Take a look at that cover before you cut it

Nov 9, 1998, 4 AM

By Michael Baadke

Most of us who enjoy the stamp hobby started out collecting stamps torn from the corners of envelopes. Before I reached my teens I used to go with my father to his office on Saturday mornings and cut stamps from all of his business mail.

Later I would soak the stamps off in water and flatten them under a couple of books for my collection.

Looking back over the years, I wonder how many interesting covers I destroyed in my youth because I was only looking at the stamps.

Stamp collecting is a great part of this hobby and there usually isn't any problem with taking a stamp from a common mailed envelope.

But sometimes, clipping a stamp means destroying an artifact of postal history, regardless of whether the cover the stamp came from is old or modern.

Let's look at the cover shown in Figure 1.

The first thing I noticed when I came upon this cover recently was that one of the two stamps on it is the German 640-pfennig Speyer Cathedral definitive, Scott 1859, that is missing from my collection of postally used German Historic Sites stamps.

Definitive issues are printed in great quantities, and, whenever more are needed, the stamps are simply returned to press. But it just so happens that I had never come across the 1995 Speyer Cathedral stamp before.

Before I reached for my scissors, though, I looked at the cover a little more closely.

I noticed right away that the envelope also had affixed to it a rectangular label with a large "R" on the left side. That label means the cover was sent by registered mail.

Immediately I knew that I didn't want to cut the stamps from this envelope. Examples of registered mail are much more scarce than common letter mail, and the envelope I had was a great example of these definitive issues being used to pay the postage and fees for registration service.

The sender is the American Consulate General located in Hamburg, Germany. The cover was sent to a resident in another northern German town (the name and address of the recipient have been blacked out in the photo for privacy reasons).

Any cover sent via a special service like registered mail should be saved intact, rather than cut apart. Although I enjoy soaking stamps and filling the spaces in my album, I'd rather wait until I find another less intriguing use of the 640pf German definitive.

Figure 2 shows another cover that shouldn't be cut apart for its stamps.

I found this certified mail cover discarded in the trash.

I was surprised to see a single $2 James Madison stamp (United States 2875a) from the 1994 Bureau of Engraving and Printing souvenir sheet used for postage.

I was particularly pleased to note that the stamp was used on certified mail.

Once again, the recipient's name and address have been blacked out in the photo.

Although I didn't have a used Madison stamp in my album, I wasn't going to clip this single from the cover.

When this envelope was mailed Sept. 29, 1995, the cost of certified mail was $1.10 in addition to regular postage.

The envelope is also marked "RETURN RECEIPT REQUESTED" just below the certified mail label. The cost for return-receipt service is an additional $1.10.

Finally, the mailer had to pay first-class postage of 32¢.

Those three figures add up to $2.52, the exact amount of postage and fees paid with the $2 Madison stamp and the 52¢ Hubert Humphrey stamp on the Figure 2 cover.

A collector who is less interested in covers and more interested in stamps should still refrain from cutting apart covers like these.

It's fairly easy to find a specialist collector or dealer who will exchange the cover you have for a used example of the same stamp (and then some). That way you can enrich your collection without destroying an interesting artifact.

In many cases, the stamp on cover has a value that greatly exceeds its value off cover. For the stamp collector, that makes an on-cover stamp great trading material.

One simple example is the postcard shown in Figure 3.

Mailed from New York, N.Y., to Grand Rapids, Mich., the postcard is franked with Scott 542, the perf 10x11 1¢ George Washington stamp issued May 26, 1920.

The 1999 Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers lists this stamp postally used at $1.10.

Also given is a value for the same stamp "on cover." That value is $5.50.

It certainly doesn't make any sense to clip the stamp from the postcard, destroying the item and reducing its value by 80 percent.

Even when the stamp on your cover appears to be quite common, the cover may be worth saving intact.

The cover in Figure 4 is franked with the 29¢ Pine Cone stamp of 1993, 2491, which is listed postally used in the Scott U.S. specialized catalog for 15¢.

A close examination of the stamp shows it is a plate number single from the coil version of the stamp. Near the lower-left corner of the enlarged image of the stamp, you can see "B1."

The catalog notes that the used plate number single of this stamp is valued at $4.25.

The catalog does not specify a value on cover for this stamp, but with the great value difference between the used standard single stamp and the used plate number single, the collector should probably leave the cover intact until additional information is available.

A specialist collector is likely to be more intrigued with the on-cover example.

There are plenty of other examples when the collector should proceed carefully before cutting a stamp from a cover.

Earliest usages of stamps throughout history are still being discovered, and collectors should watch for this kind of possibility.

Another 1¢ green George Washington stamp, Scott 543, was issued perf 10, and the earliest-known use is listed in the Scott U.S. specialized catalog as May 26, 1921.

What a terrible thing it would be if a collector found an earlier cover and cut off the stamp without realizing it.

Research and study of postage stamps helps the collector to avoid such blunders (and potentially profit from great discoveries).

Other covers showing any kind of auxiliary markings or labels should be preserved for additional study. Along with registered and certified mail examples, watch for Official mail from government agencies, insured mail, and markings for various overseas or airmail classifications.

The back of an envelope may show routing information, including a postmark if mail is misdirected, or official seals if the envelope was opened en route.

A cover bearing postage due stamps may also turn out to be an unusual usage.

Perhaps most importantly, classic stamps from the earliest days of adhesive postage should never have stamps removed from them. Though this was commonly done decades ago, the market and interest in classic postal history today far exceeds the monetary value of a single stamp.

The Scott catalog is filled with examples, such as the 30¢ 1869 Eagle and Shield, 121, which lists a value of $500 for a used single, and $22,500 for the same stamp on cover.

And while value is always an important factor, collectors also need to consider the history of postal usage. In many ways, those of us who participate in this hobby are the caretakers of that history, and must do all that we can to preserve it.