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Stamp Catalogs: Your Guide to the Hobby

A stamp catalog is a great reference book filled with illustrations that can help us identify and learn about our stamps. They provide us with such information as, the date when the stamp was issued, a description of the stamp, how it was printed, and gives the value of the stamps in used and unused-condition.

The Scott Postage Stamp Catalogue is the standard used by most United States collectors. In six volumes it lists nearly all the postage stamps issued by every country of the world. It is expensive to purchase a complete set but the catalogs may be borrowed from many public libraries. (Sometimes the most recent edition is in reference, but normally older editions may be checked out.)

The diagram here shows what information can be found in a catalog. But, how do you locate that information for a specific stamp? First, of course, you must identify the country. Then you should determine the year, or at least the general time period, when the stamp was issued.

For U.S. issues, featuring a person, you can easily determine the time period; armed with the date of death for that person and the knowledge that no U.S. stamp has ever honored a living person. The USPS honors each president on a stamp on the first birthday after the president's death. Other persons have been honored either ten or five years after their deaths. The denomination also can be helpful, since postage rates are generally grouped in a sequence. You can quickly thumb through the catalog searching for a grouping of stamps with the same denomination, and begin there.

Finally, look at the stamp pictures in the catalog for one that matches the stamp you are trying to identify. Be certain to compare all the elements — denomination (number), color, perforations, variations — to be sure you have found the correct listing.

The Scott catalog and some others simplify the locating process by providing an index for U.S. regular and commemorative issues.

The catalog prices that are listed, even in a current publication, should be considered as only a rough guide. They represent what you might approximately pay for a stamp, and the price for which you could sell it. The condition of any stamp has a great influence on its price relative to the catalog listing. Catalog prices for mint stamps are for those in "fine" condition and only lightly hinged. A stamp considered "superb" might sell for several times the catalog value. And naturally, stamps in less than fine condition will sell for a small percentage of the listed price.

The best way to become familiar with stamp catalogs is through use. Try using a catalog from your school or local library. Read the beginning of the catalog and you will find that it is filled with information about the catalog format and about stamp collecting. Then take the catalog and some stamps from your collection and attempt to locate the listing for each.

Remember, catalogs are much more than just price lists. They are guidebooks containing information that make your continuing tour of the hobby more fun.

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