Stamp catalogues are the primary tool used by serious collectors to organize their collections, and for the identification and valuation of stamps. These list postage stamp types with descriptions — usually accompanied by illustrations — and prices. Most stamp shops have stamp catalogues available for purchase. A few catalogues are offered on-line, either free or for a fee. There are hundreds of different catalogues, most specializing in particular countries or periods.
The first stamp catalogue was published in France by Oscar Berger-Levrault on September 17, 1861, and the first illustrated catalogue was by Alfred Potiquet in December 1861, based on the earlier work.
The first catalogues in Great Britain were published in 1862 by Frederick Booty, Mount Brown, and Dr. John Edward Gray. The first in the United States was The Stamp Collector’s Manual by A.C. Kline (a pseudonym for John William Kline), also 1862.
The precursor to the Scott catalogues still used by the majority of collectors in the United States was J.W. Scott & Co.’s Monthly Price List, a one-sided, single-page list measuring 7½ x 17 inches apparently meant to be used as a flyer or broadside. It was a far cry from the multiple volume editions published today. John Walter Scott had been born in England in 1845 and began collecting stamps when nine years old. When he turned 18, he moved to New York City and began his first stamp business during the U.S. Civil War. However, he soon ventured West to try his luck in the California gold fields, returning to New York in 1867 where he issued his first price list of stamps that June.
The publication of Scott’s 16th monthly price list in September 1868 was the true birth of his catalogue. With a title of Descriptive Catalogue of American and Foreign Postage Stamps, this was a 24-page bound booklet, illustrated with four stamps on the cover and 11 inside. Scott also introduced his line of stamp albums at this time and they were advertised on the back cover of the catalogue. The values Scott listed for the stamps in his price lists and catalogues were the retail prices that he and other dealers were selling their stamps for.
In the mid-1880s, Scott sold his stamp and catalogue business in order to try his hand at the stock market. The Scott Stamp and Coin Co. began assigning a number to each stamp in the catalogue with the 48th edition, published in 1888. The United States Specialized Catalogue was first published in 1922 due to an overrun of pages for the regular (78th) edition. Four hundred of these special U.S. catalogues were published, each bound in leather. This proved quite popular and the first official edition was published in 1923, leather-bound with pages printed on only one side. The publishing portion of the business was sold in 1938 with Scott Publications Inc. producing catalogues and other items. This is now a division of Amos Press, Inc., headquartered in Sidney, Ohio.
The first Stanley Gibbons stamp catalogue was a penny price list issued in November 1865 and reissued at monthly intervals for the next 14 years. Today, the company produces numerous catalogues covering different countries, regions and specialties; many of them are reissued annually. The catalogues list all known adhesive postage stamp issues and include prices for used and unused stamps.
While most catalogues originally were just dealers’ price lists such as the early editions of Scott’s, today this is less common. The catalogues of some major publishers continue to serve as an official price list for the publisher. For example, Stanley Gibbons specifically states in the catalogue that the price listed is the estimated selling price by Stanley Gibbons Ltd. In other words, if they had that exact stamp in stock in the exact condition specified, the current catalogue price is the price that they would charge for it. On the other had, Scott does not sell stamps. Rather, the Scott catalogue serves as a reference document for expected prices used by buyers and sellers.
Over time, as philately developed, catalogues tended to accumulate additional supporting details about the stamps, such as dates of issue, color variations, and so forth. As their use by collectors became widespread, the catalogues came to define what was and was not a legitimate stamp, since many collectors would avoid stamps not described in the catalogue. In recent years, the Internet has become a common resource for information about stamps. Some catalogues have an online version while others are available only online.
The following catalogs have a worldwide coverage:
- Michel – printed, software and online
- Scott – printed, pdf-format and online
- Stanley Gibbons – printed and online
- Yvert et Tellier – printed only
These are large undertakings, since there are thousands of new stamps to describe each year, and the prices of all stamps may go up or down. For publishers that are not dealers, the prices are estimated by data from dealers and auctions.
In addition, the catalog publishers usually put out specialized volumes with additional details, generally by nationality: Michel has a specialized German catalogue, Scott a specialized United States catalogue, and so forth.
Many countries have their own “national catalogues”, typically put out by a leading publisher or dealer in that country. Postal administrations may themselves put out catalogues, although they tend to be aimed at less-experienced collectors, and rarely provide fully detailed stamp data.
Some notable country catalogues include:
- ABDA (Philippines)
- Aerophil (Switzerland)
- AFA (Denmark)
- AFINSA (Portugal)
- Brusden-White (Australia)
- Edifil catalogs (Spain and its former colonies)
- Facit (all countries of Scandinavia)
- Fischer (Poland)
- Hellas (Greece)
- Hibernian Catalogue and Handbook (Ireland)
- JB Catalogue of Malta Stamps and Postal History (Malta)
- Lamy (Peru)
- Ma catalog (China)
- Chan catalog (China)
- Yang catalog (China, published in Hong Kong)
- Phila India – Manik (India)
- RHM (Brazil)
- Sassone (Italy)
- Sakura catalog (Japan)
- NVPH catalog (Netherlands)
- Zumstein (Switzerland)
Notable online catalogues covering worldwide stamps include:
- Colnect Worldwide Stamp Catalog
- WikiBooks World Stamp Catalogue
- Stamps of the World
- Stamp Data
Not all of these have catalogue numbers (some have their own, such as StampWorld) or list values. I’ve used StampWorld and Colnect rather extensively when my 2013 edition of the Scott Catalogue fails me (I try to buy an update every five years or so). I like Colnect as it lists catalogue numbers for most of the major publishers (including Scott numbers for most but the most recent, say last two years, of issues, but here called “Stamp Number” due to Scott’s licensing policies).
There are also a great number of online catalogues dealing with single countries. A few of my favorites for finding certain details include:
- Collect GB Stamps
- New Zealand Stamp Catalogue
- Groupement Philatélique France Scandinavie, GPFS (for Scandinavian, French and Andorran stamps; some countries more complete than others)
The Universal Postal Union maintains a catalogue of stamps from 2002 to date for certain member countries, using their WADP Numbering System (WNS), useful for more recent issues. A website called World Stamp Catalogues maintains a comprehensive list of catalogues, both online and physical.
I think every collector uses their catalogues in different ways. I primarily use mine as checklists — stamps I own are highlighted in yellow and stamps I want to buy are in blue. Since I use digital versions, I can have a copy on my phone if I happen to travel to a dealer or a stamp show. I also use the information in the catalogue listings when writing about the stamps for this blog. Of course, the more specialized the catalogue the more information I can extract from a listing. Sometimes, I can find the name of the designer and/or printer using one of the online catalogues. Since I have scanned every stamp that I own, I can easily use the digital copy to find the microscopic differences that sometimes causes huge value fluctuations.
On May 6, 1965, the sheikdom of Ajman released nine stamps and two souvenir sheets marking the 125th anniversary of Stanley Gibbons Ltd. These were available in both perforated (13 x 13) and imperforate versions. Each of the stamps pictured either the first edition of the Stanley Gibbons catalogue or the 1965 Elizabethan edition along with a different classic rare stamp. These were printed using the photogravure process. The 50-Gulf naye paise denomination depicts the 2-cent Hawaiian Missionary. The first postage stamps of the Kingdom of Hawaii, the first three of which were issued on October 1, 1851, came to be known as the “Missionaries” because they were primarily found on the correspondence of missionaries working in the Hawaiian Islands. Only a handful of these stamps have survived to the present day and are amongst the great rarities of philately.
An excellent website about the Missionaries, as well as all other Hawaiian stamps, can be found at Post Office in Paradise.