How to buy and sell stamps at auction

Colin Such, of auction house Warwick & Warwick, answers readers' questions on buying and selling stamps, covers and postal history at auction

Q. Aren't auctions just for the very rich? It seems that 'normal' collectors would not be able to compete with bidders at such sales, is this true?

A. Whilst it is true that many lots in auctions are estimated and realise hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, equally there are smaller collections and ranges on offer and also individual stamps, and sets of stamps. Why not look at a few auction catalogues on the internet? You'll soon get a flavour of what is on offer. Alternatively if you only want to spend a very modest amount, you can have a vast amount of fun bidding on lots on eBay.

Q. How does one come up with an estimate for an item? The catalogue price often seems unrealistic, so what is the estimate based on?

A. Valuing stamp collections is a skill which takes years to learn. The catalogue is a useful tool, but only if you know how to use it. Whilst a lightly mounted mint King George V high value from a popular Commonwealth country might command an estimate of 30% to 40% of the catalogue value, the average collection includes very few of these 'plums' and the percentage of catalogue value realisable drops as a consequence. With collections of modern stamps, where the vast majority of the stamps have not appreciated in value over their issue price, we simply add up the face value and estimate the collection at a slightly discounted rate, in order to encourage bidding.

Q. How has the Internet affected auction houses?

A. The internet has had a beneficial effect. Our website is visited, on average, 500 times each day and our clients place bids without having to wait to receive a printed catalogue through the post. It is possible to place far more scans of stamps on the on-line catalogue than is possible in the printed catalogue, so the on-line bidder has more information to help him or her calculate the level of bidding.

Q. What do you look for when valuing a stamp?

A. That’s simple – scarcity, condition and desirability. If you have all three, you are onto an auction winner.

Q. Do you collect stamps yourself? Which are the most incredible items you have seen while working in the field of philatelic auctions?

A. I last collected stamps more than 30 years ago. I could not justify spending sufficient funds to accumulate the kind of philatelic collection that would interest me these days. My collecting urges these days are satisfied by buying the occasional canal postcard.
The most amazing collection I have had the pleasure of working on, in recent years, was the magnificent collection of Great Britain overprints formed by Gian-Maria Rossi. His Niger Coast provisionals were second to none.

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