Grade and condition are crucial to collecting

Nov 24, 2003, 11 AM

By Rick Miller

For collectors who spend significant amounts of money on individual stamps and who hope to eventually sell those stamps for as much as they paid for them or more, no two words are more important than "grade" and "condition."

According to the introduction to the Scott catalogs, grade evaluates centering and cancellation. Condition refers to all other factors that affect a given stamp's desirability.

An old adage that can be applied to stamp collecting is "You get what you pay for."

The Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers values the $1 black Western Cattle in Storm stamp of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition issue of 1898, Scott 292, at $1,250 for an unused, very fine stamp.

An unused, very fine example of this stamp is shown in Figure 1.

If you see this stamp described as sound and very fine and being sold for $650, alarm bells should start ringing in your head. It's dollars to donuts that the description of the stamp is not accurate and that the stamp being offered for sale either has defects (condition) or is only truly average or fine (grade).

Inflated descriptions of stamps offered for sale are omnipresent in the stamp marketplace. You must look beyond the seller's description of the stamp and examine the stamp itself.

If you buy stamps by mail or through the Internet, it must be with the seller's unconditional guarantee of your right to return the stamps for a full refund, if they are not as described.

Once you determine a stamp's true grade and condition, you might still choose to buy it, if you judge it to be the best example of the stamp that you can afford. But do so with your eyes wide open as to the stamp's true condition and grade, and don't expect to turn around and sell it to someone else as a sound, very fine stamp at very fine catalog value.

In order to make your way through the stamp market and build your collection, you must have a working knowledge of the various terms that describe grade and condition.

The Scott catalogs, the acknowledged bible of U.S. collectors and dealers, define four degrees of condition, and the Scott Valuing Supplement lists a fifth. There are additional grades that are implied but that are not used or defined by the Scott catalogs.

The top grade defined in Scott is "extremely fine," which it describes as "stamps (that) are close to being perfectly centered. Imperforate stamps will have even margins that are larger than normal." Extremely fine stamps from the classic period sell at a premium above their Scott catalog values.

An extremely fine 2¢ black Andrew Jackson stamp, U.S. Scott 73, is shown in Figure 2.

The Scott catalog points out: "Early issues of many countries may be printed in such a way that the perforations may touch the design on one or more sides. Where this is the case, a boxed note will be found defining the centering and margins of the stamps being valued."

Scott catalog values are for stamps in the very fine grade, which Scott defines as "slightly off center on one side, but the design will be well clear of the edge. The stamp will present a nice, balanced appearance. Imperforate stamps will have three normal-sized margins.

"Used stamps will have light or otherwise neat cancellations."

The next lower grade defined by Scott is "fine-very fine." Scott defines this as follows: "Stamps may be somewhat off center on one side or slightly off on two sides. Imperforate stamps will have two margins of at least normal size, and the design will not touch any edge. For perforated stamps, the perfs are well clear of the design, but are still noticeably off center.

"Used stamps will not have a cancellation that detracts from the design."

An unused, fine-very fine 15-kreuzer blue Emperor Franz Josef stamp, Austria 11, is shown in Figure 3.

The lowest grade defined by Scott is the deceptively optimistic-sounding grade of "fine." According to the catalog, "Fine stamps have designs that are noticeably off center on two sides. Imperforate stamps may have small margins, and earlier issues may show the design touching one edge of the stamp. For perforated stamps, perfs may barely clear the design on one side, and very early issues normally will have the perforations slightly cutting into the design.

"Used stamps may have heavier than usual cancellations."

An unused, fine 2-filler brown-orange Republic overprint stamp, Hungary Scott 153, is shown in Figure 4.

There are grades of stamps lower than fine, but Scott does not bother to define them because there is usually very little demand for such stamps.

An imperforate stamp with part of the design cut away or a stamp with the perforations that cut into the stamp design could be described as very good, good or average.

The used 10-centavo dark violet Shepherdess stamp, Uruguay Scott 164, shown in Figure 5, has perforations cutting into the design on the right side. Its grade might be described as very good, good or average.

The truth is, few collectors would want such a stamp in their collections regardless of how optimistically it is described, unless perhaps they could get it for free.

On the other end of the scale, you might see stamps described as "superb," "jumbo margins," or "boardwalk margins." We will leave it up to you to decide to what extent these are accurate descriptions of grade and to what extent they are advertising hyperbole.

While the quality of a cancellation on a used stamp is part of the stamp's grade, the actual state of being used or unused is part of its condition.

Unused stamps are stamps that have not been used to pay for postal services or otherwise canceled. Used stamps have been used in connection with postal service.

CTO (canceled-to-order) stamps are stamps that have been officially canceled, but which were not used for postal service. Some postal administrations cancel stamps to order en masse and sell them at a steep discount from face value to stamp wholesalers or dealers.

CTO stamps are often neatly canceled in one corner and have full gum.

Remaindered stamps are from stocks that were taken off sale and rendered unusable as postage. This is usually accomplished by a punch hole, heavy bars or crayon lines drawn across the face of the stamp. Remaindered stamps sell at a small fraction of the catalog values of the same stamps postally used.

Whether a stamp has a higher catalog value in used or unused condition is purely a function of supply and demand.

When unused stamps have a higher catalog value, it is usually because most of that issue was used for postage and there are fewer unused remaining to supply the collectors who want them.

When used stamps have a higher catalog value, it is usually because the stamp was valid for postage for only a short period of time or otherwise saw only limited postal use and there are fewer postally used copies available to collectors.

With some notable exceptions, most canceled-to-order stamps are not that desirable to American collectors, with the result that they sell for much less than either used or unused examples of the same stamps.

Not all unused stamps are equal. The back of an unused stamp, specifically its gum, plays a big role in its value.

For stamps that were issued with gum, Scott classifies gum as either mint, never hinged; original gum; or no gum.

The original gum category is further broken down in descending order of desirability into lightly hinged; hinge mark or remnant; large part original gum; or small part original gum.

Stamps with gum showing noticeable effects of humidity, climate or hinging over more than half of the gum are said to have "disturbed gum."

Regummed stamps are those that have had gum privately applied to replace missing original gum. For valuing purposes, regummed stamps are considered to be the same as stamps with no gum.

According to Scott, condition factors that can increase the value of a stamp include "exceptionally wide margins, particularly fresh color, the presence of selvage and plate or die varieties."

"Unusual cancels on used stamps (particularly those of the 19th century) can greatly enhance their value as well."

For example, the 1-penny black Queen Victoria stamp, Great Britain Scott 1, shown in Figure 6, bears a red Maltese Cross cancel. The cancel raises its catalog value from $180 to $375.

The inscriptional selvage at the left of this Penny Black also makes it more desirable.

Unfortunately, many factors of condition detract from the value of a stamp.

Conditional factors that are part of normal stamp production include natural inclusions in the paper and straight-edges.

The whole world of stamps can be divided into sound stamps and stamps with faults.

Faults include damage to the stamp's paper such as tears, holes, missing pieces, creases, thins, toning, soiling and stains. Faults to a stamp's surface include scuffs, fading, oxidation and other types of color changelings.

The range of faults associated with stamp perforations is wide: perforations may be pulled, weak, blunted, ragged, short, trimmed or blind, all of which detract from a stamp's value.

Some faults are afflicted on unoffending stamps by collectors and dealers. Over the years, many collectors and dealers have felt obliged to write on or otherwise mark the backs of stamps with catalog numbers, values, perforation gauge measurements or the like.

This ill-advised practice always detracts from a stamp's value. So don't do it. Ever. Ironically, many of the stamps with the catalog number written on the back are incorrectly identified or have an old catalog number.

Other human-inflicted faults include cut-to-shape, reperforation, fake perforations, and attempts to chemically remove or lighten cancellations.

The sad wreck of a 10-bani brown postage due stamp, Romania Scott J3, is shown in Figure 7.

The multitude of sins incorporated in this single stamp include missing pieces (upper left and right), pulled perforation (top), a tear (lower right), ragged perforations (right side), blunted perforations (bottom right), short perforation (left side), fading and discoloration (right side) and a stain (upper left).

Showing this stamp as an example of a faulty stamp is a bit of overkill. Any one of these conditions would make this a damaged stamp.

Lest someone accuse me of stamp vandalism, let me assure you that this stamp is just as I found it in an old album.

All stamps are not equal. A collector needs a discriminating eye in assembling a pleasing stamp collection.