Selling an Inherited Stamp Collection

Appraising and Auctioning

Close up of stamps collection and magnifying glass
Tetra Images / Getty Images

If you inherited a stamp collection, it can be an intimidating task to sell it. If you are not a serious collector yourself, you will be unfamiliar with this specialized world. You will have to make choices on how you go about getting it appraised and then selling it.

Know Your Collector

Don't believe the collection is valuable just because of the quantity and age of the stamps. Don't expect much in terms of value unless the collection was formed by a serious collector (let's say for the sake of argument that a serious collector is one who spent $50 to $100 per month over many years) rather than a casual collector who might buy current issues at the post office and go to a couple of stamp shows a year.

The condition, as well as types of stamps in the collection, will have a great impact on the value. Many old collections are made up largely of stamp packet material. Such stamp packets often contained stamps that were reprints of original stamps issued by their governments. These have little value.

Appraising the Stamp Collection

Your local library may have stamp catalogs that would apply to your collection; you may think of going the do-it-yourself route by identifying the stamps and selling on one of the online auction sites like eBay. But if you have a number of older classic stamps, be prepared to expend time and effort. While modern stamps are fairly straightforward, earlier classics have many varieties that take a practiced eye and a level of philatelic knowledge that your catalog may not give you.

Regarding the stamp catalog, don't be fooled by that extremely flexible thing known as catalog value: it has nothing to do with what you will receive when you go to sell a collection to a dealer. The real problem with most collections is the condition. You may have a stamp or two with a high catalog value—say $1,000. If that stamp has serious flaws the value plummets. If it is actually damaged—a tear, mildew stain, missing perf tooth, etc. the stamp approaches the point of worthlessness. There will be a market for the stamp—but only as a space filler, that is a valuable stamp that a collector will buy at a fraction of the value of that stamp in good condition, to put into his album until a better example comes along.

Bring your collection to a local dealer before sending it off to an auction house. If you don't have a clue what the collection is worth, save your time, money, and aggravation by having him professionally appraise it. He may tell you then and there that there is no sense in sending the collection to an auction house as its contents don't merit it. If he does a full examination of the collection as opposed to a quick once-over expect to pay a small fee.

Of course, don’t neglect to consult any stamp collecting friends you may have. Many collectors are happy to pore over a collection. Just be sure that the friend is knowledgeable enough to know what he is looking at and not miss something of real value. And just as you’ll pay a dealer to appraise your stamp collection, you can reward your friend with a few stamps from your collection.

Selling a Collection at Auction

Be very careful about the auction house you are placing your collection with. Many serious collectors leave a note with their collections about what auction house they recommend their relatives place the stamps with. Don't go directly to that auction house when the time comes. In the recent past, there have been three major philatelic auction houses that have suffered a scandal or actually went out of business due to illegal practices. Make sure you check. In most cases, a simple Google search will give you the information you need, or at least a starting point from which you can do a follow-up to assure the auctioneer is clean and legit.

Don't forget about the fees when you go to sell your inherited collection at auction. Generally, you’ll pay the auction house 10 to 15 percent of the hammer price of your collection. A bargain, really, when you consider the work that has gone into working up your collection for auction. Of course, they also get a fee from the buyer, so with a valuable collection, the house does come out of the deal well.​