On May 6, 1840, the first postage stamp was used in Britain The stamp was called the Penny Black and featured the image of, of course, Queen Victoria. Seven years later, the United States adopted the idea and chose Benjamin Franklin and George Washington to represent the five and ten cent stamps respectively. The collection and study of stamps is called philately. The term comes from the Greek “phileo” for love and “ateleia” for free of charge. The idea of a paid stamp being “free of charge” seems contradictory. It stems from the fact that, with the use of stamps, the receiver of the letter was no longer responsible for payment of delivery. The sender prepaid the postage. However, it is ironic that this love of freedom from charge defines such an addictive and expensive endeavor for the modern philatelist!
Rarity means value in stamp collecting. At the high end of rarity, stamps compete in value with the world of high art. While the Penny Black sells for as little as $20 to $170 for
used samples and up to $2,500 for unused, some of the rarest stamps, such as the Inverted Jenny and the Z Grill are far more valuable. The Inverted Jenny is an example of how an error gives value to a stamp: the airplane on the stamp was printed upside-down! An Inverted Jenny sold for $977,500 and in 2005, a Z Grill, of which there are only two known surviving stamps, was traded for a block of four Inverted Jenny stamps worth close to $3 million. Most rare and valuable American stamps were produced before 1930 and certainly it is time and quantity that make a stamp rare. By this standard, the most rare stamp in the world is the once cent British Guiana, of which only one is known to exist. This stamp sold for $935,000 back in 1980.
While stamps are valued for their rarity, an endless variety of topics and styles are available
to suit personal preferences. For collectors with a passion for fashion and pop culture, the rare stamp featuring Audrey Hepburn smoking is a coveted prize. One of the five known to exist sold for $93,800 in 2009. However, not all rare stamps are out of reach for the average collector. For example, a stamp produced in 2005 commemorates the 60th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. This stamp has a $1 face value and is currently available for $12.50. There were only 135,000 printed making it a rare, yet affordable find and a cherished possession for a collector interested in international politics.
The concept of designing stamps for the purpose of collecting is almost as old as stamp collecting itself, which is as old as stamp production. The term ‘timbromania’ was coined
in the 1860s to describe the stamp madness that seemed to have gripped collectors. By the 1920s, publicity about valuable stamps made the connection between collecting and investment permanent. Although the public was slow to catch on to the monetary import of stamp collecting, those devoted to stamps knew early on. When a stamp featuring the Curtis JN-4 airplane was issued in May of 1918, collectors were aware of the potential for printing errors. When the stamps had ever reached post offices, collectors were at their local post office buying stamps and looking for errors that would be called “Inverted Jennys.” Now, some small countries produce stamps primarily for collecting and certainly the USPS’s production of stamps catering to popular topics invites collecting.
Where to Buy Rare Stamps
Online sites specializing in stamps offer a multitude of categories to suit personal tastes. The popular online store, www.ebay.com organizes their offerings by country. Collectors can search by era, country, or topic to find rare stamps to fit any budget. Collectors with an eye for the future often keep track of the United States Postal Services’ (USPS) scheduled release of stamps. A booklet of 20 self-adhesive stamps featuring cartoon pop icons, The Simpsons, sells for $8.80, and an uncut press sheet of $.44 Gary Cooper stamps sells for $70.40. Some other useful websites are listed below:
Indeed there are a number of places to purchase rare stamps both on and offline. The advantage of purchasing stamps offline in specialty stores is that you get a proper view of the stamp. Online stores offer a much wider selection of rare stamps and you can usually view pictures to ascertain their condition. Sometimes it can be useful to browse online to locate and compare prices of rare stamps and then purchase locally through a specialty store.
For general information on where to buy stamps online please visit my stamp collecting home page.