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.
Superb means what it implies: The stamp vignette is exactly centered on the paper; opposite margins are equal and large.
Extra-Fine stamps have the design almost perfectly centered, with all margins nearly the equivalent of a superb copy. Imperforate stamps will have 4 normal-sized margins. Used stamps will have light, neat cancels.
Very-Fine copies will have the design fairly well-centered, but still measurably off center. All margins should be substantial, with perforations well away from the design. Imperforate stamps will have at least three margins of normal size and used stamps will have light, unobtrusive cancels.This is the grade of stamps that are priced in the Scott catalog beginning with the 1996 United States Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps.
Fine to Very Fine copies may be a little off center to one or two sides. Imperforate stamps will have at least two full margins and the design will not touch the edge. Used stamps will not have cancellations that detract from the design.
Fine stamps can be those that are visibly off center, but the perforations do not cut into the design however close they may come. Imperforate stamps may have small margins and used stamps may be heavily cancelled.
Average copies will show the perforations cutting into the design. Cancellations on used stamps may be extremely heavy.
Another grade exists called Poor. These are usually fit only to be used as space fillers until a better copy may be obtained. The perfs are well into the design; the centering is awful; the stamp may be dirty and smudged. In a few rare and valuable stamps, only poor copies exist. Such is the case with the unique 1¢ magenta of British Guiana. Only in such events should poor stamps be acceptable.
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.
Original gum (OG): This is self-explanatory; the stamp bears all of the gum with which it was issued.
Regummed (RG): Sometime during its existence, new gum has been applied to the stamp. This greatly decreases its value. Many years ago, regumming was detectable with a high-powered microscope; examination of the perf teeth would show very minute strands of new gum extending outward. That couldn't have happened at the printers, since stamp paper is gummed before it is perforated. Regummers have since become so expert that they now pass that test. They regum the stamps, slipping them into perf jigs that prevent the wayward strands, or use other means to duplicate OG. In fact, regumming is now such an exact science that many collectors no longer will pay exorbitant prices for a so-called original-gum stamp. Likewise, many stamp expertizing committees no longer render a judgment on gum. For those reasons, the beginner and even the experienced collector may be well-advised to avoid collecting original-gum stamps. Some regummers of today are just too good.
No Gum (NG): Either the stamp was issued without gum, or the gum has been removed.
Never hinged (NH): The stamp shows no traces of ever having been hinged, and the gum is not disturbed in any manner. If the gum has been disturbed, the stamp cannot be considered as having original gum for pricing purposes. Often described as Mint Never Hinged (MNH).
Lightly hinged (LH): The stamp has been hinged with a peelable hinge that has been carefully removed. Only slight traces of hinging remain.
Heavily hinged (HH): Heavy remnants of a hinge may remain, or missing gum may be noted where the hinge once was. The danger here is that the stamp paper may have been thinned, in which event the stamp has a fault. Any fault in the stamp should be noted in a dealers price list, auction catalog or in a face-to-face sale. Faults include thins, short perfs, creases, tears, stains, ink marks, pinholes or scrapes.
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.