Refresher Course

What's wrong with my stamp? Condition is key for a collection

By Janet Klug

The March 26 Refresher Course addressed condition problems that affect the appearance, and therefore the value of a stamp. That article described and illustrated aspects of condition that impact color, perforations and paper, but there are other condition factors to watch for when acquiring stamps for your collection.

Figure 1. A mint coil strip of stamps with seriously damaged gum.
Figure 2. A stamp from Hong Kong with a blunt or rounded corner.
Figure 3. An Irish stamp, creased near the top right corner. The fibers of the paper are broken.
Figure 4. Two views of the front of the same Swedish postage due stamp. The image at bottom has light shining behind it to show the thin in the paper.
Figure 5. A United States plate block damaged when the stamps were peeled apart from another block that was stuck to it.
Figure 6. U.S. Liberty series plate blocks stuck together because they were improperly stored.

Those who collect only mint never-hinged stamps expect the gum on the back of the stamp to be in perfect condition with no hinge marks or other disturbances. Just a slight rub that affects the gum side of the stamp would make the stamp undesirable for those who want perfect gum.

Figure 1 shows part of an otherwise mint coil strip that has seriously damaged gum.

Blunt or rounded corners are almost always created by mishandling. The Hong Kong stamp (Scott 12) in Figure 2 has a blunt corner at bottom left.

A corner can be easily blunted if care is not taken during the process of separating one stamp from another. The best way to separate one stamp from another is to fold the stamps along the perforations and then gently tear them apart. Never try to tear around a corner — the odds of a good outcome are not in your favor. Tears on the edges or body of the stamp can happen in the mailstream or from improper handling by a collector. Either way, the stamp is damaged.

Most stamps, though certainly not all, are printed on paper. Paper is fragile and easily succumbs to bending, folding, creasing and tearing. Most of these problems can be avoided by proper collecting techniques.

Do not let stamps hook on to one another in an album, or get caught in the binding of an album or stock book. Don't allow stamps to stick out from the top or sides of an album. Use tongs when working with stamps. It might be possible to flatten a minor bend between the pages of some heavy books, but once a stamp has become heavily creased, such as the Irish stamp (Scott 118) in Figure 3, the fibers of the paper have been broken and the stamp is damaged.

Another serious stamp fault is known as thinning. You can tell if a stamp is thinned by holding it up to a light and seeing if the stamp appears lighter in one area as compared to other areas of the stamp. The stamp shown at the top of Figure 4 is a desirable postage due stamp from Sweden (Scott J11). A used example in good condition has a catalog value of $72.50. Even though this stamp looks nice from the front, when it is exposed to light from behind, as shown at the bottom in Figure 4, it becomes obvious that the stamp is not in good condition because of thinning.

In this instance, the thinning almost certainly was cause by improper removal of a stamp hinge by a careless collector. The value of the stamp is significantly reduced, but because of its nice appearance from the front, it may stand in as a space filler in an album until such time as a better example can be acquired.

Space fillers should be sold at substantially lower prices than stamps that are undamaged.

Sometimes thinning happens when inexperienced collectors try to peel off stamps from an envelope or from one another, as the United States 7¢ Woodrow Wilson plate block in Figure 5 illustrates. But most thinning occurs from improper removal of a stamp hinge.

Hinges should be perfectly dry before you try to remove them. If the hinge does not peel off easily, stop what you are doing and put the stamp in a sweat box. You can purchase a sweat box from a stamp supplies dealer, or you can make one yourself using common household materials.

All you need is a new, clean household sponge and a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Put about a quarter inch of water in the container. Put the sponge in the container and allow it to soak up most of the water. Put the stamp on top of sponge, face down. Put the lid on the container and leave it overnight. The next day remove the stamp and use tongs to gently peel off the hinge. It should come away easily, but repeat the process if it does not.

An assortment of stamps that becomes stuck together in an unsightly brick is a completely avoidable occurrence.

This only happens when stamps that have water-activated gum are stored together in humid conditions. If the stamps are loosely packed where they are stored, they will curl and become difficult to flatten. If stored tightly packed, they will become firmly stuck to one another.

Figure 6 shows two stacks of what would have been really nice U.S. Liberty series plate blocks that have become solid bricks of stuck-together stamps. Mishandling is to blame.

Don't let this happen to any stamps in your possession.

Stamp collectors sometimes bemoan the fact that offers to buy their collections came in at much lower prices than they anticipated. The reason often lies with the overall condition of the stamps in the collection.

If the stamps in a collection are all space fillers, or if careless handling converted decent stamps into space fillers, a seller should not expect a buyer to pay much more than five percent of catalog value. That assumes there is a buyer for material in poor condition. The likelihood is that such a buyer will be extremely difficult to find.

Remember, if you ever plan on selling your stamp collection in the future, buy the best condition you can afford now and become a careful curator of the collection you have so lovingly formed.