Starting a stamp collection can be a lot of fun, learning all about the stamps which have been issued by the countries of the world over the years. Postage stamps are miniature works of art – colourful, well-designed and superbly printed. Stamps provide some of the nicest – and most practical - ways of learning geography, history, politics and the everyday way of life in different parts of the world.
Our best advice when starting out is to buy the largest packet of whole-world stamps you can afford, together with a medium-priced album and some gummed stamp hinges to mount the stamps. This simple start will be your ‘apprenticeship’, and you will have the pleasure of sorting the stamps by country and arranging them in the album. You will probably be able to identify most of the stamps without hesitation but for anything more unusual just put them aside until you can trace them in the catalogue.
You may be fortunate enough to inherit an existing stamp collection which provides a ready-made start and a foundation on which to build an even larger collection. Alternatively, a section of it – which has the most appeal – can be kept and the remainder sold off to a stamp dealer or at auction. Condition is vitally important. Nothing detracts more from the value of a stamp than a crease, a tear, a stain or a heavy postmark.
However, no matter where your first stamps come from, you will need a few things to help you identify, display and store them…
Your first essential item of equipment should be a pair of stamp tweezers ('tongs' to our American friends) are essential because handling stamps causes long-term damage.
The magnifying glass is the one tool which everyone associates with stamp collecting. Through the magnifying glass, stamp designs appear in detailed close-up and are seen to be 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 magnification.
Perforations and watermarks will eventually concern you – differences to the normal perforation or watermark of a stamp can enhance its value, and it is necessary to be able to measure the perforation or identify the watermark if only to establish that you have the normal stamp.
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.
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.
Your choice of a suitable album is important. Printed albums – those with printed country headings at the top of each pages – can be obtained fastbound (like a book) or with loose-leaf ring-fitting binders. The great advantage of the loose-leaf system is that the leaves can be rearranged – and extra leaves added – as you wish. The ‘one-country‘ printed albums usually have a space for each stamp, possibly illustrated with periodic supplements.
Obviously, the affixing of the mounts by hand is a time-consuming process and hence such albums are more expensive than those which require you to affix the mounts yourself. For many collectors the convenience is well worth the extra outlay. For the ‘do-it-yourself’ collector who prefers to arrange and ‘write-up’ the collection on blank leaves there are many splendid albums in the Gibbons range to choose from.
Multi-ring albums have the advantage of lying flat when the album is opened, while it is usually necessary to take out spring-back and peg-fitted leaves when working on them. Blank albums are of course especially suitable for thematic collecting where the arrangement of the stamps entirely depends on the theme and its collector.
The stamp catalogue, essentially a dealer’s price-list, is a 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, with information about dates of issue, commemorative events, face values, colours and designs, and – if it is a fairly new catalogue – the current prices of the stamps, unused and postally used. More specialised catalogues are available, which concentrate on different fields, for example Queen Victoria Great Britain, or Trains on stamps, or the Leeward Islands.
For the beginner and general collector, the most useful catalogue is the Stanley Gibbons Simplified Catalogue – Stamps of the World. It contains all the details the average collector needs for every country. If you aren’t quite ready to purchase your own most public libraries have a range of Gibbons catalogues which can be referred to or borrowed.
You should now have your first batch of stamps, an album to display them in, the essential stamp collector's tool kit and possibly even a guide to explain those rarer finds. You may not be a philatelist yet but you are well on your way, and remember that our store staff and team of experts are more than happy to help you on your journey.