Condition a key component of stamp value

Sep 12, 2005, 1 PM

By Rick Miller

Like Conway Twitty, Kenny Rogers was once a rock and roll musician before he made the switch to country music.

In the lyrics of one of his more existential rock songs, Rogers sang, "I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in."

The condition that your stamps are in is crucial to their value. Knowing and understanding the standard terms that stamp collectors and dealers use to describe a stamp's condition is a must in forming a stamp collection.

The two broad, general categories of condition are determined by whether or not the stamp in question was used to pay postage: in other words, whether the stamp is unused or used.

These two broad categories of condition are reflected in the stamp values listed in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, which usually presents them in two columns. The first column gives the value for unused stamps, and the second column gives the value for used stamps.

But there are many gradations of condition within these general conditions.

An unused stamp in mint condition is a stamp in the optimum condition, the same condition that it was available in at the post office.

Determining whether a stamp is mint involves scrutinizing both the front and back of the stamp.

A mint stamp will have no defects, such as scuffs, tears, missing perforations or writing on the back.

A mint stamp will not have been used for postage and will not bear any cancellation marks.

A mint stamp will have full original gum (if the stamp was issued with gum), and it will never have had a stamp hinge applied to it.

Sometimes a dealer or collector will spell all of this out by describing a stamp as "mint, original gum, never-hinged," but all of those qualities are specifically implied by the term "mint."

Even a stamp issued without gum cannot be described as mint if there is a hinge or a hinge remnant on the back, although you might not be able to tell the difference if someone takes the time to soak the remnant off.

In past generations, collectors used hinges to mount most unused stamps. Usage of stamp mounts for unused stamps dates generally from the 1950s.

When a stamp is described as "unused, hinged," it means that the gum on the back of the stamp has been hinged or is otherwise slightly disturbed, and the stamp is no longer in mint condition.

This is reflected in the values in the Scott standard catalog, the Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940 and the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers. Scott values for unused stamps issued up to a certain point, generally in the 1940s, are for stamps in unused, original-gum condition. Values for unused stamps after that point are for stamps in mint condition.

The transition point varies from country to country. The Scott catalogs alert the reader by inserting a boxed note at the point in the postage stamp listings where the transition occurs. It reads, "Catalogue values for unused stamps in this section, from this point to the end of the section, are for Never Hinged items."

Additionally, there are separate boxed notes for each of the back-of-the-book sections for most country listings.

A stamp hinge is a tiny thing, and it might have disturbed only a tiny area of gum, but whether or not a stamp has ever been hinged can have a significant impact on its value.

For example, if the unused British 10-penny carmine and dull purple King Edward VII stamp (Scott 137) shown in Figure 1 has even the slightest hinge mark or other slight gum disturbance, its catalog value is $90. If it has mint, undisturbed gum, the stamp's catalog value is $175.

The degree of hinging or other gum disturbance can also have an effect on value. A lightly hinged stamp will have a faint impression of a hinge in the gum, or a tiny part of the hinge remaining affixed to the stamp. The back of a typical lightly hinged stamp is shown in Figure 2.

Stamps with a prominent hinge spot or with all or a large part of the hinge remaining will generally sell for less than the same stamp in lightly hinged condition. The back of a typical unused, hinged stamp is shown in Figure 3.

For foreign stamps issued before 1900 and for U.S. stamps issued before 1890, the Scott catalog values for unused are for stamps in "large part original gum" condition. To qualify for this condition, the stamp must have at least half of its original gum remaining. The back of an unused stamp with the large part of its original gum intact is shown in Figure 4.

Stamps with less than half of the original gum remaining are in "small part original gum" condition, as Scott puts it. They sell at a discount from the unused value. The back of an unused stamp with the small part of its original gum intact is shown in Figure 5.

The Scott catalogs also values some older stamps of which few examples exist with original gum in "unused, no gum" condition. For example, an unused Confederate States of America 5¢ green Jefferson Davis stamp (Scott 1) is valued at $275 in unused, original gum condition and at $200 in unused, no gum condition. Figure 6 pictures an unused Davis stamp.

In addition to hinging, other gum conditions that can detract from a stamp's value include gum that is cracked, crazed, fractured, glazed, stained or creased.

Should you remove the hinges from unused stamp acquisitions?

In days of yore, some peelable stamp hinges were available to stamp collectors. If the old hinge is truly peelable, it should pop right off with just a slight tug.

But be careful. Modern stamp hinges are generally not peelable, and some are even less peelable than others. If you try to peel a modern stamp hinge from the back of a stamp, you are likely to produce a thin or tear.

Some collectors try tearing the album-page-part of the hinge away at or above the hinge fold. Be even more careful with this situation. It is fraught with the danger of tearing or thinning a stamp.

Other collectors will just leave well enough alone, and leave the hinge as it is.

When buying classic-era mint stamps, the possibility that the stamp has been regummed should be in your mind. Incredible differences in value exist for some stamps in mint condition and those in unused, hinged condition, so there is big money to be made regumming stamps.

Some regumming efforts are crude and obvious, but some are done so well that they might fool just about anyone. If you are paying a large premium for a mint stamp with never-hinged gum, having the stamp expertized is a very good idea.

The values given in the Scott catalogs for used stamps are for stamps that have been postally used and show some part of a postal cancellation.

An uncanceled stamp soaked from a cover after use would generally be considered to be in unused, no gum condition.

A number of nuances to used condition can affect the value of a given stamp.

In instances where a stamp was in use for a relatively short period of time and where used stamps are more valuable than unused stamps, the used stamps must have a legible cancellation showing contemporaneous use.

Used stamps that were valid for both postage and revenue must bear a postal cancel. Stamps with revenue cancels are worth less.

Some types or colors of cancellations bring a premium over the basic used value.

Fancy cancels on classic U.S. stamps bring a premium. The U.S. 3¢ rose George Washington stamp (Scott 65) shown in Figure 7 bears a skull and crossbones fancy cancel. The used stamp has a basic catalog value of $2.50, but this stamp with fancy cancel could sell for hundreds of dollars, even though the centering of the stamp is only average.

On the other hand, heavy killer cancellations detract from the value of a stamp. The ugly cancellation on the U.S. 90¢ Oliver H. Perry stamp (Scott 229) shown in Figure 8 makes it worth much less than catalog value.

For modern used stamps, some collectors prefer stamps with light cancels that do not detract from the stamp design. Other collectors prefer stamps with legible postmark or slogan cancels.

There is no right or wrong way to collect modern used stamps. Collect what you like, and you will be doing it the right way.

The presence of a hinge or hinge remnant generally does not affect the value of a used stamp. When acquiring used, hinged stamps, however, it is usually a good idea to soak off the old hinges to make sure that they are not hiding thins or other defects.

Once I was buying a used stamp with several old hinges on the back from a sales circuit. When I soaked the old hinges off, the stamp floated apart into two pieces. It was actually parts of two damaged stamps that had been glued together. The old hinges covered up the places where the stamp pieces overlapped. I put the two pieces of the stamp back in the sales circuit with an explanation of what had happened.

In Europe, one popular method of collecting modern stamps is with postal cancellations and full original gum.

This style of collecting has yet to attract many followers in the United States.

Collectors buy such stamps directly from the country's postal service at face value. The stamps are neatly canceled, but they have never done postal service.

Hinging or otherwise marring the gum of these stamps would detract from their theoretical value.

Stamps that have been canceled to order (CTO) are not truly either used or unused. CTOs are stamps that were canceled in mass, often while still on the printing press. They did no postal duty and were sold in quantity at steep discounts from face value to dealers for the stamp packet trade.

CTOs usually bear neat cancels in one corner and often have full gum. They are generally worth less than either mint or used stamps.