I have been in the stamp profession since 1975. This is how I have made a living for my family in all those years. More than 35 of those years were spent working for some of the major U.S. stamp auction companies, breaking up collections into saleable lots and writing the descriptions of stamps and collections for auction catalogs. This gave me a very broad knowledge and experience in both U.S. and worldwide stamps. It wasn’t until the last 14 years that I devoted my work to expertizing.
I thought that my experience as an auction describer prepared me for expertizing because I had already learned to identify and to determine the authenticity and condition of stamps in order to properly describe them for the auction companies. My descriptions were going to have to stand up to possible expertization by the buyer. If they did not, the stamp would be returned for a refund, which would not please the buyer, the seller nor my employer.
What I discovered was that while my auction experience gave me many skills and the basics necessary for expertizing stamps, there was much more that I had to learn, as well as skills to be honed.
Herbert Bloch, of Mercury Stamp Co. and member of the Friedl expert committee, was a well-known expert that overlapped the early years of my career. Sadly, I never got to know him personally, but I always remember one his purported quotes: “Being a stamp expert is like being a detective.” I discovered this was so true.
An expert looks at a particular stamp and uses all his experience, references and tools at his disposal to understand and tell the story of this stamp and all that has happened to it since it was issued. But more than just give an opinion about the stamp, he or she must be able to give reasons why this opinion is true. In other words, an opinion should not just be based on a hunch or feeling, but must be supported by hard evidence. This is an approach that does not always come naturally.
I have been around “experts” who say about their opinion, “Well, it doesn’t look right,” or “That’s just my opinion.” While they may be correct, their answer is not very informative, and it does not cite evidence that others can check, and then confirm or refute.
In the United States, most of our expertizing agencies are committees of several experts giving their opinion. If on the worksheet the expert simply states “Reperforated,” without giving reasons for his opinion, others, who may not agree, have no basis to check his opinion. Maybe several experts say a stamp is reperforated, but unless evidence is given, all you have is consensus. However, contrary to popular belief, a consensus does not prove that something is true. Stamps should not be exprtized by taking a vote because a majority can easily be wrong. What shows that the opinion is true is the evidence.
This is exactly what a detective does when he goes out to solve a criminal case. He uses the knowledge, experience, and tools at his disposal to find the perpetrator. When he has built the case to a conclusion, he turns the evidence over to the prosecutor. The prosecutor evaluates the evidence and, if sufficient, takes the suspect to trial. What the stamp expert does is to play the part of the detective and give an opinion supported by the evidence. Then, the expertizing agency evaluates the opinions and determines what is to be said on the certificate. When the submitter gets the stamp back, he or she may conclude that the experts got it wrong. The client has the right of appeal, but the only successful appeal is to cite evidence why the certificate is wrong. Experts make mistakes, sometimes through carelessness, sometimes because they don’t have the proper information or knowledge, but evidence is always the determining factor.
There are many things that the expert determines and the certificate states. Some are more easily ascertained than others. These include: the proper identification of the stamp by catalog number; the specific shade of the stamp; whether the stamp is unused or used; if unused whether the gum is original; if original whether it has been hinged; if used, is the cancel genuine? Has the stamp been altered to either improve its condition or to try to deceive others into believing it is a more valuable or a different stamp than it really is? What is the condition of the stamp? Has the stamp been damaged and what is the nature of the damage?
As you can see, on any given stamp there are many determinations to be made. But in every decision, it is the evidence that holds sway. For example, one expert says the stamp is never hinged. A second expert says that he sees a spot that looks disturbed, like it has been brushed to make it look never hinged. This second expert explains what he sees and identifies exactly where the spot is, then gives what evidence he has even if it is nothing more than, “see how the gum is disturbed and has an unusual texture in that spot.” Then others can evaluate and determine whether his evidence is good or there is some other explanation for its appearance.
Let’s look at an expertizing issue that experts spend a lot of time on. This is reperforation. New perforations or fake perforations are applied to stamps for a lot of reasons. It may be that the stamp originally had a natural straight edge, which might be considered less desirable, or it has damaged perforations, or perhaps is not beautifully centered. One thing that is often done is to take imperforate coils or imperforate sheet stamps, which might be inexpensive, and perforate them to create fake coils. There are many coil issues where I see as many or more fakes as genuine examples, especially when the materials to make them are cheap and readily available, and the profits are high if the fraud is successful.
The first thing to know is what real perforations are like. (I will discuss U.S. perforations only. Foreign stamps have some differences, but reperforating is not as much a problem as it is with U.S. stamps.)
A rotary perforating machine was normally used on the stamps where reperforating is a problem. This machine had wheels with pins in them to punch out the perforation holes. Several wheels were spaced out to put a row of perforations between each row of stamps on the sheet. The stamps were run through the machine in one direction to apply the vertical perforations, and then turned sideways and run through again to apply the horizontal perforations. This is known as line perforating. The pins on the wheels that put in each individual hole could be spaced apart at different intervals.
Some stamps were done with very closely spaced perforation holes and others widely spaced. The perforation gauges that we use are numbered by the number of pins with measurements of two centimeters. So, a stamp perforated 12 has 12 holes per 2 centimeters; a perf. 10 has 10 holes per two centimeters, etc. The gauge experts use to measure perforations is the United States Specialist Gauge by Kiusalas. It is very accurate and designed for United States stamps only.
Because the pins are on a wheel that is rotating, each pin meets the paper at an angle and comes out of the paper with an equal angle in the opposite direction. This phenomenon produces holes with certain characteristics that reperforators find very hard to duplicate. First, the holes are very slightly oval (not round) in the direction of the perforation. So vertical perforation holes will look slightly taller than they are wide, and the horizontal perforations will look wider than they are tall.
Secondly, when the pin first goes into the paper at this angle, the pin often doesn’t cut cleanly and pulls the paper on one side of the hole. Furthermore, when the pin comes out of the hole at the other angle it pushes against the edge of the hole raising up the paper on the opposite side of the hole from the above pulled side. This is called a pressure ridge. Thus, ideally, a genuine vertical perforation will have a rather roughly pulled cut at the top of the hole and a pressure ridge at the bottom of the hole. This can be reversed depending on whether the top or bottom of the sheet was fed into the machine first. Horizontal perforations will have the pulls and ridges at the sides of the holes rather than top and bottom. One final point: on the sides of the slightly oval holes, the pins make a nearly vertical cut of the paper that in a way rounds the paper into the hole. In other words, the cut is not sharply sheared, nor is the edge beveled.
All of these features are more or less prominent depending on the issue of the stamps and the perforation gauge used. Perf. 10 and 11 show pressure ridges better than perf. 12. Regardless, some individual stamps will show these features better than others depending on their freshness and how they have been handled. Mint stamps with original gum will show these features better than used stamps that have been soaked and pressed. But all genuine perforations will be consistent with these features, even when the features are mostly muted.
Before we look at the evidence for reperforating, let me note that it takes a lot of practice and examination of genuine perforations on many different issues of stamps before you become efficient and accurate in recognizing both genuine perforations and reperforations. Also, I use 30x magnification to examine perforations (I have a bi-ocular lab scope). Under this magnification I often use oblique lighting to highlight the pressure ridges or lack of them.
So, what are the indicators and evidences of reperforating?
I make a distinction between indicators and evidence. When I get a stamp to examine, I first just look at it without magnification to see if I detect anything unusual about it. Early on in my career I was often amazed that I could look at a stamp from the face and be pretty sure it was regummed before I looked at the gum. There is sometimes a “mint bloom” that original gum stamps have that is lost when the stamp is soaked and regummed. This is an example of an indicator. It is not evidence. It is simply a sense one gets after looking at many stamps that something is wrong. The expert has not done his job if he bases his opinion on just an indicator.
In reperforating, some indicators might be: one side that looks different than the other sides; the ends of the perforations are in a perfectly straight line or clipped off rather than torn apart as stamps usually are separated; the perforations are crooked or unevenly spaced. These examples are indicators because there might be another reason for their appearance other than reperforating (though if there is real hard evidence that the stamp is actually reperforated these indicators may be confirming evidence).
Indicators tell the expert to pay special attention to a particular side because something doesn’t look right. However, if an expert makes a call based on just an indicator, he or she runs a serious risk of making a wrong call.
Figure 1. This block of Scott 262 with wobbly vertical perforations might seem to be reperforated, but is actually just an extreme example of a “wild” perf hole, made when the pins are not properly secured in the perforating wheel.
As an example, look at the illustration of the block of four shown (Figure 1). I am sorry it is such a poor reproduction of a block of the $2 James Madison of 1898 (Scott 262). I’ve kept this photocopy because it reminds me that sometimes things are not what they seem.
Note the center vertical perforations. They wobble all over the place. This is a product of not having the pins properly secured in the perforating wheel. It is rare to find such a dramatic example of this. Usually, one encounters just a single pin or two that is loose, causing a misaligned hole (known as a “wild” perf. hole). I can guarantee you that if these stamps were separated into singles and submitted for expertizing separately from each other you would have a very difficult time obtaining a certificate that does not state “reperforated.” Yet, as bad as these perforations look, they are genuine and there is no other confirming evidence that they are reperforated. In fact, they are so bad that one could argue that it is unlikely a reperforator would have done such a poor job.
So, what do I do when I check the perforations of a stamp? First, I look down all the perforations on each side with 30x magnification. If all the perforations show the genuine characteristics I described earlier, then I gauge each side with the specialist gauge. This measurement should match the known perf. gauge with which that particular issue was perforated. There’s one caveat: stamp paper can shrink after perforating for reasons in its manufacture and subsequent handling. So, all perf. 12 stamps may not gauge a perfect perf. 12, but opposite sides should gauge the same. So, if the right side of the stamp gauges a bit long or short of the perfect gauge, the left side should gauge at the same amount. This doesn’t mean that if the right and left measure a bit off that the top and bottom must also be off. Often the grain of the paper will cause a stamp to shrink in one direction and not the other. Now, if the stamp looks proper with genuine characteristics and gauges correctly, I conclude it is not reperforated and the perforations are genuine.
Figure 2. From top, a genuine Scott 413, a faked Scott 413, and another genuine 413. The center example is the imperf 482 with fake perforations added to masquerade as the more valuable 413. Note the perfectly round vertical perfs, compared to those seen in the genuine examples, and the sheared appearances of the edges.
What then is the evidence that a stamp has been reperforated? Here is a list of some of the things to consider:
- The holes are perfectly round (Figure 2).
- The edges of the holes are sheared or have beveled cuts rather than the edges being rounded into the hole.
- The perforations are lacking pressure ridges. (Note that these first three points often go together.)
- The insides of the holes have been artificially scraped or roughed up to hide a sheared edge. They look unnaturally chewed.
- The holes on one side are fresher than the other sides. This shows up on earlier used stamps where the perforations have patina or faint soiling. Reperforating removes the patina, and holes look more freshly cut.
- Graphite or some other blackening substance is on the inside of the holes. This is done to hide the freshness and sharpness of the cuts.
- The perforated tips have been filed so the ends of the perforations are unnaturally thinned out to the tip, which shows when back lighted or dipped in watermark fluid. This is sometimes done to hide the evidence that a straight edge has been reperforated. It should be noted that any unnatural feature, such as filing, scraping or blackening, is prima facia evidence that the stamp has been altered from its original state.
- One side gauges significantly different than the opposite side.
- Perforation holes are erratic and have poor alignment or spacing of the holes. The block illustrated in Figure 1 shows that there should be other confirming pieces of evidence that this is really evidence of reperforating.
- The reperforating was done by punching the holes from the back of the stamp. This is often done to try to get the front to show pressure ridges. Genuine perforations are always punched into the front of the stamp.
I have listed a number of things to look for and I am sure there are more that could be mentioned. This is why it is really important to be familiar with genuine perforations. The more familiar you are with the genuine, the more the features of the fakes will stick out. On stamps perforated on all four sides, the expert always has four sides to compare with each other. Usually, such stamps are reperforated on only one or two sides. By comparing, the expert is looking for anything out of place or unusual. Collectors can learn to do this. Coils with fake perforations do not have any genuine perforations to compare so you need a reference of genuine coils of the specific issue. However, the evidence that we look for is the same in both reperforation and fake perforation.
I will conclude with one further thought. You might get the idea that once you have learned all this, identifying reperforating should be pretty easy. It’s not. Sure, there are some that are pretty obvious and without doubt, but that is not always the case. The good expert, like the good detective, must compile the evidence, such that he or she can discover, then decide whether this is sufficient to make a finding that may ruin the value of the stamp.
I have always tried to follow the principle that the evidence must be convincing, and there are times when I have to write on the worksheet that I don’t like the perforations on a particular side, but it is not clear and convincing to me that it is reperforated. I am not willing to kill a stamp on a feeling, and I am committed to following the evidence. If it is not really there, I don’t want to make foolish judgments. I always try to give the stamp the benefit of the doubt and demand hard evidence to give an adverse opinion.
Rex Bishop lives in Southwest Michigan with his precious wife, Cindra, of 55 years. Both he and Cindra love collecting Michigan Postal History. He currently expertizes stamps for The Philatelic Foundation and Professional Stamp Experts. He gives opinions on mostly United States stamps, but also expertizes stamps from a broad range of foreign countries. One of his specialties is United States grilled stamps and he has authored an article in the Collector Club Philatelist, Vol. 99, No. 4, entitled “1868 Production Grills: Why Size Matters.”