Postage stamps are miniature works of art— colourful, well-designed and superbly printed. Some of them commemorate famous people and events; others show animals and birds, fish and flowers, railways, ships and aeroplanes, buildings and bridges, coats-of-arms and flags, achievements in space and sport. They are educational and provide some of the most practical ways of learning about geography, history, politics and religion, and everyday life in different parts of the world.
No matter how long you have been in the hobby or just considering starting. This guide will act as both a beginners guide, and veterans cheat sheet to optimise your stamp collection.
Take every opportunity to discover the enormous number and variety of stamps issued so far.
Browse stamp catalogues, attend dealers’ showcases and auctions, visit stamp shops, and peruse the many displays at stamp exhibitions and fairs. Exposing yourself to the many facets of stamp collecting will help you decide what is most appealing to you.
Remember that stamp collecting (or philately as it's officially known) does not have to be an expensive hobby, you can spend as little or as much on it as you want.
There is a myth that stamp collecting is a dead hobby, but that's not true at all. It's still one of the most popular hobbies in the world, with more than 20 million collectors globally.
And perhaps almost as important is what reasons are there for children to be interested in the hobby when they may have never sent a letter in their entire lives?
Well, there are several reasons to start a stamp collection, and some of them are common to pretty much every hobby that involves collecting of any kind.
Some people just love to collect things in general, and stamps are simply a way for them to enjoy the thrill of the hunt especially when they manage to snag a particularly valuable stamp or one that completes a set. This is the same thrill many people get from comic books, for example.
With the internet so pervasive in modern culture, a big part of any hobby is social media such as Facebook groups or forums. You can ask more seasoned collectors questions, find out about local stamp clubs where you can swap stamps and make friends that could last you a lifetime.
The cost of stamps is as low or high as you want it to be. If you are a child with a limited budget - as most collectors start out - it costs almost nothing. But you can still enjoy the ritual of meticulously storing and professionally displaying your stamps.
On the other hand, if you are a seasoned veteran or just enjoy spending a lot of money on collecting things, there is almost no limit on the amount you can spend on a single stamp.
Nearly every stamp collection will have some old stamps, they could be 100 years old or more. Keep in mind this doesn't automatically make them valuable there are many factors that make stamps valuable just like every hobby.
But they still are a piece of history that can give you insight into countries and empires that no longer exist or even long-dead Monarchs.
If you want to get rid of stress from school or work or just have something to do (and aren't interested in taking up meditation), you can start a stamp collection.
Many stamp collections are passed down to children from generation to generation and may never actually be worth anything. In fact, there could be decades of effort with only £30 worth at auction. But how valuable this collection is to you personally and sentimentally is very different.
It's the way many people start collecting stamps. You may never collect valuable stamps, but carrying on a hobby that your grandfather or father was interested in can be very rewarding.
This is where the experts and veterans typically come in. Some stamp collections are so valuable that charities will actually accept them as gifts. For example, Penny Black or other mint stamps can sell for £100,000's or even millions of pounds. Gathering this type of collection is usually expensive but if you inherit one and you don't plan on keeping it then you won't be short of cash for a while.
Many famous people are avid stamp collectors such as Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and lead guitarist of The Rolling Stones Ronnie Wood. The British Royal family are thought to have the most valuable stamp collection in the world worth over £100 million. But that is not surprising as many of the most valuable stamps have the British Royal family on them or are from the commonwealth.
As you can see there are a lot of reasons for anyone to start collecting stamps and why children could be interested in them.
Of course, a key part of the hobby is understanding the history of the humble stamp. The most important thing to know is the world's first postage stamp was the Penny Black. It was issued in Great Britain in 1840 and it cost 1 Penny.
Within a few days, the Two Penny Blue was released. The most important thing about these stamps is that they made posting letters more affordable for common people.
Before this, recipients had to pay the letter’s cost, which was a lot higher as there were no set fees. Within 10 years of the introduction of the first two stamps, the number of letters sent had risen from 68 million to 350 million, and nearly every country had started to produce its own stamps.
Both the Penny Black and the Two Penny Blue featured the head of Queen Victoria and nearly all of Britain’s stamps have featured the head of the reigning monarch ever since.
The development of these postage stamps was the birth of philately and people have been collecting stamps ever since.
Just like any hobby collecting stamps takes time and effort - partially just to understand where and what stamps you are going to collect. Of course, we can't all pay thousands or even hundreds for a stamp so it really comes down to your level of interest in the hobby as well as how much money you have to spend. Not paying your mortgage or taking out a loan in order to buy a rare stamp will probably get you into trouble and is generally not advisable.
The usual advice is to buy the largest packet of whole-world stamps you can afford. You can also gather stamps through friends and family abroad, from old letters. If you’re very lucky to have inherited a set of albums from a generous relative, use it as a foundation for a much larger collection.
Expert tip: Store your collection in a stock book to keep your stamps in order and in good condition.
The stamps that you gather will be varied in condition. Whether you buy collections or packets you are bound to acquire a good percentage of common stamps. At this point, choose which of the two types to collect to have an attractive and cohesive collection.
Have had postal, telegraphic or fiscal use and have been cancelled accordingly. These are usually cheaper and easier to find.
Have not been used in the post and are consequently not postmarked or otherwise defaced. They should have their original gum as issued in ‘mint’ condition by the post office, though traces of the use of a gummed hinge are generally acceptable.
Have postmarks that are light, but have sharp and clear distinctions. Heavy black cancellations that obliterate the stamp’s design are entirely unacceptable. Some postmarks, especially early types (prior to 1920) from military camps, railway stations and ship cancellations, etc. are often more valuable than the stamps, especially if kept intact on the original cover.
Important to note: Be careful not to discard any items from your collection too hastily. You may, at a later date, switch to collecting only the stamps of a certain country or group of countries where even the common stamps may be needed to form the nucleus of a collection.
One of the most appealing things about stamp collecting is that you can literally pick anything to base your collections around, you can collect only yellow stamps, stamps with chickens on or even just triangular stamps. Let your imagination run wild.
We have found that most traditional collections break down one of three ways, either by monarch, country or rarity and value. With that in mind, we have gone into a little more detail on some of these areas of collecting, have a read and see if anything inspires you.
Some stamps find their way into every collector's albums. Here are some items we consider iconic to the hobby, representing significant historical moments or new technological developments.
The Penny Black was the first stamp ever produced, changed history and created stamp collecting as we know it. First released in 1840 it cost 1 Penny and featured the face of Queen Victoria. Rare examples in good condition can be worth a small fortune.
The successor to the Penny Black, the Penny Red solved the forgery problems that plagued the Penny Black by using two watermarks. It also has one of the rarest plate numbers - the plate 77 - only 5 of which are known to exist one of which was sold at auction in 2016 for £495,000.
The Two Penny Blue Stamp was released only days after the Penny Black stamp costing 2 Pennies and was just as revolutionary as the Penny Black. As many fewer of them were produced than the Penny Black they are much more valuable. In 2011, a Post Office Mauritius issue was sold for £1 million.
One of the most famous high-value British stamps ever made the King George V Seahorse stamp was in circulation for 26 years. Its distinctive maritime design is thought to be a response to Germany during WWI intended to bolster patriotism and remind people of Britain's naval supremacy.
Produced in 1882 it’s an extremely rare stamp as it was so expensive - it was designed to replace telegraphs. £5 was essentially the same as a month's wages for most normal people. As a result, it was primarily used by the Inland Revenue and Excise offices of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast. In fact, only 246,000 five-pound orange stamps were ever produced.
The Four Anna’s India stamps first produced in 1850 were the first stamps to use a very time-consuming process called lithographic printing. The process also resulted in the many errors that created the Inverted Head Four-Annas India 1854 which is regarded as one of the greatest stamps for a collector to obtain.
Monarchs symbolise Great Britain's evolution through times of advancement and struggle. Succession, abdication, war and prosperity all frozen in time in the stamps that marked those moments.
Queen Victoria is regarded as one of Britain's greatest monarchs playing an important part in making Britain a true constitutional monarchy and also being the monarch who started stamp collecting. Indeed her face was on the Penny Black, Two Penny Blue and the Penny Red, probably the three most important stamps in the history of the hobby.
The Eldest son of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII's short rule was not without intrigue, he was active in the naval and military reforms and became caught up in a constitutional crisis between the Conservative House of Lords and Liberal Parliament. 24 major-type definitive stamps were issued during his reign.
The first commemorative postage stamps were issued within the UK during King George V reign. And a new process was also introduced whereby stamps were produced from a photographic negative transferred to a metal plate and etched in, known as photogravure. However, his reign also saw the First World War which as we all know is one of the worst events in human history.
King Edward VIII had a short reign filled with intrigue. In fact, he abdicated very soon after taking the throne as he wished to marry an American divorcee.
A popular and unlikely King who only took the throne due to his brother's abdication. George VI and his wife Elizabeth were popular monarchs throughout WWII and oversaw the British empire turn into the Commonwealth.
The current monarch and longest-reigning monarch in history having taken the throne in 1952. Queen Elizabeth II is thought to have modernised the monarchy and kept it popular with the public.
You could learn about a country's leadership, history, flora and fauna all through studying its stamp designs and representations. Some of the most popular items include Australia's Kangaroo stamps, the Whale and Penguin stamps from the Falkland Islands and the Desert Postman stamps of Sudan.
British Guyana is actually responsible for producing the world's rarest and most expensive stamp. The British Guiana one-cent magenta stamp is so rare that it sold for £5.5 million at auction in 2014.
Despite countries needing to send post after the Penny Black was introduced in 1840, there were no stamps available for the majority of colonies. As such many of the first stamps from Bermuda are DIY stamps made by postal workers in the 1800s - but this does make them quite unique.
Canadian stamps are amongst the most interesting in the hobby. For example, the 1897 Jubilee series which places a young and old Victoria alongside each other.
China has some extremely beautiful stamps with the most interesting and rarest coming from the mid-1910s known as the "Red Revenues". The most valuable of these have sold for up to £850,000 at auction.
Falkland Island stamps have always been a specialist area for stamp collectors. The rarest is the 1964 6d "HMS Glasgow" ship stamp error. Only 25 copies are known to exist out of an original sheet of 60.
Gibraltar has been producing its own stamps since 1886 which spans the reign of five different monarchs. This makes stamps from Gibraltar highly sought after.
British stamps are probably the most sought after in the world as Britain created the world's first stamps and many of the most valuable stamps are British or from the Commonwealth. For example, mint Penny Blacks, Penny Reds or Two Penny Blues are worth a fortune.
Ireland has been producing its own stamps since gaining independence in 1922. Irish stamps are regarded as highly collectable as they are generally innovative and beautiful.
The Rarest Jamaican stamp is a printers error. It’s the 1920 1s orange-yellow with the head of Queen Victoria Inverted.
British East Africa as it was known had many beautiful stamps prior to independence perhaps the rarest and valuable is the 1925 £100 red and black.
Full of images of exotic animals such as tigers and elephants, stamps from the Malaya states are some of the most popular from the British empire.
As an important British naval base, Malta used both British and Maltese stamps for many years. But since independence in 1964 Malta has been producing only beautiful Maltese stamps that are a wonderful addition to any collection.
Mauritius was the first British colony to issue its own stamps in 1847 and is known for having the most famous stamps in the world - the ‘million-pound’ 1d. and 2d. ‘POST OFFICE’ pair.
New Zealand has many amazing wonderful stamps for collectors. Perhaps the most impressive are known as "Chalons" which include many different perforations, watermarks and inks.
Collectors can enjoy the many different perforation varieties to be found amongst the beautiful pictorials produced prior to North Borneo’s independence in 1963.
Pakistan started producing its own stamps following independence in 1948, but the designs continue to include enough errors and perforations to delight any budding collector.
South Africa has some extremely beautiful and rare stamps, one of the best examples being the 1933 3d blue with centre omitted. South Africa continues to produce beautiful stamps featuring the country's unique culture and natural resources.
Sri Lanka boasts many rare and valuable stamps filled with plate flaws and perforations. One of the most valuable is the 1925 1000r purple on red which is worth roughly £30,000 in mint condition.
The stamp catalogue is a dealer’s price-list and is the most essential work of reference for the stamp collector. It provides complete, detailed lists of all the postage stamps issued by every country in the world from the earliest days.
Collectors use guides to assess whether a set can be completed or how stamps should be arranged in an album. It also helps readers become more acquainted with their colours and names.
The most useful catalogue for the beginner is the Stanley Gibbons Simplified Catalogue of Stamps of the World, published in six volumes. Countries in Stamps of the World are arranged in alphabetical order, from Abu Dhabi to Zululand.
There are also single volume Commonwealth Simplified and Western Europe Simplified Catalogues, following the same format, for those whose collecting area is more restricted.
Commonwealth and British Empire Stamp Catalogue 1840–1952 includes all stamps of this area from the earliest issues up to the end of George VI’s reign and additionally lists and illustrates many of the better varieties popular with collectors.
Catalogues like the Great Britain Concise Stamp and Collect British Stamps show all the new issues and latest prices.
An essential item of equipment– these are made of light, plated metal with slender, flattened tips or ‘spade’ ends enabling stamps to be picked up and sorted quickly and surely. With a little practice, tweezers are easy to handle.
Designs appear in detail close-up and are viewed as miniature works of art. You can see the lines or cuts which make up a portrait or scene on an engraved stamp or study the quality and peculiarities of the other printing processes – the graduated ‘dots’ of photogravure or the smooth honeycomb background of lithographed stamps.
You will also enjoy looking for errors and varieties many of which are visible only through a magnifying glass.
Once your interest advances, charting the flaws of stamps will start to concern you. The following tools will help:
The perforation gauge measures the number of perforations within the measure of 2 centimetres. Perforations are a stamp’s ‘teeth’ and their measurements vary according to the type of perforating machine used. Often the stamp’s top and bottom ‘perfs’ differ from those at the sides (called a ‘compound perforation’), and measurements range from 7 (large holes) to about 18 (small holes).
The main instrument for detecting stamp watermarks is the human eye! The watermark is simply a thinning of the paper in the form of letters or an emblem such as a crown, and it can usually be seen when the stamp is held with the light shining through it, or if the stamp is placed face down on a dark – preferably black – surface, remembering that the watermark is ‘right way round’ when viewed through the front, and in reverse when viewed through the back. If a watermark is known to exist on a particular stamp and it is still not visible, then you have to use scientific aids like watermark detectors.
You have gathered your stamps, chosen the condition of stamps to collect, read about your area or theme of interest, identified your stamps and assembled a tool kit. Now, it is time to store and display your stamp collection.
When storing your stamp collection it’s important to use acid-free paper, high up in a dark dry space. This should protect your collection from careless family members, UV damage, mould, air moisture and water damage. Popular choices are safes, wine coolers and cupboards with moisture-sensitive silica gel capable of both absorbing and desorbing moisture placed inside.
Depending on what you have decided to collect, carefully choose an appropriate stamp album size. Don’t choose a large album unless you have a large collection or anticipate buying many more stamps. Your existing stamps will be greatly extended and give your collection a sparse appearance.
Albums can be purchased fast bound (like a book) or as a binder with accompanying loose-leaves. The great advantage of the loose-leaf system is that the leaves can be rearranged – and extra leaves added – as you wish.
Hingeless albums have transparent mounts already affixed over the illustrations of the stamps so that you only need to slot in your stamps. Obviously, the affixing of the mounts by hand is a time-consuming process and hence such albums are more expensive than those requiring you to affix the mounts yourself.
Gummed stamp hinges attach the stamp to the album pages – just fold down about a quarter of the hinge, gummed side outwards, and lightly moisten the narrow folded portion with the tip of your little finger. Attach this portion to the back of the stamp at the top, just below the perforations, and then moisten the lower part of the ‘flap’ and place the stamp in its appropriate place and press down.
If you have followed all of the steps in this guide then you should have either started a fantastic new collection or optimised one you have had for years - both of which will be ready to be displayed.
If you have any more questions about stamp collecting please don’t hesitate to contact our experts here at Stanley Gibbons.