How to identify and value your Chinese stamps

How to identify your Chinese Stamps

After inheriting my grandfather's stamp collection, I immersed myself in the philatelic world of Chinese stamps: spending countless hours reading through Scott's Catalog (Volume 2A for China), Yang’s catalogs, and Shiu-Hon Chan’s 2010 edition of Stamp Catalogue of China (this is the best source of information on Chinese stamps). The Chan catalog is available on Ebay here.  These catalogs are helpful if you want to identify stamps from China, but are expensive and outdated. Consider buying these catalogs if you are going to collect Chinese stamps, or have inherited a collection with valuable stamps that you want to identify.

Another great source of information for identifying Chinese stamps is the China Stamp Society (CSS) catalog. The Society was formed in 1936 to promote interest in Chinese philately, including Hong Kong, Macau, Manchukuo, Tibet, Shanghai and the Treaty Ports, Foreign Offices in China and the Japanese Occupation of China. James Maxwell, President of CSS, wrote an English catalog of Chinese stamps issues before 1950. This catalog, China Stamp Society Specialized Catalog of China to 1949  is available from CSS to members for $50. Here is a link to the CSS website where you can buy the catalog and learn more about Chinese stamps.


How to assess the value of your stamps

When I inherited my grandfather’s collection of Chinese stamps, I thought it was a spectacular collection that would be worth thousands of dollars.  After approaching numerous auction houses that specialize in Chinese stamps, I slowly came to the realization that I had thousands of worthless stamps with catalog values (CVs) of less than $2.00 each. Dealers and auction houses didn’t want to buy them and were only interested in cherry picking a few of the better stamps.  I was wrong to think that the stamps were valuable because they were old.

Valuable stamps were not issued in huge numbers and are extremely hard to find. These stamps are rare and scarce because there are so few of them in existence. Only serious collectors who invest heavily in their collections have more than a few of these high-value stamps. Dealers and auction houses are only interested in high-value rare or scarce stamps with catalog values that exceed $500 per stamp and normally at least $3,000-5,000 per seller.

Look through online auction house catalogs and you will find no common stamps, or collections that just include common stamps. Most Chinese stamps are not worth much and sell at a large discount to catalog value(CV). This discount varies tremendously from stamp to stamp, but on average high-value Chinese Stamps sell for 30-60% of catalog value. This is just a general rule of thumb and there are lots of exceptions.  The value of a stamp depends on its condition and supply & demand. Stamp prices vary greatly year to year and auction to auction. A few particularly popular stamps even sell for in excess of CV.

Stamps with low catalog values of less than $10 generally sell at an even steeper discount to CV. This discount is typically 50-80% for lower value stamps. Lastly, stamps that have catalog value of less than $3 are typically almost worthless and often sell for 15-50 cents each.

The article, "So You've Inherited a Stamp Collection- And Don't Know What to do with it?" has good information on the stamp market for non-collectors.  

If you identify some high value stamps in your collection, the first step to determining each stamp’s value is to carefully assess its CONDITION. The CONDITION of a stamp is the primary determinant of its value.

Assessing the condition of your Chinese Stamps

Centering and margin:

The following grades convey how well centered the stamp is and the width of the stamp's margins.

  • Extra fine (EF) or extremely fine (EF) :  An almost perfectly centered stamp with wide margins. High value Chinese stamps (CVs over $200) in this condition should sell for a value that is close to the realized results at recent stamp auctions and on Ebay. This may even approach or exceed CV in some instances, but this is not the norm. These stamps are desirable and difficult to find.
  • Very fine (VF):  A well centered stamp with ample margins. Quite desirable.
  • Fine (F): A stamp that is significantly offset but still has four margins. A solid stamp, but lower value than higher grades of the same stamp.
  • Average (AVG): A stamp that has no margin on at least one side with a portion of the design trimmed off or cut into by the stamp perforations. Except for rare or scarce stamps AVG stamps are not worth collecting and have little value. Heavy cancellations which obliterate the design are also detrimental to value. Average stamps are worth a small fraction of Catalog Value (CV) or are worthless.
  • Poor: A stamp which is heavily canceled, soiled, or cut to shape.  Only great rarities, or particularly scarce stamps, such as the $1 on 3c China Red Revenue stamp (Scott Catalog # 83) are collected in poor condition. Most stamps in this condition have no value. Rare or scarce high value stamps in this condition would typically be worth around 5%-15% of CV, but the final determination of value is almost impossible to make without careful examination of the individual stamp.


Another key factor in the case of mint (unused) stamps is the presence or absence of gum and whether the gum has been disturbed.  Here are commonly used terms that describe the gum of the stamp.

  • Mint never-hinged (MNH or NH): An unused stamp that has full original undisturbed gum with no trace of damage done by a hinge.  These stamps sell at a premium to the normal selling price for the stamp.
  • Lightly hinged (LH): A mint stamp which was hinged but only slightly disturbed.
  • Heavily hinged (HH): A mint stamp which was hinged and damaged in the process.
  • Hinge remaining (HR): A mint stamp which has part of a stamp hinge on the back.
  • Original gum (OG): A stamp with its original gum, yet deteriorated by age. 
  • No Gum (NG): Stamp's gum has been washed off, a significant detriment to the vale of a gummed stamp.
  • No Gum as Issued(NGAI): a stamp that was issued without gum.
  • Regummed (RG): Fresh gum has been applied to the stamp. Regumming can be detected by examining the end of the perforations under a microscope. The fresh gum may interfere with the small strands of torn paper or even form small droplets. These stamps sell for lower values than stamps with OG.
  • Large part OG:  Mounted mint (mint hinged) with the majority of original gum.
  • Part OG: Mounted mint (mint hinged) with less than 50% of original gum.

Used stamps usually have no gum and these terms generally do not apply. A used stamp with gum, may be cancelled to order (CTO) and have little value to collectors.


Faults and flaws that hurt the value of  stamps:

  • Thinning:  An area on the back where some of the paper has been removed or worn down. There will be a spot that is thinner than the remainder of the stamp.
  • Inclusion: A foreign piece of material that has been pressed into the paper when the paper was manufactured. It is normally a brown or black spot.
  • Tears, Creases, Holes, Missing Corners, Color and Image Fading, Missing & Short Perforations: All these faults are self-explanatory and have a negative impact on value.


Attributes that can enhance the value of your stamps:

  • Blocks and sheets that are not folded and are intact (the less seperation the better)
  • Blocks and sheets with requisition and serial numbers
  • Blocks and sheets with undamaged fault-free selvedge on all sides
  • Rare and scarce cancels
  • Well placed cancels
  • Light cancels
  • The date and clarity of the cancel can enhance or hurt value
  • Large margins and clean flawless selvedge
  • Unique varieties such as inverted overprints, double overprints, shifted overprints, missing overprints, and printing on the back of the stamp. Many varities that are rare or scarce are highly valuable. Chinese stamps have many fascinating varieties (listed in most good catalogs) due to the prevalence of overprints and surcharges.
  • Stamps that were issued for a few hours or days and then withdrawn.
  • Bisected stamps that were cut in half, with each half used for half the value of the stamp,  and then were cancelled and are still intact with the full cancel.
  • Imperforated between stamps and between stamps and selvedge/margins
  • Rare or scarce colors
  • Particularly bright and clear printing
  • Vertical and horizontal strips of stamps that are not folded and are in good shape. In particular, if imperforated between stamps and margins of the strip.

If your collection includes a number of items such as those outlined above, it is likely a valuable collection.  The person you inherited the collection from was likely a devoted collector that invested considerable resources into the collection over many years.  This could be gem of a collection. Click here to learn how to sell your stamps to me.