What qualifies someone to become a stamp expertizer?

Figure 1. Two examples of the 1969 10¢ Moon Landing airmail stamp. A normal example is shown at top, and a freak example is shown at bottom. The bottom stamp is not an error because there are still remnants of the rose red lithographed ink present. The normal stamp above shows how the brightness of the paper needs to be taken into account when determining whether missing colors are the result of alteration.

Figure 2. This 1984 certificate notes that the bottom stamp in Figure 1 is not an error, but that it is freak print with the lithographed red partly missing.

By John M. Hotchner

Thank you to the many readers who have stopped me at stamp shows or have sent in questions and observations about expertizing since the first column on this subject debuted as a monthly feature in U.S. Stamp Notes three months ago.

Over time I will get to all the questions, but the most urgent one seems to be this: “Who appoints experts and what makes an expert so bold as to accept?”

Sometimes the question has been posed with a negative twist; sort of “Who the heck do you people think you are, holding yourself out as superior?”

Before answering this, we need to be clear on a concept.

That concept is that what you get from an expert, and by extension from an expertizing service, is an opinion. It will be as close to the ultimate truth as humans can make it. Often it is around 99 percent.

But other times, it might be and can be questioned by other experts who did not review the item, by people with different viewpoints on the facts, or because of advances in technology. That is why certificates from earlier days are sometimes reversed in the current era, and why some dealers and collectors will not accept a certificate from even 30 or 40 years ago, and want an item resubmitted for a current certificate.

Experts join expertizing services in two ways. Either they are asked or they volunteer. In both cases, their qualifications and experience are examined by the service administrators, and if that is promising, they might be added to the rolls.

But this is not the end of the process. All opinions are constantly being looked at by other experts and by the administrators — a sort of peer review. And if they are not consistently accurate and well reasoned, the expert will not last long as a member of an expert committee.

What kinds of qualifications and experience would suggest that someone has reached expert status? The person should be a longtime collector of the area to be expertized. But more than that, the candidate should have been a high-medal-winning exhibitor in the area, published on the subject, be a recognized go-to person in a specialty society, and/or be a dealer in the area to be expertized. If, in their philatelic travels, they have been students of the production processes that made the stamps, then so much the better.

Accomplishments and years of involvement in these areas suggest that the candidate is knowledgeable, careful, owns the tools needed for expertizing most of what is submitted, and has at least the beginnings of a reference collection and library to support examination of material to determine whether items submitted are genuine or not.

There are many collectors who could qualify as experts but who choose not to do it. Why? They realize they don’t have the patience or time required. They don’t want the responsibility of handling someone else’s stamps. Or they don’t feel at least 95 percent comfortable with passing judgment on the stamps and covers that they must examine.

With regard to the latter, there are times when an expert does not want to render an opinion, mostly when the stamp or cover poses questions that can’t be answered, or because the expert does not feel qualified. In my experience, that is a relatively unusual occurrence. But when it happens, it usually upsets the owner who would not have submitted the item unless he or she thought it was genuine.

It is not unusual for such items to be resubmitted with additional information, or sent to a different expertizing service in hopes that new sets of eyes will be able to make a determination.

In the legal profession, there is a qualification for candidates for the bench that is called judicial temperament. There is a parallel requirement for expertizers.

The good ones always approach the submitted items with a healthy degree of skepticism. This is not because we want to turn down items, but because we want to be absolutely certain that we have our diagnosis correct. There is so much fakery that has gone on over the 175 years since 1840 — some of it very skillful — that it is simply better to start from “no” and build to a “yes” conclusion, than it is to start from “yes” with an orientation of wanting to prove it.

The latter course can often lead to insufficiently considered conclusions. It is better to consider all the things that could have been done to make or alter the item we are looking at, and to eliminate them from consideration. This process takes time, but it also eliminates errors. And we all know that, as human beings, we are fallible. The expertizer who forgets that is unreliable.

The bottom-line point here is that expertizers are not picked randomly, do not expertize in a vacuum without supervision or review, render an opinion based on the knowledge and tools available in the moment, recognize — indeed are acutely aware — that they are capable of error, and that there are times when there just is not enough information to reach a decision.

And that is the answer to the question, “Who the heck are you to tell me that my prize acquisition is not genuine?”

Man on the Moon missing red

Having lectured for the first part of this column, let me end it with an example of how an expertizer looks at a modern missing color candidate. The stamp under the 30-power magnifier is the 1969 10¢ Man on the Moon airmail stamp (Scott C76) shown in Figure 1.

It is listed in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers with the lithographed rose red ink missing, as Scott C76a. It is not common in this form, as evident from the 2014 Scott catalog value of $500.

The expertizer has three issues to deal with. First, despite a catalog note describing the error, many people see no evidence of red in the astronaut’s shoulder patch flag and assume the stamp is the color-missing error.

In fact, there is also rose red shading in the yellow area in the upper left and in the astronaut’s face mask. The red “United States” lettering is not part of this discussion, as it was engraved and applied by the intaglio process.

Second, to qualify as a color-missing error, a stamp can have no trace of the color present, and that requires a thorough look at where the color is present on a normal stamp, using a 30-power magnifier.

A single dot of color — even one that is not visible to the naked eye — turns the stamp from an error into a variety of considerably less value; still collectible, of course, but not as an error.

Assuming the stamp passes the no-color test, there is still one more concern. Reds, oranges and yellows can be bleached out of surface-printed stamps by prolonged exposure to sunlight or powerful artificial light, and sometimes by chemicals. Such alterations, whether purposeful or accidental (for instance, in soaking the stamp off paper), can fool the expert and the collector alike.

This is doubly problematic if the stamp is mint, as light exposure leaves the tagging undisturbed, and disturbed tagging is often a reliable pointer that signals modern material has been altered.

But alteration by light does leave one other telltale sign. It tends to darken the paper the stamp is printed on, so that comparison with a normal example will show the normal to have a bright white background, and the altered stamp to have a darker, even grayish, tinge.

The certificate in Figure 2, dated 1984, has a note from the submitter saying “cannot detect red dots on face mask and red dots very light elsewhere.”

The opinion was “U.S. Scott No. C76, freak print with litho red partly missing., unused, og, genuine in all respects.”

I would argue that the submitted stamp may well have been altered by light.

The stamp in question is the bottom example of the pair shown in Figure 1. A normal stamp is shown above it. Hopefully, the illustration will show that the top stamp is also brighter. That says to me that this submitted stamp was likely altered.

Published 6/10/2014 7:00 AM