I wrote a column about how to evaluate and sell a coin collection about a decade ago. The column entitled “I Have A Bunch of Coins” was selected by Writer’s Institute Publications for inclusion in its “Voices in Today’s Magazines: How 76 Authors Found Publishing Success,” published in 2009.
At least once a year, I receive an email from a Rinker on Collectibles reader asking how to evaluate and sell a stamp collection that belonged to a deceased family member. I often encounter stamp albums, boxes of loose stamps, and unused stamps during walk-through appraisals. Most were created by mid-20th century males who cut their collecting teeth on the big three—coins, rocks, and stamp. Occasionally, they represent the efforts of a serious stamp collector who could not face disposing of his/her collection while alive.
Before tackling the question of how to begin evaluating the collection, it is necessary to face some harsh realities. First, the number of stamp collectors is in serious decline. The National Philatelic Society’s membership has dropped over fifty percent in the last 20 years. Life members are dying at an alarming rate. The continuous membership decline clearly indicates these individuals are not being replaced.
Second, stamp collecting is in trouble. Articles such as Eugene Meyer’s “Stamped Out” which appeared as an Op-Ed in the “New York Times” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/29/opinion/stamp-collecting-philately.html) are more realistic and on point than the upbeat “Why People Collect Stamps” found on StampWorld (https://www.stampworld.com/en/articles/why-people-collect-stamps/). Attendance at the national and regional philatelic shows is greatly reduced.
Third, the standards by which stamps are collected and graded have changed. Collectors now focus on mint, unused stamps. Canceled stamps, the primary source for beginning stamp collectors, are passé. Hinged mounting, the old standard, is now viewed as damaging a stamp rather than preserving it. Grading a stamp has become sophisticated. Even established collectors have trouble following the guidelines objectively. In a general collection, the vast majority of stamps are not at a condition grade that attracts the serious collector.
Fourth, most stamp collections consist of commonly found stamps, stamps where supply exceeds demand. This especially applies to foreign stamps.
Finally, evaluating and preparing a stamp collection for sale is time consuming. Usually, the person faced with the task will work for less than the minimum hourly wage. Collecting the stamps was a labor of love. Disposing of a stamp collection is an onerous task.
When I encounter a stamp collection during a walk-through appraisal, I do a quick, simple evaluation to determine if the collection is worth the time and effort to dispose of it. More often than not, I suggest the collection be passed down to a younger member of the family who might be interested (good luck with that) or donated to a local stamp club (good luck with that too).
Most clients do not take my suggestion. They dream of that one stamp that is worth thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars that has been overlooked. They have watched one too many episodes of the “Antique Roadshow.” The fear of making a mistake haunts every seller, whether collector or private individual.
I do everything in my power to convince the client not to evaluate the collection himself/herself. The client is convinced he/she can do the job because of the large number of stamp price guides available at the local library. On the surface, they look easy to use. They definitely are not.
Evaluating any antiques or collectibles collection requires a high level of expertise. If the client does not have their expertise, he/she needs to find someone who does. There are three possible appraisal sources: (1) a local member of the American Philatelic Society, (2) a local stamp auctioneer, or (3) a stamp dealer. Avoid dealers who are not active members of the American Stamp Dealers Association or National Stamp Dealers Association.
Before approaching any of them, take time to group the stamps. Put the albums in one pile. Create piles for plate blocks, stamp sheets, first day of issues, stamps still on envelopes, unused stamps, and canceled stamps. If a large collection, divide the piles by country or region. Gather all ephemera related material such as catalogs, price lists, and philatelic publications and put them on a pile. The more piles the merrier.
Before proceeding with a formal appraisal, ask the person’s rate to simply determine if the collection is worth appraising. The person should be able to make this judgment in less than an hour. Do not be afraid to get a second opinion.
Appraisal rates range from $75.00 to $250.00 per hour. Do not work with anyone who offers to do the appraisal for free if they are allowed to buy or sell the collection on your behalf. Be especially aware of individuals who approach you after the death of the owner and use the pitch of “I was a friend of ‘x,’ and he asked me to help you dispose of his collections if he died.” They are not friends. They want to get in on the ground floor and are more interested in obtaining what they want from the collection for themselves than how they can be of service to the present owner. Also, beware of an appraiser who says “I’ll take these stamps instead of charging you.” If this approach does not ring an alarm bell, it should.
When working with the person evaluating the collection, make certain to stress you want to know two things. The first is the wholesale value of the collection. This is the amount you can expect after all the costs and fees involved in the selling process are deducted. Make it clear you do not want a replacement value (what you would have to pay if you had to replace the collection). Your goal is to get rid of the collection. Second, the evaluator should provide multiple sources that you can use to obtain the assigned values. If you already made a decision to sell before hiring the evaluator, ask him/her to prepare a detailed disposal plan. If the plan contains only one source, definitely get a second opinion. A good disposal plan has multiple options.
Do not be rushed. Take time to consider what you want to do. Once you have the collection organized and evaluated, you have the following choices: (1) keep it [not a smart move giving the continual market decline]; (2) give it to a family member or friend; (3) donate it [good luck finding an institution who wants it]; (4) sell it, or (5) junk it. Collectors and others may cringe at the last suggestion, but it is a viable option and should be considered.
Assuming the decision is to sell, there are three options. The first is try to sell it privately. This is the hardest of the three. I only recommend it to a client if two or more individuals have approached him/her asking to let them know if the collection is every available for sale. Make the sale terms simple – one price takes it all.
My choice is a local, reputable (with emphasis on reputable) stamp auctioneer. In many cases, the local auctioneer will lot the collection to achieve the strongest sale. Attend one or more auctions to get a feel for how the auction is conducted. Interview the auctioneer. If the auctioneer is not a fit, do not engage him/her. Insist on a contract. Make certain you fully understand the terms, especially the length of time until the payout.
There are regional and national auctioneers. Their requirements to handle a stamp collection are extremely high. Most collections assembled by casual and semi-serious collectors do not meet them.
An internet search will reveal multiple dealers advertising to buy collections. There is no sense approaching them if the person who evaluated/appraised the collection indicated these is nothing of high value (over $250.00 to $300.00 per stamp) in it. Most dealers are not interested in complete collections. They want to see the collection and buy out the top pieces. This is called cherry picking a collection. If the goal is to get rid of the whole collection, avoid this unless the offer is at least 80 percent of the evaluation with which you are working.
If the collection contains unused American stamps, they still are valid postage. They may require a lot of licking to produce enough postage to match the current postage rates. The good news is that more value will be achieved by doing this than by selling them at a discounted face value.
Finally, it is possible that you read this article because of a decades-long neglected collection housed in the attic, closet, basement, or storage area of your home and not because of an inherited stamp collection. If this is the case, I assure you that everything you just read applies to your collection as well.
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Selected letters will be answered in this column. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You also can e-mail your questions to email@example.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.