The "Ugly Duckling" was about to be auctioned off, and as an overflow crowd streamed into a Geneva gallery last November, a palpable sense of tension filled the hall.
Collectors had long been fascinated by this rather ordinary looking "work of art," and while knowing it was one of the world's great rarities, they joked about its bland, partially obliterated design. While expecting it to sell for more than $1 million, they never imagined the Tre Skilling Yellow, a faded 1855 stamp from Sweden with a big, black cancellation mark, would suddenly make history.
But once the crowd settled into their seats, and the bidding leaped from 900,000 to 1.2 million Swiss francs in a matter of seconds, serious stamp collectors immediately had reason to feel bullish.
Their rare and most prized holdings had risen steadily in value these past five years, appreciating about 14 percent to 20 percent annually, according to market indexes and auctioneers. Now, though, as the bidding for the Yellow continued to escalate, collectors' minds flashed back to the early 1980s, when speculators and syndicates were paying unheard of sums for investment-quality pieces such as "Graf Zeppelins" or the British Guiana one-cent magenta, and again fantasized about all hell breaking loose in the marketplace.
"1.3," signaled a prospective buyer from the back of the gallery.
"1.4," quickly countered another bidder. * Now reduced to a duel between two agents for anonymous collectors, the bidding war momentarily stopped. In fear of influencing the sale, auctioneer David Feldman, who's also an internationally renowned "collection builder," tried to disguise his surprise that the bids had moved into record-setting territory for a single stamp. Yet once the battle resumed, a few gasps were heard, as the two bidders finally drove the Yellow's price to 2.875 million francs ($2.3 million, or $1 million more than its previous sales tag in 1990)--and in effect gave all investors in rare, investment-quality stamps a resounding boost of confidence.
"When a stamp like the Tre Skilling realizes such a high price, it gives a lot of confidence to collectors holding rarities, even $10,000 stamps, and also to people thinking about investing," says Feldman, who recently sold a group of 1847 Mauritius stamps for $5 million. "Now collectors are spending more money on selective pieces. There's a new bullishness in stamps these days."
The "thrill of the hunt" is one reason for this fascination with stamps. Finding rare items at auctions or networking with dealers isn't exactly the stuff of Indiana Jones. Yet, according to one collector, "It's a macho thing. Landing a rare piece lets me say to the world, 'I've got it and the other guy doesn't.'"
According to the American Philatelic Society, about 50,000 "serious" collectors make up the core of an estimated 4.4 million hobbyist stamp collectors in the United States.
Along with the chase, which pits enthusiasts against the laws of supply and demand, collectors know that filling in album spaces is potentially profitable. Now, American baby boomers and new legions of collectors in Europe and the Far East are driving prices up from 1991 lows, when the stamp market stumbled. A prized block of four U.S. #2 stamps which had then dropped in value to $50,000, is now worth more than $100,000, as stamp prices have rebounded and generally kept pace with the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, which has risen an average of 14.3 percent annually over the past five years.
"Moneyed and sophisticated buyers are increasingly recognizing they can enjoy a beautiful hobby and also show a return on their money," says Walter J. Mader, the president of the renowned Ivy & Mader auction house in New York. "While stamp collecting is a lone wolf hobby, these new collectors also want to win, out-compete the next guy, and that's heated up the market."
Investing in high-quality stamps, and feeling the exhilaration of landing a rare item, comes with numerous caveats. As philatelists always emphasize, collecting these miniature and extremely fragile engravings is primarily a hobby. The savvy buyer, if he passionately studies such minutiae as gum condition, margins and perforations, and holds on to his collection long enough (usually five to 10 years) to overcome dealer commission fees, might build a holding that will realize a future profit.
However, illiquid and ever subject to fluctuations in the economy and to the vagaries of what's "hot," stamp collecting remains a risky business. For example, 1918 U.S. airmails are selling for 25 to 35 percent of their 1980-'81 value. Perils abound, especially according to one longtime collector, when a "buyer's testosterone" gets in the way of better judgment.
"Too many guys get 'buried' in a stamp, pay far too much for an item, when they let macho vanity cloud good sense," insists Wade Saadi, the owner of a national computer software and services company, who focuses on classic U.S. issues and recently sold a set of 1869 stamps for a six-figure sum. "The key to having fun--and to potentially coming out [financially] ahead--is studying the market, taking three to four years to aggressively educate yourself about one subject of material, what's available, cancellations, realized prices, frauds, etc. In stamps, knowledge isn't only important. It's everything."
In other words, stamp collecting demands a thorough commitment and dedication. There are mere "trophy hunters," guys with no particular collecting goals, who'll throw money at agents to secure a fabled piece or two. That "shopping list" approach, which relies so heavily on an intermediary, says Mader, "just isn't any fun. The chase is what rare stamps are all about."
Before a prospective collector starts to hunt down material, he must chart a road map, or decide on which segment of philately interests him. Here, the thematic choices are seemingly limitless, as philately gives collectors total freedom to choose a specialty. While Americans gravitate towards U.S. stamps with their preponderance of Washington and Benjamin Franklin busts, there are also Asian butterflies, British monarchs, nineteenth century "covers"--envelopes that recount global journeys through a series of postal marks--and newly popular Cuban stamps.
To make sense of this galaxy, and to select a specialty among mint or used stamps, engraved "fancy cancellations," and "postal history" covers, the smart collector seeks counsel. In other words, he plays the Stamp 101 game, by studying the values of stamps in catalogs, perusing exhibits, talking to members of philatelic societies and consulting with dealers and auctioneers.
In oak-paneled offices, surrounded by tongs, perforation gauges and other accoutrements worthy of a surgeon, these advisers soft-pedal the promise of windfall profits. Though many scarce items exchange hands in cigar-filled rooms after exhaustive haggling, collecting is strictly billed as gentlemanly and scholarly, a quiet escape from the stresses of the workaday world.
Cloistered in his sedate auction house, self-described "stamp nerd" Scott Trepel is also obligated to treat moneymaking as a sticky subject. As the president of the Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries, he keeps "an arms-length relationship" with rarities soon to be sold. "Stamps aren't an investment," he insists, "they're a speculation. If I was an investor, I wouldn't follow an auctioneer's advice about what's going to be profitable. That would be like a broker's pushing a current stock."
Yet Trepel, who's exposed numerous fakes and has distinguished himself by selling a four-stamp block of Inverted Jenny biplanes for $1.1 million, is still an invaluable source for would-be philatelists. By assessing collections before they're auctioned at one of his sales, he reads the pulse of the marketplace. He knows where the high-priced action is, and what's hot.
"I first try to direct new collectors into an area which will have a good frequency of acquisition rate, where there's enough material and trading going on to sustain interest," says Trepel, who typically works with clients willing to spend about $50,000 a year on new purchases.
"Once you start buying only six or so items a year, it's easy to become bored. You've got to be acquiring at least a few items a month, and $50,000 will go a long way in basic U.S. stamps. Not rarities, but relatively scarce items. Yeah, with $50,000 a year over five years, you'll have a pretty meaningful collection."
While the prices of some of those classic U.S. items (i.e., reissues and special printings issued by the U.S. Post Office during the 1870s and '80s) have been flat recently, Trepel likes their future investment potential. Though still hesitant to recommend where collectors should "place their bets," he also concedes "there're a lot of opportunities" in stamps printed by the Confederate states. "There's a lot of fascination and scarcity here. And while lagging [pricewise], once one or two collections come onto the market, you could see some real life breathed into this segment. Some real movement."
Tapping into one of these areas that suddenly becomes white hot is akin to being ahead of the curve in the stock market. The prescient collector is holding what everyone else wants, and that's more than profitable. It's one of philately's special charms--the heady rush to choose a specialized segment among thousands of possibilities, and to make just the right investment.
"While a lot of people just wind up with salvage value, collecting something at exactly the right time is an incredible emotional high," says Trepel, as he recounts the stratospheric price rise of nineteenth century stamps issued by private mail-carrying firms. "Not much was happening with these items. Then a few collections came onto the market in 1990, and prices went wild. If someone had decided to invest $1 million in these stamps 10 years ago, they would've been in the middle of a feeding frenzy. That $1 million collection is now worth three, four, five million dollars."
Before any fortunes are won, however, rare-stamp seekers must know how to go after these little jewels. For once a new collector has set goals in sessions with a Trepel or Mader, and has decided to eschew the common, face-value world of post-1930s stamps, he's again buffeted with an array of high-stakes choices.
Will those album blanks be filled with used or mint stamps? Does a new collector delve into the pricey, yet still seductive, trappings of "postal history," where steamship timetables and descriptions of ocean passages accompany envelopes tattooed with cancellations? And since fake items are common, how do you start buying stamps without getting burned--by surfing the Internet, rummaging through dealer catalogs, going to stamp shows or bidding at auctions?
While some buyers will immediately flash their checkbooks at Trepel's high-voltage auctions, collector Wade Saadi says attending a stamp show is "the best way to get your feet wet." At these expos the neophyte will, of course, be able to buy scores of commercial, inexpensive stamps, which form the backbone of even six-figure collections. But even more important to Saadi, these shows are a philatelic networking bonanza, allowing new collectors to meet a constellation of dealers, auction house representatives and vendors dispensing everything from tongs to ultraviolet lamps.
"Unless you're going to recreate the wheel, collectors can draw on a wealth of knowledge at a stamp show," says Saadi, a consultant to the Philatelic Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit educational institution. "Here, collectors get tips on expertizing [sending stamps to a society to ensure that they're genuine], preservation, what clubs to join, and they can pick up lots of items cheaply."
Setting spending limits is a wise strategy at these shows. Especially because the novice is still unprepared to judge such fine points as a stamp's gumming, perforations or the centering of its margins--characteristics that vitally affect an item's worth. As Saadi warns, "An unscrupulous dealer can regum a stamp, and that falsely doubles its value." If older stamps, like 1860s issues, are regummed, "you could be talking five times the value."
Saadi has gotten burned. When he started to collect U.S. items, he didn't know that a dealer can change the perforations (the rows of holes that are put on the edges of some stamps) and centering of stamps, and was taken for $1,500. As he grimly explains, "My eye wasn't trained to judge these phony reperforations and this cost me. That's why I strongly recommend going slow, spending-wise, early on, studying numerous catalogs to get a sense of realized prices, not just published prices, and sending investment-quality stamps to be examined at [nonprofit] expertizing bodies."
When buying $50 to $300 items from mail order houses like Valley Stamps in Winstead, Connecticut, or Ventura Stamp Co. in Brielle, New Jersey, it makes little financial sense to have experts at New York City's Philatelic Foundation issue a certificate of authencity. These common, readily accessible stamps will have faults, and won't attract the attention of forgers.
Yet once buyers increase the ante and start to acquire scarce, more valuable pieces either through a dealer or at auction, a condition of sale must be an "extension," the right to cancel the purchase if the stamp is doctored, or not genuine. The fees for expertizing are based on the value of the material, and as auctioneer Walter Mader advises, "[It's] the only way to go. For that certificate isn't only a safeguard against the good amount of fakes out there. There are subjective distinctions in judging the value of a truly 'fine' stamp, and this certificate is an insurance policy that ends most discussion."
Though Mader predictably encourages collectors to buy "lots," or groups of stamps, at auctions, he also acknowledges that on-line marketing on the Internet is growing. "It gives people a chance to see stamps they wouldn't ordinarily be exposed to," he says. Yet again, Mader warns, "Don't be 'rookiedoed.' If a seller doesn't agree to an extension, walk away from the purchase, fast."
Traveling through cyberspace, and interacting with hundreds, if not thousands, of Web traders, such as the Macau Post Office and the Grateful Dead page, can also be dizzying. Nearly every site offers "show-stopping bargains" and "joy of collecting" testimonials. Yet amid this electronic overload, one of philately's most seductive attractions is lost. While stamp collecting is heralded for bringing enthusiasts together in diverse social settings (clubs, societies, etc.), the Internet is just a cursory look at all too impersonal icons.
Intriguing exceptions exist, of course. Richard Lehmann uses Wall Street investment techniques to evaluate the value of stamps, and operates a site (www.stamp finder.com) that provides a handy listing of dealers who own "potentially profitable" items. The long-respected Linn's Stamp News (www.csmon line.com/linns/) also details trends in the marketplace. But in general, clicking away at sites that promise Marilyn Monroes and other contemporary commemoratives is pure Mickey Mouse.
The real action takes place at auctions. Mano a mano, collectors vie against dealers and agents (for anonymous buyers) to capture everything from $600 mixed lots (wholesale groupings of stamps) to five- and six-figure rarities.
Unlike 15 years ago, when these sales were predominately attended by individual collectors, contemporary auctions are packed with both longtime collectors and "seasoned" agents. The agents know all the tricks of bidding, from disguising their intentions, to shilling for sellers who want to artificially drive up prices, to fully understanding how the merest variation in color or condition of a stamp will dramatically affect its value.
So the neophyte collector must approach auctions cautiously. Though no hard and fast bidding rules exist, a few general guidelines will prevent new enthusiasts from getting "buried."
Once again, knowledge is everything. Buyers must understand that auctioneers, who collect a 10 to 15 percent commission on purchases, are primarly working for sellers. They solicit all sorts of esoteric and commercial material from consignors, but don't tailor their sales to the specific needs of a buyer. Consequently, auctions are not always the best avenue to acquire scarce items that will complete a collection.
Buyers should compare the published values of items in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue with the prices realized at auctions. It's also vital to study the photos and descriptions in past auction catalogs, since that's one way to understand why, for example, a 10-cent Panama Pacific that listed for $300 in Scott's was bought for $1,000 by a Mader customer. This may be because the latter offering has been judged by Mader or an expertizing service to be better centered, clearer in color or generally finer in quality.
It is equally important for collectors to be aware that sellers sometimes put stamps on "reserve" to falsely jack up values. For instance, an item that is worth $20,000, might experience a market boost if the seller put it on a $40,000 reserve and had an agent or shill bid on the stamp at exaggerated levels. Typically, the bidding could stop at, say, $35,000, when the stamp reverts to the seller. Yet some less reputable auction houses will say the item "sold" for $35,000, and so this falsely manufactured price tag becomes a reference point at subsequent sales.
Bidding is also a test of nerves, "a poker game" according to Mader, and collectors must set spending limits. Yet here again, there are no absolutes, as certain rarities do appear at auction, and in those instances, a buyer of specialty items will often adjust his budget.
"We had a four-cent Columbian 'error of color' in 1991; the prevailing consensus put its worth at $16,000," recalls Mader. "But when the dust settled at auction, this ultra-high-condition item brought $32,500. Why? There are only 200 of these stamps in the world, and this one was perfecto. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a chance to acquire a very specialized item, and that's when a buyer has to go for it."
To secure these fine--and expensive--rarities, a buyer might think it wise to use the services of one of those "seasoned" agents. But this strategy normally entails giving the intermediary a 2 percent to 5 percent commission fee and a fixed spending range that could easily lead to "bidder's remorse."
To appreciate those woes, keep in mind that some stamps, such as the 1851 One Cent Blue series, form a distinct specialty collection. A philatelist could spend years just amassing the many varieties, multiples and usages of this series, and one empty space in his album could greatly lower the resale price of that particular collection.
This missing stamp might not be offered at auction that often, as a greater range of specialty items are usually bought through dealers. Yet if, for example, a mint 1851 One Cent Blue (worth about $175,000) ignites a fierce auction battle and the collector is locked into a maximum bid with an agent, he could lose that rare chance to acquire the stamp. Hence, buyer's regret.
"An agent might be instructed to go to $50,000 for a once-in-a-lifetime offering, but what happens when someone bids $52,000?" asks Mader. "If the actual buyer was at the auction, he could make that split decision to go to 55. While an agent is a check on a buyer's worst habits, if it's a special item, and he only has limited discretion, this stamp could be lost forever. When buying specialty items, good judgment sometimes has to kick in."
While you can pick up certain rarities at auctions, they aren't the best bet for acquiring scarce items. As Saadi says, "I've built 12 specialized collections, and you can't do that going to auctions, since they don't offer enough pertinent pieces."
How has he discovered the rarer material? By going to dealers, or "collection builders."
In U.S. philately, where there are hundreds of distinct specialties, ranging from rare cancellations to classic "Washington-Franklin heads," dealers stake out particular segments of the marketplace. Able to plug into a vast network of contacts (which includes stampdom's large coterie of anonymous collectors), an internationally known dealer like Andrew Levitt knows exactly "where the bodies are buried." He knows who wants to sell, negotiates the "private treaty" sales and, unlike collectors who have professional interests besides stamps, he can devote himself to a client's specific needs on a full-time basis.
"I align myself with a few dealers so that they'll be my eyes and ears," says Saadi. "These guys see hundreds of times more stamps than collectors do. Plus, if I go to Ventura Stamp Co., I don't have to waste time weeding through Zimbabwes and Australians [which regularly appear at auctions]. Ventura's stuff is mainly classic."
Levitt, who specializes in U.S. material, boasts, "I've handled some of the rarest pieces two or three times." Selling more than $250 million in philatelic holdings since 1961, Levitt frequently advises clients about the potential market value of individual items or entire specialties. He often acts as an agent at auctions. "I know the tricks of the trade," he asserts.
At those sales, Levitt has been known to buy an entire collection merely to get one prized gem. Chuckling, he also claims, "I know how to disrupt a competitive bidder's rhythm." Yet to most serious collectors, Levitt's chief asset is his ability to spot future market trends and pinpoint choice investment prospects.
Most of these prospects are U.S. issues. Though such items as 1918 first-issue Airmails, the 50-cent 1933 Graf Zeppelin and 1898 Trans-Mississippis have long been selling for a fraction of their 1980 prices, Levitt feels these stamps are now "very good buys and will increase in value." Many other collectors strongly disagree, saying there's so much of this material in the marketplace that prices will never go up.
Levitt also likes Cuban items. "Cuban stamps are very popular right now," he says, "and while the market has been discovered, I think these items will continue to go up in value."
Other dealers tout everything from Chinese and Vietnamese stamps to Latin American issues and U.S. Postmaster Provisionals, which were unofficial stamps issued from 1845 to 1847, and interim stamps issued by Confederate postmasters in 1861. Equally debatable is the notion that going abroad will translate into bargains at obscure auctions. Saadi dismisses the value of this practice, warning that many European auctions "are rigged," while Stamp Finder's Richard Lehmann insists, "If you want to stockpile Cuban stuff cheaply, you go abroad, especially to Russia."
So who's to be believed, and how do you find a reputable dealer who will work honestly on your behalf? Once again, there are no absolutes. As one collector warns, "Don't be swayed by all the fancy brochures dealers put out. It makes more sense to visit stamp societies. Talk with other collectors. Just do some homework and, above all, get referrals."
The same strategy also makes sense when collectors move into another risky arena, the seller's market. There, a philatelist is faced with two options. He can test the value of his holdings at an auction, where items might fail to realize estimated prices. Or he can opt for a fixed price through a dealer, and risk losing out on what Saadi describes as "two or three guys beating their brains out at an auction to get specific pieces."
No matter which approach is taken, it's imperative that the seller knows the value of his material. "Too many guys I know have considered their material to be unattractive, sold it for $5,000 to an auctioneer, and the stuff winds up selling for $15,000," says Saadi. "What they should've done is taken the pieces to a dealer, given him his commission and instead pocketed $13,000."
Taking assurance from the premise that less is sometimes more, auctioneer Trepel still insists his regular sales are the most advantageous approach for a seller. "Prospective buyers can love a small part of a collection, be disinterested in the rest, and that will drive the price down," says Trepel, who averages a 10 percent commission from sellers.
"Yet if, for example, this collection includes issues, misprints, an eagle on some of the items, we break everything down. We offer specialized units, or put one item into two or three collecting subjects, and that creates a multiplier effect on the competition for any given stamp. By breaking collections down, we increase their value."
However, now that specialty-hunting dealers dominate these sales, many basic items often fail to generate excitement. That exposes sellers to a double indignity. Along with seeing their prized holdings returned to a "residue" pile, they also suffer financially.
Trepel admits, "Many people don't like auctions. They want their money right away." Before the actual sales, auction houses have to evaluate
material, sort items into lots, prepare catalogs, etc., but if necessary they will give sellers a fraction of anticipated revenues up front. "There's also that emotional attachment," he adds. "They want to keep their collection intact."
Still, if a collector is selling a true rarity, a limited-issue stamp that hasn't sold in several years, it's generally agreed that the auction route is the best way to maximize interest. For besides having the financial ability to publicize a sale through global mailing lists and advertising budgets, auction houses can create "a comfort zone" for buyers.
"When dealers go one-on-one with potential buyers to pay $500,000, $1 million for a stamp, it's often a struggle," says Mader. "Yet at an auction, where there's widespread interest in an item, it shows a guy he's not alone on a limb. When bidders start driving up the price of an item, this gives a buyer the appetite to raise the ante."
Collectors say that auction houses are also the best avenue for liquidating generalized collections quickly. An auctioneer will usually give the seller his money within 30 to 45 days after the sale, while there's no telling when and if a dealer can find a buyer for a large collection.
Selling specialized material is a whole different ball game. Here, dealers hold a definite advantage over auction houses. Take, for example, a rather esoteric collection of 25 three-cent 1861 stamps with different cancellations. The best five usually realize their anticipated price. But as interest in these items drops off, the next 20 could easily be snared by bargain hunters.
As Saadi says, "When selling specialized material you go to a dealer. I can take these items to him and get a fixed price. The downside is that it might take him a longer time to sell the material. But you have much more control when selling through a dealer."
Knowledgeable dealers also heighten interest in specialized items by detailing their rich history in glossy brochures. These pamphlets serve as "testimonials" to philatelists who are often saddened by selling their material, and are also, according to Levitt, "one more service that helps me get people more money than they would at impersonal auctions."
"It's a serious mistake to just say, 'Here, Mr. Auction House, take care of this collection for me,' " says Levitt, who was an auctioneer for more than three decades. "Tell them the way you want your collection sold. Don't go to just one auction house; get competitive bids. And if it's a serious six-figure collection, talk to them about a guarantee. Negotiate their commission, and also get guarantees about the date of the sale and when you're going to get your money."
Concluding that "too many people are disappointed at auctions," Levitt says, "sellers often wind up with a residue of unsold stamps, or the material doesn't reach [anticipated] price levels. I sell collections intact, and since I know where the serious buyers are, sellers can get better prices using me."
The buying and selling of stamps generates all sorts of conflicting claims and "opportunities." In this respect, philately is a lot like stocks and bonds. Every broker has a "hot" issue, a sure-shot approach to profits. But once these tricky waters are negotiated after a good deal of research and common sense, stamps offer one reward Wall Street trading fails to match: after acquiring one of these precious little gems, the collector can actually place it in an album.
All that's left to do is punctuate the purchase by following another Wade Saadi ritual: "Once I've won, have that long-coveted stamp, it's a perfect time to light a Cohiba, and to enjoy another of life's blessings."
Florida-based writer Edward Kiersh is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado. Stamps and Tobacco
Call it the "forbidden fruit syndrome." Collectors are now gravitating towards stamps from North Korea, Vietnam and Iran, and especially items from Cuba that celebrate tabaco Habano.
Ricardo del Campo, a stamp dealer in Miami, showcases postcards, first-day covers and assorted other pieces that vividly detail the cigar's importance to the Cuban economy throughout the island's history. These stamps are beautifully illustrated with cigar boxes, scenes of workers in tobacco fields, women rolling cigars and cigars with golden bands.
One stamp stands out in this collection. It's a 1956 stamp from Columbia that pays tribute to a cigar aficionado who reputedly lived to be 167 years old. The gentleman proclaims on the stamp, "Don't worry, drink a lot of coffee and smoke a good cigar."
--EK A Stamp Collector's Guide
To the inexperienced eye, two used 90-cent 1860 Scott #39 stamps appear to be identical; yet one will be worth $5,500, while the other is valued between $1,000 to $1,500. Why the disparity?
It's all a matter of condition. If a stamp is creased, slightly torn or heavily canceled, or the margins are off-center, the value is sharply reduced. The same stamp will be worth dramatically more if its margins are dead-center and there are no creases or tears.
Unscrupulous sellers use certain tricks of the trade to "improve" the quality of stamps. Watch out for:
1) Items that have been re-centered. That is, a stamp that is centered to the left has a lower value than a piece with "extremely fine" or "very fine" positioning, so hustlers take the right side and make it the same size as the left.
2) False perforations. Some stamps have an imperforated or "straight edge" on one side. This can reduce an item's worth 10 to 25 percent or more of catalog value, and so false perforations are commonly added to stamps to increase their worth.
3) Regummed stamps. Stamps without gum on the back can lose half their catalog value, so the unscrupulous have ways of regumming pieces.
4) Patched stamps. Stamps sometimes have "thins;" they've lost some of their thickness when improperly removed from a cover. Be wary, for some sellers will fill a thin by "patching the hole" with a paper mixture.
The best safeguard against these tricks is to have a stamp studied and appraised by an expertizing service. What follows is an abbreviated directory of sources to help you get involved in the world of stamp collecting.
Ivy & Mader Philatelic Auctions Inc.
32 East 57th St. 11th Floor
New York, New York, 10022
Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries
65 East 55th St.
New York, New York, 10022
Dealers or Philatelic Consultants
Ricardo del Campo
7379 24th St.
Miami, Florida 33155
David Feldman S.A.
175 Route de Chancy, 1213 Onex
(41) 22 757-3901
P.O. Box 4760
Covina, California 91723
P.O. Box 342
Danbury, Connecticut 06813
Ventura Stamp Co.
P.O. Box 508
Brielle, New Jersey 08730
American Philatelic Expertizing Service
P.O. Box 8000
State College, Pennsylvania 16803-8000
501 Fifth Avenue, Room 1901
New York, New York 10017
American Philatelic Society
P.O. Box 8000
State College, Pennsylvania 16803-8000
The Collectors Club
22 East 35th St.
New York, New York 10016
Call the American Philatelic Society at the number above, or Lloyds of London in New York City at (212) 529-9500.