Stamp collecting has been a popular pastime for almost as long as postal systems around the world has been issuing stamps. And wny not? These tiny pieces of paper often feature high quality and interesting artwork, along with small glimpses into the culture and history of the nations that issued them. Given that stamps have been around since 1840, and there are- and have been- more than 700 official stamp issuing nations and political entities, it is possible to build a collection of hundreds of thousands of unique and different postage stamps!
Considering this extraordinary volume of "raw material," it's little wonder that one of the greatest challenges facing stamp collectors is how to correctly identify each stamp in a collection. This can become especially important as those collections grow more advanced, and individual stamps may have market values in the $100s or even $1,000s.
When wanting to identify a stamp, the collector is typically interested in knowing where the stamp was issued, when it was issued, and what its value (as a collectible) might be.
Correctly identifying a stamp typically involves two basic components: The postage stamp, itself, and a stamp catalogue- typically one with worldwide coverage, such as those issued by the Scott (USA), Michel (Germany) or Stanley Gibbons (Britain) publishing companies. Since the advent of the Internet, online search tools have also become of major help, when trying to identify stamps.
Quite a lot of information can be gained from simply looking at the stamp.
First, the collector must establish where the stamp was issued. With the exception of Great Britain, every stamp design includes the name of the issuing postal authority. As the original "inventor" of the postage stamp, Great Britain remains the exception to this rule- however, British stamps can be readily identified because they always feature a portrait of the reigning monarch at the time the stamp was issued, OR a small silhouette image of that monarch, in one corner of the design.
For other nations, there will be a written name as part of the design. Keep in mind, however, that not all stamps are- or were- issued by "countries." A number of stamps have been issued by states and regions within a country. Also keep in mind that not all stamps can be identified according to current geographical and political boundaries.
Stamp origins are easy to ascertain when dealing with predominantly English speaking countries like "Canada" and "New Zealand." It becomes a little trickier with other countries, because stamps will bear the name of the issuing country in its native tongue.
Of these, stamps from places using Latin-based alphabets are the easiest to identify. The simplest are those whose native names "look like" the corresponding name in English: Stamps from Denmark are incribed "Danmark;" from Belgium "Belgique" or "Belgie;" from Italy "Poste Italiane;" and so forth. But many are not as obvious: For example, stamps from Croatia are inscribed "Hrvatska;" from Finland "Suomi;" and from Austria "Österreich."
To identify these "odd" country names in English, web search tools typically offer the quickest solution. A short search query such as "[country name] wiki english" will almost always give you the answer within the first few results.
Sometimes, identification is complicated further by the fact that some countries use- or have used- different formal names over the past 150+ years, and some places even used abbreviations. German stamps, for example, have been inscribed "Deutsches Reich," "Grossdeutschland," "Bundesrepublik Deutschland" and "Deutschland" as history and government structure changed over time. For a while, French stamps were simply inscribed "RF" as an abbreviation of the more formal "Republique Francaise;" and stamps of the United Arab Emirates are inscribed "UAE."
Again, a web search can typically offer clues to these stamps' origin.
However, not all nations use variations of the Latin alphabet, and stamps from these places can be much harder to identify. Cyrillic, Arabic, Greek, Indic (Hindi, Sanskrit, etc,), Asian Logographic (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc.) and other alphabets can require considerable research to decipher.
In the course of the last 50-70 years, quite a few nations from Asia and Africa have inscribed their stamps in both their native script as well as English: Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea are good examples. Japanese stamps are inscribed "Nippon," next to the Japanese "kana" characters. Stamp collectors can often compare the native alphabets on newer stamps they've identified to older stamps that don't have any Western writing, and succeed in identifying the older stamp's origins.
If a stamp can't be identified because of an unknown alphabet, sometimes the currency used for the denomination of the stamp can be of help. Most countries- regardless of their alphabets- use the same numerals, so if a collector can identify the currency used on a stamp, that can often be matched up to the nation where it is (or was) used. The image on the stamp might also be helpful. Stamps often commemorate events and public figures, so if you have a year of birth and death, or dates of an important political anniversary, you might be able to identify the stamp after a few web search queries.
When all else fails, there's the trip to the local library, where you can most often find a copy of a worldwide stamp catalogue in the reference section. In the US, this would typically be the Scott catalogue; in Britain it might be the Stanley Gibbons catalogue. Whereas it can be tedious to go through hundreds of catalogue pages, it is also a learning experience that will not only identify the stamp, but hone the aspiring collector's research skills.
In any case, most stamp collectors quickly become skilled at using stamp catalogues, since the next step in stamp identification is to determine when the stamp was issued. Although the age of a stamp can sometimes be established by either looking for a tiny year printed in the stamp's margin, or by looking at the date on the postmark, this is not always reliable- especially on older stamps. Fortunately, it doesn't take long before stamp collectors become very adept at this kind of detective work- after a few sessions, the "strange looking" writing becomes familiar enough that place of issue can be established without a catalogue.
Once place and date of issue has been established, it becomes easy to use the stamp catalogue to look up the value of a particular stamp. Although the vast majority of stamps are printed by the millions and are both common and inexpensive, collectors find valuable stamps all the time- often within the pages of old stamp albums purchased at flea markets, or even found in an elderly relative's attic. Understanding the basics of stamp identification becomes very important, in order to pick out the few valuable items among hundreds of common items.
The Internet has brought about many changes in how collectors identify stamps. Perhaps the biggest comes in the form of a number of large online forums and communities for stamp collectors. As members of these forums, collectors also have the option of identifying stamps by posting scanned images of their "mystery" items for other collectors to see... as a result of which more experienced collectors typically can come up with the correct identity.
However, in the long run, there is no substitute for learning to identify stamps on your own.