Refresher Course

What's wrong with my stamp? Different types of faults to watch for

By Janet Klug

The process of buying a stamp is more complicated than one might think.

Figure 1. Two 1898 French stamps (Scott 104). One has fresh color, while the color on the other is faded.
Figure 2. Two examples of the same stamp from Tonga. The stamp at right exhibits a photochemical change in color.
Figure 3. A space-filler example of an 1865 British stamp with an unnatural straight edge.
Figure 4. A 1924 Algerian stamp with a pulled perforation.
Figure 5. Blind perforations between two Canadian stamps.
Figure 6. A missing perforation at the top of this British stamp (Scott 246).
Figure 7. The back of a 115-year-old stamp from Tonga that has become brittle and brown with age.
Figure 8. The back of a stamp from Papua with gum that has crackled.
Figure 9. British stamp with numerous faults.

Stamps are described by condition and grade and come with a lot of terminology that may seem mysterious or even undecipherable.

Condition refers to the overall soundness of the stamp. Grade is the term used to evaluate the centering of a stamp.

This article is about condition problems that affect the desirability and value of stamps that you might want to buy, or stamps you have in your collection.

The color of a stamp may be described as faded (less desirable) or fresh (very desirable).

The two 1898 French stamps illustrated in Figure 1 are both the 5-centime Peace and Commerce issue (Scott 104), but the stamp on the right has become faded, while the color of the stamp on the left is fresh and the detail in the stamp design is easy to see.

An even more extreme example is shown in Figure 2.

The 1938 2-penny violet and black stamp from Tonga (Scott 71) on the left is fresh and bright. The stamp on the right is the same denomination and the same catalog number, but the stamp has been exposed to too much light and exhibits a photochemical change from purple to blue.

Sometimes these kinds of changed appearances are mistaken as color errors. They are not.

Many colors change over time. Orange stamps can turn brown from oxidation. Blue is very light sensitive and might fade away to nothing with too much exposure to light.

Always use caution when being offered a color error.

It is normal for some stamps to have a straight edge or two. This is especially true of stamps that originated from booklet panes, coils, or some sheets that have a straight outer edge.

It is not normal for a stamp that should be perforated on all sides to have a straight edge, such as the 1865 9d stamp from Great Britain (Scott 46) shown in Figure 3.

The stamp pictured has a straight edge down the right side. That is a bad fault and makes this stamp what is called a "space filler." Generally, that term refers to an expensive stamp in poor condition that is used to fill the space in an album until a better example can be acquired.

Even small perforation faults can make a big difference in condition. Anything that detracts from the overall appearance of the stamp will affect the value.

The paper points that surround the edges of a traditionally perforated stamp are called "teeth." A "pulled perf" refers to a tooth within the perforations that is shorter than it should be. It may also be called "nibbed perf."

Figure 4 shows a couple of pulled or nibbed perfs on the right side of a 1924 Algerian stamp (Scott 22).

Blind perforations are incompletely punched perforations holes. An example of blind perforations is shown in Figure 5, on a pair of 1973 Canadian 4¢ stamps (Scott 589).

Two blind perfs are located between the two stamps. This happens when one or more perforating pins in a perforating machine becomes broken or damaged. The perforation hole does not get punched out completely or at all. This affects the appearance of the stamp negatively and so affects the value.

A missing perf, as shown in Figure 6 on the top of a 1939 British 9d stamp (Scott 246), occurs when one of the perforation teeth is torn away completely, damaging the stamp.

The paper on which a stamp is printed can age, turn brown and become brittle. That is a big condition problem.

Often the gum is at fault if it has become brown with age. Figure 7 shows an 1897 4d stamp from Tonga (Scott 44) with discolored gum.

This discoloration of the gum is often called "tropicalization" or "tropicalized gum" because it frequently occurs on stamps from places that have hot, humid climates. Gum may crackle and cause the stamp to crease or buckle, another reason why an otherwise attractive stamp would be in poor condition.

Figure 8 pictures a 1932 4d stamp from Papua (Scott 99) with gum that has crackled.

A future column will explain other faults that affect the appearance and value of stamps.

Remember to look for condition problems when you are acquiring stamps for your collection. You should never pay premium prices for faulty stamps.

If a stamp you really want for your collection is particularly hard to find, and one is offered to you that has a small fault, that fault may give you some bargaining power.

You are still buying a faulty stamp, but only you can decide if the stamp is good enough for your collection.

Don't let your albums fill up with stamps that look like the 1864 British Penny Red (Scott 33) in Figure 9 that is faded, blunted, thinned, torn, creased and has missing perforations. This stamp is so dog-eared that sometimes it barks.

Thanks to Linn's reader Richard Handova for suggesting the subject for this column.