US Stamps

U.S. Stamp Notes: Readers share their thoughts, questions on expertizing

Apr 29, 2021, 9 PM

Since the objective of this column is to help collectors better understand expertizing and how and when to use expertization services, I am continuing last month’s journey (Linn’s, Jan. 26) into readers’ questions and observations.

I’ll start with an issue that is whispered about but seldom dealt with in a public forum.

Dwight Pedersen sent the following: “There are a number of auction companies who (knowingly?) misdescribe what they are offering. I have a good feel for who they are, and when I deal with those companies I will have expertized what I buy and return items to them if they are not what they described. This always means I am out the cost of expertizing/postage and time when I get a bad certificate.

“This has happened twice from a particular firm, and in the future I won’t buy from them, but what about all of the other unsuspecting collectors that could be buying something different than what is described? At what point is it criminal fraud, and why do we turn a blind eye to what they are doing? Maybe we should push for the ASDA [American Stamp Dealers Association] and APS [American Philatelic Society] to require members to reimburse the buyer for expertizing fees when the buyer gets a bad cert. [certificate].”

Others have written about the same problem, and have noted that they have seen a returned lot with a bad certificate relisted as before in a following auction, with no mention of the bad certificate.

While I believe the great majority of auction firms are honest, I concede that there are a few bad apples in this barrel, and have some thoughts on what to do about it. All of these thoughts are predicated on the premise that we can’t turn a blind eye. Those who have been stung, need to be activists.

There are auctioneers who absorb the cost of a negative certificate, but certainly not all do so. If this is a deal breaker for you, read the terms and conditions of sale very carefully; something you should do anyway. They will specify the auctioneer’s policies. I think it is fair to say that in virtually every instance, if the item comes back with a good certificate, the buyer bears the cost.

As to how bad items get listed in the first place, it can be because no auctioneer, and their staff, know everything about everything. Some will take the word of the seller. Others will simply make an educated guess. Both believe in “buyer beware.”

A likely example of the latter is the $15 mortgage revenue (Scott R97a) shown nearby. The 2015 Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers valuefor the imperf is $3,750.

When this stamp was offered at auction, the value was $1,800. My guess is that the lot describer relied on the identification of the owner, plus the fact that there are two good margins. In other words, this was not a purposeful attempt at fraud.

The lot was sold, and put “on extension” by the buyer, and sent into the APS for expertization. It came back with a certificate that stated, “United States, Scott No. R97c, altered with perforations trimmed off.”

Some auction houses will have enough expertise on staff to be able to spot most fakes and alterations at 50 paces, but even here, don’t expect 100 percent accuracy.

That is why anything — whether stamp or cover — highly suspect as a fake, undescribed alteration, or misdescribed as something it is not, should be reported to the auction house. Most will withdraw suspect items for review and listing in a subsequent auction if it is found right and proper.

If not, a corrected listing might be done, or more likely, the item will go back to the seller. Of course, the seller may just try another auction firm.

If presented with a bad certificate on an item, an auction house, on occasion, may toss the certificate and relist the item, their defense being that they are experienced and don’t agree with those who have examined the item and found it bad. Personally, I think that if the owner insists on selling it, the proper thing for the auction house to do is to relist it noting the bad certificate and saying that the auction house disagrees.

Under no circumstances should there be a subsequent listing with no mention of the bad certificate.

If we as buyers see that happening, the specifics should be reported to whatever professional groups the auctioneer is a member of, be it the APS, the ASDA or the National Stamp Dealers Association.

Such an action should be considered as a violation of their codes of ethics, and a recorded history of such activity could even be the basis of a report to the state consumer protection authorities where the business is incorporated.

If an auctioneer does not include in the advertising or in their catalogs that they are a member of the professional associations, then you should think long and hard about dealing with that auctioneer no matter how tempting the material they have on offer.

You can also check with the professional organizations. They will tell you if a firm has been expelled.


Sean Kennedy asks about how often expertizing houses reverse opinions from fake to genuine, and vice versa. The answer is seldom, but it does happen, especially in two instances.

The first instance is an old certificate. The definition of “old” is open to discussion, but certainly anything certificated prior to the 1980s ought to be considered for resubmission. The knowledge of what to look for and the equipment available to examine stamps and covers have improved markedly. For that reason, it is not unusual for old certificates to be reversed. It happens enough that many collectors want a post-1990s certificate on anything they buy.

The second instance is when the owner submits new information. This can be helpful to the experts because they nearly always err on the side of the negative in the absence of certainty, resulting in a bad certificate or one that is “no opinion.”

Also, owners can contest a recently received negative certificate if they have new information that the experts can consider. This information may relate to the provenance of the item, which helps to establish its bona fides, or may be the result of the owner’s research that helps to establish that the item is genuine.

Related to reversal is “certificate shopping,” a situation in which the owner does not like an opinion, hopes or believes it is wrong, and submits the item to another expertizing group. When this is done, the prior opinion usually is not mentioned.

This strategy has a high percentage of failure. Much more often than not, they will get the same opinion regardless of which expertizing group they use.

Black Red Cross

Christopher Perry asks a question about the 1931 2¢ Red Cross stamp (Scott 702). He has a single and a block that “have the red cross in a darker shade than the normal bright red.”

He said: “The color might be called dark red or brownish red or maybe lake … It is a variety that is not listed in the Scott catalogue.”

A plate block with this variety is shown on page 32.

Is this something that would benefit from being expertized? The short answer is no. It isn’t a color difference caused by a change in the ink used to print the stamps. That is the criterion for a major listing.

In this instance, the red cross seems to have been contaminated by the black ink used to print the frame, or basic design.

Max Johl in his monumental The United States Commemorative Stamps of the 20th Century (Vol I, 1901-1935), published in 1947, notes a range of varieties.

Johl lists shades of the cross as carmine rose, carmine lake, and lake, but does not explain what happened to cause the unusual colors.

In my experience, the odd colors are a minority of the total production, but by no means rare. Though a nice addition to a collection, I wonder if they might somehow be simulated by chemicals, or whether some examples might have an environmental cause.

In any case, they are not worth the cost of expertizing.

Cartoon winner

Speed, or the lack of it, was the dominant theme for the January cartoon caption contest entries for the 3¢ Minnesota Territory Centennial commemorative of 1949.

Stewart Lyons of Woodmere, N.Y., took an unusual approach with, “I guess that with over a $4 billion loss, this replacement for our worn-out trucks shouldn’t be a surprise.”

The subject of speed paired with the performance of the Congress inspired several entries, such as “Hurry up, Bessie, Congress is moving faster than us … ” by Fred Breier of Oradell, N.J.

The recent drop in the price of gasoline was the second most popular subject for the contest.

Joe Petitto of Tyler, Texas, represents this group with, “If I knew the price of gas was going to be so low, I’d never have given up the car.”

The philatelic line winner comes from Gerald Boren of Gilbert, Ariz., who transforms the oxcart into new Postal Service equipment, as shown nearby.

The nonphilatelic winner is “You know Babe, the Blue Ox? Well, this here is Gabe the Green Ox, and he’s ‘going green’ to save the environment!” It is the brainchild of Patricia Walters from Salesville, Ohio.

Both winners will receive Linn’s Stamp Identifier published by Linn’s, or a 13-week subscription to Linn’s (a new subscription or an extension). The book has a retail value of $12.99.

Here are the best of the runners-up:

“Come on Babe, let’s get home. This is the largest package of kiloware I’ve ever received!” from David Schwartz of Commack, N.Y.

“Another wrong turn, and I’m hooking up the GPS!” by David Trutwin from Fort Mohave, Ariz.

“Sure the cart’s heavy, but look on the bright side, You’re not one of those Western Cattle in a Storm” sent by Christopher Palermo of Mountain View, Calif.

“Does my ox qualify for the carpool lane?” from Terry Meier of Washington, D.C.

“Since we’re not going to be around forever, I guess the yokes on you!” by Steve Kotler of San Francisco, Calif.

“”Hmmmmmm, What’s Burma Shave?” sent by Bob Sazama of The Villages, Fla.

Thanks and a tip of the hat to all who entered.

The next cartoon caption contest will be announced in the March 9 issue of Linn’s.

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