Question: May stamps be handled with fingers? If the stamps are cheap, what difference does it make in how they are handled, as long as they aren't damaged? After all, post office clerks sell stamps to collectors, and both handle the sheets with their hands. --T.L.
Answer: Stamp tongs are the time-proven method of handling collectible stamps. Tongs look like tweezers without the serrated edge at the tips; the tips are smooth metal surfaces that won't rip the stamp's paper.
It is true that current post office stamps are cheap and can be touched with your hands. But remember, stamps are delicate things, and their paper ages rapidly when exposed to sunlight, chemicals, high humidity or heat.
Human skin contains oil, dirt, salt and moisture that can linger on a stamp long after you touch it. If a stamp is important enough to save for five or 10 years, handle it with tongs.
Q: I have purchased nine sets of Historical Series stamps in mint condition on covers from the Postal Commemorative Society. Can you advise whether they are a good investment? Each set costs about $20. --A.R.
A: I can think of better investments: old U.S. covers from the 19th Century, old British stamps, early U.S. airmails either mint or used and early 20th-Century Canadian or Australian stamps. Many of these are for sale at $20 each.
The covers you describe are modern issues sold in quantities to meet the demand and therefore are not considered the best investment from a philatelic standpoint.
Why buy a stamp issued today, when for the same price you can have a century-old item? This is the reasoning of serious stamp investors and is the cause of better price increases of older material compared to recent issues, even though the quantities of both are limited.
Q: When I was in high school more than 60 years ago, I discovered a peculiarity in the U.S. Washington 2-cent stamp (Scott No. 634). Hidden in the head of Washington is a profile of Uncle Sam. Please tell me if this was designed that way on purpose or accidentally. --J.S.
A: It takes some imagination to see hidden pictures in the designs of postage stamps. I have trouble seeing the one you mention. Of course, if you look long enough at a cloud or pool of water you begin to see all kinds of things. Unless the hidden "picture" is clear and obvious, we usually must forever wonder if the designer intended it to be what it appears to be.
Q: The covers and postmarks of Texas appeal to me because that is my home state. Where can I contact a Texas collectors organization? --D.R.
A: The Texas Philatelic Assn. promotes Texas philately through its journal that's published every two months. Dues are $10 per year, plus a $2 admission fee. For more information, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Romaine Flanagin, 6802 Duquesne Drive, Austin, Tex. 78723.
Q: I have a collection of United Nations commemorative blocks of 10 since 1965. Also, I have first-day covers. Whom can I contact for an approximate value? I have a standing order with the U.N. Postal Administration. --H.C.
A: Most U.N. mint stamps of the last 20 years are still worth close to face value (or slightly more) because they were bought and saved in large quantities. First-day covers of these issues might be worth 25 cents to 50 cents each, retail price.
Your collection has some value but is not rare. This stuff is interesting to collect, but don't expect to get rich from it. Earlier U.N. material is more valuable.
Q: In the late 1940s and 1950s my father collected U.S. commemorative stamps in full sheets. All have been carefully preserved. Is there a market for these stamps? --H.H.
A: Yes, but the price is disappointing. Most U.S. stamps of the last 30 or 40 years are still available for close to face value because so many of them were printed and saved.
The average press run of a U.S. commemorative is about 150 million copies. This number is greater than all of the stamps held by all of the serious stamp collectors in the world.
True, a full pane (sheet) of stamps may contain 50 individual stamps, but to whom do you sell them? Most collectors already have the common issues and don't need extras. So most U.S. stamps of the past 40 years are worth face value.
Q: I have a home in the desert where I like to work on my stamp collection during spare hours. One problem is the drying out of the gum of mint stamps. It seems that the dry air makes the gum crack and flake off. What can I do to prevent this? --E.L.
A: You have the opposite problem that a seacoast stamp collector has. Philatelists who live near large bodies of water worry about humidity, mildew and "curling" of stamps due to absorption of moisture into the gum and stamp paper.
In a dry environment, stamps may become brittle and gum may crack a little. About 50% relative humidity seems right for stamp storage, but few of us can control the weather inside our homes to the extent needed for long-term paper preservation.
If you think that drying is harming your stamps, try storing your collection near the bathroom or kitchen where vapor is produced from time to time; in a room with potted plants that you frequently water, or in an airtight box. But be careful that you don't overdo it by making your stamps moist and susceptible to mold.
Q: I collect UPU stamps commemorating 100 years of postage stamps, issued in 1974. Is there a list of all countries in the world that issued such stamps? --R.F.S.
A: The Universal Postal Union (UPU) was established in 1874 to settle postal disputes between nations. In 1974 a number of countries issued stamps honoring the centenary of the UPU. Write to the American Topical Assn., Box 630, Johnstown, Pa. 15907, and ask them your question. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope for reply.
Q: I have been left a large collection of stamps. To my knowledge, some may be of value, others not so. How can I dispose of this type of collection and know that I'm dealing with a reputable firm? --W.C.H.
A: Most stamp-shop dealers are honest. They will offer to pay about half to one-quarter of what they expect to sell stamps for.
Say they offer you $100 for the collection. They have a right to turn around and sell it for $200 to $400. This is their profit for doing business, out of which must be paid their operating expenses, which may be quite high.
I recommend that you look in the Yellow Pages under "Stamps for Collectors" for the addresses of dealers near you. Take your collection to them for a quick evaluation. Check the Better Business Bureau to see if a company is legitimate.
Q: What is a definitive? --W.J.
A: A regular-issue stamp, not a commemorative.
Q: Having been associated with travel agencies for several years, I have many stamps from many countries, all cancelled. Do they have value to collectors? If so, how do I dispose of them? --H.P.
A: It is very unlikely that "commercial mail" stamps are worth much. The regular and air-mail issues used to mail letters and packages to the United States are so common and readily available that it is unlikely that you have stamps of significant value.
If you have high-denomination stamps, that is a different story. For example, a group of 1-pound stamps from Great Britain might sell for 25 cents each if clean and with normal cancels. Show your stamps to a stamp dealer.
Today is the first day of sale at Providence, R.I. 02940, of a 14-cent postal card (Pictured, Page 22) honoring the 350th anniversary of the settling of Rhode Island.
Barry Krause, a member of several national stamp-collecting organizations, cannot answer mail personally but will respond to philatelic questions of general interest in this column. Do not telephone. Write to Your Stamps, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.