Just about every stamp collector has both postmarked stamps and those that lack postmarks. One question about the postmarked stamps is whether the postmark makes a stamp worth more, or if stamps with postmarks are worth anything at all.
Stamps with postmarks are worth anywhere from nothing to thousands of dollars, depending on various factors including specific value criteria and their historical value. Their worth also depends on their full cover package value, and the valuation process used.
If you don’t consider all of these factors when trying to find the value of a stamp with a postmark, the value of a stamp could be inflated beyond what is reasonable. Below, we discuss how to find out if your stamps’ postmarks are worth anything.
Factors That Affect The Value Of Stamps With Postmarks
The value of a stamp is determined in large part by three factors:
Each works with the others to create a baseline from which a subjective interpretation can be made and then compared to industry standards. Industry standards are generally determined by:
- Scott Specialized Stamp Catalogue of United States Stamps & Covers
- Stanley Gibbons Specialized Stamp Catalogues
The Scott Specialized Stamp Catalogue of United States Stamps & Covers is the standard stamp valuation book for the United States. The Stanley Gibbons Catalogue is generally used in the UK, but the organization makes stamp valuation booklets for the entire world, broken down by region.
Between these resources, every stamp can have an assigned value. Below, we talk in more detail about how each factor affects a stamp’s value.
The Effect Of Stamp History On Its Value
The history of a stamp entails where it was produced, when it was printed, any specialized information pertaining to it (if it was a commemorative stamp or had any special circulation details) and how it was used.
A stamp might have a flaw that was not found until after it was in circulation. There might also be a historical event attached to it. Finally, depending on the type of stamp, it might be a limited edition or have another characteristic that affects its prevalence in circulation, such as popularity with the public.
Included under the category of history are the physical factors of the stamp that do not include the overall condition of the stamp. The most important of these is centering.
The centering of a stamp applies to the margins between the stamp edge and the edge of the perforation on a sheet of stamps. If those margins are equal, the stamp is considered more visually appealing. In addition, the design of a stamp should be balanced within the stamp’s margins.
In most cases, a non-centered stamp will be worth less than one that is centered. The exception to this is if the centering is due to a flaw that was caught quickly and corrected, resulting in a very limited run of that type of stamp with that type of flaw.
In that case, rarity becomes a driver of value, which means it could be worth much more than face value. In fact, with every criteria for evaluating stamps, rarity trumps all other factors. If a stamp is rare, collectors will want it and its value will therefore be higher.
The Condition Of The Stamp With The Postmark
Of all the valuation criteria, the condition of the stamp is the most important. With rare exception, a stamp that is not in good condition will not be worth anything close to a stamp that is in good condition. A stamp’s condition, however, is judged on a different set of criteria than what most people would normally assume.
For example, a stamp that was used and is still affixed on an envelope with a clear postmark and the contents of the envelope still intact will be worth more than just the stamp by itself. That includes if the envelope and stamp are soiled or otherwise damaged.
There are many ways a stamp can degrade in condition. The first of these is through exposure.
This happens whenever a stamp, either affixed to an envelope or not, is affected by time, air, dirt, glue issues, debris and/or rough handling.
A stamp from the 1930s tucked away in a drawer will have almost 100 years’ worth of exposure to the environment it was in. Likewise, the same type of stamp secured in a collection sleeve in a stamp book will be in much better condition.
The former in this case will have more wear on it than the latter. That will make the latter more valuable in almost every scenario. The only scenario in which it will not be more valuable is if the exposed stamp is somehow tied to a period of time or event in history.
This can happen when a stamp is exposed to one or more of several types of light, including sunlight. Because stamps are comprised of paper and various types of dyes, exposure to light can be very destructive.
The paper itself can dry out and become brittle. The dye itself can lose potency. Or a combination of both can happen. The result is a stamp that looks noticeably different from one that is in mint condition.
A design mistake, say a number that is printed out of sequence or upside down, is different from a printing error. While some printing errors can make a stamp more valuable, most just mark the stamp down as being not in as good condition as it could be.
The determining factor of the value of an imperfection is how many stamps with the error made it to circulation. If the error was significant and the stamp is not all that rare, the error will work against the value of the stamp.
If the error made it into circulation but is incredibly difficult to find, the rarity of the stamp with the error will drive the worth of the stamp higher.
Perforations that occur during the production process can cause a stamp to be marred with uneven centering. In extreme cases, the artwork can be damaged. Because perforations are done on sheets of stamps, margins on the other side of the artwork can be wider than usual. Another possibility is that the stamp will have no perforation at all.
In any case, the perforations devalue the stamp, excepting when some portion of the stamps made it into circulation. In that case, depending on how many deformed stamps made it into circulation, the value of the stamp can increase, but only if the lot in circulation was very limited.
This goes along with the stamp exposed to the elements but is a little further along on the scale of neglect. Rough handling includes the stamp being ripped, bent, marred by ink, or smeared. This can happen while the stamp is in circulation or even if it never makes it into circulation.
As with any collectible, the degree of degradation of condition is ranked. Stamp rating systems range from Superb to Below Average. The three ratings that really matter from a valuation standpoint are Superb, Fine and Good.
This is the highest quality of stamp. It has impeccable centering, vivid colors and the glue (gum) on the back is in excellent shape. In most cases, this rating is only found with stamps that never were put into circulation or used.
These stamps do not have a noticeable flaw, but their centering is average and subtle color fade exists. Physical degradation might also be present from being in circulation and used for postage.
These stamps have issues with centering, minor defects, hinge markings and colors that are not all that vivid. With stamps rated as “good,” it is almost assured that the lot was put in circulation and used for postage.
Any stamp rated below these three ratings possesses negligible and non-existent value. The only exception is when a stamp in poor condition is incredibly rare. In that case, the collectability of the stamp is not affected by the condition of the stamp because the value lies solely in its rareness.
Stamp “gum” is the glue on the back of the stamp. Stamps of the highest value have perfect gumming that is original and undamaged. Gum levels are also rated. The ratings for gum serve the same purpose as the ratings for stamp condition. Those ratings are:
- Mint: The gum is full, undamaged and just like when it was first applied to the stamp
- Unused: The original gum has been degraded or damaged, often via the use of stamp hinges to adhere the stamp to a collection book
- Unused Without Gum: Stamps that have no gum or have lost their original gum
The Effect Of A Stamp’s Rarity On Its Value
Rareness affects all aspects of the condition of the stamp and is a criteria for stamp degradation in and of itself. Some stamps are rare because of a flaw that was caught before the stamp was put in circulation. In other cases, a stamp only had a limited print run, but was put into circulation.
You can determine a stamp’s rareness via the market or through experts. Generally, stamps that have errors in printing, content and perforation are considered rare. The same applies to limited issue stamps and very old or obscure stamps. Rareness of run and rareness of flaw can both factor into the value of a stamp.
Postmark History And Its Effect On A Stamp’s Value
As with the gum or the condition of a stamp, a postmark is another signifier that helps determine the worth of the stamp. In some cases, this is determined by the stamp’s history. Postmarks can help identify that history and its contribution to the overall history and value of the stamp.
The very first postmark was called a “Bishop mark.” It was created by English Postmaster General Henry Bishop in 1661. The postmark showed the day and month of a mailed package, and its purpose was to prove when mail carriers were delaying the delivery of the mail.
The First Postmarks
Over time, postmarks were added to help route mailed items within London, and even played a role in creating what some consider to be the first “stamp.” Postmarks traditionally included the date and item was mailed and where it was mailed from.
In the early 1900s, many letters received postmarks from wherever a package or letter traveled on its way to its destination. Postmarks have been applied on the front and rear of packages and have included locations such as railway post offices, maritime ship and naval postmarks.
When the Pony Express was the predominate deliverer of letters and packages in the West, no less than 250 postmarks were created and today reside in various stamp collections. Postmarks can also be applied by individuals and organizations separate from the United States Post Office.
Applying Your Own Postmark
To do that, one must receive a permit to “apply your own postmark.” You need to meet various conditions to gain the permit. Examples include Federal Express’ and UPS’ express mail services, although private mail services are an option for individuals in certain circumstances.
The purpose of postmarks for the last two centuries has been threefold. The first is to verify a timely delivery. The second is to provide location data and place of origin. The third is to cancel a stamp so it can’t be used in the future.
The Modern Age Of Mail And Postmarks
As mail options have gone digital, postmarks have become less common. Digital items such as meter labels, computer generated postage and some computer vended postage let people print their own postage, eliminating the need for the USPS to affix a postmark to a letter or package.
Postmarks have also been affected by non-mail delivery of messages. Before computers, mail generally had to be delivered manually from one party to the next. Now, what previously would have been mail can be delivered via email, direct messaging, or posting on digital bulletin boards.
Additionally, as the USPS has struggled financially, post offices have been consolidated and some have been shut down. This has reduced the number of different postmarks. It has also affected the value of a stamp. A postmark from a post office that was consolidated or shut down is generally worth more money than one from a post office that is still in business.
Other Post Mark Facts
Postmarks Are Unique
One aspect of US postmarks is the originality and uniqueness that was used at various post offices around the country. Because there was no federal postmark, local Postmasters had leeway in creating their own version of the postmark. In many cases, the Postmaster strove for individuality as a way to identify a location.
For example, many communities and railroad post offices developed their own postmarks. In a scenario where the path of mail was documented by postmarks, this meant that one letter could have several types of postmarks.
Military posts also had their own postmarks for deployed and non-deployed personnel. This was partly due to security concerns, especially for deployed personnel. It was also because the military postmark in a way honored the branch of service the mailer was serving in.
Regardless of type of postmark, all a postmark had to have was the name of the place it was issuing from and the date, as well as some sort of marring of the stamp to prevent it from being used again. Other information or designs were permitted as long as the central function of the postmark was not infringed upon, including symbols as mail canceling agents.
Postmarks Are Not Always About Mail
Occasionally, postmarks have been used to verify dates on non-mail related objects. One example happened in 1976, when the US Treasury issued a new $2 bill. To commemorate the bill and prove it was a first edition, purchasers were able to buy a first-class stamp along with the bill and have the postmark affixed to the bill.
Why Does This Matter?
As mentioned in the history section earlier, postmarks can add value to a stamp. Understanding all the facets of stamp value, though, helps define the role postmarks play in all of that. A postmark in and of itself is not worth much, but if it enhances a stamp, it can add a significant amount of value.
A clear postmark from 1800, for example, may add some value to a collector, even if the stamp is in less than perfect condition. A postmark from a naval ship in 1943 indicates it was mailed from a soldier during World War II.
The location postmarks were issued also factors in. A postmark on a letter during the settling of the American West is an indication where post offices were located at that point in time. That takes on significant value if the location was in a place not previously known to be settled.
The Effect Of Rarity
Rarity also plays a role with postmarks. Postmarks that are from locations that are no longer post offices or no longer exist at all are worth a lot more than one from a post office that has been in business for a long time. This is because the postmarks assigned by the closed facility are rarer than a post office that still postmarks mail today.
Finally, the history of the postmark can play a role in determining value. Any date stamp on a postmark that coincided with a historical event adds interest to the postmark. That can translate into value.
Are Stamps With Postmarks Worth Anything?
As illustrated above, several aspects of a stamp’s pedigree can affect its value. Each by itself is not usually worth a lot, but together they can add significant value to a stamp. That includes when that stamp has a postmark. There are, though, specific aspects of a postmark, or rather how it is presented that can add to that collective increase in value.
1. Specific Value Criteria
As with stamps, postmark value is not as simple as a single assigned amount. There are multiple variables that factor into the value of a postmark and whether it has the potential to gain in value in the future.
Postmarks that are on full envelopes or postcards are called covers. The envelope or postcard condition contributes much to the valuation of that postmark and, subsequently, the stamp.
Full Or Partial Envelopes Matter
A postmark on a cover is worth much more than a postmark that has been cut from the cover. Likewise, covers that are ripped or punctured are worth less than a cover that is not, especially if the damage affects the appearance of the post mark.
Older postmarks are worth more in most cases than any postmark since the 1960s. A postmark during the zip code era is worth anywhere from pennies up to a dollar or two.
State Of The Issuing Post Office
If a postmark is from a post office that has been consolidated into another facility or is closed, it will be worth more than one that comes from a post office still in business today.
Another factor in determining the worth of a postmark is whether it is legible. Some postmark inks get smudged or even eroded off of envelopes with time and that makes a difference to its value. Covers with legible postmarks are worth more than those that are not legible.
The age of a postmark matters as well. Machine postmarks from manufacturers that are out of business and hand canceled postmarks canceled by devices no longer used are worth money (it is estimated up to $20).
Covers from the 19th century with a legible postmark will usually sell for somewhere between $10 and $20. Fancy cancels, that is those postmarks that used a design to cancel a stamp, can run up to $100 for a cover in good shape.
In addition, hand canceled postmarks from the 19th century are particularly rare and, depending on the shape of the cover, can fetch hundreds of dollars. Likewise, a postmark from a town or post office that lasted only a short time can be worth significant money.
Quality Of The Postmark
As mentioned above, and as with stamps, postmarks are rated according to their overall condition:
- Very Fine: Cover in great shape with clear lettering perfectly struck, bold struck (these are rare before 1930)
- Fine: Cover in great shape, lettering well struck and overall condition is much better than average
- Very Good: Cover and postmark have some minor flaws and lighter ink coverage although most collectors would find the flaws acceptable
- Good: Cover has tears or folds, the postmark is missing letters or numbers but the name and date are legible
With some covers and postmarks, the public perception is as important as anything in determining value. If the philatelic community deems a cover or postmark rare, it will bring in a significant amount of money, regardless of how it stacks up against traditional value assessment tools. In this case, a cover and postmark could be worth thousands of dollars.
Before Stamp Usage
Any cover and postmark that were used before stamps will be worth a significant amount of money. Stampless covers will occasionally have a circle postmark, but could have borders of different shapes.
Many will have handwritten postage amounts as well as notations regarding the weight and distance of delivery. These, called Stampless Covers, are usually worth up to $100.
2. Historical Value
If a postmark can be tied to a historical period or event, the cover, postmark and any stamp involved can be worth a lot of money. In some cases, mere association with the event in question can boost its collectability and thus, its value.
3. Full Cover Package
Covers with the original letter included are worth more than just a cover.
4. The Valuation Process
To get a valid determination of the worth of a postmark, a collector should take the cover with the postmark and stamp (if applicable) to a postal history dealer. “Postal history” refers to the cover and postmark. If one is not available locally, there are a few on the internet that are reliable.
These include, but are not limited to postalhistory.com, postal-history.com, postalhistorystore.com and courtlandcovers.com.
If for some reason those sites cannot help valuate a stamp collection and postmark value, the site managers can give references for other reputable stamp valuation organizations.
Another way to get a stamp with postmark or stamp collection valued is via an auction on consignment. By setting a base price, a collector can guarantee they will get a minimum price for the collection, or the collection will not be sold.
The price of a sale at an auction will generally be approximately what the collection would get on the open market. One key is making sure the auctioning party has a history auctioning off collectibles, and preferably stamps.
Assigning a valuation to a postmark in addition to a stamp requires more than just a quick look in a stamp catalog because there are so many variables to consider. Postmarks can be worth anything from pennies up to thousands of dollars. The best way to get a stamp collection valuated is to take it to a stamp collecting expert and have them assess the overall worth of the collection.