Internet Philatelic Dealers Association Inc

Online Buying Tips


Shopping in the online philatelic marketplace can sometimes feel a bit like a crap shoot or a trip to the local flea market or rummage sale.  Most of us have had pleasant surprises and many have experienced disappointment when buying stamps online.

This column will explore some ways that may help to minimize those disappointments and enhance your online stamp buying experience.  These points can really be viewed as a kind of “checklist” that you can use to high-grade the various sellers and dealers you will encounter online.

We will explore a number of things to be aware of both positive and negative as we navigate the various online philatelic markets.

It may help, at least somewhat, if we view shopping online in the same way we view shopping in person at a stamp shop.  With the in-person shopping experience, most customers have certain expectations of the dealer they will visit.  Some of those expectations include the ability to examine an item being offered for sale.  The ability to ask questions of the dealer regarding said items along with expectations of fair store policies and pricing structures among many others.

So, shopping for stamps online really isn’t that much different from visiting a stamp shop with respect to what the customer’s expectations should be.  We just don’t have to travel to the store…the store comes to us.  With that said, let’s dive into some of the details that will hopefully enhance your online stamp buying experience.

    1. A reputable dealer is often, but not always, one who has an established track record in the business. This is not to say that a dealer who has been in business but a short period of time is necessarily not reputable, but an established track record is an indicator that at least you have a chance to have a good experience with this dealer
      1. Customer Feedback: If available, look for a good track record of feedback from the dealer’s prior customers.  Recognize  that there will almost always be situations where there may be present negative or neutral feedback for a variety of reasons, sometimes out of the dealers’ control.  But a very high percentage of positive feedback over time is a good starting indicator of a quality dealer.
      2. Professional Associations: Attempt to ascertain whether the dealer is a member of any professional stamp dealer’s organizations such as IPDA, APS Dealer Member, ASDA, CSDA, PTS, etc.  While this is by no means a guarantee that the dealer is the one you want to do business with, it is a starting point in your evaluation.  All recognized dealer’s organizations members must abide by their own defined code of ethics and meet certain standards for membership within that organization.  Likewise, all of them have some kind of mechanism in place to enforce those codes of ethics though their own procedures.
      1. Look for clear images of the item being offered at resolutions high enough to properly examine the item (usually a minimum of 400dpi). Expect to see images that reflect the true color of the item in question (understanding that each scanner or imaging device will have inherent slight variations in how colors are captured).But as the collector, and knowing the type of material you are shopping for, be particularly aware of images that appear altered including color enhancement methods like digital brightening and the like.  Look for paper color that would be unrealistic to find in the “real world” for example.

        Early 20th century Great Britain and Commonwealth stamps for example, would never be found on ultra-bright white paper.  An imaged item that exhibits this trait has almost certainly been digitally manipulated (or possibly even chemically washed or bleached) and if purchased and upon receipt of that item, you might find that you will be disappointed that the item you received does not look at all like the item offered.

      2. Expect to see all aspects of the item offered. In the case of stamps, an image of both the front and the back of an offered item.  Yes, it can be understood that low or minimum value items will often not be accompanied by a scan of the back, for most items with an asking price of more than a few dollars, a back scan should be provided.There are seemingly as many reasons/excuses for dealers not providing a scan of the back of an offered item.  “It takes too much time!”  “It’s not worth the effort!”  “They don’t need to see the back! “ I told them what it looks like in my description!!!”

        Let’s revisit the opening paragraph on this topic.  Ask yourself what you would do if you were to walk into a stamp shop and ask the dealer to be able to examine the back of a stamp only to be told, no.  A good rule of thumb is to maintain the same expectations you have of an online stamp dealer as you would with a brick-and-mortar store.

      1. Most online philatelic marketplace platforms allow a dealer to indicate at least a basic description of an item being offered and often a secondary area where a more detailed description can be provided as well. Stand-alone stamp dealers who have their own independent websites often do the same.As the customer, and spending your own money on an item, you should know what it is that you are actually considering.  Expectations should include things like catalog number (and which catalog is being used), condition of item, any faults present, etc.

        These written descriptions should support the images provided and the images should support the item’s description.  Ambiguous and/or lacking descriptions should raise a red flag for the customer.

        Again, a visit to the local stamp store is an appropriate comparison.  The dealer will happily tell you what the item is (describe it) and allow you to examine it personally (view all relevant images online).

      1. Returns
        1. When shopping online, seek out the dealer’s policies regarding how any potential returns would be handled. Is there a stated satisfaction guarantee? Are there any unreasonable time  limits involved.  Are there any conditions in place for returning an item or items that would cause you any concern like restocking charges and/or handling fees?  Will the store cover your reasonable return shipping costs or are you liable for that?
      2. Shipping and Handling
        1. Examine carefully what the store’s charges are for shipping from their location to yours. Recognize that international shipping, if done properly and legally can not only be relatively expensive but can take quite some time for your item to arrive.It would be quite unrealistic to expect to buy from a dealer in Warsaw and receive your order in Cape Town a week later unless you are paying for highly expedited shipping with can become exorbitantly expensive.  Conversely, the same order from a dealer in Dallas would usually arrive in Houston normally well with one week.
        2. Also, look carefully at what the offered shipping costs are that are offered. It is quite common to see some online sellers who offer very low prices on very common items then charge enormous amounts for shipping, often far beyond what would be considered “cost-plus”.  These kinds of practices can represent “red flags” for the customer as it is apparent that the seller is more interested in profiting from the shipping than the items they may offer for sale.
  • How an item is actually packaged for shipment can be a direct reflection on the quality of the dealer. Unfortunately, this aspect is not often known until an order is placed and received so it can be difficult to evaluate simply from anything typically found in an online store.  But there should be certain expectations which can include providing at least a statement of what was purchased along with from whom and when it was purchased.Individual or multiple items purchased then all thrown together in a glassine envelope with no identification at all is a very good indicator of a sloppy and/or lazy dealer.

    Items placed in the mail stream can be subjected to things like moisture or folding and creasing.  Proper packaging will include efforts to at least minimize the effects of moisture and folding/creasing during shipment.

    The problem is that many of these things cannot be discerned until an order is actually placed and received so this is often an exercise in trial and error on the customer’s part.  But once the order IS received, it will become rapidly apparent with whom to continue doing business going forward.

  1. Expertizing/Grading: It is vitally important that one understands the difference between expertization and grading.  Expertiziation involves whether or not a given philatelic item is actually authentic or not.  In other word, is it what it appears to, or is represented to be, or is it not.With expertization, a certificate is most often issued for the item in question stating what the item actually is.  Sometimes this cannot be determined even by experts in their respective fields and a certificate may be issued stating “no opinion” or something to that effect.

    Grading, on the other hand, is not concerned with authenticity.  Rather its concern is with the quality and/or condition of a given item.  How well centered it is, how does the color appear, what is the condition of the gum (if mint) are three aspects among many others that are involved in grading an item.

    Some of the expertization services offer grading services as well and may even combine  both services on one certificate.

    1. Expertization is most often done through a recognized organization which offers these kinds of services. In the US and Canada, APEX, PF, PSAG, and PSE are four of the largest.For Great Britain and the UK, BPA is a great expertizing option.  Numerous others exist for other countries and/or specialties.  The point here, however, is not to advertise the various entities who do the analysis, rather it is to focus on how an online philatelic seller/dealer should be expected to handle expertization matters.

      A quality dealer will often express a specific policy as to how expertization is handled.  For example, what would happen if a customer were to purchase an item, send it off for expertization, and have it returned as not what it was represented to be at the time of the sale.  How would the dealer handle that circumstance?  A reputable dealer will most often gladly refund the purchase price upon return of the item if requested along with its certificate with no questions whatsoever.  Look for policies that address how expertization will be handled and if lacking a clear policy on the matter, reach out to the dealer and ask them directly what their policy would be.  It is, after all, your right to know the answer to this question.

    2. Now the subject of grading can and has been quite a bone of contention in some philatelic circles. There are those collectors who strictly collect only graded stamp, and there is nothing wrong with that.  And there are those who simply do not put any countenance into the grading of a stamp and feel they can evaluate the quality of an item in question themselves.There are many in between these two stances as well.  As with expertization, there are recognized companies that offer professional grading services.  One of the primary pitfalls encountered in the online philatelic marketplace is the offering of “self-graded” or “E-graded” stamps.  It is all too common to see terms like superb, gem, jumbo, and the like used in the online market as well as the use of numerical “grades” to describe a stamp (i.e. Gem-100, 100J, Superb-98,  etc.).

      In addition, the use of software that “grades” items has risen dramatically in recent years.  This software almost exclusively digitally calculates how well centered an item is mathematically, ignoring all other aspects of a stamps condition.  It then generates a “grade” for this singular aspect of a stamp’s condition.

      Further, this “grade” can often be “manually adjusted” by the user to enhance the purported “grade”. The sale of graded items solely on the basis of either a self-generated “grade” or of a software-generated “grade” should really be avoided.

      If grading is important to you as a collector, seek out items accompanied by graded certificates from a recognized authority.

    This may be the singular most important thing to evaluate with an online philatelic dealer.

    How well do they communicate with you, the customer?  Do not have any fear of reaching out to a dealer if you have a question you may have about an item they have offered for sale, or for clarification of a store’s policies on a given matter.  An old saying fits very well here “….If you do not ask the question…you will never know the answer.


    A reputable online dealer will always happily and promptly respond to any questions you may have for them.