Buying and Selling Stamps

Buying/Selling Strategies


Originally I started writing this as two separate pages - one for buying strategies, and one for selling strategies.  The I realised that one is very much the mirror image of the other - warnings to buyers for things to look out for can also serve as advice to sellers for things not to do!  So here is everything, sort of lumped together.

Internet Auctions

Accumulations/Bulk Lots

These can sometimes be wonderful value, but usually are not.  In particular, look at the profile of the person that is selling them.  For example, here is an eBay auction that tempted me today (and which got me writing this paragraph!) :

Russia Area Remainder Collection :  Mtd collection balance of 260 stamps incl Wrangel issues, Azerbaijan, Batum, Ukraine & White Russia, mostly f-vf. Two sample pages scanned.

The scans showed a couple of pages, each half full of stamps, and with clearly visible hinge remnants from where other stamps had been and now no longer were.  The opening asking price was $24 (ie just under 10c a stamp), and so far, no bids.

The scans immediately suggests that someone has already picked out the better stamps, leaving only remnants.  But there is another reason why I believe that to be so.  Looking at the other auctions that this person is selling, and also looking at recently sold auctions from this seller (change the eBay url which normally shows as part of the string "&since=-1" to a nonnegative number reflecting the number of days you want to research back, eg, change it to "&since=7" to look at auctions that closed in the last seven days) shows that he has been selling a lot of stamps that seem to me to have come from this collection, and that the seller is a Russia area specialist.

My bottom line analysis :  This is a collection of "15c" stamps only and worth a lot less than the asking bid of $24.

Now here is a different example.  A hypothetical eBay auction from a person with the description :

Russia Area Collection :  About 400 stamps, most dated prior to 1960, most hinged, most cancelled, in stock sheets.

Looking at what this person is selling shows a mix of other things, nothing else Russian, and not even much philatelic at all.  This suggests that this person is much less likely to have picked out the high value items and now be selling off just the remaindered stamps alone.  I'd bid much higher on this in the hopes of getting some "finds" than I would on the first example.

Should you sell stamps one by one or in bulk?

This is a slightly different topic to that discussed above about bulk lots.  In this case, if you have a range of stamps that you are wanting to sell, should you sell them one by one, or all at once, or in some other way?

The answer to that question depends on the type of stamps and their values (of course).

Generally, it makes no sense for you as seller, or for other people as buyers, to buy a single 20c stamp.  The cost of postage and the 'hassle factor' is so much greater than the stamp value!  So if you have a bunch of low value stamps, it makes more sense to sell them in $1 or $2 or even $5 packets rather than individually.

But if you have higher value stamps, it makes more sense to sell them individually.

And now for the 'trick' - if you have a mix of high and low value stamps - don't sell them all together!  Separate them out.  Sell the high value stamps separately and the low value stamps together.

Should you show the catalog value?

Some people include the catalog value of the stamps they are selling in an auction listing, others don't.  Which will get you the better sales price?

Plainly, different people have different opinions.  My reasoning works this way - the object of the exercise is to get people first of all to go and look at your auction lot, and secondly, to bid on it up to a fair value (which is usually less than catalog value!).

I think that the best way to get people to click on the summary listing of your auction and go and actually look at the complete page for your lot is to have as much helpful detail in the title as possible.  If it is a small set of stamps, this definitely means you should show the catalog numbers in the title - this is a fairly easy conclusion to reach and I'm sure most people would agree with me so far.

Okay, now for the second part of this reasoning.  If you are showing the catalog numbers anyway, then it is really easy for anyone who cares to go and check the catalog value just by looking the stamps up.  Why not make it easier for them - and for everyone else, and show the catalog value yourself?  I strongly urge you to include an accurate catalog value, and if you are not using the most recent catalog, indicate which year of the catalog you are pricing from.

Should you show the catalog value in the title?  I'd earlier written in this section suggesting your should, but having thought about it some more, I've changed my mind!  I do believe you should show the catalog value in the actual listing details, but don't show it in the title.  The object of the title is merely to encourage the viewer to click on it to go and visit your complete listing, and I feel that it is possible to provide too much detail in the title.  Sure, it may be great that you are opening the bidding at 10% of catalog price, but after the bidding has progressed a way, it won't look so attractive if a viewer sees a title showing a catalog value of eg $10 and current bid price of, eg, $6.  Leave the catalog value out of the title, then all they will see is information about the stamps, and hopefully that it has received a number of bids and is currently at $6 - this is more likely to make them want to find out more about why the auction is so popular.

Note that the fact that I've changed my own opinion on this does rather underscore the fact that there are no clear and guaranteed "rules" for the best way to do these things!  But hopefully by setting out my own reasoning it will help you to form your own personal approach to how you sell your stamps, too.

"Showing" Your Stamps for Sale

These comments apply both if you're selling at a bourse or over the Internet.

There is a reason that most retail products spend something like 25% of the underlying product cost on their packaging and presentation.  Better presented, more attractively packaged items consistently outsell poorly presented items.  Go to any store that has generic food items and regular branded food items and you'll see the same thing - the generic items are priced much lower, we all know that they are identical, but they are always outsold by the more expensive but better presented branded products.

You should learn from these lessons, and invest a bit of time and trouble to "show" your stamps.

Wherever possible, with Internet sales, include a good quality scan of the stamp or stamps.  I'm sure you've seen, as I have, some incredibly bad scans - blurry photos, horrible colors, or simply images way too small to distinguish any details.

Here's another tip when scanning stamps.  If you're selling an assortment or collection of stamps, don't just randomly spread them out and scan or photo a messy jumble of stamps.  Neatly assemble them on one or more stock pages and scan them that way.  It looks much nicer, and indeed looks much more impressive, too, because the stamps take up more space, and also suggests that the stamps have been better cared for and are more important and valuable to you and therefore to the potential purchaser.

Here's another way of presenting a bunch of otherwise low value stamps for sale - choose the ones with better postmarks and sell them as a postmark set.

I saw two eBay lots sell on the same day.  One was for a single complete set of the ten Back of Book White Russian stamps, nicely presented, and it sold for $5.  The other was for about six or seven complete sets of these same stamps, jumbled together, and described as "bogus stamps".  It sold for $4!  What is the better way of describing the stamps - "an interesting piece for the collector, a complete set of the unissued stamps of White Russia dating to the civil war period" or "a lot of mint, perf and imperf White Russia bogus issues"?  Both are true statements, but doesn't one encourage you to buy a lot more than the other!

Give Lots of Information

I saw a stamp for sale described as "Scott 30, interesting cancel".  What was interesting about the cancel?  If you are selling a stamp and you know specific details about it, then share them fully with your potential buyers.  Maybe the buyer doesn't understand why the cancel is interesting or valuable, and if you do know - if you can say "a rare cancel from the ??? traveling post office dated ....." then that makes it much more valuable to someone who isn't as knowledgeable as you.  I saw another lot where the seller completely failed to describe some of the rare cancels in the lot he was selling - the buyer that purchased them probably got a tremendous bargain because if you didn't know, and didn't take the time to research, then the value of the cancels was completely "hidden" from the casual viewer.

The good news is that usually there is no limit to the amount of space you can use for writing a text description of a stamp for sale on an auction; and indeed, no limit to the number of images you can include either.  Use this to your advantage!

Adding Images to Auction Entries or Web Pages

If you're adding images to your sale listings (which is somewhere between a good idea and essential) you should be sure to use .jpg type images.  Do not use .gif images, because the color quality is too poor, and do not use .bmp images because the file sizes are way too large, slowing down page opening times.

How big should your images be?  At least big enough so that the stamps look as big on screen as they do in real life, and perhaps a bit bigger would be better.  In other words, scan images at about 75dpi for same size images, and 100+ dpi for larger images.

Here's a good idea to consider.  Use small sized images on your for sale page, but have each image linked to a larger image, so that if a person clicks on the small image, a larger image will open in its place.  This (in my opinion) gives an ideal compromise between small/fast loading images, but which don't show much detail, and large detailed images, but which are too slow to open.  If a person is interested in an image, they can choose to click on it to see a larger image, and if they aren't interested, they don't have to wait a long time while an image of no value to them slowly opens.

If you are scanning images yourself, please try and use a good scanner and create a good scan!  If you're not familiar with the more technical aspects of color correction and scanning, simply use the automatic settings on the scanner, choose a dpi setting as I mention above, select light or medium sharpening, and trim the size of the scan closely to the size of the actual image - try not to scan any unneeded "waste space" as this just takes more time to download for no good reason.

Auction Headings/Titles

Here's a "do" and a "don't" for you.

Do be specific in the short title/heading for your auction.  Remember that you want to encourage prospective bidders to click on the link to then go and look at your auction, and the only tool available to you is the words you use in your heading.  I'm writing this having just seen an auction heading  Scott cat and another one nearby Scott stamp catalog.  Both of them are missing some vital information - what year the catalog is, whether it is just one volume or a complete set, etc.  Better headings would be  Complete Scott 1997 catalog in 5 volumes  or perhaps  1998 Scott Vol 5 P-Si  or whatever the case might be.

Don't put the price in the heading.  Almost always that will appear automatically along side it, and so it looks stupid, plus of course it becomes wrong as soon as people bid your lot up from its opening minimum.

Don't put a music file in with your auction page.  I went to look at an auction just a few minutes ago - it was of a couple of stamps that were due to close shortly with no bids, and they were interesting stamps at a good price.  But, almost like a blow between the eyes, just as I was starting to look at the stamp image, all of a sudden there was a loud "click" and horrible elevator music started blaring out of the speakers!  Well, I guess I could sort of understand something very Russian being played (but I still wouldn't like it) but to add elevator type music just because you can is offensive in the extreme.  Needless to say, I didn't bid on the stamps, even though they were interesting and well valued, and I suspect the reason that no-one else has either is that no-one else wants to reward stupidity.

Opening Bid Price

First of all, a disclaimer - pricing philatelic material so as to get the "best price" at auction is an inexact science.  However, having now tracked some thousands of different auctions, I'm starting to get a bit of a feel for a general rule of thumb, which is this :

Lots that have lower opening prices tend to sell for higher closing prices

While I have seen some exceptions, it is much more common to observe that lots which have low opening prices will sell for higher amounts than lots which have higher opening prices.  I can't start to count the number of times I've seen a stamp valued at, eg, $20, with an opening price of, eg, $10 close with no bids, then be relisted a week later with an opening price of, eg, $7.50, and then see two or three people bid it up to $12.50 or higher.

Yes, I have sometimes seen a stamp with a value of, eg, $20 have an opening price of $10 and sell at that price, and then a week later, a similar stamp have an opening price of $5 and only be bid up to $9 before selling, so there is of course a bit of risk if you put low opening prices on your auction lots, but in the long run, I believe you will sell your lots for a higher price if you put lower opening bids.

Indeed, why not throw caution to the wind and be "wild and crazy" and put a 1c opening price on every lot!  The benefit of this is that your lots will almost certainly end up with a great number of bids on them, and think about this :  If you see in a list of eBay lots an item for $10 with no bids, and next to it, an item at $10 that has had ten bids on it, which are you more likely to click on and have a look at?  All other things, of course you'll be curious to see what has attracted ten bids, and the next thing you know, you might be bidding on it yourself, too.

Don't just take my word on this.  Form your own opinion.  Read through my realised price data and see if you can't form your own pictures and patterns of how auctions work, and I think, if you do, you'll end up seeing this same pattern for yourself.

Trust - But Verify

In the words of former President Reagan (and I suspect he wasn't the first to say this!) - "trust, but verify".  Which is, of course, a polite way of saying "don't trust anything that the lying scheming enemy is trying to put over on you"!  :)

In our case, we're not talking about the clash between the superpowers.  Merely the ever present slight tensions in a classic "win/lose" game between buyer and seller.  And there is plenty of opportunity for innocent error as well as for deliberate mistake when it comes to describing stamps, quoting catalog prices, etc.

Again pointing to my experience of reviewing several thousands of eBay auctions to date, I have seen very many errors in item descriptions and in claimed catalog valuations.  And I've seen these errors range all across the scale from "harmless, unimportant, accidental" to deliberate attempts to cheat that no-one should excuse.  I've also seen people claiming membership in many different philatelic organisations, including holding past executive positions, and/or claiming amazing professional expertise in the field, and with massive high eBay positive ratings, prove to be as slippery as a person with an eBay rating of 0!  Read my lips - "trust but verify"!  :)

Now for the amazing thing.  In all the hundreds of mistakes I've seen, I don't think I've seen one single mistake in the buyer's favor.  They've all been in the seller's favor!  Maybe this is just random chance - like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 100 times in a row - interpret it as you wish.  :)

But, if you're prudent, you will do two very important things :

First, never base your bidding on the seller's description.  Evaluate the stamp images and make your own decision about quality and grade, check your preferred catalog and confirm that the stamps are correctly identified and check their catalog value.  You probably should check the realised sales data here as well.  Only then should you make a decision as to how much to bid.

Second, when you receive auction lots that you've won, check them and verify that the stamps are what you expected.  In my own experience of buying quite a few lots on eBay myself, I've received a few lots not entirely as I expected - either the stamps were wrong, or, in the case of "mixed lot of stamps totalling in excess of $500 catalog value" not only did the stamps not total $500 but their fair to poor condition would prevent anyone from selling them for anywhere near catalog price.  However, being a bit of a muddled disorganised person, and going through periods where I buy many lots from eBay, then maybe waiting three or more months before working through them all, by that time, I no-longer know who sold me what lot, or what the original description was, or anything much at all, and can do nothing about it.

As a happy (?) post script to this, I'm now doing a better job of checking on the stamps I receive myself.  Just today I discovered that a stamp I purchased that was described as a used 302b (Scott values at $8 and shows it as rare) was actually a used 407 (Scott values at $2.50).  Amazing as it may seem, the stamp was sold to me by a professional stamp dealer who has 919 positive items of eBay feedback.  Because I still had all the documentation, I was able to approach him for a refund/adjustment.

The Importance of eBay Feedback

eBay Feedback ratings are not nearly as useful as they should be.  For some strange reason, most people are extremely hesitant to give anyone a negative feedback point (probably for fear that they will then be given negative feedback in retaliation), and so most people tend to either give totally completely meaningless positive feedback "this person walks on water" "he turns water into wine" and so on and so forth, or else they just sulk and give no feedback at all.

eBay feedback can show you how active a person is, sort of.  If you see a person that has a feedback rating showing 50 feedbacks given in the last month, all indicating that the happy people have bought things from him, and yet he tells you "I'm not a dealer, I just do this for fun in my spare time" then you know that he is a "wolf in sheep's clothing"!  :)  If you find out from the feedback that the person has traded actively in Russian stamps for some time, then be wary of an auction he posts saying "old collection of Russian stamps, not picked over, might have some valuable finds in it" - because the chances are it is quite the opposite!

About the only sort of feedback that is valuable on eBay is negative feedback.  If you see a person with negative feedback items, try and locate them and read them and also see what sort of a response the person gives to their negative feedback.  Perhaps also have a look at the feedback profile of the person who left the feedback, so you can try and build up a value judgment of how fair the complaint may be.

Some Classic Don'ts

I saw an eBay lot for sale.  The title was "35 old Russian stamps".  There was a scan showing, as advertised, 35 imperial stamps.  So far, so good.  But, on the side of the stock sheet was a yellow post-it note, on which someone had written "44 old Russian stamps" - presumably the person who had previously sold the stamps to the current seller.  What does this suggest?  It sure suggests to me that the seller bought 44 stamps, pulled nine higher value stamps out, and now is selling the other 35 stamps, all of which are minimum value only stamps!  There's no chance of finding a surprise high value stamp in this lot, folks - you know for sure that they are all 15c values and as such, the 35 of them are probably worth maybe $2 in total!  However, to prove me wrong, the lot opened at $10 and had two bids, selling for $10.50 (exactly 30c per stamp).  Just to complete this analysis (and now I'm not sure what it is proving, except, perhaps, that eBay values are crazy and there are some really foolish buyers out there!), the stamps were small definitives between Scott 1-86, all low face value, and I truly doubt if any were worth more than 15c catalog value, and all were common as can be!  I stand by my $2 appraisal, and the only other thing I can say is that if you, too, would like to buy 35 (or even 350) old Russian stamps like this at a price of 30c each, then let me know as I have hundreds I can sell you!!!

Don't trust everything the seller claims about a lot, and in particular, don't trust any stamp identifications or catalog value claims.  You're usually on fairly strong ground if, for example, a seller says that a stamp is one particular catalog number when it really truly is a different one (with a vastly lower value) - most times the seller will agree to refund you your money, but why go to the hassle!  If you are bidding on a high value stamp that has only a very minor difference to a low value stamp, ask for a high resolution scan showing whatever it is you need to see so that you can determine for sure that it is the stamp you want.

As for catalog values, sellers will randomly choose the catalog that best suits them for listing an otherwise non-specified catalog value.  Other times, they may - well, let's be kind here, shall we - make an innocent arithmetical mistake in calculating the catalog value (usually these mistakes tend to be in their favor, but, hey, if it turns out to be an inadvertent undervaluing, wouldn't it be nice to know about that, too, before you assess what you are prepared to pay for the stamps yourself!).

Here's another eBay auction that closed with no bids.  It had no photo, opened for $100, and had this as a description :  "Extensive and potent collection of Russia as stripped from album pages. Catalog and contents barely checked. Contains both Mint and Used. No details, no scan.  You simply must trust me to give you fair value for this purchase.  However, I will guarantee over $500 CV not counting anything with obvious defects."  Hmmm.  $500 "catalog value" of stamps issued in the 60s-80s is probably worth about $30 in real world terms.  And, of course, what catalog is the seller basing his "guarantee" on?  Don't get suckered in by such unclarified comments.

Don't sell too few stamps in a lot.  I saw an auction that had three stamps (Scott 1765-7 used) offered for sale, with an opening bid of 1c.  Seems like a bargain, right?  Nope!  Because the seller was also asking for $1 for postage and handling (which is grossly unfair when you consider it would cost them only a 33c stamp and an envelope costing a few extra cents), and then on top of all of that, the buyer would also have to spend another 33c plus time, effort, energy, and bother to send payment to the seller.  So the minimum cost to the buyer would be 1c + $1 + 33c = $1.34 plus a fair amount of hassle.  But - the stamps have a Scott value of only 95c in total!  The only way that this auction would ever be a good value for a buyer is if the buyer could also buy other lots from the same seller at the same time to spread the shipping cost and the hassle cost over multiple lots of stamps - except, ooops, the seller had a note advising that the shipping cost was fixed, even if the buyer bought other auction lots at the same time!  Such an approach makes it impossible for the buyer to get a good price, and, for this reason, it is impossible for the seller to get a good price, either.



This page last modified on May 15, 2010