US Stamps

Getting an expertizing certificate: Why bother?

May 3, 2021, 9 PM

By John M. Hotchner

Several correspondents have asked: “Is it cost effective to get a certificate of genuineness when a stamp has a catalog value under $100 and the sale value might be half of that, or less? And what if you have an uncataloged variety that is relatively minor but important to your study of a given issue?”  

In other words, if an expertizing certificate costs $25 or more, why would anyone bother to pay a fee that will likely cost a good chunk of the possible realization? 

Another way to look at this is the question, “What is the value of a certificate?”

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Of course, it is difficult to generalize. Every stamp is different in some respect from every other stamp. So, one that is of very high quality might well sell for more than catalog value, and having its bona fides attested to by a recent certificate encourages buyers or bidders to see the item as worth their consideration. Still, spending money to get an inexpensive stamp certified is risky in the sense that high bids are not guaranteed.   

But let’s leave the subject of money for a moment. Many requests for certificates are based on the fact that collectors want to protect themselves by being certain that the money they are spending is for a genuine, unaltered stamp. They have simply made a decision that only certified stamps will be acceptable for their collection, especially when such stamps have been known to be extensively doctored or counterfeited. 

Take for instance the 1929 Kansas-Nebraska overprints. I see examples of the stamps denominated 3¢ and up come through for expertizing regularly, despite the fact that the only examples that catalog more than $100 are mint never-hinged 8¢ Kansas and 10¢ Nebraska stamps. Most of the rest don’t approach those figures.

However, the overprints are often suspect, and for peace of mind, getting these stamps certified provides a level of clarity that many find attractive. Three genuine stamps are shown in the top row of the nearby illustration; below them are three counterfeit overprints.

Some collectors may also feel that at some distant time when the stamps are to be sold, they will be more readily salable and perhaps the prices will have risen by then.

Many similar situations exist. Stamps with colors omitted are virtually unsalable to knowledgeable collectors — except “as is” and significantly discounted — without a certificate. 

The higher the catalog value, the more important the certificate will be to a prospective buyer, and a seller who ignores that need is headed for disappointing results, or a long wait for proceeds while the buyer puts the item“on extension,” meaning that the sale is not final until the stamp has been submitted for a certificate and a good certificate is forthcoming.

But what to do, for example, about the 1969 6¢ Winter Sunday in Norway, Maine, Christmas stamp with light green omitted (Scott 1384c). It catalogs $25 in mint condition. Thus, the cost of a certificate will not likely be recouped in selling the stamp, but without a certificate can a buyer be absolutely certain that every last speck of the light green is omitted?

A parallel item would be the 1938 1½¢ Martha Washington Presidential horizontal pair, imperforate between (Scott 805b), which catalogs $100 mint and $20 used. 

There are two problems with this error. First is that an imperf-between pair must be totally imperf without a hint of even a single perf pin to be seen. There is no such thing as “almost imperf,” a description I have seen from time to time in auction catalogs. It is imperf, or it isn’t. End of discussion.

Unfortunately, the great majority of the pairs with perforations missing between do not qualify, and those that do are almost always lovely mint examples precanceled St. Louis, Mo. As the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers points out with the listing, “Precancelled examples are considered used, and are valued in the used column.”

The block of six shown with this column has one perf hole in the top pair, three in the bottom pair, and the middle pair is imperf between. There are also perforations missing in the margin of the bottom two pairs, but some pin impressions.  

So, despite pristine gum, these imperf betweens are valued at only $20, and spending money on a certificate would seem to be ill-advised from a financial point of view. 

So, what is a collector who wants to be certain of genuineness of such material to do? I can advise only three alternatives: Write the check for the certificate; take the risk, given that the cost is relatively minor; or become your own expert.

As I have mentioned before in this column, the last choice is not so difficult. For omitted colors and imperfs, three things are required: a 30x magnifier, good light, and an attitude of caution with an impartial mind-set. 

For Kansas-Nebraska overprints, you also need good reference material to know the characteristics of the stamps that were overprinted, and what the known counterfeits of the overprint look like.

In both cases, the attitude of caution is key. You cannot be too willing to see what you wish to see. The mark of a good expertizer is the ability to see what is there, not what one wishes were there. 

So, returning to the question in the first paragraph, my answer is that most often it is not financially sound to opt for the certificate, but the value of the certificate might well go beyond its cash value. If it represents certainty, that is a legitimate consideration. 

The result is that of the three alternatives, there is no single right answer. Each of us as collectors has to decide how to deal with this question.

For what it is worth, my recommendation is to learn to become your own expert, especially for material that has a simple yes-no answer. It will deepen your appreciation of your hobby and your material, and can save you a bundle of bucks.

Great Resource

Theodore Tedesco has done all of us a favor by compiling a 1,200-page Index of Literature in the English Language that Describes Postal Stamp Forgeries, Fakes, Reprints, Fraudulent Postal Markings and Other Obliterations. Dated May 2014, the first edition of the index is organized by country and can be used to determine where fakes are known, and where the collector can go to access detailed information about them.  

The index can be downloaded here.  It is free. 

Most if not all of the references that Tedesco provides would be on record at the American Philatelic Research Library, and access to the APRL is an excellent reason to be an American Philatelic Society member if you have not already joined. Click here for information about the society and how to join.