US Stamps

Stamp expertizing: more than just identification

Apr 28, 2021, 8 PM

John Hotchner’s periodic Linn’s U.S. Stamp Notes articles on the subject of expertizing, as well as Editor Charles Snee’s desire to see more articles in Linn’s on this important subject, prompts me to contribute a synopsis of the expertizing process.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive article, as expertizing is a big subject, but I hope to acquaint readers with some of the basics.

As Hotchner noted, I am one of the three expertizers in the United States with a service operated by a single person; Jay Smith and Sergio Sismondo are the others.

I do regularly consult with other experts when confronted with difficult submissions. Both Smith and Sismondo are primarily involved in expertizing foreign submissions, whereas my service is geared to U.S. material.

This article is intended to speak only about U.S. expert services, although much of the information is applicable to any expert service.

After the expertizer is finished with his careful study of the “patient” (as the submitted stamp or cover are often referred to), the next element is to record the identification and any faults, alterations or repairs that were noted.

Also recorded are the gum condition, if unused (such as hinged, never hinged [NH], original gum [OG], disturbed gum or regummed); any unusual, special or colored cancellation; and any plate or printing variety noted.

In short, the expert must provide a written description of his findings, which is what the submitter expects and is entitled to when fees are paid.

It is not the function of an expert service to use adjectives when describing the patient. Only a factual description should be provided.

Words that describe the appearance in any way that is not simply a statement of fact have no place on a certificate of authenticity.

Descriptions like “rich color” or “superior centering” are left for those who market the material, not for expert services.

Decades ago (circa 1930-60), the few expert services that existed in this country had a rather simplistic approach to authenticating stamps.

Generally, they were unconcerned or, more accurately, underconcerned about the condition of the patient. They believed that their primary function was to identify the stamp correctly. Condition was a matter of less concern.

The result was that often these old certificates lack an accurate description of the patient’s condition.

It is therefore recommended that any collector who owns a stamp with an older certificate from any of the U.S. expert services strongly consider having the stamp re-expertized.

What constitutes an older certificate? I would advise that anything with a pre-1990 certificate be resubmitted to the same or different service for re-evaluation.

It is now standard practice to accurately describe all condition problems on the certificate.

In the past, it was not a practice for expertizing services to note whether or not an unused stamp was never hinged; such certificates would state only that the examined stamp had original gum.

The great difference in price and value that a never-hinged stamp can command in comparison to a hinged stamp is another good reason to request a new certificate.

There is no way to know for sure if a stamp has been altered in some way since the last examination and certification.

The stamp could have a tiny new fault caused by careless handling, or worse still, it could have been altered by reperforating, tiny repairs, and so on.

With that in mind, a collector who is considering buying a stamp with a certificate should carefully compare the stamp with both the photograph and the word description on the certificate, to make sure everything matches exactly.

There is an ongoing debate about which flaws should and should not be noted on a certificate of authenticity.

I believe that expertizers are duty bound to record whatever flaws they see.

When we start to exclude some small faults, how can we fairly decide which tiny flaws should be exempt and which should not?

On the other hand, no expert service wants to damage a stamp’s resale value by overstating minute flaws.

Roy White, a past chairman of the Philatelic Foundation expert committee, said, “Let me examine every stamp with my 75-power microscope, and I can find one or more faults on every stamp that exists.”

Therefore, most services will exclude such minute imperfections as tiny tears in the perforations of less than 1 millimeter, slightly shorter perforation tips, natural gum and paper imperfections (such as very tiny inclusions that are virtually impossible to see without strong magnification, or very tiny toning or staining that also is difficult to detect) and any other minute flaw that will not impact the value.

Some expert services provide hard-copy or online articles explaining the terminology used to write certificate descriptions. These are generally accepted terms widely used in the industry, and collectors should be familiar with them.

I recommend that interested collectors avail themselves of these articles and familiarize themselves with the terms used to describe stamps, not only by expert services, but by auctions, retail dealers and collectors as well.

A typical stamp description on a certificate is usually straightforward and uncomplicated, for example: “It is genuine, OG/previously hinged, tiny 3mm tear at upper left, small thin at lower right and tiny facial scrape above the ‘E’ in ‘POSTAGE’ at upper right.”

This is simply a factual listing of the findings. Patients that are sound and without faults are usually described rather tersely. “It is genuine in all respects” is one of the ultimately perfect descriptions found on some certificates.

A client once suggested to me that collectors would prefer to see the word “sound” (meaning “flawless”) on the certificate, if that is found to be true. From then on I decided to use the description “It is sound and genuine in all respects,” which I hope might someday become the industry standard.

The certificates of all expert services bear the photograph of the stamp examined, the signature of the expert or of the chairman of the expert committee, and an embossed seal that ties the image to the certificate and puts a colorless impression in the paper that is difficult to counterfeit.

The combination of the use of special safety papers for the certificate, the signature and the embossed seal results in a fairly tamper-proof item. It is rare (though not unheard of) that altered certificates are encountered.

One type of certificate alteration that does occur is the use of a color photocopy that substitutes the image of a different stamp for the one originally depicted on the certificate. The objective, of course, is to substitute the image of a flawed stamp for that of a sound stamp with a good certificate.

That is the reason that many expert services state that photocopies of certificates are invalid.

In some cases, photocopies of a certificate for a block or other multiple will accompany a single example that has been broken from the multiple. This is a more acceptable practice, since it is usually rather easy to compare the perforations on the single stamp against the perforations shown on the certificate.

Since, like fingerprints, no two perforations are alike, it would be difficult to substitute a different stamp in such a case.

This practice however, is not recommended if the single is not an external example, since it becomes most difficult to compare only internal perforations on the certificate against the single.

In any case, if the expert service’s policy is that all photocopies are invalid, then even this practice is unacceptable.

All expert services guarantee the identification of the patient and will, at minimum, refund the cost of the service’s fees if the item is found — by a different expert service or by a future resubmission to the same service — to be misidentified. Some services also guarantee the replacement value of the original identification if the item is found to be misidentified. Restrictions apply, and the customer should always study the terms of the expert agreement carefully.

In no case is the condition description ever guaranteed — only the identification.

There are valid reasons for this policy. As noted earlier, the patient’s condition can change from the state it was in at the time of expert’s examination. Obviously, the expert service has no control over the item after it departs the premises.

And the people who expertize stamps and covers, while usually experienced and highly skilled, are only human, not infallible, and mistakes can be made.

Common sense tells us that no expert service can make lots of mistakes without the market causing it to fail or, at minimum, for collectors to lose faith in the opinions, causing the downfall of the service.

It is obvious that no service would intentionally misdiagnose a stamp’s condition. Indeed, many of the elements of expertizing are subjective, and since it is not an exact science, different examiners might disagree with each other from time to time and can interpret an element differently or even incorrectly.

I believe that U.S. expert services are fully accurate in their opinions 99.9 percent of the time or more. It is that very small fraction of inaccuracy that attracts negative attention, and perhaps rightly so, but considering the number of patients submitted to the five U.S. expert services per year (my estimate is in the range of 25,000 to 35,000) the number of incorrect opinions issued is tiny and not of great concern overall.

Obviously, if you are one of the few who suffer a financial loss because of an expertizing mistake, you will feel wronged, which is certainly your right as a customer, but always try to consider the fallibility of the human beings doing the work.

Stamp examiners are not physicians. We generally have little or no formal training, unlike the medical doctor who usually attends six years of college and then works an internship.

Expertizers are recruited based mainly on their experience. They have no degree, but they do their best.

Unless gross negligence is involved, stamp examiners are not liable for human errors. I would confidently predict that if the industry ever decided to try to hold examiners financially liable for errors, it would signal the death of the stamp expertizing services.

So you can submit your patients to U.S. expert services with the confidence that you will receive a 99.9 percent accurate identification and description of condition.

It is your insurance policy that the item you bought and paid good money for is as described by the seller.

Having a third party examine your valued purchases is a commonsense way to protect yourself from misidentification, or incorrect or inaccurate condition descriptions.

You then can relax and enjoy your stamps with a mind at peace, confident that the items you bought are accurately identified.

Bill Weiss is a full time stamp expert. His Weiss Expertizing Service is one of only six expert services based in the United States. He is the author of the books The Foreign Mail Cancellations of New York City, 1870-1878, The United States 15¢ Stamp of 1870-1890, The Catalog of Union Civil War Patriotic Covers, Confederate States General Issue Stamps Used on Adversity Covers, 1861-1865, and Collecting United States Covers and Postal History. He has also authored numerous articles in various philatelic publications.