Catalog Listings - What's in a Value?
For most stamp collectors, catalogs and catalog values play a significant role. Catalogs specify what material exists, what material is available, and sets an order and format for the organization of stamp issues of a country or place.
Album listings and formats are in turn frequently based on catalog listings, so formats as listed or priced in a catalog become the de facto basis for most standard collections (unless and until a collector specializes, makes their own pages, or allows their own preferences to override a printed album). But what goes into a catalog, and in particular its pricing?
For most U.S. collectors, the starting point is the Scott family of catalogs, published by Amos Press, of Sidney, Ohio. For other specialists, other catalogs may provide more detail and coverage (Michel for Germany, Stanley Gibbons for British Commonwealth, Bale for Israel, and so on). My comments here are primarily directed to the Scott catalogs, but each catalog will have its own relationship to market pricing and practices (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Choose a catalog that suits your collecting area best. Clockwise, from top left, Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue; Bale Specialized Catalogue of Israel Stamps; Michel; Stanley Gibbons Stamps of the World.
It’s important to remember that stamp catalogs – starting in the 1860s – were originally retail price lists of dealers. Later on, most catalog publishers no longer sold material on their own and relied on price lists and advertising of other dealers, reported auction sales, and review by experts. Today, online marketplaces create a large volume of data showing prices at which stamps are offered for sale (and prices at which material actually sells), and catalog publishers can take advantage of the data to the extent that they can collect and access it.
It’s also important to keep condition in mind when considering catalog values. Scott, for example, values material in very fine condition except where there’s a note otherwise (Figure 2). Scott also separately prices certain U.S. stamps in various other grades (grading and its market impact is a subject for a future column). Other catalogs may have different condition standards, and it is always worth reading the front material in a catalog to understand the publisher’s rationale for condition and pricing more generally.
Catalogs may also vary in how they price and value gum condition. Although catalogs may also price stamps on cover or on document, there are additional pricing considerations in these more specialized areas that make reducing a stamp on cover to a single catalog price difficult.
The stamp market is not commoditized, and as all collectors know, not all stamps are created equal, even when looking at a group of stamps that may have the same nominal grade – collectors may have different preferences as to cancels, centering, color, and so on.
Figure 2. From Scott Specialized, the editors include notes on condition, as seen here.
Moreover, the market is what an economist might call “imperfect” or “asymmetric.” Pricing information and knowledge aren’t equally distributed, and not all market participants have access to all corners of the market.
As the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers itself says in its introduction, “The actual price you pay for a stamp may be higher or lower than the catalogue value because of many different factors, including the amount of personal service a dealer offers, or increased or decreased interest in the country or topic represented by a stamp or set.” Different dealers price differently, and prices at shows may be different than prices in a retail store, at an auction, or at an online marketplace.
More generally, Scott continues to state that its catalog prices are retail prices – that is, an amount that you can expect to pay from a dealer for a stamp. That said, the price is only a guideline.
There is a long history in the stamp business at stamps trading at a discount from Scott values, and even today many dealers sell worldwide stamps at a percentage of current catalog value (and stamps can be online at an even lower percentage). That practice of discounting raised a significant controversy in the philatelic world in 1988, when the 1989 edition of the Scott catalog drastically cut prices of many stamps by up to 50 percent in an attempt to recapture “retail” pricing. Other catalogs likewise have developed their own relationship with discounting, but is fair to say that for much material a discount from the catalog value is the norm.
Of course, printed catalogs necessarily lag current market movements. It takes time to edit and publish a catalog, and even an electronically published catalog can only be current as the data and analysis that goes into it. Pricing is a factor of supply and demand, and prices move when either factor changes (for example, if several major collectors enter a field, or if a major collection is dispersed).
Ultimately, demand places a larger role in pricing: material available in quantity will continue to realize high prices if many collectors want it, whereas scarce material may be hard to find, but inexpensive, if there are few collectors who wish to purchase it at any price.
Catalog prices can also be subject to market bubbles (for example, in the run-up of China material in recent years, or the U.S. market bubble in the late 1970s) and dealer activities (such as the long run-up of prices in Europa thematic material, which eventually crashed but were based on sustained actual buy prices in the marketplace). More modern material pricing is subject to fluctuation due to currency issues (for many countries Scott values for recent issues are approximately double face value), the subsequent release of remainders, and other similar issues.
Catalogs, like any published work, can contain mistakes and errors, and given the sheer volume of prices covered in a broad-scale catalog, not every price can necessarily be reviewed in every annual edition.
Less frequently, specialized catalogs can become obsolete for pricing purposes fairly quickly. For example, the Springer catalogs for tax-paid revenue stamps of the United States are decades out of print and stamps generally sell at multiples of the Springer value. For that reason, some single-edition catalogs or reference works use rarity factors instead of prices, in the hopes that the work may retain value for the foreseeable future.
In short, catalog prices are merely a guide, not gospel.
Collectors should understand that catalog prices fluctuate, are specific to condition, and that catalog pricing is subject to a variety of factors. While buying at a discount is typical, it may not always be an option for hard to find or in-demand material.
As always, collectors should study their areas of specialization and understand current market prices before purchasing expensive material, rather than mechanically rely on catalog values.
Got marketplace questions? Ask Matt at [email protected].