Collecting Stamps – Watermarks

Part of the joy of collecting stamps is examining them – to discover their origin and history, or simply to enjoy them as works of art. But a close examination has a practical side as well. It can help detect a forgery or form part of the assessment of the stamp’s value. Part of that process involves looking for and identifying watermarks.

Watermarks have been part of stamp design since the beginning when the first British One Penny Black was produced in 1840, though the practice of watermarking itself is much older. According to some historians, watermark embedding in paper dates back as far as late-13th century Italy.

A watermark is a design impressed into the stamp during paper processing. They can enhance the esthetic appeal, but their primary purpose historically was to make it harder to counterfeit stamps. A similar process was used in paper currency for decades, though anti-forgery methods have become considerably more sophisticated.

The practice has uses other than counterfeit combating. Watermarks can aid in identifying the manufacturer of the paper used, verify the designer or date or simply add an interesting artistic element to the stamp.

All of these elements – the authenticity, the date, the design, etc – figure into the value of the stamp. Among other things, as with coins, the manufacturing process can go awry and produce slight flaws in the watermark. These can turn an ordinary stamp into a rarity, which usually increases its value.

Though watermarks have gone out of favor in recent decades older stamps almost always have them and there are several fairly standard types.

Unit watermarks are ones that are impressed on each individual stamp, typically by a component called a ‘dandy roll’. The dandy roll is a wire cylinder in a paper making machine that produces a texture or pattern in the paper.

Multiple watermarks are a more complex design and parts of it may end up on several different stamps. As a result, part of the adventure of philately can be to find enough stamps from a particular issue to complete the watermark.

Sheet watermarks are a design which covers an entire sheet of stamps. Hungary produced some stamps from 1898-1899 using this method. Finding enough stamps from one issue to complete the watermark design in this case would be a real challenge!

Watermarks can be detected by several different methods, some more effective than others depending on the circumstances.

Some watermarks can be made out simply by examining the stamp under a bright light. This is made easier if the stamp is unmounted, not attached to a cover, and can be viewed with the light shining through the stamp.

Other watermarks are more subtle and here technology has come to the aid of the philatelist. Watermark fluid is available that safely soaks the stamps, then dries quickly without leaving a residue. Fluorescent lamps are sometimes used in conjunction with the fluid or alone to detect watermarks. There are even special-made machines (the famed Morley-Bright, for example) that use no chemicals to aid in detecting the watermark.

Whichever method suits your budget or style, add watermark detection to your toolkit to learn as much as possible about your stamps.

Stamps – Using Fluorescence

Technology and art often combine in philately. The art aspect is obvious to the naked eye. But sometimes the technology is invisible, as in the case of fluorescent stamps.

Beginning in the 1960s several countries around the world, most prominently those in Scandinavia, employed a curious property of certain compounds in ink.

They used the ability of some molecules to glow under the influence of UV light. Shining an ultra-violet light on those materials causes them to produce variously colored light, sometimes even after the light is removed. Under those conditions, the phenomenon is called phosphorescence.

That property allowed engineers to develop sensors that could detect the presence and orientation of stamps on envelopes. That makes possible an automated system in which machines ‘sense’ where the stamps are, rotate the envelope to the needed position and automatically sort and postmark.

The technology was so efficient that the socialist government of Sweden in the 1970s stopped using it so more people would be required to process mail. As a result, certain issues from that country are now considered relatively rare, and thus a valuable collector’s item.

In order to find and research those stamps, collectors can employ a simplified version of the same technology used by the postal systems around the world. All you need is a good UV light source and a slightly darkened room.

Along with postmarks across stamps, UV can allow the collector to discover interesting information on covers (envelopes, etc) and similar postal materials. The papers themselves vary, sometimes giving off a yellowish light, other times green-blue.

These differences can help identify the year and location of the issue. Finnish catalogs in particular are helpful for research, but catalogs exist for Danish, Norwegian and Swedish issues too.

That fluorescent property can be altered from its original condition by aging, soaking and other causes. Keep in mind during research that the eye is a better color comparer than it is an analyzer. So, it can be helpful to have an issue side by side with another.

Also, know that there are different kinds of UV light – which vary by wavelength. Some materials fluoresce at longer wavelengths, others at shorter ones. So, you may need more than one lamp, or one with the ability to change settings. Scandinavian issues all use long wavelength inks, but many other countries use short wavelength material.

During the examination take care not to expose your hand to UV radiation for long periods. It’s the UV in sunlight that produces sunburn and UV lights can produce the same effect.

A momentary skin exposure is harmless, but you should never look into the UV light. The lens of the eye will focus UV light and the cells in the eye are extremely sensitive and can be permanently damaged. But used wisely, UV light is a safe and effective tool to add to your philatelic toolkit.

Stamp Collecting – Tools for the Collector

Each individual will have his or her preferred way of preparing, mounting and storing stamps. But despite personal choices there are common tools that most collectors will find useful, regardless of his or her own way of working.

Most collectors will want to separate newly acquired stamps from the cover (envelope, packaging, etc) to which they are affixed. This assumes the stamp wasn’t purchased already prepared, which is often the case, of course. For that a number of common philatelic tools are helpful: soaking fluid, trays and tongs.

Soaking fluid can be as simple as distilled water, warmed enough to soften the adhesive but not so hot as to damage the stamp. Others will prefer a dilute mix of water and liquid dishwashing detergent, though care should be taken that it doesn’t cause the ink to run. Not surprisingly, there are special-made fluids available for this purpose.

Soaking will require the use of trays and tongs, as well. Clear glass trays or bowls, sometimes made of Pyrex, are helpful since they allow viewing the stamp from all angles. Also, the glass sides make it possible to manipulate the cover and stamp up the side of the tray or bowl, for easier separation.

Tongs are useful for a variety of purposes, soaking is just one. It’s always preferable to avoid handling stamps with the fingers. The moisture, dirt and oils in fingertips can cause several different kinds of damage to the stamp.

When you select tongs, don’t settle for ordinary tweezers. Tweezers are smaller, too small for the hands of many, and sometimes have serrated surfaces. You want tongs more like those used in home photography for developing photos, though smaller. Those are longer and have wider surfaces.

Be sure to use only tongs that have flat surfaces, though you may want two or more in order to get styles with varying kinds of points. In some styles the tongs have very dull points, which are safer for the stamp. Some have sharp points, making the stamps easier to pick up, but beware not to stab or rip the stamp.

Watermark fluid is helpful for, as the name suggests, detecting watermarks on stamps. These are small, embedded designs that were historically used to combat counterfeiting and give distinctive details to an issue. Their use has largely gone out of practice, and an otherwise ordinary stamp can be somewhat more valuable if it has a unique watermark no longer part of the design.

Benzene was once the standard choice, but it’s highly flammable and it can dissolve inks. Some collectors have used ordinary lighter fluid for this purpose, but it’s volatile, unsafe to breathe and can damage the stamp.

It’s best to stick to stamp collecting watermark fluid. TCE (trichloroethane) is sometimes used. It’s non-flammable, but long exposure carries some risk of skin cancer.

Some collectors use fluorescent lamps or even watermark detecting machines (the famed ‘Morley-Bright’) that use no chemicals. The lamps can range in price from very inexpensive to absurdly high. The machines work well, but are expensive and tend to be used only by very committed collectors.

And, of course, you’ll want a magnifying glass or two and maybe even a low-power microscope for close-up examinations.

Even if you have no plans to become a professional, acquiring the tools of the trade will enhance the safety and efficacy of your collecting efforts. Shop around and always buy quality.

Stamp Collecting – The Stamp Champs

Like any collectible, the philatelic world has its champions – the rarest, the highest price paid at auction. Some of these have long and interesting histories apart from the price paid.

1840 One Penny Black

The first issued stamp, One Penny Blacks are not extraordinarily rare. Yet one sold over 15 years ago at auction for over $2.4 million.

1847 Post Office Mauritius

Issued on the authorization of the Governor of a British colony in the Indian Ocean, the Mauritius is both rare and – like many valuable stamps – flawed. The designer incorrectly printed the words ‘Post Office’ rather than ‘Post Paid’ on the stamps, of which around 200 were produced. Only a few dozen remain and a cover with two stamps affixed sold at auction for $3.8 million over ten years ago.

1851 Hawaiian Missionaries

Hawaii issued its first stamps long before gaining statehood. Used as postage by missionaries, the 2-cent variety has become so rare that only 16 instances are known to exist. If you find one, you can expect to sell it for anywhere from $200,000 to about $800,000 depending on its condition. But the 5-cent and 13-cent issued around the same period can bring a pretty penny, as well.

1855 Tre Skilling Banco Yellow

One of the most famous of all stamps, this Swedish issue was printed in error. Tre (or ‘three’) skilling stamps in Sweden were printed on green colored paper, while yellow was reserved for the eight skilling issue.

One Tre Skilling Yellow sample was found in 1885 by a young Swedish lad, 14-year old Georg Backman, in his grandfather’s collection. Through the years this stamp has sold at various auctions with the latest one fetching over $2.24 million ten years ago.

There are no other samples known, making it the rarest stamp known to exist.

1856 British Guiana One Cent Black on Magenta

Long the superstar of the stamp world, the 1 cent British Guiana is among the rarest stamps on the planet. Produced in this remote colony, the issue is a rectangle with clipped corners. Individually hand-initialed by a post-office employee, one sold at auction over 25 years ago for $935,000.

1867 Z-Grills

Benjamin Franklin would be delighted were he to discover the price paid for an 1867 Z-Grill. Z-Grills are imprinted with a rectangular pattern that depicts the face of the author of Poor Richard’s Almanac. The pattern was an anti-cheating device, but used only for a short time. Only two are known to exist and one sold for $938,000 at auction nearly 20 years ago.

The Latin saying ‘De Gustibus Non Disputandum’ (‘There’s no disputing taste’) is nowhere more true than in stamp collecting. Many would regard these examples as little more than interesting curios of paper and ink. But to the philatelist with a passion for history, detective work and the joy of collecting they are priceless. Or, nearly so.

Stamps – Supplemental Stamp Collectibles

Collecting stamps is a never ending source of interest. You can collect for a lifetime and still be on the hunt for that rare gem, that odd bit of history that is captured by a stamp. Along the way, you may have a lull where the good ones just aren’t coming along at a price you can afford. But you can still keep your hobby active by looking into other, related collectibles.

Single stamps are the norm in most collections, but groups of stamps can be interesting as well as a great investment. You could hunt down and capture a ‘booklet pane’. Those are three or more stamps from the same issue.

The panes are then collected into a folder to make a booklet. One specialized type are ‘plate blocks’, which consist of four stamps from the corner of a pane. A pane is a sheet of stamps and they are typically marked with a plate number and other information.

Those markings can turn an ordinary plate block into a collectible. Misprints, historical issues and other elements can increase the worth of a set many times over.

For example, since stamps are truly works of art, their designs can be copyrighted. The copyright mark () stamped in the margin makes a set a ‘copyright block’. The US Postal System started stamping blocks with the symbol in 1978 and many are now collector’s items.

You might be lucky enough to acquire a ‘souvenir sheet’. Those are panes of stamps that have lettering or a design in the margins. Those markings can be perfectly ordinary or they can commemorate a special issue that is a hot collectible.

A cover makes for a great collectible. A ‘cover’, in philately, is anything that encloses or to which the stamp is affixed. Envelopes are the most common cover, but not the only type possible.

For example, for many years the French postal system sold combination stamp/envelope/paper sheets that could be used for writing letters to overseas friends. They were then folded, the edges adhered, and the result mailed as one unit.

‘First Day covers’ are a great alternative to ordinary stamp collectibles. First Day covers are those that bear stamps postmarked on the first day of sale. For certain issues, the combination of stamp, envelope and postmark can be a really interesting item and a valuable investment.

A First Day cover issued on the day of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge on May 24, 1883, for example, would be something truly special. Even if the stamp itself were otherwise ordinary, the combination would be a collectible, especially if the postmark were from a Brooklyn post office. Get one of those and you would be the star at any of the annual First Day Cover Collecting Week celebrations!

Stamp Collecting – Storing Your Collection

Once you’ve learned to prepare your stamps by careful soaking or other methods, you’ll want to store them safely and stylishly. There are dozens of different items to choose from. Choices range from simple glassine envelopes placed on stockpages in three-ring binders to dehumidifying cabinets and safes.

For ordinary stamps, a simple shoebox might serve as a container for envelopes. Glassine envelopes are sometimes used to hold the stamps. They’re a translucent paper that’s fine for short-term storage or stamps that don’t have much value.

But even glassine isn’t entirely acid-free. The surfaces can damage the cellulose fibers in stamps and can also trap moisture that warps or rots them, as well. But, they have the advantage of being inexpensive and easy to obtain. They’ll generally be a part of the storage ‘toolkit’ for any collector, even if it’s just to hold stamps during cataloging.

Dealers will often sell stamps in glassine covers, but assuming they turn over their stock in a moderate amount of time these should not have introduced any deterioration. Any that has occurred will usually be visible, making for easy judgments.

More expensive, but higher quality, Japanese rice paper and other archival storage sleeves are preferable. The paper is acid-free and durable enough for mild handling. A special variety called tissue paper (but unlike Kleenex), is used for the most stringent-quality archival needs.

Stockpages are often used to hold the envelopes and sometimes will have in-built glassine or plastic sleeves for holding stamps. They sell most commonly in 8 1/2 x 11 inch sizes, usually 3-hole punched for easy storing in a 3-ring binder. These will work fine for those who want to store stamps that are not on display.

Again, though, the glassine sleeves should be used for shorter time periods or lesser-valued stamps. Plastic sleeves are to be avoided. Unless they are composed of more expensive plastics, they will tend to stick together, potentially damaging the stamps. Moisture control is much more difficult with plastics, and they can produce a coating that harms paper.

Stockcards are available that are typically the 5 x 7 inch index card style. These are useful for smaller sections and are sometimes made of manila cardstock or cardboard.

Stockcards and stockpages often have long strips with 8 to 10 rows, in order to hold dozens of stamps on a page. These are fine for less valuable stamps, but for the more prized possessions in your collection you’ll want something that shows them to better advantage.

Commercial albums are readily available and they vary in quality, usually in line with the variation in price. They have the advantage that once you settle on a manufacturer, you can easily obtain supplement pages of the same type later.

A dehumidifying cabinet or safe might be a worthwhile investment for those rare gems you spent years saving for, tracking down and capturing. For lesser, but still worthy, samples at least invest in a cigar-box wood-and-glass style cabinet in order to show off your ‘pride and joy’ items.

Small wood and glass style cabinets can keep your collection looking good and in great condition with the addition of a couple of silica gel desiccant packages that should be replaced every few months.

Stamps – Stamps As Investment

Most people who pursue stamp collecting became seriously interested at a young age. They noticed a foreign stamp or read an article about some of the million dollar stamps that have been discovered in an odd location. They get intrigued by the history behind these miniature works of art. Eventually, they became more than avid collectors, they became investors.

Stamps, like any collectible, have a monetary value. That value is the result of supply and demand, just like anything else. But the demand for stamps is highly volatile, just like other works of art. Collecting with an eye to investment requires an aptitude for risk taking and a substantial amount of expertise.

There are forgeries around, and even when the item is genuine it can lose a great deal of value almost overnight. Keeping your collection maximized from an investment standpoint requires doing a lot of research into the current market and past history in order to make reasonable guesses about future trends.

Even though stamps were often issued as nothing more than an ordinary means for paying for postage, the history of any particular stamp can transform it into a highly valuable collectible. That’s in fact what happened with all ‘The Champs’, which were once just inexpensive pieces of colored paper, worth a bit of postage.

There’s a paradox involved sometimes. If collectors believe that the worth of an item will be large in the future, there may be a widespread practice of hoarding them for future sale. But the act of hoarding produces a situation in which many of them exist later.

Like any collectible, when there is a large supply, the value goes down. Even though a stamp may be a first day, postmarked December 7, 1941 (the day of the Pearl Harbor attack), if there are a million of them around it will be worth only a modest amount. Many 19th century stamps are today worth only slightly more than their face value, even though they are old.

Rarity is a major factor in monetary worth, but it works hand in hand with the condition of the stamp. Just as with coins, an otherwise so-so collectible can be many times more valuable if it’s in pristine condition. Any stamp you hope to use for a trade should be handled with care. Be sure to use the proper techniques to prepare and store it.

Beyond the inherent properties of the stamp, its rarity or condition, the market is volatile because knowledge isn’t uniform. You may not know that a certain stamp could be sold for a high price, but a professional dealer might. That knowledge is worth something, since it can bring the dealer a large profit. It pays to do your homework before trading. An otherwise ordinary issue can be worth thousands because of a certain postmark or other factor.

Anyone looking for a safe investment would do much better to invest in bonds or selected stocks. But if you want to combine your passion for stamps with an interest in high stakes trading, stamps just might be the investment for you.

Stamp Collecting – Soaking For Beginners

Most stamps collected have been used as postage. Unlike uncirculated coins, that’s part of what makes them valuable, since they then acquire a history and often interesting cancellation or other marks.

But once they form part of a collection they are most often separated from the envelope or package they were adhered to. The most common method used by amateurs for doing that is soaking. But soaking is equal parts art and technology – done improperly it’s easy to ruin an otherwise valuable stamp.

Adopt the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians since the days of Ancient Greece: First, above all, do no harm.

Separate out the stamps you intend to collect, then try to find ones with similar ink and material for practice. Until you get the technique down, you’ll want to tread with extreme caution. After you’ve had ample practice, you’ll want to… tread with extreme caution.

Get a medium-sized clear glass bowl. This allows you to see both top and bottom of the stamp. Fill the bowl about half full with warm water. The water should be warm enough to soften the adhesive. Take care, though. Excessively hot water will raise the probability of ink running over the surface of the stamp. It also softens the stamp to the point that tears are almost inevitable.

Trim the stamps of any ‘covers’ (envelops or packaging material, which are sometimes left on to form a larger collectible, if they have unique and valuable features). Leave about 1/4 inch around the stamp so you have an edge to work with as you separate off the stamp.

Using a pair of stamp collector’s tongs is very helpful for some of the following steps. These are different from ordinary tweezers, but those will do in a pinch if they have flat, not serrated, surfaces.

Lift the stamp by the edge of the remaining cover and place it gently on the surface of the water. It may float. If so, that’s helpful since it will help wet the back while leaving the front drier. The goal is to soften the glue enough to separate the stamp from the envelope, while maintaining the stamp in good condition.

If the stamp sinks, don’t worry overmuch. Provided the ink doesn’t run and the stamp doesn’t tear, there won’t be any permanent harm.

Allow the stamp to soak for 5-15 minutes. You’ll need to experiment, since the time can vary depending on the water temperature, the glue used, the age of the stamps, etc.

Also, water varies in mineral content, which will affect the process. It’s best to use distilled water whenever possible. Special soaking solutions exist, but plain water is safe and effective provided the guidelines are followed.

After soaking, pull the stamp gently up and slide it onto the side of the bowl. Work loose the stamp from any part of the envelope still adhering. If the stamp is wet, the usual condition, this is the critical step. Tears are most likely at this stage. Proceed gently.

Place the stamp face down onto a soft, dry cloth and allow to air dry for at least 20 minutes at normal room temperature, then examine and store.

Stamp Collecting – How To Display Stamps Mounts and

Stamp Collecting – How To Display Stamps Mounts and Hinges

How best to secure a stamp to a display medium is an ongoing debate. Hinges were used traditionally and many stamps have their value affected – up or down – by the size and nature of the ‘hinge marks’ on them. Mounts have come into common use over the last 30 years.

For decades hinges were used to place stamps into display notebooks or individual papers. Hinges are small, bent pieces of gummed paper that can attach to a page and to a stamp. That secures the stamp with a minimal amount of adhesive, while keeping it safely attached to the page.

Mounts were developed much later, early versions exist from as far back as the 1930s though they are now used much more often. A mount may have a gummed edge in order to attach to a paper, but will provide a sleeve (often made of glassine) for the stamp.

Using a hinge is simple. You wet a narrow strip of the hinge and apply it to the display page. Then wet a narrow strip of the stamp and apply to the hinge. It narrows the area of adhesion. The hinge also allows the stamp to be secured while enabling the collector to view the back in order to see marks made there.

Older stamps will almost always have hinge marks or ‘remnants’, and sometimes this will actually increase their value. There’s no way to explain the evaluations of collectors, sometimes. A mount doesn’t suffer from the problem of adhering the stamp to the hinge, but they nonetheless need to be used with care. Mounts can produce marks or other types of damage.

Glassine, a special paper often used for mount material, isn’t an entirely acid-free paper and can damage the surface of the stamp. Trace amounts of sulfuric acid found in most paper can chemically destroy the cellulose.

For that reason, special archival paper is sometimes used to store and display stamps – not just for the mount sleeve, but the display page as well. Japanese rice paper is one of the more common alternatives, but there are specially made materials, as well.

Inexpensive plastic sleeves are an alternative, but they can ‘glue’ themselves shut over time and adhere to the stamp. That risk makes them a poor choice, usually. Mylar and other forms of plastic don’t tend to suffer from this problem, but at a certain point the cost of plastic displays exceeds the cost of special archival materials.

Once mounted or hinged, most collectors will place stamps on one side of the page only. Though this requires using more pages and binders to display a large collection, the cost is generally justified. The risk of damage, from tearing or surface scratching, is greater with two-sided displays.

Ideally, glass or special sealed plastic envelopes will maintain a stamp in best condition over many decades. But, their cost is prohibitive for all except very valuable, unique items in the collection.

Since collectibles are meant to be displayed, a case for the purpose is a nice addition. But, make sure to keep stamps out of sunlight or away from harsh lamps. The UV radiation in most light sources will cause deterioration of both the ink and paper over time.

Stamp Collecting – From Hobby to Worldwide Phenomenon

Stamp collecting has grown in just over 150 years from a hobby for children to a worldwide phenomenon for collectors and investors. Today, thousands of collectors spend time and money to obtain everything from a mundane 1840 One Penny Black for a few dollars to the $2.2 million 1855 Tre Skilling Banco Yellow.

But whether rare or common, stamps exert a powerful romantic influence on those who catch the philatelic bug. The mystery of history, the intrigue of detection and the exactitude of science combine in one of the world’s most fascinating pursuits.

Like coin collecting, stamp collecting can be pursued solely for the pleasure the hobby brings. A few dollars can get you started and you can enjoy it in your spare time. Or, it can grow to become an obsession that evolves into an all-consuming passion. For many, philately is a profession, for others an investment that diversifies their portfolio.

Whatever your ultimate level of interest, getting started is very much the same. You’ll need some basic tools, some elementary information and a lot of patience.

Finding a great stamp requires the same focus and dedication as that needed for tracking down major and minor masterpieces of art. After more than 150 years, so far as anyone knows, the truly rare and valuable are all known and part of a museum’s or individual’s collection.

But there are always the mid-tier stamps that continue to be traded. Locating and negotiating for those requires getting up to speed on the latest trading info. In decades past, dealers, personal correspondence, magazines and catalogs and occasionally libraries formed the sources of ‘intel’ about a good scoop.

With the growth of the Internet, many catalogs have been placed online and websites abound to help collectors and investors find out about the latest offerings and their values.

Proper care once you find them is essential. Stamps are easily damaged and, like coins, the condition plays a part in the value of a sample. The proper mounting, display and care of a stamp requires some study. The knowledge of how to use a stamp hinge properly can mean the difference between a valuable item in your collection and a worthless piece of scrap paper.

A knowledge of elementary chemistry and the available tools is helpful. Soaking a stamp is both an art and science and takes practice to master. Using fluorescence and even x-rays to examine a stamp can be really useful and needn’t be expensive or difficult.

But even if you are just beginning your journey into the world of stamp collecting, and don’t yet have any stamps, there is much of interest to read.

The Internet has helped tremendously in making it easy to find information about the history and worth of those rare stamps that everyone covets. Even if you can’t afford a million dollar stamp, studying the stories of their birth and journey is an adventure all by itself.