Collector Guidelines

Collecting stamps from the Third Reich is both an interesting and rewarding hobby, though not without the pitfalls that may catch some collectors unawares. Over the years I have become so familiar with all of the stamps issued during the period that I can recite Michel numbers and catalogue values in my head; even so, I am often consulting my copy of Michel just to make absolutely sure before making any purchase.

Understanding the market

Third Reich stamps are – for many reasons – very popular, and collectors range from the serious philatelist and the thematic enthusiast through to those who may be after a piece of history or – somewhat unfortunately – those who may just want a stamp with Hitler’s head on it to serve as a tasteless party piece.

The market is diverse, and those selling Third Reich stamps often price their goods according to their clientele: while a serious dealer will provide details and catalogue values, others will often be selling two-a-penny Hitler head definitives at an inflated mark-up. For instance I once saw one lightly-hinged stamp from the 1944 Armed Forces set sell on eBay for just under ten pounds; while the buyer would have no doubt been thrilled at getting a genuine Second world War-era German stamp with a Luftwaffe parachutist on it for what he thought was a bargain price, a little research would have revealed that he could have bought the entire set in unmounted mint condition for less.

Of course, there’s nothing at all wrong with making a 1000% profit on overpriced genuine items: so long as the information is available the onus should always be on the buyer to do his or her research before reaching for their wallet.

Hinged or unhinged?

Unfortunately, problems in buying Third Reich stamps do not stop at sellers trying to make a profit in selling items way above their catalogue values. Stamps that are in unmounted mint (UMM) or mint never hinged (MNH) condition have a considerably higher catalogue value than those that have had some sort of gum disturbance, and as a result it is not uncommon to encounter issues that have been doctored and regummed by unscrupulous dealers and sold on to unknowing collectors as something they are not. While unblemished items issued after 1940 are fairly easy to get hold of, many of the more premium prewar items are less common and are hence seen as likely candidates for regumming.

The doctoring of rare stamps is more than just a cottage industry: the differences between mounted and unmounted mint stamps can be massive, and an expert regummer can easily turn over a hefty profit by recycling stock. Fortunately, many regummed items can be identified with a cursory inspection: the tell-tale signs can be exposed by studying the perforations with little more than a strong magnifying glass or jeweller’s loupe, and if you have access to a microsope you will get an excellent picture of the scene of the crime.

To find out more about regummed items and how to spot them, Peter Toracca has written a brief but highly infomative article.

There are plenty of people out there with sufficient expertise to turn a previously-hinged item into something that can be sold as “unmounted mint”, “mint never hinged”, “post-office fresh”, “postfrisch” and the like, so if you do intend on building up an UMM collection of Third Reich stamps, it is recommended – at least where issues from pre-1939 are concerned – to only purchase items that have been certified as authentic by a recognised expert. With Third Reich-era stamps, the name to look out for is Hans-Dieter Schlegel. Although regumming techniques have been continually refined to the point where it can be described as something of an art in itself, a German stamp with “SCHLEGEL BPP” marked on the reverse or an accompanying signed BPP certificate is more than sufficient proof of authenticity and value.

Of course, you can instead play safe and choose to concentrate on used or lightly hinged examples. It can be argued that unless you are building up your collection as a long-term financial investment, there is little point in seeking out UMM items. Lightly hinged stamps are far more affordable, you won’t find yourself fretting over whether they may have been regummed, and they’ll look just as good as any UMM item when placed in a smart hingeless album.

Buying Third Reich stamps on eBay

In the old days – that’s actually not so long ago – one could take one’s copy of Michel and a magnifying glass to a high street stamp shop and inspect their stock directly; these days however the vast majority of sales are conducted on eBay, where your will get your first proper sighting of the actual stamp only after the seller has your money. eBay has opened up the world of stamp collecting to many and has often reignited their passion: for me, it has been a very good thing as I have been able to buy and sell hundreds if not thousands of individual items. The darker side of this equation is that it has also provided a wonderful opportunity for some to take advantage of the good faith of others.

I have a number of golden rules that I always follow when buying on eBay:

– check out the seller thoroughly before buying. A 100% feedback score is highly regarded, more so if they have sold a number of items.
– check the feedback comments. A reputation is more than just statistics.
– if you find a selection of decent sellers, stick with them. Some of them have websites run outside of eBay and may offer good deals to regular customers.
– unless you are after a specific item to fill a gap in your collection, concentrate on auctions rather than “buy it now” items. You will often get a far better deal.
– avoid “buy it now” bargains, which may not be as good as they seem. Watch out in particular for “unmounted mint” sets priced at silly prices – you may well end up with a stack of regummed items.
– if the item is a rare issue, ensure that the one in the photograph is the one you are going to bid on. If necessary, ask the seller for further photos: bona fide sellers will be more than happy to oblige.
– don’t dive straight in and throw your money at the first thing that catches your eye – there will be many more around, and biding your time may save you a significant amount of money.

Generally speaking the philatelic community on eBay is well above board: probably as a result of following my own rules, I haven’t had one bad experience in what has been some twelve years of eBay trading. It’s all a simple matter of making the market work for you rather than the other way around.

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