sums up his views on buying from eBay and its like in one word: “Risky!”. Robert Smith, a computer science graduate who left coding to become our Commonwealth Specialist, gives a fuller answer. “It’s an excellent way to get fleeced,” he warns. “The vast majority of collectors don’t know what they’re doing and neither do most of the sellers! Most collectors blithely assume the seller is honest and competent, and the stamp they think they’re buying for a bargain price is exactly what the seller says it is.”

Chief Executive Officer Graham Shircore, meanwhile, shares his experiences of buying on such sites. “I used auction sites like eBay for a while,” he reveals. “But I ended up sending 30-40 per cent of my purchases back as they weren’t as described.”

Tom Hazell, our Head of Auctions, echoes this experience. “I wouldn’t purchase high-value stamps from unknown sellers on eBay,” he says. “I once went to see someone who was selling what they thought were high-value stamps. It turned out they were photocopies".

Best Buying Practices

So what’s the safest route to navigating the world’s biggest auction site and those like it? Oscar Young, Stanley Gibbons Philatelist and YouTube host, suggests buyers need to do their homework. “Only purchase rare stamps from reputable dealers,” he advises. “There are dishonest dealers who’ll gladly sell you either a misdescribed or a forged stamp. As the old saying goes, ‘If it looks too good to be true, it probably is!’”

“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is!” - Oscar Young

Scott Bradley, our Head of Great Britain, perhaps gives the most comprehensive summary. “You’re taking a risk,” says Scott. “Sometimes you get a bargain, which I’ve done in the past. But, more often than not, you’re overpaying for the privilege of buying or bidding on something instantly, instead of putting in the hours at shows, shops and on dealers’ websites. Building that philatelic network to eventually get what you’re looking for is important. In the end, neither way is right or wrong. It’s up to personal preferences. Be careful is all I really need to say.”

So there you have it! Advice from our experts, with the main takeaways being to only buy through reputable dealers, which you can even do on eBay. Research the seller and make sure it's a name you recognise with excellent feedback ratings.

We have included some links below help you discover esteemed stamp dealers across the globe.

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