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What Is a 'Sleeper' When Used in a Stamp Collecting Context?

The context within the sales listing description gave me a clue to the meaning when it described the British stamp on offer as; "... a sleeper in a recently purchased British Commonwealth collection" and the definition given in The Stamp Collector's Encyclopedia (by R J Sutton) says a sleeper is "an unsuspected classic stamp" but doesn't explain any more fully.

In fact the term is mainly applied within the philatelic trade by some dealers who handle large volumes of stamp collections. Many albums and collections received by dealers or auctioneers are quickly scanned and dismissed as lacking in depth and quality because it is obvious, with the briefest of checks, that only very common and virtually worthless stamps are included. Time and profit demands in business mean little effort be placed on checking the stamps in such albums individually and they are usually passed on to collectors as starter collections or included in larger "glory box" lots.

But every once in a while a rare stamp survives in such a collection completely unnoticed until a dogged collector with the patience and interest to check every stamp acquires it. This is a "sleeper". It stands to reason that these sleepers often tend to be valuable varieties of stamp that don't easily catch the eye. Often it is a rare watermark variety, sometimes it's a postmark, maybe there's a graphite line on the back or perhaps a subtle error such as a missing colour or printing flaw. More often than not, the original collector didn;t realise what they had meaning it remained stuck on a hinge and undetected for years.

It's worth saying that sleepers by their very nature are not just rare stamps in their own right but also rare finds too. If sleepers were more common to find in these old neglected childhood collections you can bet your bottom dollar more dealers and auctioneers would allocate their time to checking such lots.

But sleepers are still there to be found as I myself know only too well. Some years ago I purchased a small collection of King George V stamps in an album. A few scruffy and disorganised pages of definitives from various printings plus a clutter of Silver Jubilee and PUC low value commemoratives. At first glance there was little to get excited about but, being a keen novice at the time, I systematically checked every stamp. What was the sleeper? A blue twopence halfpenny PUC stamp with the watermark inverted. While it couldn't be described as very fine used, it was certainly in sound, good used condition. A rare and valuable stamp indeed and the way it was found definately made it a "sleeper".

At the time of this discovery I was Secretary of a local stamp club and enjoyed showing off the find to jealous friends for some months but, eventually, the routine pressures of everyday life as my family grew meant I had to raise money to pay some bills during a house purchase and the cherished stamp had to go. As much as I would love to still own the stamp today, I still feel a sense of satisfaction knowing I have owned, touched and admired a stamp that many very serious GB collectors have never owned.

Most long term collectors can probably offer similar stories about their lucky finds. For example, only very recently, I was shown a used £2.00 Machin high value with the missing £ symbol error that was found in a bag of kiloware!

In some ways I feel it can be the vast majority of collectors who cannot afford to bid in prestige auctions for classic investment quality items that can get most pleasure from this hobby. While most of us will admire a rare cover or stamp in an exhibition, our more modest disposable incomes mean we take more interest in what lies at the bottom of the philatelic barrel where the odd rarity still waits to be discovered. Let's be honest, most of us still love the thought of finding a sleeper!

See a glossary of philatelic terms for stamp collectors

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What Is a 'Sleeper' When Used in a Stamp Collecting Context?

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