US Stamps

What’s on the minds of Linn’s readers about expertizing?

May 3, 2021, 5 AM

I’m enjoying the questions that have been coming in from Linn’s readers regarding various facets of expertizing United States and other stamps.

We’ll look at a few of these questions in this column and at others in future columns in this series.

I welcome more questions. They can be sent to me by e-mail at, or via postal mail at Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125.

Archie McKee asks, “What constitutes a variety?”

He amplifies this question with: “I am working on a project using the R8 set of the Peoples’ Republic of China concerning color. My problem is I am trying to look at what I am/was calling color varieties. But what qualifies? Observable color? Different ink composition? What do you call a faded stamp for instance? They certainly show color differences to the eye, to analytical devices, etc. Is this even a minor variety?”

This is an important question because precise definitions matter.

In the broadest terms, a “variety” is anything that departs from the normal. But as a philatelic term, a “variety” is a stamp that departs from the normal because of something that occurred back in the production process. It might be something intentional or unintentional.

If a color is changed after production — for example, due to contact with a chemical in water used to soak a used stamp from an envelope, or due to prolonged exposure of a mint stamp to light — it is an alteration and does not qualify as a philatelic variety.

If submitted for expertizing, such a stamp will be returned with a certificate stating the stamp was altered, meaning that the change occurred after the stamp was produced.

This matters because production varieties often have additional value, which can range from rarities such as the 1918 24¢ Jenny Invert airmail error (Scott C3a) at one end of the spectrum, to stamps such as those shown nearby at the other end of the spectrum.

The latter varieties are so minor that they do not receive catalog recognition. Note I did not say they are common. In fact, they are anything but common. The problem, value-wise, is that despite being rather scarce, they are not of interest to many collectors, and the prices for them reflect that.

So, to state it in a different way, in general terms, a variety is any variation from normal regardless of cause or effect, while in philatelic terms, a variety has to have a production-related cause and explanation.

This doesn’t mean that alterations can’t or shouldn’t be collected. To my mind, they are attractive both visually and as a puzzle to be solved.

Including them on extra pages with a few notes about what they are makes an album more interesting, especially if there are some genuine EFOs (errors, freaks and oddities) as well.

In fact, the difference between EFOs and alterations can be a subject for debate, and expertizing can be a useful tool to get the matter sorted out.

A lighter color or one that appears washed out, for example, might have a production cause, such as too little ink on the press, or it might be an alteration.

Without subjecting the stamp to comparison with known normals using expensive technology, the best we can do sometimes is an educated guess.

For common stamps that have low catalog values, it would not seem to be worth the cost of such analysis, unless the reviewer is conducting a scholarly study.

A related question comes from Leila Wadington. She refers to an earlier column in this series (Linn’s, Aug. 25, 2014) that showed two 30¢ Presidential series plate blocks, with the stamps in one block having a significantly different blue color than the other.

Wadington asks, “Since both blocks have plate number 22165, how can they be different colors?

The answer is that plate 22165 of the 30¢ Theodore Roosevelt stamp (Scott 830) was used to produce nearly 100,000 sheets of 400 stamps starting in 1938 through 1944.

Ink batches for all the Presidential stamps changed over the life of the series from 1938 to 1954. Thus, the same plate number may be found with many different shades.

An example from a different Prexy stamp, the 8¢ Martin Van Buren (Scott 813), is shown nearby.

The Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers does not give any of these color varieties a major listing. Rather, the catalog gives olive green as the intended color, and notes the existence of these colors as variations: light olive green (1943), bright olive green, and olive (1942).

The illustrated 8¢ stamps all come from the same plate, 24302, but this plate was not sent to press until 1953, and stamps printed from earlier plates show a wider variety of color varieties, as noted in the Scott catalog.

Our final question for this column is from Alex Kaplan: “When is it worthwhile to expertize? Is there a threshold where it becomes economically feasible?”

I would replace “feasible” with “essential.”

The answer varies for each collector and the reason why a certificate is wanted.

In general, for most of us there are two major reasons to apply to get a good certificate.

One is to be certain that the stamp we have or are considering buying is what we think or hope it is, and the certificate allows us to buy with confidence and put the stamp in the right box in our album.

The second reason is that we are considering selling the stamp and believe that with a certificate the stamp will be more salable and draw a higher price.

In fact, some stamps are not salable at any price close to their catalog value without a certificate. The scarcer U.S. 19th-century grill issues fall into this area.

One answer to Kaplan’s question is the following formula for justifying expertizing: Is the projected selling price of the expertized-genuine stamp higher than the selling price of the unexpertized stamp by more than the cost of expertizing?

Unfortunately, while the formula is easy the calculation is not because of the variables. These include the difficulty of predicting selling prices (which includes assessing the impact of any faults the stamp might have), and the possibility of a negative certificate.

There are huge numbers of inexpensive stamps that would never be expertized if the financial consideration were paramount. But I see a fair number of inexpensive stamps being submitted. I have to believe that a lot of collectors really care about proper identification, regardless of value.

The bottom line is that there is no clear cut answer to Kaplan’s question covering every stamp.

Each of us makes our own judgment on each stamp being considered, for our own reasons.

For those interested in EFO collecting, including the type of material shown in this column, I recommend the EFO Collectors’ Club, which publishes a first-class quarterly journal, the EFO Collector, and has an excellent website at For more information, contact EFOCC Secretary Scott Shaulis, Box 549, Murrysville, PA 15668-0549.

Cartoon winner

At 75, Batman may have lost a little of his zip, but his popularity is undiminished. The U.S. Postal Service has capitalized on that with the pane of 20 Forever stamps that was issued Oct. 9, 2014.

One of the eight different Batman stamps from the pane was used in the December 2014 cartoon caption contest, and there were two major themes used in the entries.

The most popular theme, by a wide margin, is unhappiness with the Postal Service stretching the issue to eight different designs.

Steve Kotler of San Francisco, Calif., captures this theme: “Of course these stamps are self-adhesive. How else to better stick it to the public?”

The second theme relates to Batman slowing down as he ages. Michael Moticha, from Apple Valley, Calif., expressed it as, “This 24/7 work at my age should be prohibited by some sort of labor law!”

Walter Robidoux from Smyrna, Ga., was more direct with his entry, “Now What?!!” This entry also takes the prize as the nonphilatelic winner.

On the philatelic side, the winner is “Zing Pow — I’m being called! That Pesky Penguin must be perpetrating a re-perf!” by Tom and Laura Tomaszek of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Both winners will receive Linn’s Stamp Identifier published by Amos Hobby Publishing, 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:

“Oh no! The Joker’s about to postmark me again!!” from Mike Lantz of Niles, Ohio.

“If it’s self-adhesive, it’ll be there forever,” by Richard and Theresa Dojs from Missouri City, Texas.

“Disposed of the Joker … now to get to the stamp show,” sent by Mark Gereb from Fort Lee, N.J.

“Babe Ruth, now there was a great Bat Man!” from John Shue of Forestville, Md.

“That reminds me, I need to spend some time with my socked-on-the-nose collection,” by David Schwartz of Commack, N.Y.

“Can anyone use the extra 12 stamps now that I’ve made my FDC,” sent by Jeff Vogel of New York, N.Y.

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

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