Stamp Collection

Collecting Philosophy


If you have an $8 million budget for your U.S. stamp collection, or if you don't mind empty spaces in your album, then this treatise is not for you. If you are satisfied with limiting your collection to just "face different" stamps, then you should not waste your time reading further. However, if you enjoy collecting U.S. Postage Stamps, and you want the most complete collection you can afford - one that REALLY tells the story of U.S. stamp history - but one which you can reasonably expect to COMPLETE in your lifetime, keep reading!

Although I am attempting to define the parameters of a comprehensive COMPLETE U.S. collection, let's start with the Definitives and Commemoratives. I will cover Airmail and Back of Book (BOB) later in the discussion. I stopped my analysis at the last stamp issued in 1999 for convenience, so I am only addressing Scott Catalog numbers 1 through 3369 for now. This article has been literally a decade in the making. Catalog values are from the 2008 Scott Specialized Catalog, unless otherwise indicated. I used the lowest price (usually, but not always, for a used stamp).

A rough estimate of the minimum catalog value of a complete U.S. collection is $7.5 million. Let's look at the major contributors:

Price Summary


Fully half of the value can be found in the Z Grills (which is, of course, driven by the incredible catalog value given to the 1c Z grill), but it should be obvious that the Z grills and A-E grills are out of range for your average collector. It is still possible to collect the more common grills without breaking the bank.


Reprints account for over $1.7 million of catalog value. Some of the reprints were of pre-Civil War issues that weren't even valid for postage when issued, and the others were more like proof sets than regularly issued postage, so those are easily excluded.

Paper Types and Perforation Varieties

These two categories account for over $700,000 in catalog value (CV). The Paper Type value is driven by two things: A single stamp (Scott #164) that is the only known example printed on ribbed paper, and the Third Bureau Bluish Paper issues. The significance of #164 is that it is the only 24c stamp that is known to be from the Continental Bank Note Company (instead of the National Bank Note Company). Every other 24c purple stamp of that design, without a grill, is listed as #153. Even though some were printed by NBN and others were printed by CBN, they are indistinguishable. CBN used the same plates and the same paper to create those stamps as NBN did. So #153 is all of the NBN and CBN stamps issued EXCEPT for ONE stamp (#164) that can be uniquely identified as being from CBN. It isn't the only 24c purple stamp of that design printed by CBN, far from it. It's just the only stamp experts believe they can be certain was printed by CBN. Every other 24c purple stamp of that design was printed either by NBN or CBN using the same plates and paper, so it's impossible to distinguish the rest of them. Therefore, it is easy to treat #164 as an oddity not to be considered.

The bluish paper Third Bureau stamps were from a short-lived experiment by the Bureau to address the problem they had with shrinkage. The 30% rag stock paper did not address the problem and was discontinued. Other than the one and two cent issues, which were shipped out intermingled with the regular paper issues, the other bluish paper stamps were only run in small batches and not intended for release. Through an error, a small number of the higher value stamps on bluish paper were released to the post offices. Fortunately for us, there was a large production run of the 1909 Lincoln Memorial issue on bluish paper (Scott #369). Adding this affordable stamp to our collection satisfies the desire to acquire an example of the Bluish Paper without worrying about the Third Bureau rarities.

The perforation varieties are mostly coil-waste and sheet-waste stamps. These are typically Rotary Press stamps that came from a failed run and resulted in waste that could be cut into large panes and perforated on the still extant Flat Plate perforation machines. Normally perforation varieties are ignored as meaningless, but for Third Bureau Rotary Press more care is required. Rotary Press stamp designs are "stretched" along the curvature of the cylinder and are measurably different from Flat Plate images. It would be preferrable to obtain one example of every Rotary Press printing stretched vertically and horizontally that was issued as a sheet stamp. Fortunately, this is possible. Pages 11c and 11d show how this can be done without breaking the bank.

Some perforation varieties designate a difference in press type. Press type varieties are collected whether distinguished by perforation or other means.

Minor Types and Color Varieties

All of the inconsequential type varieties can be found in the pre-Civil War issues (Scott #1 to 39). In fact, all type varieties are collected after that period because they generally mean something (like an intentional change or secret mark). But what about all of those type differences in Pre-Civil War issues? Mere contrivances, in my opinion.


Stanley Bryan Ashbrook

Ashbrook was a world-renowned expert on the stamps and postal history of the classic United States issues. He produced a large body of original research which he published in many journals.

His most celebrated work was the two-volume The United States One Cent Stamp of 1851-57, published in 1938. Ashbrook also wrote about the 5-cent and 10-cent 1847 and 1869 issues and the 10-cent 1855-57 issue. His book, The United States Ten Cent Stamp of 1855-57 (1936) received the Crawford Medal in 1937.

(Source: APS web site Hall of Fame page)

Ashbrook is personally responsible for many of the early type differences becoming major catalog numbers. In the Scott 2008 Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps & Covers, on page 10, James E. Kloetzel, Scott Catalog Editor wrote: "It has been theorized that Ashbrook originated the many different types of the 1c and 10c stamps for catalogue listing partly in order to sell more stamps, but far be it for me to comment on that theory."

Well, I'd like to comment on that theory! To understand mid-19th Century Type differences, it helps to ask a question:

Why were stamps from the same plate visibly different before the Civil War?

The answer is simple. Combine 1860 metallurgy (before Bessemer steel) and 1860 mechanization (mostly hand-cranked), and the result will not be very uniform. Throw in 1860 illumination (sunlight and gaslight) and 1860 magnification to inspect the proofs, plus 1860 printing ink compounds (animal and vegetable matter) and you have a very imprecise process. Applying post WWI technology (Bessemer steel, steam-powered presses, incandescent light, improved magnification, and petroleum based inks) to evaluate pre-Civil War stamps is stupid. The equivalent would be to employ electron microscopes and computer technology to differentiate into four or five categories the over ONE BILLION 2c Columbians issued in 1893. Who would benefit from such an arbitrary categorization? Perhaps a dealer with a large supply of otherwise common stamps to sell?

I smell a rat, and his name is Stanley Ashbrook!

Dr. ChaseDr. Carroll Chase

Dr. Chase was a world famous expert and plater of the classic stamps of the United States and France. His earliest research, begun around 1900, culminated in his complete plating of the U.S. three-cent 1851-57 issue. This was first published serially in The American Philatelist from January 1923 to July 1926, and then published in book form as The Three-Cents Stamp of the United States 1851-57 Issue (1929), for which he received the Crawford Medal in 1930. Chase later revised the book for a 1942 printing (reprinted in 1975).

Chase moved to France in 1929 and remained there until 1941. While living there, he studied the early stamps and postal history of that country. His most notable work there was the plating of the 25-centime 1871 issue. For these works and many others, he received several awards including the Lindenberg Medal in 1932. With Richard McPherren Cabeen, he was co-author of The First Hundred Years of Territorial Postmarks 1787-1887 (1950).

He was active in the APS and served as a vice-president in 1915-1917, and as president in 1920-1922. Chase was one of the original group of philatelists who signed the Roll of Distinguished Philatelists in 1921. He also received the Luff Award in 1944 for Distinguished Philatelic Research and the Lichtenstein Medal in 1954.

(Source: APS web site Hall of Fame page)

Dr. Chase was instrumental in plating the three cent pre-Civil War issue. He demonstrated how to uniquely identify the exact plate position of every three-cent stamp, but instead of advocating for additional major catalog numbers, he did the opposite. He advocated for minor catalog numbers for the varieties, understanding that plating was a specialty unique to an era before Bessemer steel was available. Dr. Chase was a true philatelist, not a dealer, so elevating minor type differences to major catalog status had no appeal to him.

I take the same approach as Dr. Chase.

Meaningless color varieties extend through the Civil War issues (Scott #62B to 78). In most cases after that, insignificant color differences are relegated to minor catalog number status anyway (where they should be). Until recently we had to depend on the experts to identify subtle color variations, but thanks to the Scott Specialized Color Guides using actual Munsell™ color chips, we can now see for ourselves the different colors mentioned in the catalogs and I can summarize my findings in one word: Bullshit!

The variations within a catalog number are far more pronounced than those between catalog numbers, and it is interesting that ALL of the Guides are for issues that range from browns to reds since reds are the most unstable colors when exposed to light. Add the fact that 19th Century pigments were not as stable or as predictable as modern petroleum based inks, and many old stamps were subjected to untold amounts of damaging light, it's no wonder there are so many color variations. These color variations are just normal to a rather primitive process. Making these color variants major catalog numbers is silly. The only significant color differences before the UPU color changes are 67/76, 157/178, 210/213, 211/215, 205/216, 246/247, and 248/249. In my opinion, all other color differences before the UPU color changes (in 1898) are either errors (which should be minor catalog numbers), or varieties (once again, minor catalog number), or changlings (catalog footnote at best).

People like Ashbrook did a major disservice to the average collector by pushing these oddities to major catalog number status. I'm not having it!

Second Bureau Coils

This is the most challenging group of stamps to exclude, but a price tag of $344,000 makes them out of reach for most collectors. They can be dismissed as only experimental since only a few were produced in 1908, and 1908 saw the introduction of the Third Bureau issues. The result of the Second Bureau experiment was to issue Third Bureau coils in bulk.

The coils issued by BEP in the Second Bureau were: One cent horizontal and vertical, two cent horizontal and vertical, and five cent horizontal (see Scott catalog for details - 316-318, 321-322). The CV for those five stamps is $299,000. However, it may still be possible to reasonably represent Second Bureau coils through Third Party perforations of imperforate sheets (see Vending & Affixing Machine Perforations in the Scott Specialized Catalog). Thus far, I have decided NOT to do this, but I may change my mind. Here is how it could be done:

One cent coil perforated horizontally (CV $55,000) represented by Brinkerhoff Type II perforations $12.50 for a used single; $75 for an unused pair
One cent coil perforated vertically (CV $6,000) represented by Schermack Type III perforations $2.25 for a used single; $11.00 for an unused pair

Two cent coil (Type I) perforated horizontally (CV $225,000) represented by Brinkerhoff Type II perforations $12.50 for a used single; $37.50 for an unused pair
Two cent coil (Type II) perforated vertically (CV $7,000) represented by Schermack Type III perforations $2.75 for a used single; $22.50 for an unused pair

Five cent coil perforated horizontally (CV $6,000) represented by U.S. Automatic Vending Company Type I $750 for an unused pair ($2000 for used single)

Obviously the five cent value is the challenge, and no wonder since it wasn't issued imperforate until 1908, the same year the Third Bureau was introduced.

Scott #314A is a special case (CV $45,000). The 4 cent Second Bureau stamp was never issued imperforate, or as a coil, to the public. As such, it is an oddity and easily excluded.

Everything Else

If we get rid of the inconsequential type and color differences before 1869, ignore the Reprints that really should be in the back of the catalog with Proofs, don't include differences in paper only, exclude meaningless perforation varieties and rare grills, and reluctantly drop Second Bureau coils, what's left?

Breakdown of reminder

Imperf Error

The $12,000 Imperf 5c red error is Scott #485. The 5c red error is shown as Scott #505 (perf 11). The perf 10 version (#467) is just an inconsequential perforation variety. It make sense not to include #485 since that is just the imperforate version of the error we document with #505. I take the position that the format difference (perforated v. imperf) is documented in the non-error 3rd Bureau stamps, so the error is adequately documented in #505 alone.

Common Grills

Adding the F grills to the pre-Pictorial NBN issues and the H/I grills to the NBN post-Pictorial issues doubles the expense over face different, and these grills are notoriously difficult to detect and commonly faked, so I decided to exclude the grills, but that is always an option.


The watermark differences would add $6506 to the cost. That is within reason, but I despise watermark detection, so I won't be doing that. Feel free to add the watermark varieties if you wish (mostly early Bureau issues). To me, watermark is just another paper variety.

What's Left

If we remove the 485 imperf error (since we already have this error perforated with 505), and whether or not we decide to add common grills and watermarks, what is left is a very robust, reasonably comprehensive, and informative collection. This collection includes:

  • Every face different imperforate pre-Civil War issue.
  • Every perforated pre-Civil War issue from both the original plates and the modified plates (as applicable).
  • The lone Premiere Gravure to be placed into production (62B).
  • The lone significant color difference in the Civil War issue (67 and 76).
  • The first Type difference that had a purpose (118 and 119) and every single Type difference after that.
  • First Bureau major color and type changes, including UPU color changes.
  • Second Bureau Type differences and imperforates of all issues that were made into trial coils in 1908.
  • All Third Bureau issues Flat Plate, Rotary Press, and Offset. Sheet, horizontal coil, vertical coil, booklet pane, and imperforate, including all Type differences with one exception: There were five different types of the Offset Printing 2¢ issue, and each of these are presented in perforated form. To collect all 5 imperforate as well would add over $1400 to the cost, and likely a lot more than that since I collected the Offset Printings as plate number singles to validate the types.
  • Every Third Bureau Rotary Press stamp issued as a sheet stamp, including sidewise versus endwise coil waste, but without regard for the actual perforation.
  • Every single major catalog number after the last Third Bureau issue (#547) with only four exceptions:
    • 594 - a sidewise coil waste stamp that differs from 578 by perforation only.
    • 595 - a sidewise coil waste stamp that differs from 579 by perforation only.
    • 613 - Rotary Press sheet waste - a few scrap pieces from the run for 612 perforated on the equipment for 610.
    • 1789B - an oddity created by a sub-contractor. 1789 was perforated 11x12 and has a CV of 20¢. 1789A is the same stamp as 1789, but perforated 11x11 and has a CV of 20¢. 1789B is the same stamp still, but perforated 12x12 with a CV of $3500. I just can't help but wonder if that was intentional, and regardless there is nothing different about these three stamps other than the perforation. I passed on including 1789B for the same reason I passed on 613.
  • The addition of meaningful varieties that are mostly minor catalog numbers, such as:
    • Liberty Series Wet/Dry Printings
    • Press differences such as Huck or B Press (1625) and all of the various press differences of the Great American Series, the Transportation Issue, and beyond.
    • Kansas City Roulettes - I vacillated quite a bit on these, but finally decided to include them. It would be easy to exclude them.

Martin Armstrong ("The Coil Issues of the United States 1906-1938", Martin A. Armstrong, 1977, Trenton PrintingCo., Inc., page 6) wrote, “Remember, a true Philatelist should not be concerned with just filling in the spaces. Money can buy many issues but it is the knowledge of what one has that truly completes his collection.” I contend that using your knowledge to determine what you NEED to create a comprehensive collection is the first step. Don't buy stamps and learn. Learn, and THEN buy stamps. You might save enough money to complete your collection!


Quite simply, every single major catalog number is included, plus a few extras

  • Wet/Dry Printings
  • Several issues intended for International Mail after "Airmail" ended and before the Jet sillouette began: 2532, 2835, etc. (see Airmail pages).

BOB (Back of Book)

I chose to include:

  • Postage Due (ignoring watermark and perforation differences, but including Wet/Dry printing differences)
  • Parcel Post
  • Parcel Post Postage Due
  • Special Handing
  • Special Delivery (ignoring watermark and perforation differences)
  • Registered Mail
  • Certified Mail
  • Express Mail
  • Priority Mail
  • Semi-Postal issues
  • Official Stamps (ignoring American Bank Note Company specific printings and Special Printings)
  • Newspaper and Periodical Stamps (see Back of Book for details of what I included)
  • Parcel Post Insurance - Many consider these to not be stamps, but review my pages on this subject and be your own judge.

The total cost of such a collection depends on your standards. Take, for example, the $5 Columbian with a lowest CV (mint no gum) of $1350 (2011 Scott). The values by grade in the 2011 Scott show a range of $405 (VG) to $3350 (SUP) for MNG. That's a range of 30% to 250% of CV. I have found that to be a fairly good rule of thumb, so you can accommodate your budget by setting your standards accordingly if filling in all the spaces is a goal.

The 800 pound gorillas

Using my strategy, there are still a few rather pricey items. Most notably:

  • #2 - 2016 CV used $850 (down from $1400 in 2008)
  • #39 - 2016 CV MNG $1100 (down from $1500 in 2008)
  • #118 - 2016 CV used $850 (up from $750 in 2008)
  • #120 - 2016 CV used $650 (down from $775 in 2008)
  • #122 - 2016 CV used $1900 (down from $2400 in 2008)
  • #243 - 2016 CV MNG $750 (down from $1000 in 2008)
  • #244 - 2016 CV MNG $1000 (down from $1300 in 2008)
  • #245 - 2016 CV MNG $1200 (down from $1500 in 2008)
  • #292 - 2016 CV used $725 (up from $650 in 2008)
  • #293 - 2016 CV MNG $875 (down from $1050 in 2008)
  • #356 - 2016 CV MH $3250 (unchanged from 2008)
  • #C15 - 2016 CV MH $575 (down from $750 in 2008 - but C13-15 used holding it's value)
  • #O68 - 2016 CV MNG $800 (up from $750 in 2008)
  • #O69 - 2016 CV MNG $3500 (up from $3250 in 2008)
  • #O70 - 2016 CV MNG $2500 (down from $2750 in 2008)
  • #O71 - 2016 CV MNG $2250 (down from $2500 in 2008)
  • #PR1 - 2016 CV MNG $750 (unchanged from 2008)
  • #PR8 - 2016 CV MNG $650 (down from $775 in 2008)

These are the stamps that come to mind with a minimal CV in excess of $500 each. This is where you determine the cost/value of your collection. If you require good centering and no flaws, you can expect to pay 100% or more of the total CV above for those stamps. If you don't mind average centering and a pulled perf or a crease, you can get the more common stamps for 10% or 20% of CV. The scarce stamps (356, O68-71) are more difficult to obtain, and you won't find any at 20% CV. I have never seen a legitimate 356 sell for less than $1100, but fakes sell for a lot more than they are worth all the time. O68-71 are both expensive and hard to find, and fakes abound, but there are proofs available as place holders. They are nice imperforate examples to use as placeholders. I still have proof placeholders for O69 and O70 waiting for an acceptable real stamp to become available at a price I am willing to pay.


If you skip the imperf version of the 5c red error, and the watermark and grill differences, total CV is about $40,914. Assuming you are willing to accept stamps of a quality that rate 40% of CV, that's $16,365.60. That's still a LOT, but over a LIFETIME (many collectors spend over 25 years actively on their collections), you're looking at about $50 per month. This analysis is for US stamps through 12-31-99 as defined above. If you are collecting current US, there will also be costs associated with keeping up with modern issues. Plus there are costs for mounts, pages, and binders. I was able to keep up with modern and make serious progress on pre-21st Century with a budget of $100 per month.

I am down to 4 stamps that I need for completion, and I have suspended my collection of modern US so I can concentrate on those remaining 4 stamps. 3 of them will still take about a year each to save for. Patience and determination are needed for the endgame if you have a limited budget!


b. Brookman = "The United States Postage Stamps of the 19th Century", Lester G. Brookman, 1989, David G. Phillips Publishing Co., Inc. (Reproduction of 1966-67 printing by H.L. Lindquist).

c. Johl = "The United States Postage Stamps of the 20th Century, Volume I", originally compiled by Beverly S. King and Max G. Johl, November 1932, revised and enlarged by Max G. Johl, March 1937, printed by H.L. Lindquist.

d. Armstrong Coils = "The Coil Issues of the United States 1906-1938", Martin A. Armstrong, 1977, Trenton PrintingCo., Inc.

e. Armstrong Fourth = "The United States Definitive Series 1922-1938", Martin A. Armstrong, 1980, Trenton PrintingCo., Inc.

"The 1999 Comprehensive Catalogue of United States Stamp Booklets", Robert Furman, 1999, Krause Publications, Inc.

f. Dietz = "DIETZ Confederate States Catalog and Hand-Book", 1959, The Dietz Press, Inc.

g. Baxter = "Printing Postage Stamps by Line Engraving", James H. Baxter, 1939, published by the American Philatelic Society, printed by the J. W. Stowell Printing Company.

"Stamps that Glow", Wayne Youngblood, 1990, Linn's Stamp News

h. Scott Catalog = "Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps" (or similar title) for the year indicated (various printers and publishers). The 1905 catalog is not a Specialized Catalog since Specialized Catalogs were not available until 1922.

2012 Durland Standard Plate Number Catalog, 2012, United States Stamp Society plus 2014 Supplement

Hebert's Standard Plate Number Single Catalog, James E. Ragsdale, 1999, privately published

i. Scott Color Guides = "Scott Specialized Color Guides for United States Stamps", 2005, Scott Publishing Co.