Verifying authenticity and identifying the condition of stamps has been a concern as long as there have been collectors of philatelic material. One of the earliest services of the brand new American Philatelic Association (today, APS) was counterfeit detection, speaking to the priorities of our society’s founders.
136 years later, the American Philatelic Expertizing Service still provides this service – greatly expanded – to members of the APS. As new members join us, or some collectors consider authenticating parts of their collection for the first time, I will share a few notes about the expertizing process and dispel some misconceptions about how APEX works.
What is APEX’s specialty?
Unlike other North American expertizing agencies, APEX expertizes philatelic material from nearly every country and stamp issuing entity worldwide. APEX authenticates stamps, covers, postal stationery, revenue stamps, and most items listed by philatelic catalogs. Its experts regularly review fancy cancels and items submitted as earliest documented uses.
APEX does not authenticate post cards or autographs. The service does not grade material or give estimates on value. APEX does not encapsulate stamps or mark stamps.
APEX expert Ken Lawrence walks through the expertising process with the Inverted Jenny (U.S. Scott C3a)
About the experts
To authenticate this wide range of philatelic material, APEX calls on over 180 experts who are APS members, most of whom review items only from a single country – and in some cases only a single issue or single stamp. These experts live throughout the United States and are occasionally profiled in The American Philatelist or the weekly e-newsletter. With few exceptions, almost every submitted item is reviewed by two external experts, and some are reviewed by three.
Most of our experts have collected the items they review for many years, have their own reference collections of genuine and fake stamps as well as shade and other varieties, have written articles on their area of expertise, and in many cases are exhibitors or dealers. Many of our experts, especially those for United States-related material, also serve as an expert for one or more other expertizing agencies.
The expertizing process
In a typical month APEX receives about 400 items to be expertized. Every week, mailings are sent out to the experts. Occasionally an expert is sent a single item but many receive 10-15 items at a time. A few of our experts who have broad expertise and have demonstrated an ability to promptly review and return material may receive 30 or more items at a time.
The experts receive the items through the mail along with any comments from previous experts, and supporting material such as copies of past certificates. For each item, the expert completes a worksheet with their findings.
In most cases, the two experts agree and the item is returned to the APS, where I review the worksheets and findings and we type the opinion. Sometimes an expert will suggest sending an item to another individual for review, ask for additional information from our library, or suggest a comparison to copies in our reference collection.
If the two experts disagree on identification, the item will usually be sent to a third external expert.
After the opinions are written and the certificates printed, they are signed by myself and a second individual, usually Bill Dixon, our Circuit Sales manager and philatelist. Bill sometimes suggests that a stamp needs further review. Expertizing Coordinator Krystal Harter serves as a final check as she mails back the items.
APEX will not send an item to an expert who has previously owned it. Occasionally an expert has to decline giving an opinion because they once owned or were involved in the sale of an item.
Occasionally APEX requires assistance from experts outside of the United States. With mailing of philatelic items a higher risk in this situation, these experts weigh in only on aspects that can be reliably reviewed via an emailed scan.
Typically the expertizing process takes 60-90 days from receipt until return. Items are covered by APS’ insurance from receipt until return. Items are mailed to experts by certified or registered mail, usually taking at least a week to reach the expert and another week to come back. Experts are expected to review material within five days so in the best cases, APEX receives an item back from an expert within a month of mailing.
The APEX guarantee
We are one of the few expertizing services to provide a limited guarantee on our certificates and thus tend to be conservative in our opinions. A very high value item or an item not currently listed by catalogs may be sent to an extra expert before an opinion is issued. In order to offer an opinion on a higher value variety, the findings should be definitive. For example, a stamp with a higher value used than unused should not be certified as such unless there is a cancel that can be documented as contemporaneous with and appropriate for the time period of use. A stamp with a partial grill can only receive an opinion for the lowest value variety for which the partial grill could represent.
APEX also tends to be collector-oriented. We do not offer expedited service or discounts for quantity submissions. Some submitters claim APEX is more likely to note flaws than other services.
Thanks to a generous donor APS has a VSC (Video Spectral Comparator) 6000. This is an asset but does not magically provide answers. Experts and reference copies of similar stamps are necessary for proper interpretation of any data. We also have a reference collection based on the generous donations of members, consisting of over 600 volumes of genuine worldwide stamps and over 100 volumes of forged and altered stamps. A few small portions of the Reference Collection have been scanned and may be viewed online – but the collection consistently receives new additions, so members who would like to view and use its contents should plan to visit the American Philatelic Center.
A searchable online archive of APEX opinions since July 2004, including photos of the items, is available to everyone at https://stamps.org/certificate-archive
Expertizing Coordinator Krystal Harter and I always welcome questions. You can reach us at [email protected] or 814-933-3803 ext. 205 (Ken) or ext. 206 (Krystal).