US Stamps

By John M. Hotchner

Expertizing stamps: an essential part of stamp collecting

March 07, 2014 10:45 AM

  • Figure 1. These two varieties of common stamps have been through the expertizing process. One is genuine. One is fake. Can you identify which is which?

  • Figure 2. This APEX certificate for a color-missing error discovered in 2011 fully describes the item examined and includes a photograph of the stamps.

Because philatelic fakery has been practiced since the dawn of stamp collecting, expertizing — the careful inspection of stamps and covers to determine their bona fides — is well established as an essential part of stamp collecting.

Expertizing tends to be utilized at the high end of philatelic commerce to assure that material being bought and sold is the genuine article and unaltered. But there are also a great many inexpensive stamps that have been forged, and moderately priced stamps that have been altered by repairing damage or adding elements (such as perforations) to make one stamp variety appear to be another.

Covers also can be altered by adding markings, or even by adding stamps that will, if undetected, presumably increase the value.

Philatelic fakery has become easy enough that the careful buyer needs to keep an eye out, even when buying moderately priced material.

Figure 1 pictures two early 20th-century United States items that have gone through the expertizing process. One was judged to be authentic. The other was determined to be a fake.

Can you tell which is which? The answer is at the end of this article.

Questions about philatelic expertizing abound.

What services are available? Who sponsors those services? How are expertizers chosen, and what are their qualifications? What does it cost to get an opinion? Are opinions guaranteed? How reliable are old opinions? How does expertizing become part of the buying and selling process? What is included in a certificate (such as the example shown in Figure 2) and why?

And this by no means ends the practical questions leading up to the most perplexing questions of all. How is expertizing done? What are the mechanics? Can opinions be challenged?

A new column

Chad Snee, upon assuming the Linn’s editor’s chair, identified this realm as one needing more coverage, and he asked that I devote one U.S. Stamp Notes column each month to this subject, for the foreseeable future.

As with nearly all of my philatelic writing, I can probably rattle on for a long time on this subject, as I have been an expertizer for the American Philatelic Expertizing Service (APEX) for the past 27 years. But my preference is to be responsive to the desires and questions of Linn’s readers.

So, I would like to hear from you with your questions, your experiences and your ideas about expertizing and how it can be done better.

I can be contacted by e-mail at, or by mail at Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041.

I will not be able to immediately answer every question in a once-a-month column, but the issues raised will be a helpful guide for determining what gets discussed first. I also will try to answer every inquiry directly.

Why has Snee dropped this task on my doorstep? My field of expertise for APEX began with worldwide error, freak and oddity material, otherwise known as production varieties, and I have gradually expanded to reviewing nearly all 20th-century U.S. stamps.

What competence I have developed tracks back to having learned at the feet of George W. Brett, the senior expertizer in the field when I began.

Brett was a marvel. He wrote extensively for the monthly journal of the Bureau Issues Association (now the United States Stamp Society), knew all the pressmen at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and had studied the presses first hand.

He was a meticulous observer, documented his findings clearly, and could usually identify what was right and wrong with items submitted for expertization —what he called his “patients” —with unerring accuracy.

When Brett was the primary expert looking at a patient, a second opinion was rarely needed. With his passing in 2005, there are now at least two and often three expertizers who review each submitted item, and all have to agree on the result, or have very strong evidence to show why a dissenter is wrong.

Brett’s laws

Brett taught me three laws of expertizing. The first was to nurture a healthy skepticism when looking at patients.

The ways in which fakery is accomplished are beyond counting, and the art has improved with the times, to the point where it can be, in some few types of fakery, nearly impossible to detect. Fortunately the quality of fakery has not been so good in the overwhelming majority of cases, and the careful and knowledgeable expertizer is able to tell the good from the bad with a high degree of certainty.

The second lesson was to invest in philatelic literature, read it and understand the printing and finishing processes for stamps. Then buy, read and absorb the literature that exists on the expertizing process. I will tell you about that literature in the next column in this series.

Brett’s third law said to build a personal reference collection of both genuine and not genuine examples so that comparison is possible.

Money and scarcity do not allow the expertizer to own comparison pieces for every case, but then, it is not needed in every case.

Expertizing services

There are individuals who expertize on their own, and there are expertizing organizations. For philately, the major organizations in the United States are the Philatelic Foundation (PF, New York, N.Y.); the American Philatelic Expertizing Service, associated with the American Philatelic Society (APEX, Bellefonte, Pa.); Professional Stamp Experts (PSE, Newport Beach, Calif.); and Philatelic Stamp Authentication and Grading Inc. (PSAG, Satellite Beach, Fla.)

The expertizing services mostly send out patients to multiple expertizers. Why? The plain fact is that none of us is infallible, and our powers of observation are informed by different degrees of knowledge and experience.

Any disagreements among the reviewers must be thrashed out before a certificate of authenticity can be issued. The objective is to make the product as perfect as it can be.

Those of us who do expertizing do not do it because it pays well. We receive a small standard amount per item. There is no premium if the item is found to be good or bad, so there is no pressure to find one way or the other.

The modest fee in no way covers the time expended, let alone the library and the reference collection. But I have learned a great deal from studying items submitted through APEX, and have consulted on some items submitted to the PF and the PSE.

There is no price that can be put on the knowledge gained, as it has practical applications in my own collecting activities.

Expertizing results

One question that I know will be asked is, what percentage of the material that I expertise is found to be genuine and unaltered?

This will change with the country under consideration and sometimes with the time period being reviewed.

That said, more than 75 percent of the patients tend to be genuine stamps as identified by the submitter. However, about half of those are not the variety claimed, be it different or missing colors, completely imperforate, a tagging variety, original gum or other variety.

I hope you enjoy this excursion into expertizing, and that many of you will better understand the process as a result, and will be encouraged to use it when you have a question about something you are considering adding to your collection.

Genuine or fake?

And what about the stamps pictured in Figure 1?

The 2¢ vertically imperforate George Washington pair is a fake: The perforations were added to imperforate stamp stock.

The 2¢ Sullivan Expedition stamp, however, is a genuine lake shade variety.