The World of Stamps & Stamp Collecting - Chapter Four
4. So You Want To Collect Stamps
For nearly a century now, people have speculated about why anyone should collect stamps. Philosophers used to study the matter; now psychologists do. Surveys show that philatelists tend to be more intelligent than average, but the same can be said for bridge players. Philatelists tend to be curious and inquisitive, but that can be claimed for scuba divers as well. Psychological literature contains references to collecting impulses, but there is little that explains why a person should prefer one collectable to another. Stamp collectors, however, like to describe themselves as orderly, cultured people, who assemble tiny pieces of art for their pleasure and profit. Surely philately is the least imposing hobby in the world. It can be practiced any hour of the day or night, it causes no traffic jams, and it can be as cheap or expensive a hobby as the collector wants.
And Americans love stamps! The United States Postal Service estimates that 11 percent of the people in the United States collect stamps, making it by far the biggest collecting hobby and probably the most popular in the country.
A similar percentage of the British population collects stamps. On the continent, though, especially in Germany and Switzerland, the number of people who collect is much higher, and the Eastern Europeans are known to be particularly avid collectors.
Although no one knows why people catch “infectious philatelis,” catch it they do. One hundred years ago, one could easily imagine why the first collectors collected. Those were the days before easily reprinted photographs, before radio and television— stamps were the only window to the world that the nineteenth century had. Printed on those little pieces of paper were thousands of views and scenes of exotic men, women, and places. Just a touch of imagination, and a whole world would open up. Turning the album pages, one could spend the morning in Ceylon, lunch in Brazil, dine in Katmandu, and still be at work the next day. In an era when a 30-mile journey was a major undertaking, stamps were quite an educational tool.
But what about today? Despite the social interactions of stamp clubs, which are a great means for collectors to increase their philatelic knowledge, stamp collecting is still a creative way of being alone. A number of husbands and wives collect, but they rarely collect the same types of stamps or use the same album. Often you hear such statements as: “My husband collects United States, I collect Canada.” Collecting different areas allows the couple to achieve the individual satisfaction that maintaining a collection gives, while avoiding the competition that might develop if there were resources for but one stamp with two places to put it.
Another reason why stamp collecting has maintained its popularity even today is that it is an orderly hobby. A collection of hundreds of thousands of stamps will fit in albums that can be placed on a modest-sized bookshelf. Virtually all of the million or so stamps and varieties that have been issued have been copiously catalogued. Every stamp has its place. Even collectors who choose to make their own albums usually impose on themselves far more restrictions and orderliness than the album makers ever do. One could postulate that in this uncontrollable world we live in, a desire for order is strong. Stamps go a long way towards satisfying that. Every stamp has its place, and when you are done with your stamps today, you can pack them up and put them away for tomorrow.
Successful collectors, meaning those who enjoy stamps and who create significant collections, usually share two traits. First, they have a deep respect and love of history. It is remarkable today how few people have any knowledge of history at all. Few graduating high-school seniors can name more than ten American presidents, and many know very little about European, Asian, or African history. Stamps are a panorama through which a collector gains knowledge of historical and international affairs. And most collectors have learned well. Second, most collectors have a love of geography. For this reason, they respond to maps and charts. They have a highly developed visual sense, and tend to think more pictorially than do most people.
How To Begin Stamp Collecting
Believe it or not, no one turns to stamps knowing nothing about them. Nearly everyone who considers forming a collection has had, at one time, a box of stamps that were saved because he or she felt they were interesting. At a certain point, though, the budding collector takes the stamps out of the drawers or boxes they have been kept in and decides that some form of orderly collecting is necessary. When the decision is made to pursue the path of becoming a serious stamp collector or philatelist, the route is well marked. The first step that collectors must take is to become known to the stamp dealers in their area. A long time should be spent window-shopping and talking to the people in the stamp shop. Stamp dealers are afflicted with the same bug as most collectors: they love to talk about what they do. Ask about what to collect, and get a feel for the various dealers’ abilities.
The next step is to purchase the basic supplies. You will need a stamp album. Prices for albums range from under $10 to a level that will make you think you are buying the shop, not the album. For a novice collector (though novice is a dangerous word to use as no one likes to think of himself as a novice anything), an inexpensive worldwide album would be the best to start with. Ultimately, most collectors choose not to collect worldwide stamps, as the hundreds of thousands that have been issued form a canvas that is too broad to have much of a sense of accomplishment. But how will you know what to specialize in if you have never been exposed to the broad scope of worldwide collecting? An inexpensive worldwide album will give you such exposure, and even if you eventually decide to collect only your country of origin, as do so many collectors, the experience will not be a total loss. After all, you will be probably the only one among your friends who knows where Bosnia and Herzegovina is and where Poonch can be found on a map.
Next, buy a packet of stamps. In these days of the newspapers telling us that one stamp sold for $935,000 a public auction, and rumored private sales of individual items for even more, people should realize that most stamps are inexpensive. A packet of several thousand different stamps will cost but a few dollars. They will have no investment potential whatsoever, but that should not concern you. Stamps can be a wonderful investment medium, about which we will talk more later, but the most successful investors learned the hobby from square one. They handled stamps, learned to look at them, measured the perforations, and found the watermarks on them. They even have damaged a few. Veteran philatelists, many of whom have made considerable money as their stamp assets have increased in value, are very concerned over the lack of basic philatelic understanding that is characteristic of some new stamp investors who are entering the stamp world for profit alone. You cannot gain a true feeling and respect for stamps until you have handled and studied thousands of them. Otherwise, you will simply be buying the stamps that other people have told you to and selling those stamps when you are told to. Then, you won’t be a collector or investor at all, but merely a follower.
Your packet of stamps will contain several thousand stamps, so you had better buy a stamp identifier. It is hard for Americans to realize that people in the rest of the world do not always write their country names on their stamps the way we would expect. For example, Hungary writes Magyar, which, not oddly, is what the Hungarians call themselves. Switzerland uses its Latin name, Helvetia, to avoid language conflicts among French, German, and Italian, its three national languages, each of which gives Switzerland a different designation. And Great Britain does not put its name on its stamps at all. Stamp identifiers are available for a few dollars; they contain a list of what the name of a country is on a stamp, with the corresponding English name.
In examining this wide variety of stamps, you will learn to distinguish various printing methods at a glance, and develop a keen eye for color. The human eye can distinguish several hundred thousand shades, though most of us say red when we mean something that is anywhere between purple and brown. Perceiving shades and learning to name them is an exciting experience.
Stamp collectors pick up their stamps with their fingers if they are extremely novice or extremely expert. For nearly all of us in between, stamps are handled with stamp tongs, which are blunt-end tweezers especially designed for stamp collectors. There are two reasons why tongs are used. First, your fingers would tend to bend the corners or blunt the perforations on stamps. It is hard to get under a stamp lying flat on a desk to pick it up, and the slightest damage to a stamp can greatly affect its value. Second, even the cleanest hands have natural oil on them. When such oil gets onto the face of the stamp, it affects its appearance, and fingers can leave fingerprints on the gum— a philatelic sin for which there is no redemption. Tongs should be held in the hand like a pencil, pressure being applied with the thumb to the index finger to squeeze them closed. With experience, once the stamp is held by the tongs, you will learn how to turn the tongs gently between your thumb and forefinger to examine the back of the stamp. Many collectors turn the tongs by turning the wrist, which is neither as efficient nor as effective. Some collectors believe it is necessary to squeeze the tongs as hard as they can so that the stamp does not get away. In fact, only a small amount of pressure is required; it is safer for the stamp and will prevent hand cramps. But you will be practicing on cheap stamps until you learn the skill, so don’t worry about not doing it perfectly in the beginning.
Stamps are made of paper, and they are subject to all of the advantages and disadvantages of that product. You can drop them. You can bend them, but just so far, and the paper springs back. Most stamps tend to be a little more brittle unused than used because the gum restricts the elasticity of the paper. However, once you have bent a stamp too far, it is creased— forever. As a general rule of thumb, figure that once a stamp has been creased, it is worth only half of what it would be if it were perfect.
The subject of mounting stamps has caused considerable disagreement within philatelic circles during the last decade. In the very early years of collecting, collectors just glued or pasted their stamps into their albums, or if the stamp was mint, they just licked it onto the album sheet as if it were a letter. After all, few early collectors believed their stamps would have any resale value, and accordingly they assumed that they would never need to be taken out of the album. Later, collectors began to use gummed tabs to mount their stamps, which did not come off unless the stamp was soaked. Still, the tab could be cut, and trading a stamp from an album did not mean tearing off part of the page, so this was an improvement of sorts.
The major invention in stamp collecting was the peelable hinge, which began to be popular just before 1920. The hinge is a small bit of glassine, a nonporous paper, lightly gummed on one side. The hinge is folded, so that part fastens to the stamp and part to the album page. With this invention, stamps for the first time could go in and out of collections easily. Hinges are so lightly gummed that they are quite simple to remove. But never take a hinge off a stamp until the hinge is thoroughly dry. All too often collectors will get a new stamp, hinge it into their album, then decide to remove it and hinge it again. By taking a wet or damp hinge off a stamp, you run a grave risk of thinning the stamp. A good rule is to wait three hours after affixing a hinge before trying to remove it. And do not overmoisten the hinge; a little moisture is all that is required. You stamps aren’t going anywhere.
Another development in stamp mounting that began to be popular in about 1950 was the plastic stamp mount, which offered stamps more protection than conventional hinges. A plastic mount is a very thin polyurethane sheet, closed on one, two, three, or ever four sides, in which the stamp is placed and then glued to the page. To retrieve the stamp, the mount is opened. A mount’s main advantage is that it allows the stamp to be mounted in an album without disturbing the gum in any way. This is quite the fashion in philately now, so it is recommended that you keep your mint stamps of philatelic value in mounts. However, when beginning a general collection, mounts are not recommended. They are expensive (averaging several cents apiece versus less than one-tenth of a cent, for a hinge) and they are time-consuming to use.
The dangers of stamp mounts should be mentioned here. Never use any form of cellophane, masking, or adhesive tape with a mount. All mounts are sold pre-glued, but if this glue should prove insufficient (people for whom this is true are called “heavy-tongued” in philatelic circles), use only glue that is specially prepared for stamp mounts and is sold in stamp stores. The mounts look impenetrable, but they are not. The plastic in the mount is thin, and many petroleum-based adhesives can soak right through it, damaging the stamp beyond recognition. Some mounts are open on two or more sides and may show a tendency for stamps to slip out the sides. If you buy this type of mount, but sure you can live with the problem. Some years ago, numerous collectors taped up the open ends of their mounts with Scotch tape. Their stamps are now worthless as they were stained severely by the tape. The worst you can do with a hinge is to thin a stamp, whereas a mount can ruin one.
Be careful when placing your stamps in the mount. Remember to make sure that all the corners are in before you close the mount. A small corner bend on an expensive stamp can cost you a lot of money. All in all, though, mounts are generally quite safe, and with a little practice and attention you will learn to use them correctly.
Use Of The Scott Catalogue
Once you have decided to collect, and have purchased your album, hinges, and a batch of stamps, you are ready to get down to play. You will need to learn how to use a stamp catalogue. Catalogues number and price stamps, and it is in this way that most philatelists collect and trade them. There are several major stamp catalogues in the world. In England, most collectors use the Stanley Gibbons catalogue; in France, it is Yvert & Tellier; Germans use Michel; and Americans and Canadians by and large use the Scott catalogue.
The Scott catalogue is the major stamp catalogue in the United States, and every collector should learn how to use it. Scott does not illustrate every stamp, but it does illustrate every design type. On many stamps the design remains the same, but the denomination on the stamp changes from stamp to stamp within the set. Every stamp has its own unique catalogue number. The importance of the Scott catalogue primarily is due to its effectiveness as a form of shorthand among collectors. For example, “Trinidad #4” means the same thing to collectors using Scott all over the world, which greatly facilitates philatelic communication.
Stamp catalogues originally grew out of stamp dealers’ price lists. They are far more than that now, giving collectors a wealth of information about the stamps they may be collecting. Don’t trust the prices in the catalogue, though. They bear only a slight relationship to reality. The prices listed are hypothetical ideas of what a collectors should expect to pay for a particular stamp at the particular time the catalogue was issued. In general, stamp sell at a fraction of the catalogue value that usually averages two thirds, but prices can range from 1 percent of catalogue to 1,000 percent (and more). However, a significant number of stamps do adhere to our two-thirds rule.
More realistic in terms of stamp prices are dealers’ price lists. Stamp dealers in this country are like dress merchants or green grocers— either they soon learn the prices at which their wares can be sold or they are soon in another business. Be especially careful to ensure that when you compare stamp prices, you are comparing prices for stamps of similar quality. Prices vary more widely for reason of quality than for any other factor, including rarity. A stamp that catalogues for $500 and is in damaged condition might well sell for $100, whereas a $100 catalogue value stamp in excellent condition may sell for $500.
Ways of Buying Stamps
Approval sales are popular primarily either for low-priced merchandise or for highly specialized material that is hard to describe in words and must be seen. Approval dealers send stamps out to people who desire them. The customers look over the material, decide when they want, and return the balance along with payment for what they kept. Some approval companies solicit customers in general circulation magazines and even on matchbooks. They usually offer a large number of stamps, sometimes a topical theme, for 10 cents, or 25 cents, or sometimes more. When you sign up for this “loss-leader” you commit yourself to receiving approvals, and you have the moral as well as legal obligation to treat the material as someone else’s property (which it is) until it is paid for or returned. The “loss-leader” is of standard common philatelic material (remember, there are trillions of stamps in the world), but would be highly useful to a beginning or moderately advanced collector. So, too, the appeal of shopping at home makes many collectors lifelong approval customers. Be aware, however, that the dealer markup on low-priced approvals (and low-priced stamps in general) is very high, generally ranging from 300 to 400 percent. This is because labor costs, potage cost, and losses are high for the low-cost approval dealer. His average sale is low. A good maxim of philatelic economics is that you pay nearly as much handling and overhead on a stamp worth $2 as you do on a $200 one. So on the $200 stamp you generally pay closer to the wholesale value of the stamp, that is, the price at which the dealer would be willing to buy the stamp back from you.
Stamp auctions are a very popular way of buying stamps. First begun in the 1880s, auctions have become a way of life for many philatelic purchasers. Dozens of sales are held each month, and each major city as well as many minor ones in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain have one or more auctioneers. Stamp auctions nearly always have printed catalogue in which the stamps are “described.” The description gives the catalogue number of the stamp or stamps in the particular lot, an estimated sales value or Scott catalogue value, along with a grading of the stamp. Bids are solicited y mail, and in fact most lots are sold to mail bidders, attesting to the uncommon degree of trust that has developed between collectors and dealers. Of course, any lot may be returned if it is improperly described or misgraded.
Stamp Shops and Mail Order
Most collectors buy their stamps at dealers’ sops. There a collector can see hundreds of stamps, all priced, and determine the ones he would most like to own. Furthermore, a good stamp dealer can answer a beginner’s questions and help him develop his collection. Mail order, too, is very popular; many dealers issue price lists fro which collectors can order stamps. All reputable stamp dealers will accept for full refund any stamp that the collector ordered which does not satisfy him. (A list of the major stamp magazines, with addresses, can be found in the bibliography; they in turn should help to guide you to dealers.)
Grading and condition are the most difficult areas of philately for many people since these two factors are so important to stamp values. Every stamp, no matter how cheap or how expensive, can be graded. Grading means assigning the quality of the stamp to a series of words that are part of philatelic jargon. The terms that philatelists use to grade their stamps (in ascending order are Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, Fine, Very Fine, Extremely Fine. In recent years some philatelists (primarily sellers), not content with seven gradations and their combinations (i.e., Fine to Very Fine), have added another term, Superb, naturally at the top of the scale. In grading, as in currencies, there has been inflation. And again as in currencies, the worst inflation has bee in the last decade. When another grading rung is added to the top of the ladder, the stamps don’t get any better. All that happens is that every stamp goes up a little higher in grade.
Poor refers to only the poorest of stamps, often not even recognizable as a particular variety, due to its faults. Fair is not quite as bad; Good a bit better. A Good stamp may have tears, will have thins or creases, is generally off center (referring to how the design is placed within the margins of the stamp), and really not of pleasing appearance. This lower triad of stamp grades is not sought out by collectors and would be sold individually only if a great rarity is found in the grade and cannot be afforded in a higher grade. Some collectors on a budget may buy these lower grade stamps, but stamps from this group are usually sold in large lots—that is, many stamps grouped together at a low and attractive price. In almost no case should a stamp from this triad sell for as much as 10 percent of the catalog value.
Very Good is generally the minimum grade in which stamps are traded as individual items. A Very Good stamp is usually ff center and may contain one or more small faults that do not detract from its appearance. The small fault may be a thin or a crease, but not a large tear or a face scrape (those being major faults). A Fine stamp has no faults, though it ma not be perfectly centered. A Fine stamp has no faults, though it may not be perfectly centered. A Very Fine stamp is nearly perfectly centered. An Extremely Fine stamp is perfectly centered and of an appearance that should please the most discriminating of collectors. What the grading term Superb means is not really clear; just suffice it to say that if grade inflation continues, future editions of this book might well include definitions for “Extremely Superb.”
Used or cancelled stamps are graded by the same criteria as mint ones, except that the cancellation must not be too heavy for them to be graded highly.
Cross grades are often used to define stamps more accurately. Thus a collector will often see Fine to Very Fine written, which means the stamp straddles the two grades. Such distinctions are valid because it is extremely difficult on many stamps to decide on one category or the other. To call a particular specimen Very Fine might be to overrate it, but to call it Fine might be to underrate it. Thus a compromise is reached by calling it Fine to Very Fine. It would not be too cynical to note that grading depends on who is grading a particular stamp, and that a person’s perception of the grade of a stamp is influenced by whether or not he owns it. This is why in baseball the home team doesn’t call the balls and strikes. But in philately, the home team does call the pitches in the sense that each collector and dealer retains the right to grade each stamp he sells and to reject a price he does not feel is commensurate with the grade of the stamp involved. So it behooves even a beginning collector to gain knowledge of grading skills.
Stamps are printed on paper, though most collectors wish it were granite. The quality of perfection demanded by collectors far exceeds the bounds of reality. Paper, as it ages, becomes brittle. Any 100-year-old stamp has probably been owned by fifteen people and handled hundreds of times. It may well have faults. Faults refers to flaws in the paper.
There are three main types of faults. Thins are areas of the paper that have become scraped away. These usually occur on the back of the stamp, but when they occur on the front they are called “face scrapes.” Thins can occur for a variety of reasons, but most predominant is a stamp being stuck down and then torn away, leaving some paper on the surface that the stamp was stuck to. Furthermore, in the old days, collectors would often peel loosely stuck stamps off envelopes, damaging them, but these early collectors cherished the design and cared little about the paper they were printed on. Creases are bends in the paper that break the fibers in the paper. Often they are caused by careless handling, such as getting caught in a closing album. But many creases were caused by the original postal users. In the early stamp period, stamp booklets and coils, which make it so easy for postal users to carry their stamps about, did not exit. A woman would simply throw some stamps into her purse, or a man drop a few into his pocket, until such time as they were needed.
Creases also were caused as a result of the postal laws that existed in many countries. In the early period, in some countries letters were rated by the umbers of sheets of paper used, not by weight, so people used folded letter sheets. A folded letter sheet is a large piece of paper which is written on and then folded so the outside is blank for an address and a stamp. When a business got a letter like this, it was convenient to refold the letter from its side for filing; often the stamp was creased in the process.
A third, most serious, fault is a tear. Tears can mean anything from a millimeter or two to an entire portion o the stamp missing. Significant tears, such as an entire corner missing, generally are considered a fault of such magnitude as to make the stamp worthless. As a general rule, small thins, small creases, and tears of 1 millimeter or less decrease the value of an otherwise perfect stamp by about one-half. More significant tears, creases, and thins generally decrease the value of the stamp according to the significance of the fault.
It is one thing to know that stamp values are affected by faults and quite another thing to develop the skills to determine if a stamp does have a fault. Many faults can be spotted by the use of a good strong light. If you hold the tamp up to the light (incandescent, or fluorescent, works best0, the thin will show up lighter than the surrounding areas. This is because the paper acts as a medium through which the light must travel. So where the paper is thinned, there will be more light passing through and the paper will consequently appear lighter. A crease shows up as a light line and a tear shows up as a break in the paper.
To determine faults, most philatelists use a watermark tray. The tray is a small, black plastic or glass dish, into which commercially prepared watermark fluid is poured. It was originally developed for watermarking stamps, and proved so efficient that advanced philatelists then expanded its use to include searching for altered stamps. To watermark a stamp—that is, to determine which watermark the stamp has—the collector places the stamp face down in the tray filled with the watermark fluid. The pattern of the watermark will show up darkly because, where the watermark is, the paper is thinner. Thins, which show up as dark patches not part of the watermark, can also be seen. Creases show up as thin dark lines, and tears as somewhat thicker dark lines. The watermark fluid will not damage the gum of an unused stamp, though collectors should not place photo-engraved stamps or stamps printed on chalky paper into the watermark fluid. Neither type of printing fixes the ink, and there is a danger of the design fading or spreading. A special watermark fluid is made for these stamps.
The use of the tray is what separates philatelic novices from the experts. The tray is philately’s X-ray machine, and the analogy is precise. It is difficult to use the tray properly, but one who is adept in using it can discern the most subtle characteristics of a stamp. Because stamp values are so utterly dependent on condition, unscrupulous philatelists have for years attempted to alter the quality of their stamps. There is nothing unethical about repairing a stamp if it is to be sold as repaired. However, very often repairs are made to make a stamp appear perfect so that it can be sold for a higher price. Such alteration is exceedingly difficult to tell even under magnification, but it shows up quite readily in the tray.
One of the ways a stamp can be repaired is by what is called “filling” a thin. A thin can be filled by using a form of paper glue or a solution made with egg white. The solution is painted onto the thin, allowed to dry, then lightly sanded so that it fits into the contours of the stamp paper. This repair will make a stamp that is held up to the light appear as if it has not been thinned. But not so in the tray! Though the filled spot is the same thickness as the paper around it, it is not the same consistency. Since it is not the same broad weave as the paper around it but rather a patch, it shows up in the tray as much denser, that is, whiter, against the black background. Filled thins can be as small as a pinpoint or as large as most of the stamp.
It is recommended that collectors who are graduating from novice to more advanced status keep their old collections of cheap stamps, which offer a wealth of perfect and marginally defective stamps on which to learn the skills of the tray. No one would fill the thin of a stamp worth 3 cents, so you can see a good percentage of unrepaired stamps in this group. You can learn what creases and thins look like in the tray, along with how the weave of paper should look on a perfect stamp.
Creases can be repaired, too. This is generally done by ironing them out, using an ordinary iron but first placing the stamp under a cloth so that it doesn’t burn. The stamp is usually moistened and the heat spreads the fibers of the paper, causing the crease to become invisible—except in the tray. There it shows as a thick dull line. Tears can be closed using liquid cement; margins can be added, in fact, the amount of repairs and alterations possible to a stamp are myriad. We have just touched on the use of the tray. Most dealers and stamp clubs will give you further instruction. Several universities, including Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania, and Temple University in Philadelphia, gives courses in philately that include sections on how to use a tray. If you assumed that stamps were as they appeared, and never used a tray, you would be correct about 90 percent of the time. But when you are spending your money, it pays to be right 100 percent of the time. Reputable dealers will allow the use of the tray at their office; or if time and space do not permit this (at stamp shows, for example), they will allow the return for full refund of anything that, when trayed at home, does not meet the grade it was sold as having. Be aware, though, that virtually no items costing less than $10 have been repaired, and requesting a tray to view such an item is the surest way of branding yourself a nuisance.
When Rowland Hill invented the postage stamp, an integral part of his design was a “wash of mucilage applied to the back, which, when moistened would allow the stamp to adhere to paper.” In the very early years of philately, hobbyists primarily collected used stamps. After all, the reasoning went, why spend good money when stamps off envelopes were so plentiful. And to spend money on stamps in the late 1860s seemed the height of folly. After all, what could they ever be worth?
Led by the Belgian stamp dealer Jean-Baptiste Moens, collectors began buying unused stamps in the 1870s and 1880s. True, they didn’t display the purpose for which stamps were invented (that is, postal use), but the collectors didn’t have disfiguring cancellations to worry about. So, they pasted the unused stamps into their albums, or if they received stamps with gum, they just licked them down. This seems shocking to modern-day collectors, but we must all be aware that gum was a meaningless annoyance until the turn of the century. And the hinge, which now seems barbaric to many, wasn’t even used by most collectors. Indeed, in stamp papers of the 1890s one can leaf through an entire year’s run without encountering any references to gum, except for methods of removing it. Until 1920, controversy raged over whether to collect unused stamps with original gum at all.
“Is it original gum?” may be the most common question in philately today, and it has taken on a much greater significance than ever before. Due to the extreme rise in price of “never hinged” stamps (that is, stamps showing their gum in the quality in which they were issued, great emphasis has been placed on ascertaining the original gum, as this is the only way one can be sure that the stamp was never hinged and that it has not been regummed to resemble a higher-priced commodity.
Determining whether a stamp has original gum is not an easy matter. Many stamps are found regummed nowadays, whereas fifty years ago only comparatively expensive stamps were regummed. Today a regummer, armed with his pail and mucilage, can buy hinged stamps, wash off the gum, and regum them. And many stamps in the $20 to $50 range are now being regummed. So collectors must learn how to distinguish whether the stamp they are buying has its original gum.
Is It Regummed?
In order to determine whether a stamp has been regummed, a knowledge of stamp printing is required. When stamps are printed, they are printed on a sheet of paper that is then gummed and perforated. The order in which this is done is the clue to detecting the type of gum: on genuinely gummed stamps, the perforations are applied after the stamp has been gummed. On regummed stamps, the gum is applied after the perforations have been made. If you take an ordinary fifteen-cent commemorative and break it from the sheet, you will notice the way the perforations slightly fray and how the gum does to extend around the perforation tips. On regummed stamps, the gum tends to glob on the perforation tips, extending slightly beyond them and making the perforation tips brittle to the touch.
This is the major test. But now, we are told, regummers are using high-technology sprayers to duplicate closely the applied characteristics of genuine gum. More times than not, they wash the original “hinged” gum off the stamp, and then reapply it, with no “hinged” characteristics. The gum looks original, and is, but it has been tampered with and such a stamp is not as popular with serious philatelists and is sold at a lower price. The best advice is to buy never hinged (NH) stamps that date back to about 1920, which is the period when the gum fad began and when reasonable stacks of philatelic material were available from which true NH material could surface. But, before 1920 (and this is increasingly true for each decade that you go back, a hinge mark is your surest guarantee that you are indeed buying original gum.
But what does “never hinged” really mean, anyway? It doesn’t only mean, as some literal graders would define it, “never having had a hinge.” An NH stamp must, of course, be never hinged, Post Office Fresh. The stamp must never have been touched with a hinge and the gum must be, in all ways, pristine. A technical description such as: “Small gum soak, and large sticky pieces of black gummed paper stuck to back, otherwise NH,” means no more than, “Very Fine but for a small hole,” or “Super but for a large disfiguring tear.” A stamp is either NH or it is not NH; there is no “NH but!”
Gum is a vital determinant of stamp value—and probably from today it will always be so. But, consider this, early no gum stamps are beginning to rise in price as fast as the original gum (og) ones are. A perfect original gum set of Columbians would sell for about $20,000; never hinged for about $50,000; and no gum for about $12,000. it might be going too much out on a lib to predict the renaissance of no gum stamps; but certainly this prediction is no more outrageous than the prediction twenty-five years ago of the immense rise of “og, NH.”
Be cautious in your condemnation of regummed stamps, though. The advent of the modern sealed stamp mounts has put a severe strain on gum. Gum, especially in hot and humid climates, tends to sweat or run slightly, which can make a stamp look like it has been regummed. This is a natural process, but one that is hastened when a stamp is in a mount. The mount acts as a miniature sweat-box, so if you have your stamps in mounts, be sure there is adequate ventilation and that the stamps are kept in a cool place all year round.
Perforations and Reperforated Stamps
We have discussed perforations in the printing of stamps. Now we will examine perforations in the collecting of them. Early collectors did not bother much with perforations. They separated the stamps by face difference and placed them in albums. The French set the standard for mastering perforations. When a stamp measures “perf 12,” that means tat there are twelve perforations for every 2 centimeters. But you do not have to count them. Perforation gauges can be purchased: these are made with lines and holes that show, when a stamp is placed on them, the precise gauge of the perforations.
Modern collectors pay a great deal o attention to perforations and they are a major determinant of quality. All of the perforation teeth are expected to be intact. Should any perforation tip fall below half of its expected length, as judged by the perforations around it, the stamp is referred to as having “nibbed perfs.” Should the perforation tooth be missing entirely, the stamp is said to have a ‘short” or “pulled perf.” Nibbed perfs generally decrease the value of an otherwise perfect stamp by about 25 percent, while short perfs can decrease the value by up to 50 percent.
United States stamps up through the 1930s were produced on a press that has been termed a flat press. A large sheet of paper is placed on the press, and the plate comes down to print the stamps. While this is an effective method of printing, it I not very speedy as each sheet of paper has to be placed on the press individually and then taken off again. In an era when stamp needs were small, this did not matter, and a good press manned y experienced printers produced enough stamps. In the late 1920s, the United States began to use a much speedier press, the rotary press, which prints using a curved plate on a continuously fed sheet of paper. Rotary printing eliminates the need for each piece of paper to be placed on the press individually. The long roll of printed stamps is then gummed, perforated, and cut into sheets.
All of this is germane to perforations because when a single sheet o paper is used to print a stamp, it is not necessary to perforate the edges of that sheet when the perforating step of the stamp production process comes along. The flat press-printed sheet is placed n the perforator, and generally the outside edges are left imperforate. These stamps with imperforate sides are called “straight edges.” Due to highly technical variances in printing on a flat press, straight edges can exist on one, two, or no sides, though data exists to tell us which is the case for each stamp issue. United States stamps were printed on a flat press until the late 1920s (and occasionally after that) and so exist with straight edges.
Straight edge stamps are not desired by collectors, for the reason that only the Great Collector knows, even though they are far scarcer than the fully perforated stamps. Accordingly, the morally feeble have discovered another way to line their pockets: buy a perforating machine, buy straight edge stamps, and perforate the side or sides that are straight edged.
Fortunately, reperforated stamps (as they are called by collectors) are generally not too difficult to tell. The first clue comes from examining the stamp carefully. Do all the rows of perforations seem to be even or does one of the rows cut at an angle? Government-applied rows are always parallel to each other, and it is surprising how few reperfers obey even this simple rule. Second, look at the perforation teeth themselves. When a normally printed stamp is torn apart along the perforations, it is never done completely cleanly. Most perforation teeth fray slightly, and there is a tendency for one or more teeth to be slightly longer or shorter than the others. Avoid stamps where the perforations on the side look flat, that is, where the perf tips all end at one place. Reperfers do their work against the flat, straight-edged side, so reperfed copies usually look this way.
Getting What You Pay For
There should be some anxiety on the part of a new collector that he or she is getting tamps of sufficient quality for the price that is paid. This is not to say that collectors should buy only stamps in exceptional quality; rather, a stamp in nearly any quality s desirable, providing it is accurately graded and priced at what it is really worth. Quality is the single determinant in stamp prices, and you must be sure that you are getting what you pay for.
This sounds nice, but how can it be done/ first of all, anyone seriously considering committing a portion of his resources to philatelic items should critically examine the dealers he is planning to do business with. A collector should only do business with one firm if, after trying several, he concludes that this one firm is reliable and has competitive prices. Few people would send their children to a private school because it is convenient, and few choose a doctor based on price.
Most communities in the United States have stamp clubs. Their meeting times and places can be found in the Sunday philatelic columns of the general circulation newspapers of your town. And you should go! You should also join a national philatelic society or subscribe to a national philatelic magazine (lists of these are given starting on page 227).
Once you go to a club meeting, don’t be passive. Ask questions. “Dealer X—is he reliable?” “How about Dealer Y?” while keeping in mind that probably no dealer in the world has pleased all his customers (and indeed, some people are virtually unpleasable), one can gain a sense of the prevailing informed philatelic sentiment toward the local stamp shops.
Next, shop the shops. Prices can vary a great deal in stamps. Sometimes in a town with quite a few dealers, pricing and item around can save you as much as 20 percent for identical quality. This is because most dealers find themselves a niche for which they are known—be it United States mint singles, British Commonwealth, Canada, or any of a host of other specialties and subspecialties. If the dealer buys a collection that is not in his niche, chances are his prices will be somewhat lower for this material as his call for it is not as great as for his specialty.
When you shop stamp dealers, make sure you shop quality. Look at how the dealer grades his stamps. Some dealers call Very Fine what another dealer calls Fine. Unfortunately, there is no standardized grading system in philately, so each dealer is free to grade his stamps as he wishes. Some are conservative graders and some are liberal graders. Ultimately, however, the final grader of each philatelic item is the prospective purchaser. It doesn’t matter what the merchant calls it, it has to meet the standards of the buyer. This is why some dealers’ Fine grades sell for more than other dealers’ Very Fine grades. But you should try to deal with conservative graders, for it is with them that most serious and knowledgeable collectors do their business
Check the prices you pay, too. There are hundreds of stamp dealers in this country who publish price lists and auction catalogues (with prices realized). A wise collector will see to it that he gets some of these publications so that he knows what a given item is selling for in other areas. Remember, too, that most philatelic business is done by mail, so don’t be adverse to considering this method of purchasing. Reputable mail dealers guarantee everything they sell.
Does your dealer belong to the American Stamp Dealers Association? The ASDA is a group of well over 1,000 stamp dealers, who have banded together in an effort to promote high standards of stamp dealing. This is a high-minded and noble effort, but it was done mostly for reasons of self-interest. Collectors who are bilked by stamp dealers (and this happens in stamps as it does in all businesses) are less likely to continue in the hobby than collectors who have satisfactory relations with their philatelic suppliers. The ASDA promotes stamp collecting and polices the ethical conduct of its members. It is difficult to gain admission to the ASDA, and any member can be dropped as a result of a reasonable complaint from a collector. Any collector may make a complaint against a dealer, and the dealer is required to respond to the ASDA in writing. If the case has a valid basis, it is remanded to the ASDA counsel or to the Ethics Committee. The dealer can be required to make restitution, and he may be suspended or expelled. This is a remedy that collectors can resort to without the burden of legal aid. You should also be advised, however, that there are a small number of impeccably reputable dealers who do not hold ASDA membership, so lack of ASDA membership should not in itself disqualify a dealer from your consideration. A list of ASDA members can be obtained from the ASDA general office (the address is given in the list of philatelic organizations at the end of this book).
The American Philatelic Society (APS) is an organization with nearly 100 years of history. It has over 50,000 members, is devoted to the promotion of philately, and besides printing an excellent monthly magazine, one of its many services revolves around protecting collectors. Membership in the APS is highly recommended. Many stamp dealers in this country grant immediate credit to a limited amount to APS members. This is quite useful when ordering stamps by mail. The Society of Philatelic Americans (SPA) though smaller than the APS, provides many of the same services.
The smallest crease, the tiniest thin, a minute repair, or a regumming job, however expert, all greatly affect the value of a stamp. And unfortunately, even knowledgeable philatelists sometimes miss problems like these. In the United States there are three major certifying boards: the Philatelic Foundation (PFC), the American Philatelic Expertization Service (APES), and the Society of Philatelic Americans Expert Service (SPA). Stamps can be sent to these groups, and for a usually modest fee, they will examine them and return them with a certificate. The certificate lists whether or not the stamp is genuine, and if it is, whether it has any faults.
Most stamps are not sold with certificates, but this in no way impugns the stamps’ genuineness. Rather, the certification process is a time-consuming one, often taking three months or more, and most dealers cannot afford to tie up inventory for that long. However, no reputable dealer will reuse to allow you the right to send off for a certificate on any stamp bought form him, with the right to return the stamp if it does not meet the level at which it was sold. The generally accepted rule is that certification costs are paid by the purchaser if the stamp is certified as the quality in which it was sold, and by the seller if the stamp is certified not as described and must be returned. Be advised that the certificate does not grade the stamp (e.g., Very Fine, Fine, etc.); rater, it will ascertain genuineness, enumerate faults, and, for a mint stamp, tell whether or not it has original gum, but not whether it has ever been hinged.
A short plea for the stamp dealer is in order here. The minutiae involved in grading and describing philatelic material is so complex that, on occasion, even the most reputable philatelic houses make mistakes. Should this happen to you and should you order or bid on and receive a misdescribed stamp, approach the dealer unantagonistically so that he can void the sale. There is nothing more tragic than a collector who views every misdescribed stamp as a personal affront, and who sees himself as the last bastion of philatelic ethics and moral righteousness in an otherwise sordid world.