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I am often asked for advice by people who have inherited or been given a stamp collection and now want to sell it. Here are some pointers that I have put together.
First of all, donít get your hopes up. People may inherit a collection through a will or life insurance legacy but do not know what steps to take. Many people see boxes or albums full of old stamps and think "bonanza"! The reality is that the vast majority of stamps are common and are worth very little - even very old stamps. It's also true that most collectors pursue the hobby for enjoyment and not as an investment. So, donít order that new BMW just yet! Still, there are exceptions and some collections can be worth a great deal.
How can you get an idea of a collection's value? The easiest way is if the original collector left some records that detail the contents of the collection and its value. If the collection was insured, the amount of insurance that was taken out can be a guide. Be aware, however, that collectors value their collections at retail - what it would cost to replace the collection buying from stamp dealers. There's also a natural tendency for a collector to exaggerate a collection's value. When you go to sell the collection, donít be surprised if you are offered only 10-20% of the "value" of the collection or even less.
If you cannot get an idea of the value of the collection from records left by the original collector, you have several other ways to approach the problem.
∑ Do it yourself. This involves a lot of time and effort but is the best way to get an accurate picture of what's in the collection and how much it is worth. In a nutshell, the process is as follows. Get the Scott Postage Stamp Catalog, available in many public libraries. The catalog comes in 6 volumes, each containing stamp listings, with pictures, organized by country. Locate each stamp and the catalog will give you its value (which is different for used and unused, or mint, stamps). This "catalog value" is, in theory, the price you would pay to buy the stamp from a retail dealer. In reality this price tends to be inflated, and you can almost always buy a stamp from a reputable dealer for less than this value. You can expect to get only a small percentage of this amount when selling.
∑ Hire an appraiser. An appraiser will examine the collection and provide a written estimate of its value. An appraiser is not interested in buying the collection, and thus has no motivation to value it too low in hopes of getting a good deal. You pay a fee for an appraiser's services, and this should always be agreed ahead of time..
∑ Go to a dealer. A dealer may make you an offer for all or part of the collection. While it's rare for a dealer to be a blatant cheat, remember that they make their living by buying and selling stamps and are always interested in paying as little as possible. Also remember that you do not have to accept a dealer's offer. You can find a dealer who is an American Philatelic Society (APS) member here: http://stamps.org/directories/dir_DealerMembers.htm. APS member dealers agree to a code of ethics and some people feel that you are more likely to get a square deal from them, although most non-member dealers are perfectly honest as well.
∑ Find a stamp club and take the collection to one of their meetings. Collectors are usually happy to look over a collection and give you an idea of what you have. You can find a list of clubs on the APS web site here.
Once you have some idea of the value of your collection, the next step is to sell it. The easiest way is to find a stamp dealer who makes an offer, but this is likely to get you a relatively low price. The other way to sell a collection is to use one of the on-line auction services such as eBay. You are more likely to get bids if you provide a good description of the collection. If the collection is large and contains more than one country, I recommend breaking it into two or more lots by country. Also, if there are any particularly valuable items in the collection you might want to sell those individually and then sell the remainder of the collection as a bulk lot.
You'll find additional information about valuing and selling stamps on the American Philatelic Society web site. Go to http://stamps.org/directories/dir_qna.htm and scroll down to the "Valuing/selling Stamps" section.
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