Describing stamps and using catalogues

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When you are describing stamps which you want to sell, it's important that both you and the buyer know what's on offer. The best way to do this is to quote the stamps' number from a well-known catalogue.

Which catalogue is best to use will depend on where you are, what country's stamps are being described, and what level of detail your collection goes to. For a general collection, a simple "Stamps of the World"-type catalogue which just lists the basic types and denominations of stamps will suffice, but if you've got a "missing accent on the third letter e" variety then you will probably need to use a specialised catalogue!

The best-known stamp catalogues come from three publishers:
1. Stanley Gibbons. This is the best-known publisher for collectors of stamps of the British Empire and Commonwealth. The Stanley Gibbons company has been a major stamp dealer for over 150 years and they published their first catalogue in 1865. Their basic catalogue of British stamps in the annual "Collect British Stamps", but among others they publish a detailed catalogue of the British Commonwealth every year, and a specialised catalogue of the worlds' stamps (in 22 regionalised parts) with new editions published when necessary. It's important to realise that Stanley Gibbons is a company in business to sell stamps, and the prices in their catalogues are quite literally the price at which they will sell you the stamps if they have them in stock - you would get less if you sold the stamps to them, and you will probably get a lower price at auction on eBay. Also, please note that they have a minimum price in their catalogue, which they will charge for any stamp regardless of how common they are, because they have to cover their fixed overheads. When quoting a Stanley Gibbons catalogue number, remember to give the country, e.g. "GB SG438" means the Great Britain Postal Union Congress £1 stamp of 1929 - always a popular stamp on eBay!
2. Michel. This German publisher's catalogues set the standard for describing stamps from continental European countries, and will be the catalogues used by collectors of the important German market. Naturally, it's printed in German, but it's possible to get a guide of common terms translated into English, and you'll soon pick up a smattering of philatelic German anyway! Numbers are quoted as e.g. "Poland Mi255", and the prices are generally indicative of what you might get.
3. Scott. This U.S. publisher produces the catalogs [sic] which all American collectors will use, and not unnaturally is particularly strong in its coverage of stamps of the Americas. Numbers are quoted as e.g. "Mexico Sc673".

Remember that because each catalogue publisher has different areas of strong expertise and detailed classification in their catalogue, it is extremely unlikely that a stamp will have the same number in catalogues published by different companies - for example the 1929 PUC £1 which is 438 in the Stanley Gibbons catalogue is no. 209 in the Scott.

Other catalogues are published which specialise in particular countries, e.g. Unitrade for Canada (uses the Scott numbering system), Facit for Sweden, the Norgeskatalogen for Norway, and in the past, McDonnell-Whyte for Ireland, which all have their own numbering systems.

Catalogues are expensive to buy if you buy them new from the publishers, but if you just want a catalogue for older stamps then just buy an older edition (it's very rare for the catalogue numbers to be changed). Try looking on eBay under Stamps --> Philately/Postal History ---> Publications

Once you've identified your stamps, the next important feature is whether the stamp is mint or used. Usually a mint stamp is more valuable than a used example of the same stamp (potentially they could still be used for postage, after all), but sometimes stamps may be rarer in used condition because of local conditions at the time they were issued. It's OK to stick used stamps in your stamp album by using stamp hinges, but mint stamps are always more valuable if they are "unmounted mint" (UM) or "mint never hinged" (MNH) rather than if they show signs of having been mounted in someone's stamp album using stamp hinges at some time in the past. Unmounted mint stamps should be attached to album pages by means of plastic strips which can be bought from philatelic suppliers - if you use a stamp hinge on a previously unmounted mint stamp, then you have instantly reduced its value by 50% or more! Of course, it is not reasonable to expect older mint stamps to have reached us in unmounted condition from before the time the plastic strips were invented, so most catalogues will indicate a date from which point the "mint" prices they quote are for unmounted mint, and before which prices are for "mounted mint" and unmounted stamps will be worth a substantial premium; for British stamps, Stanley Gibbons quotes the end of King George V's reign in 1936 as the cut-off point.
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