Stamp Condition

Once you have decided what stamps you want to collect, another question arises: Should you save stamps that are mint (pristine issues with full original gum, just as they came from the post office); unused stamps (those that may have some of the gum missing, or have been hinged, but are uncanceled and have never seen postal use); or used stamps (those that, either on or off cover, bear an official cancellation)?

From a cost standpoint, the beginner will find it least expensive to collect used stamps, much more costly to save unused issues, and most expensive to go after mint copies. That general statement is usually, but not always, true. In a few cases, a certain used stamp may be more expensive than its mint variety, but those instances are quite uncommon.

Many great collections consist of used stamps only. Many collecting purists prefer the used specimens, based on the premise that stamps are created to move mail. To those collectors, a stamp without a cancel has never fulfilled its reason for existence.

Used stamps are more plentiful than mint copies. You will have more to choose from, and they are easier to find. Used stamps, especially the older varieties, are far cheaper than mint copies.

As an example, take the prices on the U.S. $5 America issue of 1923. In used condition it catalogs at $12.50; in mint condition it lists at $200 and up. That's typical of the price relationship used versus mint on most older U.S. stamps.

For the new or young collector just trying his wings in this hobby, most used stamps will represent no great loss if his collecting interests change, or if his lack of experience causes him to damage some stamps. Youngsters, perhaps between the ages of 6 to 12, should be encouraged to save used stamps at the outset for both of those reasons.

Unused, hinged, uncanceled varieties will be easier to find than pristine mint stamps, but their prices will be far higher than used stamps. If a collector is content with the clean, unmarked face of a stamp, even though the gum on the back is partial, missing or hinged, these unused types will cost less than mint copies - sometimes far less.

Still, many stamp addicts seek nothing but the post office fresh mint copies. Beauty is one reason, but resale value may be another. Many collectors are also investors at heart. They feel that the extra cost of a mint stamp with full original gum will be more than returned when the collection is finally sold, by them or their heirs.

Mint? Unused? Used? The choice again is yours. A collector can save what he wants, but should go into collecting with his eyes open as to price differences and the resultant effect on his pocketbook.

But the total condition of a stamp embraces far more than these mint, unused or used factors. Here we come to the alphabet soup of stamp condition: S, XF, VF, F-VF, F and Ave. Those letters stand for Superb, Extra Fine, Very Fine, Fine to Very Fine, Fine and Average all basically referring to a stamp's centering, but taking other conditions into account as well.

A perfectly centered stamp with a hole in it should not be classified as extra fine or superb. A canceled stamp with tire tracks that obliterate the vignette could not be termed a very-fine used copy. As a rule, however, dealers and catalogs will use these terms to describe a stamp's centering only.


One great dealer/collector once said that the most valuable thing in the world, ounce for ounce, is original stamp gum. Based on the price differences it can cause, "gum has to be worth at least $1 million a quart. " He was not being facetious. Full original gum on the first few issues of the United States can send auction prices soaring to double or triple the worth of a partially gummed or hinged unused stamp. Ridiculous? A lot of collectors think so, but the condition of a stamp's gum remains a marketing, if irrational, fact of stamp life.

Gum condition is generally divided into six major classifications.

Any other unusual fault should be spelled out from dealer to customer. Some repairs, tiny tears and thins may be revealed under high magnification, ultraviolet light examination, or in watermark fluid immersions.