Building a stamp collection can be done in many ways. The traditional sources for stamps include;
- saving them from the mail and envelopes
- purchasing them from your post office
- purchasing them from local stamp dealers
- purchasing or trading them from other collectors (at local clubs or shows)
One of the biggest advantages of the more tradition approaches was that a good dealer could advise and assist you in building a quality collection. As our hobby has evolved, assembling collections has become even easier by using online methods.
But along with the speed and economy of buying online comes some potential pitfalls. Unlike a book or DVD (which are pretty much the same no matter where you buy them) stamps can vary greatly in condition. Buying a stamp without having it in hand is a lot like buying an ornamental plant without having it in hand. You are working from a written description and an image(s) and this means there may be unknown issues which are not understood at time of purchase. You are at the mercy of the online seller, counting on them to honestly describe the item(s) and provide representative images. Another significant challenge with online purchasing is that you may be purchasing the items from others who might not have much philatelic knowledge or experience. This often leads to stamp and cover listings which are incorrectly identified.
eBay and other online auction sites are an obvious choice for many hobbyists. Hobbyists should arm themselves with as much information as they can before investing money in online stamp purchases. This includes a working understanding of how eBay works and some of the more common issues that a stamp buyer might encounter.
eBay’s Terms and Conditions are located on their website; you should carefully review them before doing any transactions. Next, you will need to search the listings for your desired items. Once you have located items you wish to purchase you will need to evaluate the seller and the listing itself.
Evaluating sellers might appear simple but unfortunately many times it is not. First, the eBay ‘Vender Rating’ and ‘Feedback’ systems, while on the surface might appear to be of value, can easily mislead you. Some people work-around these features and have found ways to manipulate them to give buyers a level of unearned confidence. For example, there is a thriving 3rd party industry in the selling of existing eBay accounts. So while a listing might show that a seller is ‘Top Rated’ or has a history of 10,000 feedbacks the truth might be that this account was just purchased by a person who has never made a single eBay transaction before. It can take teh old adage, 'buyer beware' to new levels.
Luckily, there are other ways to develop trusted relationships with the many good online sellers. One way to ensure that you are dealing with a quality online seller is to seek the advice of other hobbyists. They can offer great input and opinions on seller they have previously dealt with and had positive experiences. If you do not personally know other hobbyists, you might consider a friendly stamp forum like the Stamp Community Family.
Another good way to build a level of comfort with sellers is to look for stamp industry organizational or club relationships. There are several very good organizations which require their members to adhere to a ‘Code of Conduct’ or other ethical agreement. The American Stamp Dealers Association vets it’s members and provides good recourse for anyone who has a grievance with any of its members. Similarly, so does the American Philatelic Society.
To evaluate listings you can easily use the eBay search feature to filter on ‘sold’ or ‘completed’ sales to view older listings. eBay only archives a few months worth of older listings but this method can give you a good idea on recent market activity. Other online auction sites also can be a great source of previous market activity and pricing values. Stamp Smarter has an article ‘How To Buy Online -Tips - What To Watch For’ which can assist you with making good buying decisions. Additionally, we maintain a unique, comprehensive database of online Listing Reviews. This feature is an excellent method for better understand and evaluating online stamp listings.