How to Protect Yourself in Internet Auctions
As stamp volume increases via transactions on the Internet, people who want
to make a fast buck selling dubious items also grows.
Since stamps bought through Internet auctions seem to be one of the biggest
areas of concern for all auction transactions contracted for over the web, it
remains up to the stamp and cover buyer to be on guard when bidding and
purchasing merchandise via auction.
Here are some of the problems that have been reported regarding Internet
- Forgeries are being sold to collectors who aren't aware of the vast and
active world of philatelic forgers. They often enhance lower quality stamps
to make them appear better, and then offering them for sale at higher
- Forgeries are spotted on the Internet by knowledgeable philatelists, and
the seller is contacted explaining and detailing the forgery, yet the item
remains listed on the Internet, and is eventually sold.
- Many of the items being offered and sold are described by amateurs, and
after the material is paid for and received, the item is found to have major
quality and repairing problems.
- When the "error" is pointed out, sellers have sometimes refused
to refund the money paid for the item.
- Items are bought and paid for, and the seller claims the item was mailed.
But it was never received.
- Items are being mis-catalogued. One collector bought three different
U.S.A. Washington-Franklin definitive issue stamps from the same Internet
seller, and all of them were misdescribed using an incorrect Scott Catalog
- Internet auctions seem to have an attitude of "You bought it, it's
- One Internet auction firm discovered that an unscrupulous seller was
entering nice comments about his own service using assumed names and email
There is only one method available to the buyer today that will help assure
protection. That is to ask the Internet auction firm what they will do if an
item is misdescribed, not shipped, or any other possibility. Then it is up to
the buyer to make an informed decision. Fortunately, most of the transactions on
the Internet work out to everyone's satisfaction.
That's great news unless you are one of those who didn't receive your
paid-for merchandise, or if you are a buyer who received a misdescribed item.
It's still a Buyer Beware situation.
How to Avoid Mistakes
The best way to avoid mistakes while collecting stamps is to collect for fun, not for profit. It may turn out to be very profitable, but you have to know what you are doing and collecting stamps is a learning process. If you realize that there is no right or wrong way to collect, then you can avoid all mistakes. That is the great aspect of stamp collecting, you can do whatever you want and it is still collecting stamps.
If you ever attend a stamp club meeting, and there are twenty people present, you will find that all twenty collect something different. Even those that collect the same country don't save the same items. For example, some only save the stamps with birds or trains on them. While others look for booklets or stamps issued in a five-year period of war, peace or transition. They can then become very knowledgeable in that topic and become an "expert" in that field. That's all it takes.
One person collected pictures of pretzels on stamps in addition to saving stamps of his own country. He was very proud to have every stamp ever issued that showed a pretzel. There were three of them in the entire world. It took him a lot of work to find those three but no one ever doubted that he had a complete collection.
There is a saying that, "Knowledge is power," and it is very true for the stamp collecting hobby. When you go to a stamp show, or visit a stamp dealer in his or her store, then you will soon realize how important knowledge is. As you look through boxes of envelopes or stock pages with stamps on them, you may find that stamp or envelope that fits exactly into your collection.
Try to avoid buying a torn or damaged stamp. Examine them closely, front and back, to look for tiny holes or tears or even thin paper on the back. This can happen when a former owner of the stamp used a hinge to affix the stamp to an album and then took it out, leaving a portion of the gum on the page. Tears happen when someone rips the stamp off an envelope and isn't very careful about the process.
There are many things that can be done with torn or damaged stamps. They can be used to cover a home made stamp album, or containers to hold stamps or for decorative purposes, but they are very rarely used as part of a collection. There are exceptions to this. If the stamp is worth a great deal of money and very hard to locate, some collectors may buy this item and put it in their album. But they will always be on the lookout for a better copy to exchange for the damaged one in their album.
It's a fun hobby and you can learn about the world while meeting new friends.
How to Buy a Maganifier
This is an essential part of every stamp collector's tool kit. There are always details of every stamp that can only be seen with a magnifying glass, no matter how good your eyesight is.
Most collectors have several magnifiers for various views.
The basic magnifier is a traveling one that can be taken to stamp shows to examine material from a dealer's offering before you buy the stamp or cover. This can vary in strengths, but one should be in your pocket at all times.
For the home, get a top-quality, color-corrected glass with a power between five and ten. Collectors claim that more than ten power actually shows too much in detail and may be useless in examining stamps. Less than five power simply does not show everything that you will want to see on a stamp.
The easiest way to check if the lens is color-corrected is to examine a black line on a white background. If you see a thin rainbow or any other color or shade besides black at the edge of the black line, then reject that glass.
Some magnifiers have built-in illumination while others are on a stand and leave the hands free to adjust the stamp in various positions. Take a stamp with you when shopping for a magnifying glass. Find the one that you are most comfortable with before buying.
How to Buy a Watermark Tray
The purpose of a watermark tray is to help identify the watermark on a stamp. Holding the stamp up to the light or placing it face down on a dark surface can detect some watermarks. Others, printed on colored paper, cannot be identified that easily and a watermark tray is necessary.
The normal way is to place the stamp face down in the tray and add a small drop of watermark fluid into the tray. As the fluid penetrates the paper, the watermark will come into view. This happens because the thinner paper where the watermark is located has a faster penetration than does the normal paper.
If that moment is passed over, or if you want an additional look at the watermark, then the stamp should be allowed to dry and the process repeated.
Black glass trays work best. These can be special trays sold by stamp stores for this purpose. Or a black saucer works fine. Orange and yellow stamps may require a blue background tray for easier viewing. Some collectors have been known to use jar tops as watermark trays.
Sometimes, the watermark fluid will dissolve various additives in the stamps and deposit this on the bottom of the tray. This can also come from remnants of hinges. Clean the trays frequently and wait until they are absolutely dry and clean before using them again.
How to Buy Stamp Tongs
Many collectors incorrectly call tongs "tweezers." Tweezers are usually used in beauty parlors and if you use serrated tip tweezers on postage stamps, there is a very strong likelihood of damaging the stamp.
Tongs are available in a number of shapes and sizes; some have pointed tips, others are called spade-ended. Each type will do an effective job, once you have become accustomed to using them. The choice is yours.
Care must be used in either type. A pointed tip is easier to slide under a stamp, but it can also damage or even slice the item if not used properly. A spade end may push the perforations aside and bend them, as you are trying to get under the stamp.
Every so often plan on sanding the edges of the tongs so that your finger does not feel any sharp hooks. Do not sharpen the edges, only the point of the tongs.
It takes practice to get used to tongs, but they should be used if you plan to keep your stamps a long time. Moisture from your fingers can adhere to the stamps and eventually discolor or even wet the stamp enough to stick to the album page.
How to Buy Stamps
It's nice to find free stamps, from your own mail and as favors from friends, but there are many opportunities to add to your collection by spending some money. The problem is usually too many opportunities and too little money, not the other way around!
The easiest way to find a stamp shop or stamp dealer is to check the AskPhil Reference Library under dealers (coming soon). Of course, you can also look through the yellow pages under "Stamps for Collectors." There are 1,200 stamp stores in the USA with thousands more throughout the world.
Some people are surprised to find out that there are public stamp shows held regularly all over the world. Some shows are very large, in convention centers in major cities, and others are much smaller, maybe in a community center or a small hotel. You can find stamp shows in your region by asking a local stamp dealer, or checking in the philatelic press, or on the websites of some of the major philatelic newspapers. Some shows advertise in local media, but usually can't afford large and flashy ads and you may not notice the ads.
Many stamp shows have exhibits prepared by collectors and entered in competition for prizes, and some have workshops and seminars where you can learn more about the hobby. But one thing that all stamp shows have is plenty of dealers selling all types of philatelic material - stamps, covers, and supplies. Going to a show is one of the best activities in the hobby, to see what is available in the marketplace, to meet and make friends, to see wonderful exhibits, and to add to your knowledge.
Another type of stamp store is any post office in any country. You will find that the postal administrations, or the PTT, have more "retail stores" than any other business in the nation! Not all post offices carry each and every current stamp, but they should have a nice selection. Some post offices in major cities have a special philatelic or stamp window, just to serve collectors' needs.
The U. S. Postal Service also has a mail-order service, the Philatelic Fulfillment Service Center. Through this catalog, you can buy every item currently sold by the USPS, including some that have gone off sale at regular post offices. To get on the mailing list for free copies of the catalog, USA Philatelic, call 1-800-STAMP-24, or send a request to PFSC, P.O. Box 41924, Kansas City, MO 64141-6424. You also can buy stamps through the USPS website: http://www.usps.gov.
The Postal Service also sells some new issue stamps from other countries through the PFSC, and these can be a nice introduction to those countries' stamps. At the moment, USPS' international partners include Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Israel, Australia, Mexico, and the United Nations.
Every country in the world has its own postal administration, and most of them are pleased to receive orders for new issues from collectors in other countries. Some postal administrations will accept credit cards, making it very easy to order stamps. Many postal administrations have websites now, and can be accessed through AskPhil. Just go to Worldwide Philatelic Agencies in the AskPhil Reference Library.
The Web itself has opened up a whole new world of opportunity to buy stamps and covers, directly from the many dealers who have sites, and at the many stamp auctions sites. You will find the dealer listing in the AskPhil Reference Library.
There always has been a huge stamp marketplace by mail, through advertising by dealers and collectors in philatelic publications. Even the Internet hasn't changed that - there still are hundreds of ads in each issue of the big philatelic newspapers and magazines. There are dealers who handle all stamps of the world, and there are dealers who handle only very specialized areas.
It's a good idea to subscribe to at least one general-interest philatelic publication, and also to join both a local club and a national stamp organization. Check the AskPhil club or specialist society listings. Doing this will help you to "cover the bases" when it comes to finding material to buy.
The philatelic marketplace, especially the mail sale portion, runs on a lot of trust and goodwill, but no one should take things for granted. As in any business transaction, be careful to protect yourself in philatelic selling and buying. The Internet has made it possible for many types of people to anonymously enter the marketplace and take advantage of an unwary consumer faster than was ever possible before. Commerce on the internet is so new that the legal system hasn't caught up with it - it's not clear even who to complain to if a deal goes wrong. In the USA, dealings by mail come under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
One way to protect yourself in general is to deal with dealers and collectors who are members of a national organization, such as the American Philatelic Society, the American Stamp Dealers Association, or the dealers association in your country. Both the APS and the ASDA have a system for handling complaints against their members, so you have some recourse if a deal goes wrong.
It is always a good idea to keep records of any deals, because complaints must have some written proof to support them. Most stamp collectors are wonderful people, but human nature is no different inside philately than it is outside!
How to Buy Watermark Fluid
Benzine used to be the fluid of choice, but it is highly flammable and also dissolves some of the printing ink used by the photogravure process. Carbon tetrachloride is also on the no-no list since it is considered hazardous to your health.
Trichloroethane (TCE) is a solvent used for photogravure printing ink and highlights thins, creases, holes, repairs and watermarks, plus drying quickly. It is non-flammable but is considered a mild carcinogen.
Clear and colorless TCE can be bought in paint stores and should be transferred to glass bottles immediately.
Lighter fluid can also be used as a watermark fluid, but it doesn't seem to be as effective as TCE in highlighting paper flaws. It is highly flammable, (no surprise in that statement), but the squirt top is handy in aiming streams of fluid at stamps.
How to Collect Perfins
Perfins is an abbreviation for "perforated initials" or "perforated insignia."
Perfins are holes added to stamps for special reasons, and can make an interesting collection. A perfin is a perforated design, symbol, insignia, letter, or group of letters in a postage stamp placed there by an individual, organization, or government agency for the purpose of preventing unauthorized use.
In earlier times, stamps often functioned as money in small transactions. In Great Britain, where the idea of perfins was invented, post offices would redeem stamps for cash, if the trade-ins were in pairs or larger multiples. Employees who took stamps from the office could sell them back to the post office or to other businesses as postage, use them themselves as postage, or offer them in lieu of cash for goods. Stamps with perfins became identifiable, not negotiable outside the office mailroom.
Postage meters were invented in the 1920s and replaced perfins in many offices, but perfins continue to be used today throughout the world.
Mounting perfin stamps on a black background can help to make the pattern of holes more obvious. It also may be helpful to mount the stamp design-side down, on a black background. This will show off the perforated initials so that they easily can be read.
Examine the perfins, and if the stamp was originally punched from the front of the stamp, rather than the back, it may be helpful to mount the stamp face side up. Otherwise, you may want to mount them with the face side down for easier identification.
It is a fascinating part of stamp collecting with easy-to-find and mostly inexpensive material.
How To Get Stamps
There are many ways to get postage stamps for your collection. The most common method is to ask friends and neighbors to save them for you from their incoming mail. Tell them to save the whole envelope since you want to cut off the stamps yourself. This way, you can make certain that the stamp doesn't get torn when being removed from the envelope.
Besides, if the envelope has an unusual postmark, you may want to save the whole envelope for your collection.
You will find that collecting commemorative stamps (these usually honor famous people, places or events) is harder than collecting definitive stamps (these are the common smaller stamps) used in large quantities by mass mailers. Ask your friends to use commemorative stamps on their mail to you.
It costs them nothing extra and you gain some nice items for your collection.
If you know someone who works in an office, or some place that receives a lot of mail, especially from others places in the world, ask them to be on the lookout for stamps and save them for you.
They probably will be happy to save envelopes for you that otherwise would be thrown away. They may even be able to get foreign stamps off their incoming mail. Recently, many thousands of letters arrived in the U. S. from Nigeria asking for money. It was found that many of the stamps used on these envelopes were forgeries and they may be a valuable collectible in the future.
Ask your relatives or friends of your family for stamps. You never know what may turn up. Once people know about your interest, they won't mind keeping an eye out for stamps. The more people you ask, the better your chances!
Another good source of stamps is an old-time stamp collector. They usually have many duplicates lying around and would be very happy to give them to someone who would appreciate them.
Then you can always buy them. This can be done in several ways. AskPhil has a listing of stamp clubs and dealers, including an article on how to Buy Stamps. Look for one in your area. The stamp club often has boxes of stamps for sale at an inexpensive price. This may be a good way to find another collector who would be willing to share their duplicate stamps with you.
Dealers may have a barrel or huge box of stamps at a few cents per stamp. You can usually buy these by the bag full or get a reduction for quantity. When you find that you have a lot of duplicate stamps, you can start trading them with someone else or offer them to another person to help them get started in stamp collecting.
How to Get the Most from a Stamp Show
There are preparations that you can make to get more out of the experience of going to your first stamp show. As a first-time attendee it is not necessary to understand all the specifics about a show, but you should be aware that there will be dealers selling a vast array of stamps, covers, philatelic literature, and supplies such as albums, tongs, hinges, mounts, and so on.
Sometimes the ads in advance of the show will mention which dealers will be there, and this may help you plan your shopping list even better. After reading ads for even a short time, you will begin to associate certain dealers with what they sell, and so you may be able to shop very specifically for certain items you need for your collection, or certain items you want to sell. If a dealer in Chinese stamps, for example, will be at the show, this is the time to check your China collection and make a list of what stamps it would be nice to have. Your list could also indicate what you think is a fair price for those stamps, based on other dealers' ads or the catalog values. It also would be a chance to offer some of your unwanted China material for sale to this dealer.
When you get to the show, ask at the club or front table, if there is a printed program and take a moment to look through it. If there are seminars or lectures of interest to you, make a note of the scheduled time so that you can stop shopping and get to the event. Or, if you want to meet the speaker, this is your opportunity.
Look over the dealer list to see if there's anyone you want to see first; otherwise, a good beginning is to just cruise the aisles slowly to get an idea of the extent of the show, and where you should concentrate your time and energy. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, and leave your excess baggage at home. Very few shows have a coat check area, so you will have to wear and carry whatever you come in with!
Many dealers have copies of catalogs that you can use at their booth, but if you have a favorite special reference book, you might want to bring it along. It's easier to carry a small want list and/or a checklist of stamps you already have. You can purchase small inventory booklets from supply dealers, or make one yourself. Without a list, you run a great risk of buying stamps you already have and missing ones that you need.
If you don't have a want list but only a general interest in mind, try to be as specific as you can when a dealer asks to help you. Try to word your request to match what the dealer's sign says he is selling. For example, if the sign says the dealer sells stamps of Western Europe, you should not ask what he has in Japan, and it also is not helpful to say you collect stamps with castles on them. The dealer will not have any Japanese stamps, and while he will have stamps with castles on them, they will be part of the country collections (under "France," "Italy," etc.) and unless you know the catalog numbers, which is usually how the stock is arranged, the dealer will not be able to find the castle stamps.
On the other hand, if the dealer's sign says "Topicals or Thematics," you can ask for your castle stamps A topical or thematic dealer files his stock according to the design (topic or theme) on the stamp. If you are just exploring a new collecting interest, you may not know how to ask about it, but tell the dealer that this is new to you, and ask for help in getting started. The more information you can give, the better the dealer can help you, or refer you to one of the fellow dealers who can.
While looking through the dealers' stock, be as careful with it as if it were your own. No one can package stamps and covers carefully enough to prevent damage, and every bit of damage lessens the value.
If a show has exhibits, you will see the listings of them in the program and will notice the special tent-like aluminum frames in rows on the show floor. The quality of exhibits at a local show will be different from those at a large, national show, but there always is something ofinterest.
Some shows have special categories for exhibits considered to be of "general" interest --- that is, not too specialized and usually very attractive to look at. But, beauty is really in the eye of the beholder when it comes to stamps: Some of the rarest stamps in the world are not eye-catching -- they are dirty, tattered around the edges, and so on. But the fact that they are the only one of their kind makes all the difference!
There are certain standards for competitive philatelic exhibiting, and so you will notice a pattern after looking at a number of exhibits. Even if the exhibit deals with a philatelic area you know nothing about, you should be able to look at the first several pages of an exhibit and find out something about the nature of the material being shown, and the exhibitor's purpose. The exhibitor is supposed to use those early pages to explain the focus of the exhibit.
Another of the standards of exhibiting is that "the material should speak for itself," so there is not supposed to be a lot of text. This isn't always very helpful to the viewer seeing something brand-new, but consider it a learning experience anyway! If something interests or puzzles you, make notes to yourself and AskPhil!
If you spot an exhibit that happens to cover your collecting interest, this is a wonderful opportunity to see what you are missing and get additional information on certain stamps or covers.
Exhibiting can be an exciting way to share your collection with others - show off what you are proud to have. Seeing someone else's exhibit can give you ideas for creating or improving your own collection, for competition or non-competitive. Winning a "people's choice" award at a show can be every bit as exciting as winning the grand prize!
How to Invest in Stamps
If you have disposable income and want it to work for you in a secure way that keeps your initial investment safe and appreciate in value, buy savings bonds, treasury bills, or some other guaranteed investment vehicle. Buy some land. Buy an annuity. Don't buy stamps and expect them to make your fortune, or even enable you to break even. Yes, it is possible to buy stamps and sell them for a profit, but it is by no means a simple or a guaranteed process.
Stamps are just pieces of paper and they have no value unless there is a willing buyer who selects them from among all the other available choices at the time that you want to sell them. As mentioned above, a stamp's value is dependent on condition, quantity available, and desirability in the current market.
No two stamps are identical, so ads that promise, or even imply, that "The U.S. Scott no. xxx is a sure bet, buy now and make money later" are simply not telling the truth. Statements like that seem to say that all the copies of Scott xxx, and especially the ones they are selling, are identical as to condition (color, faults in the paper, centering), which is impossible, and also make impossible assumptions about what the future market will be.
In the 1940's, a widespread belief in the future value of U.S. stamps in full sheets led collectors and some of the public to buy and save huge hoards of 3-cent stamps. There are so many of those stamps in existence now (in perfect condition!) that you can't sell them even at face value - dealers buy them at a discount. You may as well use them up on mail. When plate number block collecting was extremely popular in the United States, collections were selling for fantastic sums, and now the same stamps should be used for postage on letters, because collector interest peaked and then slid downhill.
For U.S. stamps, the so-called "Classic Issues" - stamps from the last century - probably are as close as you will come to blue-chip stock equivalents, but even that is not 100% true for all 19th century stamps. Stamps were printed in much smaller quantities in the last century than they are today, so there are fewer examples, which in turn influences how much collectors insist on perfect condition (you simply can't get it for certain issues), and they are always popular. But you will not be able to find these stamps at a cheap price, so any possible profit margin is fairly narrow.
Knowledge is a major part of making a profit on stamps. By knowing the marketplace and the history of the stamps, you will not be fooled by advertisements that state that a certain stamp is "rare" or "not seen often," and you will recognize a good price when you see one. No one should ever be taken in by an ad for "rare" stamps that appears in a mass market publication. Those ads cost thousands of dollars, and no seller would spend that much money on an ad when he had only a few of the products to sell! A mass-market ad means the seller has a huge pile of whatever he's selling, and you can be pretty sure that the condition of the stamps will be nothing to brag about, and they will be greatly overpriced compared to what you could probably find at any stamp show.
If you have a good memory for dates and historical events and a good visual memory, a philatelic area where it is possible to make money is in covers. There is great interest now in finding earliest known uses (EKU) of older U.S. stamps. It is only in modern times that stamps have had first day ceremonies with special postmarks for the new stamps.
Before about the 1940's, stamps simply were put on sale with no ceremony, and customers would buy them at the post office and use them on their mail. Collectors of EKU's are always exploring dealer stocks to find what look like ordinary letters but with telltale postmark dates that indicate usage - ideally - the day the stamp was put on sale. These covers can be worth literally thousands of dollars, and many do go unnoticed in the stock of dealers who don't have any special knowledge about this collecting specialty.
Other covers may be of special interest only because of some historical association that is evident from the sender's name, perhaps, or the postal marking. The dealer selling the cover may not have noticed anything special about it and is selling it for a modest price. You have to know the market in which to sell this type of item However, if you find the right buyer, with the collection for which this cover is ideal, you may be able to make a very tidy profit.
Many people might buy gold coins; a much smaller market exists for stamps in general, and even smaller markets for some stamps in particular. There are much more sensible places to put money that you hope will bring you a future return, but for those who love them, stamps bring a great deal of immediate return in the form of pure enjoyment.
How To Keep Track of Your Collection
Knowing what you have in your collection by keeping an inventory serves several sensible purposes: You will have a record in case anything is lost or stolen, and you will know what you don't have yet.
Collectors kept inventories long before there were computers, making their own lists or using simple inventory booklets available from stamp suppliers. "Paper" inventories still work very well, and can be as simple or complicated as you want. The usual inventory is arranged by catalogue number of the stamp, and may also list the condition of the stamp, when you bought it, how much you paid for it, and any other information you want to include. For covers, you could list them by the country where they were mailed from, and then some description of the item. It's really up to you.
Some of the inventory booklets you can buy, ready-made, are small enough to fit in a pocket, and are convenient to take to stamp shows so you can quickly see if you need such-and-such a stamp for your collection. It's a good idea to take a want list to a show with you - in the excitement of the chase, it's not always easy to remember specifically what you have and what you still need!
Computer-users who also were stamp collectors quickly realized how this high-tech tool could be used in their hobby. Some created their own stamp-inventory databases, while others simply used existing word-processing programs to list their holdings. Specialized philatelic inventory software came on the market in the 1980's, and has become increasingly sophisticated. These programs are widely advertised, both in the print media and on the stamp-hobby sites on the Internet.
As a visual record, some collectors are using scanners to save images of at least their "best stuff," in case of loss or damage, for insurance purposes. If you don't have a scanner, you can make a photocopy of your high-value purchases, videotape them, or photograph them. (While you're thinking about this sort of thing, check your personal insurance to see if philatelic collections are covered, and to what extent. You may want to think about specific stamp collectors' insurance, available from several companies.)
How to Learn More
This is entirely up to you how to proceed.
If you want to collect a topic, or theme as it's called in the rest of the world, then join a specialty group. AskPhil for the name and address of one that specializes in your interest and ask them for a free copy of their bulletin or newsletter and membership information.
Where known, we have included their web site and/or their e-mail address.
If you want to collect United States stamps or those of another country, also AskPhil. There are many groups and clubs that specialize in national collecting.
If you want to see what a stamp club looks like, and whether you should join, use the AskPhil Reference Library for the name, address and meeting time of a club in you area. There are more than 2,000 stamp clubs in the U. S. plus thousands more throughout the world. At last count, 62 nations had stamp groups.
If you want to read a newspaper about stamp collecting, check the AskPhil Reference Library for the names and addresses of several that have promised to send you a sample copy of their publication at no charge.
To find a stamp store, stamp dealer or stamp show in your area, AskPhil to lead you to them. No matter what country you live in, there is a stamp dealer. Many dealers specialize in stamps of their country while others carry the entire world.
If you have any questions about the hobby that can lead to friendships throughout the country and the world, AskPhil for more information.
How To Mount and Save Booklets
Stamps issued in booklet form present a challenge to collectors, and it's one of those areas where people split up on opposing sides. You will have to decide for yourself which side you're on, and arrange your collection accordingly!
The purist side thinks that a stamp booklet should be kept in mint condition, exactly as it is purchased from the post office. Now, since the traditional paper-cover stamp booklet of more recent years is sealed on the edge where the user opens it, keeping it mint means not opening that side. The purist might not even do this, but a collector could gently squeeze the still-sealed booklet until it bows open, and peer in at the stamps. A booklet that is intact--still has all its stamps inside--is called an "unexploded" booklet. The term was created before booklets started being sealed on the edge opposite the binding, so unexploded doesn't tell you anything about whether it's still sealed or not, it just says all the stamps are there.
If you want to store an intact booklet, there are several possibilities. You can get a small file drawer and put the booklets in there, separating them by dividers marked according to year date, catalogue number(s), etc. The booklets could be stored as is, or in glassines or plastic protectors.
There also are commercial albums for booklets. The largest size of corner mount (a plastic-and-paper triangle with glue on the back) will work for a booklet; use a mount on each of two opposite corners of the booklet.
If you want to keep your booklets in a binder, there are plastic sheets available divided into pockets, and the booklets can be inserted intact in the pockets.
If you'd like to be able to see the stamps inside the booklet, then you're on the opposite side from the purists, but you're not the only booklet collector who feels this way.
Once you open the booklet flat, you can place it on the album page using corner mounts, or use a regular stamp mount of the correct height and length. There also are plastic pages with slots that will accommodate an opened booklet.
However you store your booklets, treat them gently to avoid creases and dog-eared corners, because the condition of the booklet itself is important, as well as the stamps inside it.
How To Save Self-Adhesive Stamps
Self-stick, "no-lick" stamps are a special problem for stamp collectors, although no one denies that they're great for using on mail! That's why you are seeing more and more of them issued--the U.S. Postal Service says the public wants them, and estimates that the great majority of new U.S. stamps will be self-sticks within the next few years.
One problem for collectors is that all self-sticks are not created equal, so there are no general rules about saving them. At least in this country, self-adhesive stamps have been a learning process for the manufacturers, and have changed over time. The first U.S. self-adhesive stamp, a precanceled stamp showing a dove weathervane and issued for Christmas in 1974, had the adhesive applied directly to the back of the stamp paper. Many of these stamps are now discolored by the adhesive migrating through the paper and around the edges. The early self-sticks also could not be soaked off paper in water.
More recent self-stick U.S. stamps seem to be much improved. Current U.S. self-sticks have an extra layer of paper between the adhesive and the paper the stamp is printed on, so a collector can soak the stamp off paper in the same way that a gummed stamp can be soaked. And, some people believe that a self-stick should be soaked, because the adhesive can still migrate around the stamp's edges and be destructive over time.
These collectors do not think that it is a good idea to save "mint" self-sticks - for example, cutting one stamp off a sheetlet but leaving it attached to its backing paper, or cutting it off an envelope and leaving it attached to the paper. Only time will tell who is right about this, when it is possible to see the results of the various methods of storage.
But, self-sticks do take longer to soak, and some collectors report self-sticks disintegrating in the soaking bowl, or not flattening out as nicely as gummed stamps do after soaking.
One way to deal with self-sticks is to hedge your bets and save duplicate examples: one on its original paper, one on cover (or on a trimmed piece of cover), and one soaked. That way, depending on what might happen as the adhesive changes chemically over time, you may end up with three examples for your collection, but you should certainly have at least one good one!
How to Select an Album
What type of album--or whether you want an album at all--is a big decision and a very personal one. How you store your stamps depends on your budget, the way you want to enjoy your collection, and your individual taste. If you just enjoy accumulating stamps, maybe a shoebox is all you need, but if you want to keep your stamps safe from damage, and enjoy looking at them or displaying them to someone else, then an album is what you want.
There are many very attractive albums available on the commercial philatelic market, and none of them is inexpensive. Choosing a commercial album is a long-term commitment, too, because it would be a major project to take out all the stamps and remount them later if you change your mind (not to speak of the additional expense). The major album manufacturers issue supplements so that the album you start with can be kept up to date, with pages available for the new stamps as the years go by.
The best thing is to try to see many different kinds of albums before you make up your mind. You can do this either by visiting a stamp dealer who sells several different brands, or going to a stamp show and examining the choices at a supply dealer's booth, or seeing the albums other stamp collectors are using. If you are in a club, ask to see what your fellow members are using for their collections.
Pre-printed albums are not all alike. Some will have spaces for each stamp, and an actual picture of the stamp that belongs there, its catalogue number, and perhaps other information. Other pre-printed albums give very little information in the space, and no picture. Others may provide some historical background information on the stamps. Some may not have spaces, but just the country name at the top of the page.
Most albums require the collector to provide the hinge or the stamp mount, but in recent years there have been more so-called "self-mounting" or "hingeless" albums on the market. These have clear plastic mounts or strips already affixed in the spaces, so all the collector has to do is place the stamp in the appropriate place. Unsurprisingly, hingeless albums are more expensive than the plain-page albums.
Before choosing an album, it helps to study your own attitudes and goals. Many collectors like to have a detailed "map" of all the stamps that make up a complete collection of a country, and they want an album with the spaces marked and other information provided. Some collectors may find this to be too limiting--maybe they don't want to have every stamp of a country. Perhaps they have a specialty interest for which no albums are made. For many topical collectors, for example, there are no specific albums to fit their interest.
So, by choice or by necessity, some collectors make their own albums, by hand or using a computer. Good-quality paper and a nice three-ring-binder are all you need to make your own album, and you can arrange it in whatever way suits you. Many collectors find that creating an attractive album page is one more thing to enjoy about the hobby. Using the computer to create boxes and fancy headings can be a lot of fun and the results are every bit as sophisticated as a commercial album.
Some collectors don't use album pages at all, instead using self-mounting stockpages in a binder. These pages are black or white cardstock with stiff plastic strips or pockets into which stamps or covers can be inserted. They come in sizes to fit all stamp formats, and are not expensive. Until you decide on an album, these types of storage pages allow for safe storage and easy viewing of your stamps.
How to Soak Stamps
After you cut or tear the stamps off an envelope, you will have to soak them to get the backing paper off the stamp. Do not try to tear this envelope paper from the stamp since you may damage the stamp. Torn or damaged stamps are worth nothing and are not considered a collectible by stamp collectors.
First, trim the envelope paper close to the stamp, but take care not to damage the stamp or the perforated edges. Now comes the soaking section.
Use a shallow bowl, or a kitchen sink with the drain closed and fill it with several inches of lukewarm tap water. Do not use hot water, since it may make the color run from the stamp.
Float the stamp picture side up so that the gummed side is below the water level. Don't soak too many stamps at one time since they may stick to each other with the glue that is still left on the stamp.
Let the stamp float until the stamp slide easily off the backing paper. Remember that paper, when wet, makes it very weak and it is easy to tear the stamp. So, let the water do the work in getting the stamp off the paper backing.
Rinse the stamps gently in fresh water to make sure all the glue and backing paper is off the stamp.
If you are soaking a lot of stamps, you may want to change the soaking container to make certain the water is clean.
Place the stamps to dry on paper towels or newspapers. Put the with the picture side down so that if any glue remains on the stamp, it doesn't adhere to the drying paper. Also, don't use colored newspaper pages since the color from the comics may transfer to the stamps. Put the stamps in a single layer so that they don't touch each other.
Wait until the stamp are completely dry. They may curl or look wrinkled, but that will be taken care of in the next process.
Once dry, put the stamps in a telephone book or any other book, and leave them there for a day or so. When you take them out, they will be nice and flat.
Self-adhesive or self-stick stamps may present a problem in soaking. It may take a while longer for them to separate from their backing paper. But be patient, the paper will come off the stamp.
How to Store Stamps
By Kathleen Wunderly
Every collector needs a variety of storage methods, temporary and permanent. No matter how you store your stamps, always try to prevent damage - from folding, creasing, too high humidity (which can lead to mold and attract insects), too much light (which causes fading), or chemical damage from acidic paper or unsafe plastics.
For duplicate stamps and covers you won't be keeping, everybody seems to use ordinary cardboard fileboxes (or even a shoebox), sometimes in glassine envelopes. This is a short-term storage method. Glassine envelopes come in many different sizes. Often the stamps or covers you get from dealers will be in glassines, which are made of a special kind of thin paper, either see-through or a cloudy white color. Glassine paper is not acid-free, so it is not a good idea to leave stamps and covers in glassines indefinitely. Also, the glue holding the glassine envelope together sometimes leaves stains on covers stored in them. Glassines also can trap moisture if your stamp room is humid, and your stamps will stick to the inside of the envelopes. The only way to get them out is to soak them in water.
Stockpages are 8½ x 11 inch stiff sheets (like manila folders are made of), usually 3-hole-punched, with strips made of the same kind of paper as the backing page, open at the top, pasted in rows down the page. You can insert stamps in the strips, and keep them safe and flat (although you can only see the top half of the stamps). Sometimes a quantity of stockpages are bound into stockbooks; some stockbooks have strips made of glassine. They also come in index-card size, and are called stockcards. Stockpages are useful for storing duplicates. You can put them in any 3-ring binder.
Another kind of stockpage, more expensive but better for long-term use, is a stiff page made of plastic or cardstock, usually black and 3-hole-punched, with clear plastic strips in rows, open at the top of each strip. The plastic strips may be in 8 or 10 rows, to hold many stamps per page, or only 1 or 2 strips per page, to hold small sheets of stamps or covers. They come in many different formats. Just place your stamp or cover behind the plastic strip, and put the page in a three-ring binder. You can rearrange items easily, and can see the entire item. Some people mount all their material in these self-storing pages, as their permanent storage system.
But, most collectors traditionally put their permanent collection of stamps or covers in an album, either one of the major standard commercial albums or one they have made themselves. Thanks to computers, it is easy to create your own album pages with whatever words and graphics you want. Standard albums come in different formats: some have a space for each stamp with the catalogue number marked, others have spaces with small pictures of the stamp that belongs there, others are blank. Some albums have plastic mounts already in the spaces (hingeless or self-mounting albums) and some have the collector use hinges or mounts to attach the stamps.
Commercial albums are not cheap; most collectors choose one brand of album and use it for their lifetime, getting supplement pages for new stamps as they become available. An album is a big decision, and until you make up your mind, you can store your stamps safely in stockpages or the self-mounting pages, or make your own album by buying some good-quality paper, a ring-binder, and stamp hinges or stamp mounts. Covers can be safely stored in plastic protectors (or glassines) and filed in boxes, unless or until you decide on a cover album, which has special pages with slots for the envelopes.
Stamp hinges are inexpensive, tiny folded pieces of glassine with glue on the back. Lick your finger and touch it to the smaller fold of the hinge and attach it a little below the top of the stamp. Then lick your finger and touch it to the other fold of the hinge and attach the stamp to the page. If you don't wet the hinge too much, you should be able to remove it safely later on from the page and from the stamp. Stamp mounts are plastic "pouches" with a self-adhesive strip to attach to the page. Mounts are the preferred way to mount your "best" stamps, especially the mint ones, because they keep the stamp untouched. Mounts also protect stamps from creasing as you turn the pages of your album.
Never use any kind of tape to attach your stamps in an album or anywhere else! There is no tape on the market today that is safe to use on your stamps - the sticky part of the tape will stain and/or tear your stamps, and ruin them.
How to Use a Catalog
to Identify and Sort Your Stamps
by Kathleen Wunderly
Sooner or later you will want to organize an unidentified group of stamps, either for your own collection or for sale or trade.
Organizing or sorting stamps means identifying them according to the standard classification systems used in the philatelic hobby; namely, according to the country of their origin, and then by their assigned number in whatever stamp catalogue you prefer to use. This article refers mainly to the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, but most of the statements are true for the other major worldwide catalogues, also.
If you have stamps from more than one country, first sort them according to countryGreat Britain does not put its name on its stamps. Some countries put their name in both the native language country name and in English. Each volume of Scott has a useful "Illustrated Identifier" in the back, with words and pictures to help you translate the country names and other words on your stamps. If your stamps do not have a country name, and do not have a crowned head identifying them as British, they could be any number of things - a stamplike label, not a postage stamp at all, or a revenue, that is, a stamplike item that showed payment of a tax or other fiscal transaction, or some other thing. Set the problem items aside and worry about them later.
Next, sort your country group according to the design on the stamps, and weed out the duplicates. You can decide later which example(s) to keep, but you only need one of each different design to look at while finding the catalogue listing. Pick out the stamps that are not "regular" postage: that is, postage due stamps, air mail stamps, semi-postal stamps, etc. All of these "special" stamps are listed at the end of each country in Scott.
Air mail stamps will say air mail (or avion, aero, or luft) on them, according to the language. The newest U.S. air mail stamps only have a picture of a stylized aircraft. Semi-postals usually have what looks like a little math problem on them: one number + another number. The first number is the postage and the second is the extra fee being collected for a charity or other special cause. (Exception: The U.S. Breast Cancer semi-postal fee was invisible - the stamp did not indicate the combined sum of postage and contribution, and is listed in the catalogue in chronological order with the regular stamps.)
A few countries print on the stamps the year-date of when the stamp was issued. If there is no date on the stamp to make it easy to find it in the chronological lists in the catalogue, you have to look for other clues.
If the stamp is showing Santa Claus, a decorated tree, or a religious symbol of a holiday scene, most people will recognize it as a Christmas holiday stamp. As in the U.S., most countries' Christmas stamps are issued sometime in October, so check the October issue-date listings for that country to find that particular stamp. Stamps for the Asian new year usually appear in December or January - it will be easy to see what issuing pattern the country you are working with follows. Stamps honoring anniversaries of historical events can be dated with a little bit of math: the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery works out to 1992, the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor would be 1991, and so on.
It's more difficult when you have a pile of stamps depicting unknown people, flowers, animals, etc. Also, unlike commemorative stamps, which usually have a picture, definitive stamps ("basic" stamps intended to cover a certain postal rate) can be difficult because they may have very simple designs, sometimes just a numeral or a coat of arms.
The denomination on the stamp may help you to find it in the catalogue. A very general rule is that most stamps are postally used within the country that issued them, and the most common use of stamps is for letters. So, there will be more stamps issued to meet the current domestic letter postal rate than for any other rate. Of course, there will be stamps to fit all the current rates at any given time in any country, but when you begin checking a specific country, look through all the listings for that country and notice the clusters of stamps of a certain denomination, and how those clusters change over time. The clusters will show the domestic letter rate for that period. For example, if you have a heap of 20-cent U.S. stamps, while it is true that 20 cents is now and has been the postcard rate, and there are current 20-cent stamps for that purpose, most 20-cent U.S. commemoratives were issued between late 1981 and the end of 198, during which time the first-class letter rate was 20 cents.
This method doesn't work for countries that issue many sets of stamps, perhaps four or six or ten or more stamps, each with a different value. One of the stamps in the set probably does meet the current domestic letter rate, but it's more or less by chance.
Sets and Series
A set is a group of stamps with a common theme, issued as a unit at one time, complete in itself - a set of bird stamps, a set of stamps showing aircraft of World War II, the panes of 1995 U.S. Comic Strip Classics. A series of stamps is an open-ended, ongoing issuing program based on a common theme; for example, the Black Heritage Series, the American Music Series.
Australia issued a 19-stamp set of sea creatures at different times between 198 and 1986, valued from 2 cents up to 1 dollar. Even if you can read a postmark of 1985, for example, on one of the stamps, you will not find it in the 1985 Australia listings. This is because Scott groups all of the stamps in a set together, according to when the first one was issued, not according to the date when each stamp in the set actually was issued. You have to find the listing for the first stamp in the set to find all of the rest of the stamps in that set.
Don't ignore the way the stamp looks -- its graphic design, its printing method. When you first look through a country's listings, notice how the stamps look different over time. Maybe a nation became wealthier over time and could use higher quality paper and printing. Sometimes a certain artistic style will be popular for a while, and all the country's stamps of that era will resemble one another.
Be sure to use the commemorative stamp subject indexes that are available: Scott provides one for U.S. regular stamps and one for U.S. air post issues, and also one for France. The Postal Service's Guide to U.S. Stamps (sold in post offices or through the USPS mail-order service in Kansas City) has a detailed index in addition to picturing all the stamps in color.
"What is it?" night is always a popular event at local stamp club meetings, so that's another good reason to join a club! Make some stamp friends and help each other with your mystery items.
How to Use a Perforation Gauge
by Kathleen Wunderly
Perforations, or perfs, are the holes added to sheets of stamps as part of the production process, so that users can separate the stamps easily. In some countries in the early days of stamp-issuing, stamps did not have perforations (imperforate stamps), and users had to cut or tear them apart.
The number of perforation holes, and the space between them, has varied a great deal across the world, over time. Stamp users care only about how difficult it is to tear stamps apart, but many stamp collectors want to know exactly what perforations are on which stamps. Why? Because measuring perfs is a form of identifying stamps, and because in some cases, the measurement of the perforations is what makes one stamp scarce, and another apparently identical stamp common. The design on the stamps may be the same, but the stamps may have been perforated in different gauges, with one variety much more difficult to find, and of greater value.
The bits of paper sticking out between the perf holes are called teeth. Do not count teeth in measuring. The size of the holes does not matter either. The standard of measure is the number of holes (perfs) in 2 centimeters. A stamp with 10 holes in every 2 centimeters is perf 10. Some stamps have a different measurement on the sides than they do on the top and bottom; these are called compound perfs, and the first number will be the top measurement - perf 11x10, for example.
The measurements can become very precise - perf 11.2, for example - so if you wish to specialize in U.S. stamps, for example, you should buy the most detailed perf gauge that you can find. If you have a more general interest, a less detailed gauge will allow you to measure most stamps.
Sometimes perf gauges are printed on advertising handouts or other items in the stamp hobby, on paper or cardboard. These gauges will not be very accurate, because paper shrinks or swells in relation to the amount of water in the air, and the measuring marks will shrink or swell also on a paper perf gauge. It is better to get a metal or plastic perf gauge, which will not react to changes in the level of humidity.
For more detailed information about perforations and gauges, check the general information pages in the standard stamp catalogues, or a good philatelic beginner's handbook.
How to Use a Stamp Catalog
The most common catalog used by stamp collectors in the United States is the Scott Catalogue. This is a series of catalogs covering the history of stamps in the entire world.
Volume I contains United States issues. The other volumes cover the rest of the world, in alphabetical order. The catalog can usually be found in your local library so there is not need to buy one until you are at the stage where you have a lot of stamps and do not want to bother using the library copy.
There are catalogs printed that cover every country of the world. You can AskPhil for the name and address of the catalog in your country. Some of the most popular ones are Michel, Germany; Stanley Gibbons, Great Britain; and, Yvert et Tellier, France.
The catalog pictures all the stamps so you can usually find the ones in your collection by checking first the country name and then the denomination or value on the stamp. Then look among that group of stamp denominations for your stamp. Sometimes a country makes it easy by putting the year the stamp was issued right on the stamp.
Catalog value is NOT what a dealer would pay to buy the stamp from you. The catalog gives a price for each stamp in mint, or unused condition, and also used. These prices are only a general outline of what someone might pay when purchasing the stamp. Scott immediately increases the face value of a new stamp to make it a catalog value when they list an item. Used stamps vary greatly in catalog price. Stamp value is related to condition of the stamp and how much demand there is for it.
A lot of older U. S. stamps can be bought in packets or lots of 100 or more for a price well below the catalog value. But the catalog value is a good method for the exchange of stamps with other collectors.
Every stamp collector uses a stamp catalog. The majority of collectors in the U. S. own a Scott Catalog and may use them as a check list for what they own and need. So, it is important to learn to use the catalog.
How to Use Hinges, Mounts and Tongs
These are known as the tools of stamp collecting.
Stamp hinges are available at every stamp store or through mail order catalogs. They were invented years ago so that collectors can affix their stamps to a page and peel it off years later with no damage to the stamp. However, be careful when using hinges so that you wet only the hinge and not the stamp. This happens when you use a lot of moisture on the hinge. Then you have licked the stamp to the album page. The best way to wet the hinge is to lick the tip of your finger and then touch the finger to the hinge. This prevents too much wetness on the hinge, but will still be plenty wet to attach the stamp firmly to the page.
A stamp mount works in much the same way as a hinge in keeping the stamp in the album but without damage to the back of the stamp. Mounts are actually small plastic sleeves to which stamps are inserted and then the mount is affixed to the page by wetting the glue on the back of the mount.
Tongs are similar to cosmetic tweezers, but without sharp edges that could damage the stamp. Do not use drugstore tweezers on your stamps! Stamp tongs are very inexpensive. The logic of the tongs is that your fingers may damage a valuable stamp, either with moisture or by pulling it when placing the stamp in the correct position.
How to Use Stamp Mounts
Stamp mounts are made of a lightweight plastic that is clear on the front, and usually black on the back so that the face of the stamp will be seen through the mount and the black background will highlight the stamp's perforations. Essentially, a mount it is a small envelope or packet that holds a stamp in place.
Many mounts have a split in the middle of the backing that makes it easy to insert the stamp. Others are manufactured so that the stamp slides into the mount from one side.
The mount has a moisture-activated coating on the back that holds it to the album page when moistened. Lightly moisten the backing along one edge, usually the top. Do not use a lot of moisture when attaching the stamp mount to the page since this may cause the page to lose its body strength. The moisture does not affect the stamp since the stamp is safely encased in the mount. It is important to take care that the moisture does not enter into the mount where it may damage the stamp.
The stamp mount also permits the stamp to be removed easily for examination and then returned to the mount. The mount always remains in place as the individual stamp is inspected.
Stamp mounts are available in many precut sizes to fit single stamps, coils or full panes. It is advisable to use the mount that is slightly larger than the stamp so that the perforations are not bent.
Some stamp album manufacturers make albums and supplement pages with the mounts already affixed on the page. The page already has an exact size stamp mount already affixed to the correct location for each stamp. These are usually advertised as hingeless pages.
Most album manufacturers recommend that stamp mounts be used on only one side of the page, since they can snag on one another when the album is closed. When the time comes to remove the mounts, first take the stamp out of the mount, and then use a letter opener or dull knife between the page and the mount.
Today, many collectors want their stamps saved without any trace of a hinge remnant or mark. This is one of the reasons why stamp mounts have become so popular.
How to Watermark Stamps
by Kathleen Wunderly
Watermarks have been part of the process of making paper for hundreds of years. When paper was made by hand, wire would be twisted into a design, and the water in the paper pulp containing the wire would drain away, leaving a mark on the resulting sheet of paper.
Watermarks in paper made by machine are impressed directly into the paper when it is still damp. The design in watermarked paper - some currency, and fine quality writing or typing papers - can be seen by holding the paper up to a bright light. They were a form of security device, to make counterfeiting more difficult.
All British stamps beginning with the first one in 1840, the Penny Black, up to 1967 have watermarks, and some British Commonwealth countries still have watermarks. The United States printed stamps on watermarked paper from 1894 to 1915, in a design showing the letters "USPS," in two different typefaces (single-line or double-line). Other countries have used crowns, stars, even animal images, as watermarks.
Stamp catalogues illustrate the main designs of watermarks, and which stamps may be expected to have them. Don't expect to find a watermark on all stamps from all time periods! It is fun to find watermarks, but sometimes it also can be financially rewarding, if you are able to identify stamps that are rarities not because of the design on their face, but because of the watermarks in their paper.
If you can't see a watermark by holding a stamp up to a strong light, the next most common method for finding it is by using watermark fluid, a highly volatile chemical that will wet the stamp for a very short time, to allow a watermark to show, and then evaporate. Don't drown the stamp! A few well-placed drops of fluid are all that you need. Small black plastic watermark trays are available from stamp dealers, but any shallow black object will work for watermarking, such as an ashtray or a small plate or dish.
Some collectors will tell you that lighter fluid is a good watermark fluid. While lighter fluid will work for this purpose, it is not safe for you and possibly not safe for your stamps. Lighter fluid is highly toxic to breathe, and also is highly flammable. There also is reason to believe that lighter fluid (a petroleum-based product) may leave an oily residue on stamp paper, which would be damaging to it.
There are several watermark fluids available from stamp supply dealers. All of them should be used with care (use in a well-ventilated room, and do not breathe the fumes), but any of them are safer than lighter fluid. A company named Preservation Technologies has just developed a watermark fluid that contains no hazardous chemicals, and yet has the same evaporation rate as the other watermark fluids. It is called Clarity and should be available from the usual philatelic supply dealers.
There are several mechanical devices on the market for watermark detection, most of which use a concentrated light source to focus on the stamp, which may be pressed tightly against a viewing screen. Some of the mechanical watermark detectors are expensive; you may want to try one out on a few of your difficult stamps before buying it, to make sure it will meet your needs. Perhaps a friend will let you try his or her detector, or a dealer will allow you to experiment before buying.
Most philatelic experts rely on a combination of watermark fluid, mechanical equipment, good lighting, and knowledge to identify watermarks.