Stamps are sold in a variety of ways. This brief article will discuss the different types of sale, and clear up some of the terms used.
There are companies which will send you a selection of stamps by mail. You can pick the stamps you'd like to keep, and return the rest with your payment. Prices tend to be high, due to the risks and time involved, but this is still one of the most convenient ways to add to your collection, since you don't have to leave your home. You usually get a month to look at the stamps.
Some approval companies will send "packet approvals", which is a selection of stamps priced at a few cents each. These can be fun to go through.
A good approval company will ask you how much you're interested in spending, how often you'd like to receive a selection, gives you 30 days to decide, and will pay the return postage for you. A bad approval company sends more than you can afford, only allows a few days to make your decision, and doesn't pay return postage.
A "packet" is a selection of stamps which are all different. They are like miniature collections. If you only have 25 stamps from Algeria in your collection, a packet of "100 different Algeria" is sure to add a bunch of stamps you've never seen before. Packets used to be more popular than they are today, and packets are generally filled with less expensive stamps, but if you want to fill spaces in an album and see a good variety of stamps, packets are hard to beat.
The difference between two stamps can be as little as a perforation or watermark variety. If you want stamps where no two look the same, look for packets which are "all face different". These will not include minor varieties. And some countries don't have minor varieties, so this is not an issue.
A good packet has variety -- large and small, new and old issues, with no damaged stamps. A poor packet has all small or vary common stamps, with many damaged; watch out for stamps that are stuck together.
Also known as "kiloware". Usually, when you buy a mixture, you will be getting stamps by weight -- per ounce or per pound. Most mixtures are "on paper", which means that the stamps are still attached to the corners of the envelopes they were mailed on. You will have to soak these stamps off the paper, which is a laborious, but often enjoyable process. Mixtures also contain duplicates, sometimes hundreds of each type of stamp, sometimes only a few of each stamp. The benefits of mixtures are: low cost per stamp, interesting postmarks, a newer selection of stamps than you'll find elsewhere, and duplicates you can sell or trade.
Some mixtures are "off paper", which means you'll get a bag of stamps, no soaking needed. A pound of stamps off paper can have up to 7000 stamps! Some collectors enjoy sorting through huge amounts of stamps. These are the folks who enjoy mixtures.
I am often asked how many stamps are in an ounce, so I analyzed a variety of mixes, and came up with these numbers:
There are a lot of auction houses and "mail bid sales" which sell stamps. In fact, there is such a variety, they're hard to explain. Some auctions sell just the most expensive stamps, with heavily illustrated catalogs. Some auctions sell entire collections or boxes of stamps at a decent price. Some auctions only sell lots in the $100 to $10,000 price range, others have items with bids starting at $1 each.
Normally, you place bids by mail, and the folks with the highest bids get an invoice for the lots shortly after the closing date. When you pay the invoice, you get the stamps shipped to you. Some auctions add a 10% buyers fee, and if you buy heavy lots, the shipping costs may surprise you. But if you read the fine print, and ask fellow collectors to recommend good auction houses, this can be an excellent way to add to your collection.
I have never had a problem with any auction house. But I have some rules: I only buy at auctions outside of the U.S., where the exchange rate is favorable; I only buy wholesale lots and collections, and I keep an eye on the shipping weight. I once had a sizable shipment from India get lost in the mail, but that's one of the risks.
I have to recommend Vance Auctions (www.vanceauctions.com) in Canada to anyone who's interested. They're good folks who put out an incredible variety of lots each month.