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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Much Ado About Catalogue Values - Clearing Up Common Misconceptions

There are probably few topics in philately that are of greater consequence and that involve more misunderstanding among collections and dealers alike than catalogue values. It has been my experience over the past 37 years that most collectors have a wholly unrealistic idea of the relationship between catalogue values and market values, and what they should expect to pay for the stamps in their collection. This lack of realism exists on both sides of the spectrum: collectors who think that their stamps are worth way more than they actually are, and those who think that stamps that are actually scarce and expensive should be way cheaper.

One of the most widely held, and in my opinion mistaken beliefs about the relationship between market value and catalogue value is that market value is always a more or less fixed percentage of the catalogue value. You can often hear collectors say:"I never pay more than 1/3 of Gibbons", "Gibbons is way overpriced" or " I never pay more than 75% of Scott". Such collectors may indeed be speaking the truth, but that doesn't mean that those collectors are amassing complete collections of scarce and desirable material. Indeed those collectors could be collecting run-of-the-mill material that they are buying in bulk at auction, in which case they are paying the right price.

So in this post, I want to offer my insights about catalogue and market values that I have gleaned from 37 years of personal experience and 10 years of professional experience spent working in the trade.

The Purpose of Catalogues: To Facilitate Trade

The main purpose of a general stamp catalogue is to facilitate orderly trade between collectors and dealers and between collectors and other collectors by providing a comprehensive listing of the stamps that are commonly seen in the marketplace. In order to be of maximum utility to the largest number of users, it is essential that such a catalogue be user-friendly. What that means in practical terms is:

1. It will not be overly complicated. It will refrain from listing items that require an extensive amount of experience to identify correctly.

2. It will price material in the quality that is good enough to satisfy most collectors and is readily available in the marketplace. It will include prices for above average, but but not perfect material.

3. Where several different varieties of a stamp exist, unless the catalogue is listing the varieties separately, it is pricing the most common variety of that stamp.

3. Because dealers have to make a living and have overheads to cover, it will usually value stamps at a minimum of 20 cents or more per stamp.

Thus a general catalogue is not really geared towards the valuation of highly specialized collections, where the scarcer varieties of a common stamp can be worth many hundreds or thousands of dollars. It is also not geared towards pricing exceptional quality. If any of you have followed the US stamp market during the past 20 years, you will no doubt have witnessed the huge difference that exceptional quality makes to stamp values. There are a lot of collectors and dealers who consider this to be some kind of gimmick or fad. But I would beg to differ. I think that what is happening is that collectors are becoming more informed and sophisticated and are beginning to recognize that truly superb examples of just about any stamp are scarce, and demand is pushing prices up - way up.

Common Misconception  #1: My Stamps Should Be Worth Catalogue or a Large Percentage of It

The first misconception often held by non-collectors who inherit stamp collections, but also sometimes by collectors is that valuing their collections is just a matter of getting a catalogue and adding up the values. Many sellers are often shocked when a dealer offers them just $20-$100 for their grandfather's stamp album and they feel cheated and have a bad taste in their mouths.

But because of point #3 above, the reality is that most catalogue values in the low range, are really just arbitrary prices to enable dealers who sell that material to make a living. Below a certain point, those stamps really have no commercial resale value. What is the cutoff point for those values? There is no hard and fast rule. But I believe I can state a general rule and then illustrate some examples that may make it easier for you to identify the exceptions. My general rule is this:

Run-of-the-mill used material from 1890-1990 that is not present in quantity, is not specialized, and catalogues less than $2 per stamp has little to no commercial value on a per stamp basis. Such collections generally fall into the category above. The reason why they have no commercial value is that the stamps are common and are not salable to a specialist because there isn't any depth of quantity. A world album with 100 stamps from most every country is so labour intensive for a dealer to break down, sort and re-price that it will never be worth more than $20-$100 to them.

To get an idea of where that cutoff point is and what the exceptions are, consider a specialized collection of 1,000 copies of the following common used stamps:




This stamp is #F1, It is the first registered stamp of Canada and has a catalogue value of $3 for fine and $9 for very fine in the Canadian Unitrade catalogue. It is a common stamp, but not nearly as common as the 1c, 2c or 3c Small Queens of the time. If you went to a dealer with a collection of 1,000 used F1's sorted by shade, paper, perforation, cancel etc., you would definitely receive an offer that was a percentage of the catalogue value, although it would still be low unless the stamps were of exceptional quality. If you had 1,000 fine F1's you wouldn't receive anywhere near $3,000, but more like $500-$600. Still way, way more than the fellow with the world album, and that is at the $3 catalogue mark. 


This stamp is Canada #41 and is probably one of the most common stamps of its time. It catalogues $1 for very fine used and $0.30 for fine in the Canadian Unitrade Catalogue. Although is is very common in fine or below fine condition, it is not common in grades higher than very fine as shown above. If you had a collection of 1,000 #41's that looked like the stamp above, it is quite likely that you may receive more than $1,000 at auction. A dealer won't offer you more than $500-$600 as in the example above, but you may net more than full catalogue at auction. Why? Two reasons. First is the scarcity of the condition. Even though the catalogue's top graded price is $1, that is not the true value of a stamp in the Extremely Fine or Superb grades. Such stamps may retail for as much as $5-$10 each because of their scarcity. The second reason is that the catalogue value does not take the scarcity of specialized paper varieties, plate flaws, rare shades and cancellations into account, and a collection of 1,000 examples would probably have some of these. 

However, if the above stamp were fine or below then 1,000 examples would not be worth anywhere close to $300. $20-$40 would be closer to the mark - much the same as the fellow with the world album. 

Other low catalogue material which may be exceptions to my general rule could include:

1. Any specialized holding of better quality classic stamps issued between 1840 and about 1930. 
2. Modern mid to high value used commemoratives with nice circular date cancels issued since 1990, as this material is getting hard to come by. Low value commemoratives, Christmas and definitives are still very common, and don't really have any commercial value.  In-depth cancel collections of commemoratives issued before 1990 would also be an exception, but only if there is enough depth to interest a specialist. 
3. Modern mint, which usually trades at a percentage of face value, which is usually between 60-80%




This stamp is #36, the 2c Small Queen. It is just as common as the 3c stamp above. It catalogues $1 in fine condition and $3 for very fine in the Canadian Unitrade catalogue.

The quality of the above example is average and of no real commercial value. 1,000 of the above stamp would not be worth anywhere close to $1,000 unless there were some rare cancels or some perf. 11.5 x 12's included. The real value of a holding like that would be around $75-100 to a dealer. To a collector, maybe $150-$200, but not much more.

Once you move above the $2-3 catalogue mark, a collection takes on a value that is a function of the total catalogue of its component stamps. The less labour and time that a dealer has to expend to market and sell it, the larger the percentage that he or she can offer for it.

Common Misconception #2 Very Fine Means Perfect

Many catalogue users assume that where there are several priced grades for stamps and covers, that the highest priced grade is essentially perfection. They then demand steep discounts from the catalogue price when the material is not perfect. Such collectors often have a strained relationship with many stamp dealers and are often unsuccessful at auctions when they bid.

All general catalogues include an introduction that defines the basis of their pricing (i.e. what grade they are pricing) and then they go on to define the grades. The Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth and British Empire Stamps 1840-1940 catalogue devotes no fewer than 7 pages to explaining what they consider to be "fine" for each and every possible condition attribute. They clearly state that their prices are for fine and that the grade is an average of the grade of all condition factors. Thus just because a superb stamp has a short perf. does not mean that it is not fine. As far as Gibbons is concerned, if all the condition factors are better than fine, then 1 or 2 small defects will NOT result in the stamp being downgraded from fine. They explain very clearly the circumstances in which they would discount their stamps.

The flip side to all this is that all general catalogues are completely silent when it comes to valuing material in high condition grades. By high I mean grades that are very seldom encountered. The reality is that Very Fine is to use a golf analogy, very much like par: it is well above average, but it is not "a hole in one".

Why is this? Well the main reason is that it is too difficult to determine the market value of this material reliably. Catalogue values for most stamps are an average of what collectors in the market are willing to pay. A catalogue can list a reasonably accurate price when there is enough of the material being traded in the open market for an average to be computed based on a large number of auction results or individual retail transactions. Because high-grade material is so uncommon, any value would be based on a very limited number of trades, and catalogue publishers are just not comfortable listing a value that is based on such limited data. In addition to this, the market values for this type of material are always increasing, so any published price will be out of date almost as soon as it appears.

The moral of this is to read the condition information in the front of the catalogue thoroughly and completely understand the condition grade that is being valued as well as to how to identify it. Don't assume that you should be able to buy a high-grade example of an otherwise common stamp for catalogue price. In most instances, unless we are talking about a modern stamp issued after World War II, you will almost certainly have to pay more, sometimes much more.

Common Misconception  #3 Gibbons Catalogue Values are Highly Inflated

Many older collectors are of the belief that the values in Stanley Gibbons are highly inflated, and expect to pay 25%-40% of Gibbons for their stamps. Indeed there are many dealers that offer Commonwealth material at this standard percentage. If you look closely though, you begin to notice a pattern: either the material being offered does not consistently meet the Gibbons definition of fine, which is really similar to what we would call very fine in North America, or it is not the scarcer material.

It is true that Gibbons does inflate some values. They are regular stamp dealers just like the many thousands in the world. They are not omnipotent and contrary to what a lot of collectors may think, they do not have every stamp listed in their catalogue in stock. I was at their 399 Strand store back in 2010 and I can tell you that they don't have even close to 1/4 to 1/2 of what they list in stock at any given time. The only country that they do consistently have in quantity is Great Britain - specifically used Queen Victoria. They actually make the market in this material. They have massive stocks and they control the release of it, in much the same way that DeBeers controls diamonds. If you look for truly superb used GB, there are only a handful of dealers who can consistently supply it and Gibbons is one. It is scarce, but not nearly as rare as nearly all the material from the Colonies prior to 1960 is. Yet if you look at the catalogue values for used GB in Gibbons they are very high.

I specialize in Nigeria and the other British West African countries and I can tell you that if you actually try to accumulate a stock of quality stamps in depth of any issues prior to about 1935, they are all scarce to very rare in fine condition. Gibbons values for this material are definitely either at the mark, or in most cases are too low, and do not adequately reflect the rarity of the material. This makes sense because there are very few large collections of Nigeria bought and sold and very few large selections offered for sale at auction. This is precisely because the material is so scarce. I suspect that this is the case for all the British Colonies. The reason why Commonwealth stamps do not seem rare is that it is such a vast field, that a collection can have a handful of the most common stamps of each colony and still be a large collection. Thus just looking at the number of Commonwealth collections out there will not give you a true indication of scarcity because you wind up comparing apples to oranges. The only way to really tell for sure is to focus on one colony and see how long it takes you to acquire a complete range with a depth of 10-15 of each stamp or set. Then you will see how truly scarce most Commonwealth stamps actually are.

Common Misconception #4 - I Should be Able to Buy My Stamps From a Dealer For the Same Price I Would Pay at Auction.

I wrote a post some time ago in which I explained what services a good, honest and ethical stamp dealer provides to the hobby and collectors in general. Indeed, it is my belief that it is dealers that provide the underpinning of the philatelic market. Without them, stamp auction firms would be in big trouble, as dealers are usually their most active bidders (at least on their large lots). The main point of this post was to point out that a collector who benefits from the services offered by a retail dealer should be willing to compensate the dealer for them. Those services include making a selection of material available for immediate purchase, taking on the risk associated with mis-identification, standing behind every stamp they sell, even if it means refunding a collector years later, providing liquidity to collectors who need to sell immediately.

Part of this compensation comes in the form of higher prices per stamp. If a you can buy a large collection of British Colonies at auction for 35% of catalogue, does it really make sense to expect a dealer to sell you just one stamp for 50% of catalogue? He or she is saving you the trouble of having to buy the entire lot and dispose of what you do not want. Is a 15% markup really fair given everything the dealer has to do to bring that stamp to a state where you can spot it in a stockbook or online and decide that you want it? Think about it. I'm sure you would agree that it isn't enough of a markup to enable a dealer to make a living.

I am interested to hear you comments and views on this topic, as I expect that there will be a number of different perspectives out there, not just mine.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Removing Stamp Hinges and Hinge Remainders Safely


The Problem

Today's topic concerns the removal of old stamp hinges from mint and used stamps that you acquire, particularly the dangers associated with doing so and some techniques for determining whether or not it is possible to safely remove a hinge and then for ensuring their safe removal. This post generally refers to mint stamps, as most used stamps can simply be soaked in water to remove the hinge remnant. However there are some notable exceptions. For example, many high value stamps of the British Commonwealth are printed in doubly fugitive inks and will fade with exposure to water. Other issues, such as the Queen Wilhelmina issues of the Dutch East Indies are printed in watercolour and will completely disappear when soaked. So in those cases, the comments here are completely relevant.

Collectors tend not to like hinge remainders on stamps, one reason being that they feel they do not know what lies underneath the hinge. There is some concern that unscrupulous dealers have attempted to use hinges to conceal tears and thin spots on stamps. While this is sometimes the case, it is more often the case that a collector attempting to remove a hinge damages an otherwise sound stamp as in the picture below:




This is a 1 cent orange from the 1897 Jubilee Issue. As you can see, the hinge has come clean off and has taken the gum and a layer of the paper with it, thinning the stamp. In this particular case, I caused this thin after following a time tested technique for the safe removal of hinges. The reason why the stamp still thinned is that the paper on this issue is very soft, with a lot of loose fibres that bonded to the hinge. There was literally no way to remove it without soaking the stamp that would not result in damage.

The illustrations below show two more instances where hinge removal would damage the stamps if carried out completely:

                                            

In the above instance, removal was attempted, but abandoned after removing just a portion of the bottom hinge, as the removal was already causing a thin.

                                             

In this instance, you can see the pale green hinge at the top. That is known in the hobby as a Dennison peelable hinge. That can be removed without too much trouble. However, The two hinges underneath it and to the left of it are not peelable and will be very difficult if not impossible to remove without a great deal of patience as we will see.

Types of Hinges

It helps to have some understanding and awareness of the types of hinges and material that have been used to hinge stamps over the past 150 years. Having this understanding will help you identify, whether it is even wise to attempt removal and if so, which technique and tools will be needed to do the job without damaging the stamp.

1. Peelable Glassine Hinges

These hinges like the light green hinge in the scan above were usually made by a company called Dennison, though there were a few other makers. Usually they have a greenish tinge, are about 1/2 inch wide and 3/4 inch long. The flap that attaches to the stamp is usually quite narrow being about 5mm deep. Occasionally they are found uncoloured, being the usual yellowish or greyish white colour of glassine paper.

The major characteristic of these hinges is that they peel off very easily once they are completely dry. You can take them off easily from even the most delecate of papers without a problem. You simply hold the stamp down with a pair of tongs (not sharp ones!) and peel the hinge off (if it is intact). If all you have is the flap left, as in the scan above, then you can hold the stamp down with a clean finger, and gently rub the hinge with the dull spade tips of your tongs. For this I prefer rounded tongs, just to reduce any danger of accidentally piercing the stamps. This action will cause the hinge to separate at the corners and in the middle and then you should be able to lift it off with your tongs.

There should be no issues whatsoever with these types of hinges.

Every other type of hinge that I am about to show you is NOT peelable.

2. Rounded Standard Size Old Glassine Hinges




These are the most common types of old hinges. Determining their age is difficult because they were in use for a very long time. Generally speaking the only way to remove these is by rubbing and peeling, or with a scalpel as discussed below. As long as the stamps are printed on a fairly hard, stout paper with a good finish, then it should be possible to remove most of these without thinning the stamp. In the above examples, I judged the risk of removal to be too high given the softness of the paper on which the stamps were printed. So I left them as is.

 3. Small Rounded Glassine Hinges




These are much less commonly encountered than the hinges above, but I find they can be much tougher to remove. Again, the rubbing and peeling technique or scalpel technique is really the only way to go with these.


4. Large Oblong Glassine Hinges

           

These are very seldom seen, but when they are, they are really nasty. As you can see, they were very large hinges, as the flap of this hinge covers almost half the stamp. Rubbing and peeling probably won't work because you will damage the paper through the excessive rubbing long before you are able to remove the hinge. Part of the reason for this is that they tend to bond completely to the papeer they are attached to. A scalpel may work, but will require a great deal of patience. It may be best to leave these ones. In the above instances these stamps are printed on a soft horizontal wove paper and I could tell that there was no way to remove these without ruining two perfectly sound stamps.


5. Small Oblong Glassine Hinges

                                  


Like their larger cousin, these are difficult to remove as well. However, both rubbing and peeling and scalpel techniques will usually enable you to remove them.

 6. Octagonal Paper Hinges


                                            

These are some of the oldest, nastiest hinges around. You can see one in the centre of the above scan, that has since been covered by a glassine hinge. My advice with these is don't even attempt to remove them unless you have a lot of patience and skill with a scalpel. Rubbing and peeling will not work at all guaranteed, as these hinges were made from regular paper and not glassine and therefore bonded completely with the paper they were attached to.

7. Home Made Hinges from Pieces of Stamp Selvage



On the above Canadian stamp, someone has used a piece of selvage from an early German stamp issue as a hinge. There is no way to safely remove this except with a scalpel.


Techniques to Removal of Hinges Safely

There are two techiques that I have used to safely remove hinge remnants from stamps:

1. Rubbing and Peeling

Place the stamp face down on a firm but soft surface where it will not slide, like the back of a stock card and hold it down close to the hinge remnant with either your index or middle finger. Holding your tongs in your right hand (use wide rounded tips for this), in the closed position, place the wide tip on the hinge remnant and press firmly down. Then keeping the pressure on, begin moving the tongs in a circular motion. Move in very small, controlled and tight circles. If your movements are uncontrolled or too wide, you will suddenly crease or tear the stamp. After a about 30 seconds or a minute you should see the parts of the hinge remnant begin to loosen. Then you can get your tongs underneath it or otherwise begin breaking it off. Once a portion has completely loosened, simply peel it off. Watch very carefully to ensure that the hinge has comletely detached before removing it, as you can still thin the stamp at this point.

You will often see that what appears at first to be a single hinge is in fact, several layers of hinge. Generally 1 or two layers can be removed very safely using this technique, but once you get more than two layers what often happens is that the bottom layers won't come off safely using this technique because the hinge has fully bonded with the stamp paper. If you do not see the hinge remnant begin to flake, lift or peel after 2 or three minutes of rubbing, then this technique is not likely to work and you should stop. Excessive rubbing and pressure

2. Scraping with a Scalpel

You need a razor sharp scalpel for this technique. I like scalpels because of the rounded edges on the blades, which reduce the risk of accidentally piercing the stamp. You place the stamp face down on a non slip soft surface as above and placing the sharp edge of the scalpel on the highest point on the hinge remnant, begin very gently moving it back and forth to shave down the hinge remnant. Do not, whatever you do, start at the lowest point (i.e. at the corners of the hinge), otherwise you are liable to slice right through the stamp.

This technique takes an incredible amount of patience - sometimes 2 hours on a single stamp. Often it does not result in the complete removal, but merely improving the appearance to the point where it is worth doing.

How to Tell Which Hinges Can Be Safely Removed

 There are several factors to consider in deciding whether or not to remove a hinge remnant from a stamp:

1. What type of paper is the stamp printed on?

Good quality, stout wove papers that have some plate glazing or surfacing are the best for hinge removal. Plate glazing is a process where the paper is passed through rollers that effectively polish the print surface. The result is that the paper is very compact and firm with no loose fibres. This type of paper stands up very well to hinge removal. The best example of this type of paper is that used by De La Rue, Waterlow, Harrison, Perkins Bacon,  and Bradbury Wilkinson on British Commonwealth Stamps.

Soft papers that contain loose fibres, regardless of how thick the paper may seem to be are not good candidates for safe hinge removal:

Most Canadian stamps prior to the late 1940's are poor candidates for hinge removal. Newfoundland is an exception because the stamps were mostly printed by Waterlow, Perkins Bacon and De La Rue. The dry printings of the Admirals from 1924 through to the 1934 Loyalists issue are a safer bet. The paper used during this period is much more resilient to hinge removal. Between 1935 and 1948 some of the papers used are harder and firmer and hinges can be removed with no problem, but there is a soft vertical wove paper used for these issues that thins quite easily unless you are very careful when removing the hinges.

Early Australian stamps are much the same as Canada, with many papers being soft. Generally once you pass the third watermark of the Kangaroos it becomes safer to remove hinges. But great care must be taken on those early stamps.

Most US stamps are fine, except the soft papers of the Banknote period, where great care must be taken in removing hinges.


2. How many layers of hinge are there?

Generally if there is one or two layers of old glassine hinge, then you have a reasonably good chance of being able to remove all the remnants without damaging the stamp, subject to my comment on paper above. But once you get to three or more layers, your chances of being able to remove them all get slimmer and slimmer.

3. Where on the stamp are the hinge remnants located?

It is safest if the remnant is firmly in the middle of the stamp. If it is touching the perforations or covering them, it is probably best not to attempt to remove it because your odds of losing the perforations or thinning them is very high. If you can tell that it is not bonded to the perforations and just extends over them then you might be able to try removing it starting from the middle of the stamp. Occasionally a remnant like that will loosen to the point where it just peels off and even though it looks like it was on the perforations, it comes away without affecting them. The key is that if you get to the perforations and there is any resistance at all then the removal attempt must be curtailed.

4. Is the stamp completely sound before removal?

As I said before, sometimes hinges were used to hide thin spots or tears, so it may be a good idea to immerse the stamp in watermark fluid to see if there are any hidden faults under the hinge remnant that will be made worse with removal. Thin spots will continue to show up as dark patches and creases or tears as dark lines.

If the stamp is damaged underneath the hinge, leave it alone and just disclose the fault to the buyer.

5. What type of hinges are involved?

Paper hinges and selvage or other home-made hinges should only be removed by someone with experience using a scalpel who has successfully tried it on other stamps. You have to be prepared to spend hours on a stamp. If you rush, you will damage the stamp guaranteed.

If they are small to medium sized glassines, they should come off with rubbing and peeling. You shouldn't need to use a scalpel with them unless there are many layers. If they are larger glassines and have fully bonded with the stamp paper, then they should only be removed by someone experienced in using the scalpel technique.

Good luck with your stamps, and please be careful! A sound stamp with a hinge in my opinion is better than a damaged stamp without one.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Philatelic Evangelism

I wanted to take some time today to address one of my pet beefs with the philatelic establishment and some collectors in this hobby. My issue is with the obsession with expert certificates and the readiness with which some collectors are prepared to label a stamp "fake" even when they can't explain how they know it to be so.

I want to start by relaying a story of something that happened to me three or four years ago. I had listed some 1c and 2c coil stamps from the Canadian Admiral Issue that were issued in 1913. These were the ones with the horizontal perforation 8. I identified the second 2c as a fake. They are shown below:






Shortly after I listed them, I got an e-mail from an e-bay member informing me that he and a group of other philatelists had taken it upon themselves to police e-bay's listings and identify coils that they thought had been faked. He told me in no uncertain terms that he was certain that both my 2c coils were fake.

Naturally, I was polite in my response. I asked him respectfully what made him so certain and he said that Marler, the great student of admirals had written in his book that all the 2c coils from this printing had a characteristic break in the vertical shading line in the lower right numeral box at the upper right corner of this box. Since mine did not, they must be fake.

I pointed out to him that the perforations on the first 2c were perfectly aligned on both sides of the stamp (i.e. 90 degrees), that the width of the teeth matched that of the 1c strip above and that while the exact number of these coils issued is not generally known, it must have been in the tens of millions, and therefore how could Marler be so sure that all of them had to have this break? Remember that the experiments with coils were over and had been a success, so that this was not an experimental issue -it would have had a full print run. Other sets like the Scroll and Arch Issues that followed all had print quantities in the tens of millions, so why not this one? Given that kind of quantity, how could Marler possibly draw a statistically valid conclusion about the characteristics of a population that large on the basis of the stamps he looked at? He simply re-itereated that he was only trying to help me and suggested that e-bay could and would remove my listings unless I did. So I removed the listings the next day.

I want to be clear about the fact that I respect the work of expert philatelists. I understand the painstaking level of attention to detail that most of them have in the study of their stamps. But I would be the first to point out that in many cases, their conclusions cannot be anything more than convincing hypotheses, unless they have based their findings on documented, known facts from the security printing firm that produced the stamps. Why? Because their conclusions often lack statistical validity.

The general principal in statistics is that you can draw a valid conclusion about the characteristics of a large population from a surprisingly small sample.  But they are only valid if the items in your sample have been selected completely at random. Most people misunderstand what that means. For instance if they have a pile of 1000 stamps in front of them and they say, I'm going to pick out every 10th stamp for my sample, they may think that they are selecting randomly. But they aren't. The only way to randomly select in this case is to put them in a covered box, shake it up and pull them out without looking at them. Of course that is not how philatelists approach things. If they view their collection as their sample, then the only way that their collection will represent the population at large is if it has been formed from all the stamps that person can find. So off-centre, torn, heavily cancelled , no gum, thinned etc. examples must be part of that sample for it to represent the population. This is especially true for the classic stamps because most of them are badly centered and damaged in some way. A collector who tries to study an issue by looking only at superb or fine examples is at best only going to be able to make plausible generalizations about the population of fine and superb examples, but not the issue as a whole.

So in my opinion, given the large quantities of Admiral stamps printed and issued, there is no way that Marler's conclusions about them based on his observations of plate characteristics can be taken as a foolproof guide. I believe that his work is extremely useful in suggesting which stamps are  definitely genuine. But I wouldn't go so far as to label a stamp that lacks the plate characteristics he is describing to be a fake. Why? Because the plates consisted of 400 subjects (I think), were often re-worked, and there was more than 1 plate used for most values. So unless he conducted his study by looking at the complete proof sheets from every plate used, I don't see how he could be sure of the specific plate characteristics of each and every stamp printed. It's similar to the issue of position dots on the Montreal printings of the Small Queens: 90% of the stamps have them. So it would not be that difficult to form a collection of Montreal printings that all had guide dots and conclude that this was how all the Montreals had to look, when the reality is that 10% of the stamps have no dot.

I am what I consider to be an old-school philatelist in the sense that I believe that a solid knowledge of basic philatelic principles will allow a collector to identify most fakery. These principles include:

1. An understanding of the gumming and perforating process for most stamp issues, which will enable you to uncover situations in which a stamp has been re-gummed. Generally perforation tips should have gum on them right up to the point where they have been separated from their neighbour, Some may have minor gum loss from the shearing action that takes place when they are torn, but if all of them have missing gum, that is a sign that a re-gummer has filed them down carefully to remove the excess gum left over from the re-gumming process. When this hasn't been done, little globules of dried gum will appear at the very edge of the perforation tips where they shouldn't be.

2. Understanding that genuine contemporary cancels must have their ink on top of the ink of the stamp design. If it is the other way around, the stamp has probably been faked by fading out a genuine used example and being re-printed on top. This was Jean De Sperati's favourite technique for producing forgeries.

3. An understanding of how stamps are perforated, which will enable you to identify when a stamp has been re-perforated. Generally either the perforation holes are the wrong size of shape (though not a foolproof test) or they don't line up more or less exactly with the perforations on the opposite side. If you take a ruler and join the perforations on both sides, your ruler should be at more or less a 90 degree angle. If it isn't you probably have a re-perforated stamp on your hands.

4. Issue specific knowledge of the plates and formes used for overprints and surcharges including inks and fonts will enable you to uncover fake surcharges and overprints, though I would venture to suggest that this is one area in which a good many genuine stamps are being labelled as fake today. I say this because most overprints and surcharges are provisionals - temporary issues made to relieve some kind of shortage. Therefore it is often possible that substitutions will have been made that were not well documented. Here expert knowledge of the issue gleaned from years of painstaking research is needed to be certain that some examples of overprints or surcharges that appear genuine are actually fakes.

5. An understanding of how inks fade and change colour, or are otherwise affected by chemicals will enable you to differentiate between genuine shades or colour changelings.

There are others, but hopefully you get the idea.

It is on the basis of these principles that I identified the second 2c coil to be fake. Firstly, the perforations don't line up with one another when I place a ruler at 90 degrees through the perforations on top. Secondly, the stamp doesn't have Marler's characteristics. Thirdly, the perforation gauge doesn't match the 1c strip above. Fourthly, the carmine is too bright and close to scarlet compared to the other stamps I have seen that are genuine. I am quite prepared to accept the likelihood that this is a wide margined booklet single that has been cut down and re-perforated.

However, first 2c coil above does have perforations that line up perfectly at 90 degrees, and while it also doesn't share the plate characteristics described in Marler, it is the correct rose-carmine shade that one sees on other genuine coil pairs of this issue. The shade is different from the booklets on vertical wove paper that one usually sees, which are usually the colour of the second stamp. So on that basis, I believe that the first coil is perfectly genuine. Unless someone can tell me how both sides could re-perforated and get perforations perfectly aligned and the right gauge, shape and depth, then I would not accept the conclusion that it is a forgery, just because it does not have the broken shading line in the right numeral box.

What I do find disturbing is that there is a growing trend towards over-zealous policing of stamp listings and conclusions that while they can sound plausible, are not based on vaild statistical research and in some cases are far-fetched in the extreme. I saw a debate in Stampboards a while back in which some poor guy in the UK who had discovered a cover in a large lot that had the rare 1d red plate 77 used from the Isle of Wight. Philatelic experts were falling over themselves to declare it a fake simply on the basis that they had seen and studied all known examples, and understood the exact circumstances in which the plate had been rejected and the stamps rounded up and destroyed. The poor fellow had a chemist analyze the cover for evidence of scraping and re-painting and chemical alteration and that chemist came back and said that no alteration had taken place. The result? The experts still wouldn't accept this. Their theories that the stamp was a plate 177 with the 1 painted out or a an altered 73 were just ridiculous once you read them. But this was their story and they were sticking to it.

There is no substitute in this hobby for experience and knowledge. But what I have also learned in 37 years as a philatelist is that you should never, never, take anything for granted in philately or assume that the last word has been written. New discoveries are being made all the time and just because a group of experts think they have all the answers doesn't mean that they do. At the end of the day they are all philatelists like you and I. I know some people personally who either do or have served on expert committees and while I respect their knowledge and expertise, I know they are fallible. In the example above with the 1d plate 77, unless you were there in the 1870's when this plate was rejected and you witnessed the specific events it is impossible to be certain of how many stamps were actually spared, regardless of what the written correspondence might have said. Lots of times written instructions are not followed by the people they are given to. What makes the experts so sure that this cover wasn't one of those?

Some definite food for thought.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

My Grading System

Despite being a full time stamp dealer for the past 2 months, I have yet to post to this blog. I've been very busy working with my Canadian material, trying to get Queen Victoria finished, which I expect to do by the end of this month. After that, I plan to move on to Nigeria Queen Victoria starting with Lagos. Then I will be posting almost daily as I sort all the printings of the Lagos stamps out and get the material listed on E-bay. 

In the meantime, I thought I would re-produce a post that I just wrote and published in my Canadian blog dealing with my grading system which I developed in response to my observation that the standard grading systems were not doing an adequate job of differentiating quality on stamps and covers. Also, they were resulting in any stamp with a fault, no matter how minor being relegated to low grade status. This did not make very much sense to me at all. So I came up with my own system, which follows the standard system and tweaks it where necessary. 

The illustrations are of Canadian stamps, but the principles should apply just as much to Nigerian material I think. 


Grading Stamps and Covers

This aspect of philately is the cause of so much confusion among seasoned collectors and beginners alike. There are two primary reasons for this. The first is that most of the standard stamp catalogues like Scott state that their prices are for very fine stamps and go on to define what constitutes very fine, but they do not explicitly define the other condition grades. The result is that one often finds two stamps that meet the definition of a condition grade such as very fine, but one stamp clearly has more eye appeal than the other. So in this sense, the conventional grading systems consistently fail to adequately rank stamps in terms of their quality. A second reason is the widespread use of relative grading, which is to say grading based on scarcity. You will often see in auction catalogues descriptions that say "VF for this issue". Unless you are familiar with the issue, you will have little idea of what this means, although the Unitrade catalogue does attempt to explain this by way of a note in the relevant sections of their catalogue. My belief is that scarcity and grade are two separate issues, both of which affect price. It makes more sense to me to accept the idea that some issues may simply not exist in the high condition grades, such as the perforated pence issue, which are nearly always found with the perforations touching or cutting into the design. Then the scarcity of the actual grade can be evaluated in determining the value of the item. Conventional grading systems do not explicitly address the grading of covers or multiples either.

A good and reliable grading system should identify all of the factors that affect the condition and the eye appeal of a stamp or cover. It should then give appropriate weight to each factor so that it will accurately rank stamps and covers in a way that reflects the preferences of the majority of collectors. In addition, the grading system should be sufficiently objective that two collectors can apply the same system and assign approximately the same grade to the stamp.
A point system from 0-100 makes sense and enables all factors to be assessed and weighed. I find that the use of terms like very fine, extremely fine and the like to be limiting because most of the time a stamp will possess some attributes normally associated with one grade, while possessing other attributes normally associated with another grade. For example a stamp may have full margins on all sides, but may have a shallow thin. Does it make sense that this stamp be assigned a lower grade than a stamp with only 2 margins and no thin? The use of a point system alleviates this problem.
It is useful though to assign a point value to those grades that most of you are most familiar with. My grading system assigns the following scores to commonly known grades as follows:

1. Superb - 95 to 100
2. Extremely Fine - 85 to 94
3. Very Fine - 75 to 84
4. Fine - 65 to 74
5. Very Good - 55 to 64
6. Good - 45 to 54
7. Fair - 35 to 44
8. Poor - 25 to 34
9. Spacefillers or study material grade: less than 25

Factors That Determine the Grade

The factors that one takes into account when evaluating a stamp or cover can be divided into two broad groups: visual factors and non-visual factors. This is a visual hobby, so it makes sense that visual factors should weigh more heavily than non-visual ones. At the same time, the top grades will be reserved for those stamps which possess both eye-appeal and soundness in terms of the non-visual factors. Because mint stamps, used stamps and covers possess different attributes, that impact the visual appearance of each item differently, the actual factors used to grade these items, although similar, are different and are weighted differently.

The visual factors are:

1. Freshness of the paper;
2. Depth and freshness of the colour;
3. The size of the margins around the design;
4. The clarity and strength of the printing impression
5. On perforated stamps, how well centered the design is within the margins;
6. On perforated stamps, how even the perforations are and how intact they are;
7. On used stamps the degree to which the cancellation obscures or discolours the design;
8.On used stamps and covers, how crisp and readable the cancellation is;
9. On covers, the presence or absence of stains and paper faults;
10. On covers, the attractiveness of the handwriting on the front;
11. The presence or absence of paper flaws that are visible from the front of the item.

Each of these factors will be weighted differently for mint stamps, used stamps and covers. In this way,a superb looking stamp that is perfect in every respect, except for having a hidden fault will be at least fine, but will generally not be more than very fine, no matter how minor the flaw. On the other hand, attractive stamps with minor defects are not automatically relegated to the low condition grades.

The non-visual factors are:
1. The presence or absence of flaws in the paper of the stamp on the back
2. For covers, the presence or absence of flaws to the backflap of envelopes, or paper faults on the inside or back of folded letters.

  
Determining a Numeric Grade Weighing All Factors

Imperforate Mint Stamps

1. Size of Margins: 0-70 Points
  • 70 Points- The margins are oversize on all four sides - usually showing portions of the adjoining stamp.
  • 65 Points - The margins are full on one side and oversize on three sides. Full margins are defined to be approximately 1/2 of the average distance between impressions on the plate from which the stamp was printed. This varies widely by issue.
  • 60 Points - The margins are full on two sides and oversized on two sides.
  • 56 Points - The margins are full on three sides and oversized on one side.
  • 54 Points - The margins are full on all sides.
  • 51 Points - The margins are full on three (or two for triangular stamps) sides and close on one side.
  • 49 Points - The margins are full on two sides and close on two sides.
  • 45 Points - The margins are full on one side and close on three sides.
  • 44 Points - The margins are clear on all four sides, although none of them are full.
  • 34 Points - The stamp has margins on only 3 sides and none of these are full.
  • 24 Points - The stamp has margins on only two sides and none of these are full.
  • 15 Points - The stamp has no margins to speak of at all, but is not cut into the design on any one side by more than 1/2 mm.
  • 5 Points - There are no margins, and the design is cut into on one or more sides by between 1/2mm and 1mm
  • 0 Points - The design is cut into by more than 1mm on any one side.
2. Paper Freshness: 0-10 Points
  • 10 Points - The paper is bright and fresh, showing no signs of discolouration.
  • 8 Points - The paper is fresh, but not bright.
  • 6 Points - The paper is not visibly toned, although not particularly fresh.
  • 4 Point - The paper shows some very light overall toning.
  • 2 Points - The paper has noticeable toning, although it is not deep.
  • 0 Points - The paper is heavily toned or has visible staining.
3. Clarity and Strength of Printing Impression: 0-5 Points
  • 5 Points - The impression is razor-sharp, with all finer details of the design being clearly visible. The stamp appears almost like a proof.
  • 3 Points - The impression is reasonably strong and detailed, but some of the shading lines may merge into one another, but no ink stripping will be visible.
  • 2 Points - The impression is neither crisp nor weak, with some but not all of the finer details being visible. On lithographed or typographed (surface printed) stamps, there will be some patchiness (ink-stripping) visible.
  • 0 Points - The impression is weak, heavily blurred or there may be extensive ink stripping
4. Freshness and Depth of Colour: 0-10 points
  • 10 Points - Unusually deep and rich colour. Appears as fresh as the day the stamp was printed.
  • 8 Points - Post office fresh colour that shows no oxidation or fading.
  • 6 Points - Full and true colour that is not faded, but is not post office fresh, but does not appear aged.
  • 4 Points - Colour is not faded, although it is not fresh, and appears slightly aged.
  • 2 Point - Colour shows some very mild fading or other discolouration, or is otherwise uneven.
  • 1 Point - Colour is noticeably faded or very slightly altered
  • 0 Points - Colour is highly faded, and noticeably changed.
Colours that are naturally pale, will at best receive a point value of 8 regardless of how fresh they are. This is to reflect the fact that collectors generally prefer deeper colours visually. That said, a stamp that is superb in all respects that has pale colour will still receive a possible maximum grade of 98, which is still superb. Determining whether a colour has changed from its original state requires some knowledge of the printing inks used for a particular issue and can be difficult for the novice to judge. For example, the green inks used by De La Rue on the crown CA commonwealth keyplate stamps was originally deep or dull green, or occasionally deep blue green. These inks were singly fugitive, which means that they are water soluble. When these inks are exposed to water, they fade first to bright blue green and then to a bright yellow green. These are changed colours, and a stamp like this would receive a score of 1 if it was bright blue green and 0 if it was yellow green.  

5. Absence of Visual Paper Flaws: 0-5 points
  • 5 Points - No visible paper inclusions, no visible creases, no margin nicks, no visible thin spots, no visible tears or visible scuffs.
  • 4 Points - May be a slightly noticeable paper inclusion but no other flaws.
  • 3 Points - may be a small margin nick but no other flaws.
  • 2 Points - may have a small inclusion and a small margin nick, or only a very small scuff.
  • 1 Point - may have a small corner crease, but no other flaws.
  • 0 Points - Has one or more visible closed tears, thin spots or large surface scuff, or deep gum soak.  A gum soak is a transluency caused by the gum becoming wet and soaking through to the front of the stamp.
Imperforate Used Stamps

For used stamps, the scale employed to evaluate them is similar, but the appearance  of the cancellation must be considered, and the maximum number of points allocated to paper freshness and depth and freshness of colour is reduced to 5 points each in order to reflect the fact that (a) neither factor at its best can ever be as good on a used stamp as a mint stamp and (b) to enable a sufficient number of points to be allocated to the cancellation.

Thus the factors become:

1. Size of Margins - 0-70 Points as Above
2. Paper Freshness: 0-5 Points
  • 5 Points - The paper is bright and fresh, showing no signs of discolouration.
  • 4 Points - The paper is fresh, but not bright.
  • 3 Points - The paper is not visibly toned, although not particularly fresh.
  • 2 Point - The paper shows some very light overall toning.
  • 1 Points - The paper has noticeable toning, although it is not deep.
  • 0 Points - The paper is heavily toned or has visible staining.
3. Clarity and Strength of Printing Impression: 0-5 Points as Above
4. Freshness and Depth of Colour: 0-5 Points
  • 5 Points - Unusually deep and rich colour. Appears as fresh as the day the stamp was printed.
  • 4 Points - Post office fresh colour that shows no oxidation or fading.
  • 3 Points - Full and true colour that is not faded, but is not post office fresh, and does not appear aged.
  • 2 Points - Colour is not faded, although it is not fresh, and appears slightly aged.
  • 1 Point - Colour shows some very mild fading or other discolouration, or is otherwise uneven.
  • 0 Points - Colour is noticeably faded, although not changed.
5. Absence of Visual Paper Flaws: 0-5 Points as Above
6. Appearance of the Cancellation: 0-10 Points
  • 10 Points - The cancellation is clearly legible, crisp and struck in such a way that the design is not obscured in any significant way. There is no bleeding of the cancellation ink into the paper of the stamp, no smudging and no discoloration of the stamp by the cancellation ink.
  • 8 Points - The cancellation is clearly legible, but not completely crisp. Again, the design is not obscured in any significant way.
  • 4 Points - The cancellation is legible, although it is not light. It does not detract from the appearance of the design, but it does not enhance it either the way that the cancellations in the above two grades do.
  • 2 Points - The cancellation is a manuscript cancellation, light cork or light smudge cancellation that does not significantly obscure the design or discolour the stamp. Or the cancellation is a date stamp or town cancellation that is of medium intensity but is not readable.
  • 0 Points - The cancellation covers less than 25% of the design, is not clearly readable and can be considered heavy.
Note that heavy cancellations that cover more than 25% of the design detract from the eye appeal of the stamp and consequently reduce the grade, as explained at the bottom of the page. Thus the best grade that a stamp will receive if its cancellation receives a score of 0 will be 90, which is extremely fine.

Perforated Mint Stamps

In the case of perforated stamps, the factors that apply to imperforate stamps will all apply, except that now there are two additional attributes to consider that are not relevant to imperforate stamps: (1) how well centered the design is within the margins and (2) how intact, even and well defined the perforations are. 5 points are reallocated from each of the paper freshness and colour attributes, and assigned to the perforation attribute. So the scale used to evaluate the paper freshness and colour is the same as that above for the imperforate used stamps.
The factors are thus evaluated:
1. Ampleness of Margins and Centering Within Them - 0-70 Points
  • 70 Points - The margins are fully clear of the design on all sides. In addition, the margins will all be of equal width as far as the eye can tell. Even after staring at the stamp for a considerable length of time, it will be next to impossible to pick one margin that as being wider than the others. Multiples will have perfectly even margins both on the outside of the multiple and inside
  • 68 Points - The margins are also fully clear of the design on all sides. At first glance, it will appear as though the margins are of equal width. It will only be after very careful examination that it will become apparent that one margin is very slightly larger than the other three, which will all be of equal width. Multiples will be evaluated in the same way with respect to both outer margins and inner margins.
  • 64 Points - The margins are fully clear of the design on all sides. Opposing margins will be perfectly balanced, being the same width, although the two pairs of margins will not all be the same width (i.e. top and bottom may be slightly wider than left and right). On multiples, the opposing outer margins will be perfectly balanced and the inner margins will be even in the sense that the perforations are aligned down the centre of the gutters between each stamp in the multiple.
  • 54 Points - The margins are fully clear of the design on all sides, with the centering appearing to be more or less perfect at first glance. A second glance reveals that the margins are not at all of uniform width, being only nicely balanced. One margin may be considerably wider than the other three, but in these cases, the margins will all be well clear of the design, and the remaining margins will be equal in width. The outer margins of multiples will be much the same as with single stamps, with the inner margins being even, or the outer margins may be perfectly balanced, but the inner perforations will be ever so slightly off centre in one direction.
  • 50 Points - The margins are fully clear of the design, but may be very close to the design. The width of the margins will be well balanced, upon close examination, it will be apparent that they are not of equal width, but they will be well balanced. On multiples the outer margins will either be similar to single stamps with balanced inner margins, or the outer margins will be balanced, but the inner perforation rows or columns will be slightly off centre in two directions.
  • 45 Points - The margins are clear of the design on three sides, although they may be very close, and the perforations just touch, but do not cut into the design on one side. Alternatively, the margins are clear of the design on all sides, but it is fairly obvious that they are not of equal width, but they are almost equal, with no margins being much closer to the design. On multiples, the inner and outer margins will be as with single stamps.
  • 40 Points - The perforations just touch the outer framelines of the design on all sides, so that while there are no distinct margins to speak of, the stamp has a balanced appearance. Multiples will be as single stamps.
  • 35 Points - The margins are clear of the design on all sides, but are very clearly unbalanced, with one or two margins being clearly wider than the others. Alternatively, the perforations just cut into the design on one side, although the margins on the other sides will either just touch the design, or clear it on all the other sides. The margins will appear to be fairly well balanced otherwise.
  • 30 Points - The margins clear the design on all sides, but are very unbalanced with one or two margins just touching the perforations.  On multiples, either the outer margins will be unbalanced, or the inner margins will be, or both sets of margins will be noticeably unbalanced, but not severely so.
  • 25 Points - The perforations clearly cut into the design on one side, although not deeply (i.e. less than 1 mm). On multiples this will be true of either one outer margin, or one inner margin.
  • 20 Points - The perforations clearly cut into the design on two sides. Again they will not cut into the design by more than 1 mm on any given side. On multiples, this will be true of either one outer margin or one inner margin.
  • 5 Points - The perforations cut into the design deeply on one side (i.e. by more than 1 mm). On multiples, this will be true of either one outer margin or one inner margin.
  • 0 Points - The perforations cut deeply into the design on two or more sides. On multiples, this will be true of either one outer margin or one inner margin.
2. Paper Freshness: 0-5 Points as Above
3. Clarity and Strength of Printing Impression: 0-5 Points as Above
4. Freshness and Depth of Colour: 0-5 Points as Above
5. Absence of Visual Paper Flaws: 0-5 Points as Above
6. Definition, Intactness and Uniformity of the Perforations: 0-10 Points
  • 10 Points - The perforations are all well defined, intact and are of even length on all sides of the stamp.
  • 8 Points - The perforations are all well defined and intact, but are of uneven length. However, none of the perforation teeth are less than half the length of a full tooth.
  • 5 Points - The perforations are not well defined, but are intact on all sides of the stamp. This score applies to issues with rough perforations, such as early St. Vincent.
  • 3 Points - The perforations are rough, and almost, but not entirely intact on all sides. Alternatively, the perforations are well defined and intact, but there are one or two short perfs. A short perforation tooth is one which is less than half the length of a full tooth.
  • 1 Point - The perforations are rough and there are clearly one or two missing teeth. However, the perforations are not pulled, creating two consecutive holes. Alternatively, the perforations are well defined, but there may be one pulled perforation, which means that it is missing entirely, or there will be three or four short perfs.
  • 0 Points - The perforations are rough and there are several missing teeth, especially at the corners of the stamp. Alternatively there is more than one pulled perf, or more than four short perfs.
Perforated Used Stamps

For perforated used stamps, the factors that apply above for mint stamps are used, as well as the factor for the appearance of the cancellation as discussed for imperforate issues above. The number of points allocated to the centering and margins is reduced from 70 points to 60 points. The factors thus become:

1. Ampleness of Margins and Centering Within Them - 0-60 Points
  • 60 Points - The margins are fully clear of the design on all sides. In addition, the margins will all be of equal width as far as the eye can tell. Even after staring at the stamp for a considerable length of time, it will be next to impossible to pick one margin that as being wider than the others.
  • 58 Points - The margins are also fully clear of the design on all sides. At first glance, it will appear as though the margins are of equal width. It will only be after very careful examination that it will become apparent that one margin is very slightly larger than the other three, which will all be of equal width.
  • 54 Points - The margins are fully clear of the design on all sides. Opposing margins will be perfectly balanced, being the same width, although the two pairs of margins will not all be the same width (i.e. top and bottom may be slightly wider than left and right).
  • 44 Points - The margins are fully clear of the design on all sides, with the centering appearing to be more or less perfect at first glance. A second glance reveals that the margins are not at all of uniform width, being only nicely balanced. One margin may be considerably wider than the other three, but in these cases, the margins will all be well clear of the design, and the remaining margins will be equal in width.
  • 40 Points - The margins are fully clear of the design, but may be very close to the design. The width of the margins will be well balanced, upon close examination, it will be apparent that they are not of equal width, but they will be well balanced.
  • 35 Points - The margins are clear of the design on three sides, although they may be very close, and the perforations just touch, but do not cut into the design on one side. Alternatively, the margins are clear of the design on all sides, but it is fairly obvious that they are not of equal width, but they are almost equal, with no margins being much closer to the design.
  • 30 Points - The perforations just touch the outer framelines of the design on all sides, so that while there are no distinct margins to speak of, the stamp has a balanced appearance.
  • 25 Points - The margins are clear of the design on all sides, but are very clearly unbalanced, with one or two margins being clearly wider than the others. Alternatively, the perforations just cut into the design on one side, although the margins on the other sides will either just touch the design, or clear it on all the other sides. The margins will appear to be fairly well balanced otherwise.
  • 20 Points - The margins clear the design on all sides, but are very unbalanced with one or two margins just touching the perforations.
  • 15 Points - The perforations clearly cut into the design on one side, although not deeply (i.e. less than 1 mm)
  • 10 Points - The perforations clearly cut into the design on two sides. Again they will not cut into the design by more than 1 mm on any given side
  • 5 Points - The perforations cut into the design deeply on one side (i.e. by more than 1 mm)
  • 0 Points - The perforations cut deeply into the design on two or more sides.
2. Paper Freshness: 0-5 Points as Above
3. Clarity and Strength of Printing Impression: 0-5 Points as Above
4. Freshness and Depth of Colour: 0-5 Points as Above
5. Absence of Visual Paper Flaws: 0-5 Points as Above
6. Definition, Intactness and Uniformity of the Perforations: 0-10 Points as Above
7. The Appearance of the Cancelation: 0-10 Points as Above

Covers

When evaluating a cover, the condition of the stamp is a secondary factor. The most important factors are how intact the cover itself is, the condition of the paper, the attractiveness of the handwriting on the front, and the clarity of the postal markings.
1. Intactness of the Cover: 0-25 Points
  • 25 Points - The cover is completely intact. If it is an envelope, the backflap will be complete, with no missing pieces. It will also be its full original length, as indicated by the fact that the backflap will be centered and not skewed to one side. If it is a folded letter, the letter will be its full original size
  • 10 Points - The backflap may have one or two pieces missing, but will be at least 75% intact. Folded letters can be reduced by 1-2 mm from their original size. The back is fully intact.
  • 5 Points - More than 25% of the backflap is missing. The back is fully intact.
  • 0 Points - The backflap is entirely missing, but the remainder of the back is intact.
2. Freshness of the Paper as Seen From the Front: 0-25 Points
  • 25 Points - The paper is completely fresh and free of any aging, as if it could have been sent yesterday. If it is a coloured paper, it will be completely free of any of the fading that comes with age, being bright an fresh. Folded letters will not show any discolouration or fading along the fold lines.
  • 20 Points - The paper is fresh, but lacks the brightess of a 25 point cover above. There will be no staining, and no fading of coloured paper, although some very mild aging may be apparent. Folded letters will not show any discolouration or fading along the fold lines.
  • 15 Points - The paper is clearly aged, but is not stained. Coloured papers may have some very light fading inasmuch as the colour is uneven, but is not obviously faded. Folded letters may show some mild discolouration or fading along the fold lines.
  • 10 Points - The paper has some obvious toning, or mild foxing or staining in two or three small spots that are smaller than a pencil eraser. Coloured papers will have obvious fading or discolouration around the edges, or in two or three spots that are no larger than a pencil eraser. Folded letters will show some deep discolouration or fading along the fold lines.
  • 5 Points - The paper is heavily toned, with no obvious stains, or if the paper is coloured, it is obviously faded or discoloured on both the edges, and the body of the cover. Alternatively, there is obvious staining, although the paper is not heavily toned, and the staining is present in more than three spots, or in one or two large spots that are more than 5mm wide. Folded letters will show some deep discolouration or fading along the fold lines.  
  • 0 Points - The paper is heavily toned and contains several obvious stains, or is not toned, but contains 3 or more large stains that are more than 5mm wide. Coloured papers are heavily faded in several spots, or otherwise discoloured, or are only lightly faded, but heavily stained as above. Folded letters will show deep discolouration or fading along most or all of the fold lines.
3. Freshness of the Paper as Seen From the Back: 0-10 Points
  • Same descriptions as above, except without reference to the fold lines and except that each description is awarded 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 and 0 points respectively.
3. Condition of the Paper and Edges: 0-15 Points
  • 15 Points - The edges are crisp and completely free of wrinkles, tears and fraying. The body of the cover is crisp and free of wrinkles, creases, holes and file folds. Letters will be completely free of tears and splitting along fold lines.
  • 10 Points - The edges are not crisp, and may show slight fraying. There may also be some small corner creases and wrinkles on the edges. However, there will be no file folds, no holes and no tears. Letters will not have tears or splitting along folds.
  • 5 Points - The edges show extensive fraying, and wrinkling. There may be an obvious file fold, or one or two small edge tears no more than 2 mm long. Letters may have one or two small tears that are less than 5 mm long, or there may be some mild splitting along one or more of the fold lines. There may be a small pinhole or staple hole.
  • 0 Points - The edges show extensive fraying and creasing, or multiple edge tears, but not both. Alternatively, there may be a file fold and pinhole, staple hole or minor edge tear. Generally any two paper faults in combination drop the score on this attribute to 0.
4. Appearance of the Handwriting: 0-5 Points
  • 5 Points - The handwriting is clear, legible and written in an especially attractive hand.
  • 4 Points - The handwriting is clear and legible, but lacks the decorative style that would give it a score of 5.
  • 3 Points - The handwriting is clear, but not completely legible.
  • 2 Points - The handwriting is neither entirely clear or legible
  • 0 Point - The handwriting is not at all legible, or has been obliterated.   
5. Clarity of Postal Markings: 0-15 Points
  • 15 Points - The postal markings are fully legible and crisp. There is no ink bleeding.
  • 12 Points - The postal markings are fully legible and crisp, but there is some mild bleeding of the cancellation ink into the remainder of the cover.
  • 10 Points- The postal markings are clear and legible, but are not crisp. There is no bleeding of the cancellation ink.
  • 8 Points - As above, but there is some mild ink bleeding.
  • 5 Points - The postal markings are legible, but are not entirely clear. Alternatively, the markings may be legible and clear, but weak and incomplete. There may be considerable bleeding of the cancellation ink.
  • 0 Points - The postal markings are unclear, incomplete or illegible, adding nothing to the cover, from an aesthetic point of view.
6. Condition of the Stamp(s): 0-5 Points
  • 5 Points - The stamp(s) grade(s) 95 or higher on average
  • 4 Points - The stamp(s) grades (s) 85-94 on average
  • 3 Points - The stamp(s) grade(s) 75-84 on average
  • 2 Points - The stamp(s) grade(s) 65-74 on average
  • 1 Point - The stamp(s) grade(s) 55-64 on average
  • 0 Points - The stamp(s) grade(s) less than 55 on average
It should be noted that the following serious faults reduce the grade of an item as follows:

1. Missing piece. - 90 points
2. Colour heavily faded or altered. - 70 points
3. Tears that are more than 2 mm long. - 60 points
4. Heavy smudge cancellations that effectively obliterate more than half of the design. - 50 points 
5. Cover is a front only, back is missing - 50 points
6. Cover is reduced from its original width by more than 5mm - 40 points
Less serious faults reduce the grade of items as follows:
1. Creases that break the paper - 30 points
2. Creases that do not break the paper, being light bends - 5 points each
3. Shallow thins - 30 points
4. Closed tears that are less than 2mm in length - 30 points
5. Creased perforation teeth - 10 points per tooth.
6. Heavy cancellation that covers between 25% and 50% of the design - 30 points
7. Perforations clipped off - 30 points
8. Cover is reduced in size by less than 5mm - 30 points
9. Cover has three paper faults simultaneously - 10 points.
10.Cover has four or more paper faults simultaneously - 20 points.

You will notice that I have not mentioned the issue of the gum on mint stamps at all. Gum does not affect the grade of a stamp as it is a purely non-visual characteristic. It does affect the price of course, and I discuss this in my page dealing with catalogue values. pricing and grade.

Also, grades above 84 can generally only be identified with a calibrated loupe. A calibrated loupe is a magnifying glass that has built into the lens a printed ruler. Thus you can actually measure the width of the margins. On perforated stamps you measure from the frameline to the bottom of a perforation hole. You don't want to measure to the end of a perforation tooth, as these dimensions will vary. But the distance to the bottom of the perforation hole will remain the same. Grades up to 84 can be determined by eyesight. 

Also, faults are generally deducted from the overall score determined. A minor fault that cannot be seen from the front and is not even noticeable from the back, such as a thin or crease that can only be seen in fluid would reduce the grade by 5 points. A minor fault that is not visible on the face, but can be clearly seen from the back reduces the grade 10 points. A fault that can be seen from the front, but is not obvious is 15 points. Then anything that is obvious from the front will be a minimum 20 point reduction . Thus a stamp that would otherwise be VF-84 that has a visible tear would be VG-64 at best. 

Illustrative Examples


Grade is VF-75

Margins/centering - 45/70
Paper freshness 5/5
Colour 5/5
Absence of visible paper flaws: 5/5
Impression: 5/5
Perforations: 10/10

On this stamp you can clearly see at first glance that it is not perfectly centered, but at the same time, the stamp has a well balanced look to it. It is close to being 50/70, but the displacement left to right is just a bit too much to award it 50 points. So it is given 45. The perforations are all intact and none are short. The colour and paper are fresh (this is the naturally toned paper) and there are no other flaws. 




Grade is VF-80

Margins/centering - 50/70
Paper freshness 5/5
Colour 5/5
Absence of visible paper flaws: 5/5
Impression: 5/5
Perforations: 10/10

This stamp almost looks perfectly centered at first glance, but not quite. It is just so slightly off from left to right, so it is given a score of 50/70 for the margins. The perforations are a bit fluffy, but are all intact and not short. Again, the colour and paper are fresh with no flaws. 
 


Grade is F-70

Margins/centering - 40/70
Paper freshness 5/5
Colour 5/5
Absence of visible paper flaws: 5/5
Impression: 5/5
Perforations: 10/10

Here the stamp is very clearly off centre at first glance. However, the margins are not close to the design on any side. So the margins are awarded 40/70. The perforations are all intact and the paper and colour are all fresh. 



Grade is F-68

Margins/centering - 40/70
Paper freshness 5/5
Colour 5/5
Absence of visible paper flaws: 5/5
Impression: 5/5
Perforations: 8/10


This stamp again is very clearly not centered. While the right margin is close to the design, it is well clear on the other sides. To be 35/70, the margins would have to be close to the design on 2 sides. The fifth perforation tooth up on the left is slightly short, so 2 points are deducted, giving a perforation score of 8 (perforation score will drop by 2 points for every short perf. until it reaches 0 after 5 short perfs.)


Grade is G-50

Margins/centering - 35/60
Paper freshness 5/5
Colour 5/5
Absence of visible paper flaws: 5/5
Impression: 5/5
Perforations: 10/10
Cancellation: 10/10

Deduction for visible tear: -25 points

Here the stamp is clearly not perfectly centered at first glance, but it does have a balanced overall appearance because the left and right margins are equal, so it is given a score of 35/60 for margins. 10 points are taken away from margins for used stamps and assigned to the cancel. Here, the cancel is light and does not detract from the appearance in any way, so it is given a score of 10/10. The perforations are all intact, and all the other condition factors are perfect, except the stamp has a visible obvious tear at the bottom just under the V of "seven". Becuase of how obvious it is, it is assigned a score of -25. If it had been less noticeable, then it would have been -15 or -10 if it were really tiny and hard to see. So without the tear this would be a VF-75 (low end VF) used stamp. With a very tiny tear that was barely visible, a F-65 (low end fine) stamp and with a noticeable but less obvious tear than this one, a VG-60 (mid range VG). As it is, it is a mid range good stamp.