It's tough when someone you adore and cherish passes away. Careful planning can soften the blow (see my article on estate planning for stamp collectors), but all too many times, in the hustle and bustle of getting things sorted out, something important may be left by the wayside. This is particularly true for stamp collectors. While many of us have an eye for coins, furniture, or even books, but stamps? One stamp looks much like another, and what you've found in grandpa's attic (heaven forbid, terrible place to keep a collection) could be junk or it could be a major asset of the estate. The question is, how can you tell? If something terrible has happened to you, I hope that at least this part of the job can be made a little easier. I will assume in this article that you haven't been helped by the will or the executor, and you're basically starting from scratch.
Stamp collectors aren't all perfect, but there's one thing that most of them have in common - they love looking at stamps! The other nice thing about them is that you can often find them in bunches. If you aren't lucky enough to have a friend who is a serious stamp collector (like my friends), you can usually find a club nearby where dozens of stamp collectors hang out. Among them, you are likely to find at least one (more likely more) who can give you an idea of what your stamps are worth. However, the problem is often finding such a wonderful group of people. Here are some hints.
1. Was your late relative involved in a club? In the personal papers you might find a membership card or a club bulletin that lists the meeting dates. Chances are, those club members are wondering what happened to their buddy and they will be more than happy to help out. Chances also are that they have a better idea of the value of everything in his or her collection than practically anyone else (frankly, its often all we talk about at meetings).
2. See if your community has a directory put out by the municipality. These often have free listings (and stamp collectors love a bargain!), and clubs will often be listed there.
3. Check a national organization. Many stamp clubs belong to either the APS (in the U.S.) or the RPSC (in Canada). These organizations keep master lists of clubs and will be happy to refer you to a nearby one. If your family member was a member of APS, they will also be happy to help you administer any stamps that are part of the estate.
Well, being a dealer myself, I wish we were all on the up and up. Most dealers are honest, but there are precautions you have to take when dealing with someone for the first time. Here are some steps to take:
1. Search the receipts! See if the collector dealt with one or more local dealers regularly. Chances are, the collector got most of their stamps from a few dealers, and those dealers are probably the first people to see when you're trying to sell the same material.
2. Go to the Yellow Pages. Usually the listings for Stamp Dealers can be found under "Stamps for Collectors". Find a dealer with a store rather than a mail order dealer if you can. If you live in a larger centre, go to an auction house rather than a storefront, because they can be incredibly helpful in dealing with stamps from estates (it makes up a lot of their business). Most dealers won't mind giving your collection a once over to determine if it needs further study and appraisal (however, don't come near closing time or during lunch hour - best to make an appointment). Many are in the market to buy most of the time, but resist the urge to make a quick cash settlement.
3. Do I hear national organizations again? The APS and RPSC both keep dealer listings too. You also have a better (but not perfect) chance of finding someone who will be forthright as both organizations are not tolerant of breaches of ethics.
There are only two decisions to make once you find out approximately what the collection is worth - sell it or give it away. Unless the collection is of nominal value (which is, unfortunately, usually pretty likely), either decision will have a result on the estate in terms of taxes and distribution to beneficiaries, and should be discussed with your legal and financial advisor!
Giving a collection with a moderate value to a budding collector is often an excellent idea. However, the more valuable the collection, the worse an idea this becomes, unless the person is already an experienced collector (a valuable collection can quickly become worthless through improper handling).
However, it is vital to get a good estimate of the value of a collection before it is passed on. A formal appraisal is almost always required, and should be honest and as accurate as possible. While a stamp dealer can give an appraisal, the APS does not recommend this. It is often a good idea to get an appraiser who is very familiar with stamps, but who does not buy and sell them. If using a dealer, it might be a good idea to get two independent appraisals. While an appraisal will cost now, it will save a lot of headaches and legal hassles down the line.
In my opinion, the best place to sell a collection is at auction. While many people react with horror to the uncertainty, the chances are that, with a well known and reputable auction house, you are likely to realize 30-50% more for the estate than you could with a private sale.
However, a sale to a dealer should not be ruled out. For a moderately priced collection (say $500-$5,000), a direct sale to a dealer could be the easiest way to deal with the collection once and for all. Moreover, a dealer will pay cash up front, while an auction house will most likely keep you waiting for several months. A good rule of thumb is, the more valuable the collection, the more likely you will be better served by selling it to several different people rather than just one.
Distance is never a problem with a big collection. Most dealers will travel to the ends of the earth to make an offer on a valuable collection. Its a very competitive business, so take advantage of it, and don't take the first offer that comes along just because it sounds really good. An honest dealer won't mind competing with others (However, for the first dealer's sake, don't make him go through the work just to tell the next guy what he was willing to offer right off the bat. Make them both work.)
Good idea - donating a collection to charity. Most of them will sell it off to finance their own activities and provide the estate with a nice tax receipt! (They may even agree to cover the cost of the appraisal). For example, OXFAM is now so involved with philatelic donations that they hold regular auctions of their better material.
Bad idea - donating it to an institution to keep it intact, or on public display. Goodness knows how many collections are collecting dust in libraries and museums. Most have little interest in philately (although there are some exceptions, like the U.S. National Postal Museum). While their motives are good, their execution often leaves a lot to be desired.
Once a stamp lover has passed away, the most heartfelt gift you can give them is to ensure their collection is enjoyed by others. The only thing that would cause them great pain would be to know their stamps were collecting dust, never to be looked at again. By careful planning, you can make sure this never happens to something that can bring hours of joy to another person.
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