Postage Stamp Value often depends much more on condition than on the rarity of the stamp itself. We'll walk through how to tell what your stamp is worth and cover how condition affects that value.
The majority of stamps are not valuable at all and sell by the pound. At the other extreme are the handful of truly rare and famous stamps that regardless of condition have stamp values of many thousands of dollars into the millions.
But the stamps most collectors buy can have a wide range of their postage stamp value depending on the condition of the stamp. Stamps that are off-center or are damaged with faults like tears or thins are worth only a small fraction of the value of a stamp with perfect centering in perfect condition.
The first and most obvious thing to consider when determining the value of an individual stamp is its centering and general appearance.
Collectors want their stamps to look beautiful and symmetric so off-center stamps are dramatically less desirable and less valuable than the same stamp with perfect centering. A perfectly centered stamp has equal-sized margins on all sides between the edge of the stamp design and the perforations or edge of the stamp.
Perfect centering sounds easy but we're used to modern printing technology but most of the valuable stamps out there were printed from about 1840 through World War II. Stamps were infrequently badly off center due to the inaccuracies of printing and perforating techniques and technologies.
The mid-1800's were a magnificent time of experimentation and progress but the result for stamp collectors is that the vast majority of early stamps are not well centered and that rarest of stamp gems that is perfectly centered and faultless can bring astronomical prices from high net worth stamp investors.
Few early stamps have near perfect centering like this six cent 1869 United States stamp depicting George Washington.
Look closely at the corners of the blue design borders - the spacing on each side is virtually identical.
Extra Fine grading allows for a stamp to be slightly off center in one direction and still qualify as XF.
Stamps like this one that require calibrated measurements to determine any differences in margin size fall into the upper echelon of XF stamps and are often sent to a grading authority for a numerically graded certificate that takes into account not just centering but many other factors including condition, color, and visual appeal of the cancel for used stamps.
To show the power of centering, I did send the above Blue 6 cent Washington (Scott #115) stamp in for grading. After assuring myself that the stamp was faultless (for even the slightest fault reduces the value to virtually nothing) I paid the approximately $50 and a few months later received it back graded as a genuine and faultless United States 6 cent issue from 1869 with a grade of XF-Superb 95.
Grading is on a scale of 0 to 100. The above stamp is one of only 4 to reach that grade for used stamps and only 1 stamp has been graded higher. It is pretty amazing when you think out of the almost 5 Million examples of this stamp issued in 1869, there are only 5 single used stamps available to collectors graded 95 or above.
This is why a stamp like this one may sell for $1,500 USD while the stamp below may sell for around $50. And further down from there are the vast majority of these stamps which are faulty or off center. These sell for much less as they're just not desired by most collectors and consequently have a much lower postage stamp value.
TIP : If you rotate a stamp upside down to examine it, your brain won't be distracted by the design and you can better focus on visually measuring margins.
A much more common grade of centering for old stamps is Fine to Very Fine as shown below on another example of the 6 cent 1869 US issue.
This is still a pretty and collectible stamp but the design is off-center with close and unequal margins at the top and right which greatly reduce its postage stamp value.
A stamp with F/VF centering can still be a collectible and valuable stamp if it doesn't have any faults.
But the bad news is that just the slightest of differences in centering have already pushed this stamp way down on the price scale. Any faults will just further submarine that price. Now you really start to understand the economics of the stamp collecting and stamp investment community.
Even for rare and popular stamps, the value is greatly determined by the centering, appearance and condition of a stamp. An unbelievably small percentage of stamps are worth the big bucks we all hope for but with a keen eye and diligent searching maybe you can find an undiscovered gem!
There are many centering grades beyond the ones we've discussed from stamps where perforations cut into the design (Very Good VG and below) to the standard for catalog value pricing of Very Fine (VF) but the key thing to take away is that perfect centering is rare and drives postage stamp value higher on early rare stamps.
Now, we'll briefly discuss how the condition of a stamp can further influence what a stamp is worth.
The condition of a stamp affects it's value in a similar way to centering - anything other than perfection causes dramatic reductions in price.
As a collector or stamp dealer it is important to understand the many types of stamp faults and how to determine a stamp's condition so let’s get started!
At the highest level, a fault is anything other than the ideal. Any tears or creases, no matter how slight decimate stamp values. Stamp collectors are so picky that even a few broken individual paper fibers that can't be seen without high magnification are considered faults and cause a drop in stamp collecting values.
Any slight paper discoloration or fading of the stamp colors are considered faults. Even natural occurrences from the printing process can be considered faults.
For example, stamps printed in sheets often were printed such that the stamps in the row closest to the edge were not perforated. Stamp collectors call the resulting non-perforated side a "straight edge" in derogatory tones.
The Straight Edge is considered a fault even though it was made as part of the natural printing process.
This is just a quick overview of condition as this page has mostly focused on how centering affects postage stamp value.
The key thing to remember is that even the oldest and rarest stamps still depend immensely on centering and condition. That cannot be overstated - for individual better stamps condition and centering is king.
To the astute stamp collecting insider there is an opportunity here. You can often find overlooked gems with diligence, patience and a keen eye for the extremely fine gem.
If you buy stamps, whether from stamp dealers or stamp auctions (click the highlighted words to link to more of my pages about stamp topics) with patience and practice, you'll be able to assemble quite a collection over time at a discounted price.
The key is to maintain focus and buy only the highest quality stamps when you find a bargain - usually from someone less knowledgeable than you about how important centering and condition are to a stamp's true postage stamp value.