Stamp dealing shows you both sides of the coin when philatelists, or (more commonly) families of philatelists, come to sell their collections. The way your collection is stored and preserved can make an enormous difference in the final realisation, whichever route you decide to sell.
I have used time in lockdown to start work on tidying up my own collection- I realised if I was hit by a bus tomorrow it would be a torrid time for somebody to sort out much of my material.
I’ve seen both sides of the coin as a dealer. I’ve spotted scruffily presented material in mixed lots and been able to purchase them for a song, and as an auctioneer myself, I have picked out a £5,000 item from the bottom of a box of otherwise complete rubbish.
In defence of auctioneers across the industry, they should do everything they can to maximise the realisation- it’s mutually beneficial after all, but at the same time, it’s borderline impossible for anybody to have a deep specialist knowledge of every country and every area within- so collectors need to leave ‘breadcrumbs’ to demonstrate what is important or valuable in their collections.
If you are an owner of any obscure or unusual item, from something as simple as a watermark variety to an unusual proof or essay- you as the owner knowing what it is isn’t enough. For your own benefit, it’s important somebody else knows (or can work out) precisely how important each item is.
Provenance is often seen as only being for expensive or important items, but it is useful for many other reasons. The best thing to keep up to date is a simple ‘ledger’ of philatelic purchases. I’ve seen everything from loose lined paper to advanced excel spreadsheets used to good effect. Not only is this useful for insurance valuations, it allows a future auctioneer to check that everything has been lotted appropriately.
An alternative to the ‘ledger’, particularly if it is too late to start at such an advanced stage, is to label provenance/valuation notes on album pages. I have seen this done on the extreme right of the reverse of loose-leaf pages so that it is only visible when the album is disassembled, keeping the valuations away from prying eyes.
If you use stockbooks, simply pasting a rough index of key items into the back cover, or making notes on small paper tabs (as is widely practised in coin collections) is sensible.
Do your family know who to speak to about your stamps? The stamp market is a vast and daunting place for people coming into it cold. Ensure your family knows exactly who to speak to in case of an emergency. Whether it is a major auction house or a knowledgeable friend who will be able to help- write it down somewhere so nobody has to ‘do the rounds’. As a collector, you know how you would like your stamps to be sold- make sure somebody else knows too.
Many of you reading this in the course of forming your collection or exhibit will have made discoveries, or will have produced original research.
If your research is unfinished- is it backed up? Ensure it is saved to a cloud storage service using a free service such as Google Drive, in case you lose your hard drive for any reason. This is particularly pertinent for me as the bizarre quirks of Microsoft Word on MacBook meant that I had to write this article twice- this time on Google Docs for safety!
In a worst-case scenario- is your research accessible by a third party? Ensure if you have someone willing to continue your life’s work, they, or someone you love, are able to access the data to continue it.
I’ve seen some wonderful collections arrive back into the building in tragic condition, with many families not even aware of the damage they’ve caused. Foxing and Toning caused by damp storage conditions have ruined some.
Almost all stamp collectors know that stamps shouldn’t be stored in a shed or a loft- but many families do not! Ensure your loved ones are also aware that a seemingly harmless decision can cost them thousands of pounds.
Many of you reading this will live in damp or humid climates and think ‘there’s nothing I can do!’ When there’s actually a little known secret to storing stamps safely, and cheaply: Wine coolers! These mini fridges are sealed against the outside world, allowing you to create a micro-climate lined with silica packets to ensure perfect archival conditions. Simply buy one with removable shelves, and stack up your albums inside like a normal bookshelf. Liebherr makes the best coolers for this purpose, but budget options start from as little as £150.
The number of collections I see with no expense spared on the material but mounted in dreadful albums is also a big surprise to me. This is more than just appearances. High-quality albums are made on acid-free archival quality paper, ensuring that stamp’s colours remain fresh and free from oxidisation. Many cheap albums produced in the late ’80s were not manufactured to the same modern standards, so it is always worth upgrading to higher quality pages to protect your material for generations to come.
This article was written by Head of Commonwealth George James.