When buying stamps, especially if a stamp represents a substantial expenditure of money, it is best to exercise as much caution as you can, because the market is fundamentally a caveat emptor (buyer beware) situation. It is possible to minimize mistakes in buying, but every serious collector makes unwise acquisitions which may be a disappointment – I know this from experience. But such acquisitions are always a valuable learning experience which will help you avoid repeating similar errors.
The following suggestions are partly the result of my own difficult experiences but are offered in the hope that they may help collectors to avoid purchases that they may regret in trying to build their collections.
The most important single piece of advice I can give is to buy your material from a reliable source, someone who knows the material or at least has a good reputation for honesty in dealing.
Right now, stamp shows are few and far between, but this does not change my suggestion to look at an item in person rather than at a picture of the item if at all possible. Sometimes, you may take a chance on an internet purchase, and some of these will turn out very well, but utilizing the services of an agent may be well worth it if you are buying at auction or in some situation where you cannot actually look at the item. If you are considering the purchase of an especially expensive item, you may wish to invest in the advice of an expert or certification from an expertizing agency, but certificates are only as good as the expert, and even experts are known to miss something. To read more on this topic, see page 258.
Once you begin attending shows again, and we hope that is soon, it is always wise to carry a good lighted magnifier. The light at shows varies a lot. Sometimes it is more than adequate, but in many cases, you really need an alternative light source to look at any item that you are considering purchasing. The same rule goes for circuits or other material that may come to your home. There, it should be relatively easy to examine any proposed acquisition carefully. To learn about “Tools of the Trade,” see page 241.
Certain items may warrant special care before a purchase. Those items are any that are likely to be forged or altered, including overprints, possibly repaired items, color shades that are presumed to be rare, all sorts of subtle damage such as thins or tears, and several other things that can adversely affect the purported value of an item. In “How I Collect,” page 214, several experienced buyers share their mental checklists that they use to assess a stamp’s quality.
If you’re attempting to purchase an item of considerable value (in other words, anything that would really hurt if it turned out to be a forgery or some other problem with the stamp), be sure of the dealer’s return policy before you buy. Again, this goes back to finding reliable dealers as sources who know the material. This will minimize your chance of making a mistake and make sure that the collection that you have built consists of items that continue to make you happy instead of bringing back bad memories. A well-chosen item is truly a joy that will last as long as you own it, but a mistaken purchase can be a source of sadness or regret. Putting a little extra care into your purchasing practices will pay back tenfold in dividends.