US Stamps

John M. Hotchner

Becoming a philatelic expert: Are you ready?

November 02, 2017 09:45 AM

  • This 1861 5¢ orange brown Thomas Jefferson stamp (Scott 30) is a genuine stamp, but has three strikes against it as noted on the PSE certificate. Does this make it uncollectible? No, but it does make it a lot less expensive.

U.S. Stamp Notes — By John M. Hotchner


There are never enough people who are willing to step forward as philatelic experts.

There are many reasons. Some collectors may be capable, but don’t want the responsibility. Others have a case of terminal humility. Still others don’t want to spend their limited hobby time working with other peoples’ stamps and covers.

All of these are understandable. However, I would argue that someone has to do this work, and first, making the commitment to go down this path can be a bit of payback for the happy hours that the hobby has given you. Second, you will be repaid for your work in several ways.

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In terms of cold hard cash, most expertizing enterprises pay a small per-patient (the patient is the stamp or cover that has been submitted for expertizing) amount that covers your minimal expenses and provides a little spending money. No, you won’t get rich — and many experts donate the honorarium back — but you can keep it for your philatelic account.

Much more valuable is the experience and knowledge you gain in your chosen field. No one declares themselves to be an expert, and on day one suddenly knows everything there is to know.

It is only the beginning. Experts are students, and handling both the genuine and the falsified material that others send in forces the expert to dig deep into his or her knowledge base, to expand it, to develop new theories and to reach new conclusions. Sometimes what you think you know turns out to be wrong.

The knowledge you gain also can have a cash value in that you become more aware of what to avoid as a faked or altered item, and what to snap up as a bargain because it has an odd perforation or a curlicue out of place that others have missed.

The next benefit is that even if you don’t own them for your own collection, how else can you handle and enjoy the rarities of your field? You get to know and study them firsthand, which beats by a country mile seeing them in an exhibit frame.

When to begin?

How do you know when you are ready to take on the challenge?

There are several elements against which you can make that evaluation.

First, despite what I already said, humility is good. You can have pride in your knowledge without believing that you are the last word on every stamp or cover that comes before you. Knowing what you don’t know is nearly as important as knowing what you do know.

Having the humility to own up when knowledge is lacking is a positive. An expert cannot guess.

Often the organization for which the expert works takes the team approach, so that there are others who look at the patient and check each other’s findings.

Even the lone, highly experienced expertizer runs up against the occasional brick wall and has to call in outside help, or declare that it is impossible to reach a conclusion given the current state of technology or knowledge.

All of this translates into a high level of personal ethics. You can’t wish a patient into being genuine, nor can you favor material that you know comes from a friend. And, you can’t use your position as an expertizer to settle some mythical score from 20 years ago.

As to knowledge, you need a passion for the material you are working with — and not just for the most perfect and beautiful examples extant.

My friend Trish Kaufmann expressed this especially well in a recent note: “I have an extensive collection of Confederate fakes, forgeries and fantasies. They proliferate. We have evidence that it started during the war as early as 1862, as evidenced by print ads for fake stamps. People messing with covers were right on their heels. And nothing has stopped the momentum. It continues today.”

What this tells me is that Kaufmann has a fascination with material from the darkest corners of the hobby. She also has a collection and a library to back it up that help her to be a knowledgeable expert. Of course, she has been doing this for years, and she continually adds to both her collection and library.

So, as with elemental knowledge, the expert must have the basics, but the fascination with the good, the bad and the ugly encourages you to build your own collection and library over time.

A time requirement is involved in being an expert. You can’t be rushed when dealing with the patients you are asked to examine.

Think of Sherlock Holmes and his penchant for taking whatever time was needed to go into his library to identify the origin of a bit of tobacco, or the precise nature and date of a previous crime. His search began with a full application of his powers of observation, augmented by facts that put his observations in context. It is not too strong a point to make that an expertizer is indeed a detective.

Finally, an expert needs tools, or access to them. Good perforation gauges, watermarking fluid, a magnifier that is 30 power to 40 power, longwave and shortwave ultraviolet lights and comparison examples are enough to solve most of the cases.

On occasion, though, analysis using expensive technology not likely to be part of a home setup will be needed. If you work with an expertizing house, you may have to suggest tests that can be performed using in-house equipment or arrange with a laboratory to have the tests done.

I hope I have not scared you off. We need new experts for both United States and foreign material, especially in the specialty areas.

If you think you have a good base to build upon, and have relevant experience in your area as a collector, author, exhibitor or in some other manner, write to your favorite expertizing enterprise and volunteer. This can be the start of a beautiful and productive relationship.