Surface printing is a technique used for printing stamps that was originally introduced in the UK in 1855, for all stamps with a face value above 2d. For collectors of rare stamps, the introduction of this printing technique, along with the introduction of perforating machines at a similar time, were the two defining actions that led to the mass production of stamps in Victorian Britain. The collector's market that emerged for these stamps in the 20th Century is complex and specialised. Deciding the value that a collector assigns to a given stamp requires looking at a range of attributes. Individuals looking to enter the stamp collection market can benefit from an understanding of the key attributes that must be considered to best determine the price of a given stamp. Buyers who intend to source stamps for a collection from an online platform may also benefit from understanding what questions should be asked of a seller before making a commitment to purchase.
For many stamps that are widely collected today, achieving a realistic valuation is a two-step process. Initially, collectors should identify a benchmark price used by other collectors and sellers in the marketplace. This benchmark can be found using a reference catalogue from an industry specialist such as Stanley Gibbons. Catalogues of this type are specialised, often referring to specific countries and to stamps from a specific time period. These catalogues can often be found for sale via online retailers such as eBay.
Catalogues list prices for stamps identified as being in "fine" condition. In the world of stamp collecting, the label "fine" indicates the stamp is surrounded by four complete margins, but those margins are of different sizes.
Once the catalogue valuation has been established, the potential buyer should then examine a series of other attributes associated with the stamp to see how the value of the stamp in question should be increased or decreased from the catalogue price.
Postage stamps are rarely sold without gum. However, when they are prepared for sale to philatelists, they are often soaked to remove them from their original envelopes. This soaking can sometimes remove the gum. A lack of gum tends to negatively impact the value of most stamps. However, as with many aspects of philately, knowing the exceptions is important. Some rare stamps were originally issued without gum; such stamps would not be considered devalued in this condition.
Some collectors seek to increase the value of stamps without gum by applying substances to the back of the stamp. Regumming, as this process is known in philately, can be most easily identified by examining the edges of the stamp with a magnifying glass. If the gum can be seen gathered on the perforations of the stamp, it is likely that regumming has taken place. A stamp with its original gum should not display gum between the perforated edges, as gum is normally applied to the back of the stamps before the perforations are cut.
The presence and size of margins, or white borders, around the edge of a stamp is the most fundamental means used to identify the condition and value of a stamp. Ranging from "extremely fine", in which a stamp has wide, clearly-defined margins of a consistent size, to "poor", in which the stamp has been manually cut, and one or more margins have been removed, stamp value can be calculated as an increase or decrease from the catalogue value, which assumes a "fine" condition.
However, in terms of the true value to a collector, an accurate value is not always easily identified. Modern day production methods are highly mechanised and very accurate, which means that stamps with an offset are very rare. When modern stamps are produced with offsets that are not identified during post production checking, they can quickly become collector's items. Buyers seeking to purchase a modern stamp in "fine" condition should expect to pay a premium, as it is likely to be a very rare example. Older stamps are less likely to feature perfect margins, so a "fine" stamp should command near catalogue prices. Indeed, for some very early stamps, irregular margins are a desirable quality.
The effect perforations can have on the value of a stamp is equally complicated. Collectors should consider two aspects when determining the value of a stamp: the condition of the perforations, and the centring of the stamp itself within the perforations. The distance between the edge of the stamp and the perforations should be uniform on all sides of the stamp, so a perfectly centred stamp is desirable and can attract a premium valuation. The condition of the perforations is most affected by the mechanism used to create them. Many older perforating machines would cut perforations twice, and required the stamps to be moved between each cut. This resulted in perforations that did not meet properly at the corner. It is rare to find stamps with perforations that marry up on all four corners and poor perforating can lead to under valuing against catalogue pricing.
In contrast to this are those stamps where perforations are completely out of place. Examples can even be found where perforations appear across the middle of the stamp. Although clearly an error in production and quality control, examples of this nature are nevertheless often valued significantly above the catalogue value.
Philatelists frequently present collections of stamps in albums, and many use stamp hinges to display collections on individual pages. A single, folded stamp hinge is fixed to the rear of the stamp, and this is used to fix the stamp to the album page. Hinges can have a detrimental effect on the value of a stamp. Most modern stamp hinges are designed to be peeled off without leaving marks. Older hinges with less advanced adhesives can sometimes leave marks on the back of a stamp. Whatever type of hinge being removed, using moisture to assist removal is not recommended, as it can interfere with the original gum on the back of the stamp.
Cancellations are used by postal service operators to mark a stamp as used, to prevent it being reused. Early postal services felt it necessary to boldly mark a stamp as cancelled, and therefore many were cancelled so heavily that the original design is all but obscured. Stamps with cancellations of this type are regarded as less collectable.
A "fine" cancellation is lightly applied, once only, and should leave as much of the original design of the stamp showing as possible. As with many aspects of philately, there are a number of contradictions to this. Some cancellation marks are deemed by collectors to be of high value themselves. For example, marks in the shape of a Maltese Cross, especially if printed in red ink, can add value to a stamp. Also, rare postal sorting office locations, such as Wooton-Under-Edge, can prove to be more valuable than the stamp itself.
How to Buy Surface Printed Stamps in eBay
If you are looking to buy surface printed stamps on eBay, the most important requirement is a catalogue to provide reliable valuations. From any page on eBay, enter "Stanley Gibbons catalogue" into the search bar, and eBay returns a list of catalogues for sale. Many catalogues are specific to stamps from a particular country, and may even be specific to a particular period. If you are looking to purchase a more specialised stamp, then entering the search term "Stanley Gibbons specialised catalogue" can help to narrow down the listings that eBay presents.
Once you have purchased a catalogue, eBay is a rich source of collectable stamps of all types, and at every different price point. Using search terms such as surface printed stamps or collectable stamps can prove to be a useful place to start your search for a stamp. If your search is still unsuccessful eBay offers alternative searches in blue underneath the main search bar.
Collecting surface printed stamps can be both challenging and rewarding. Collectors who wish to avoid overpaying for a particular stamp must be certain that any possible valuation they are offering is sensible and in line with expectations in the marketplace. Stanley Gibbons catalogues are an important place to start and can be readily sourced on eBay. Collectors who are new to valuing stamps can find many offerings at the low end of the price scale. These are often extremely good deals, and are a fine way to gain experience. In addition, due to the wide reach of the eBay platform, even highly specialised collectors can find items for purchase.
The convenience offered by eBay allows you to look at an item, to decide a price ceiling, and to then enter the details as a bid. eBay automatically increases your bid price, up to the identified ceiling, as other bidders increase theirs. By leveraging the flexibility of eBay, buyers can take part in auctions for items on sale in other parts of the world, and without even being logged in.