Condition is very important to stamp collectors. The American Philatelic Expertizing Service (APEX) notes faults on stamps submitted to us for authentication, but not all collectors agree on what is a fault. Virtually all collectors agree, however that tears, thins, pinholes and scuffs are faults.
There is no question that centering may significantly impact the value of a stamp, but unless the stamp has been altered with the addition of a margin, the perforations of a natural straight edge or the trimming of perfs, APEX generally does not comment on centering. Collectors can view the stamp and determine the centering for themselves. We do not assign numeric grades or try to differentiate whether a stamp has fine or very fine centering or may be very fine for that specific issue.
Short, nibbed and pulled perforations are three terms often used interchangeably for perforation faults. Blind perfs occur when the paper is not properly punched out from the perforation process.
Gum condition may also be important in the valuation of a stamp. APEX normally notes if a stamp has original gum (or is regummed), whether it is never hinged or previously hinged, and at least for unused stamps, whether it has any hinge remnants. We usually note if the gum has been disturbed, which could be from sweating or being stuck to another stamp or object such as an album page. Paper adherences and set-offs are usually noted.
Set-offs are most common on flat plate stamps which were printed first, then gummed. (Note that philatelists often erroneously identify this as offsets. This is a too-common error.) As they were printed, the sheets were stacked; sometimes the ink had not dried and some ink could be transferred to the undersides of the sheets. The sheets were then gummed, and the result is that set-off ink can often be found on both unused and used stamps.
We also normally note pencil and ink marks on the back. Pencil marks are most commonly the claimed catalog number of the stamps, although some collectors and dealers may use pencil to try to highlight and determine the grill type on United States stamps. Ink marks are most frequently owners’ or experts’ marks. In many cases we can identify the expert whose mark has been applied. Some collectors consider an expert mark a fault while others do not. Be aware that expert marks can be faked. Stamps can also be found with indelible ink marks on the back, indicating that they are counterfeits or fakes.
The famous British Guiana One-Cent Magenta is an interesting example of a stamp with many ink markings on its back as each owner has applied their own marking. So, does a stamp with a lineage of one or more famous owners who have added their marks to the back add to or detract from its value? Occasionally a brown- or rust-colored smudge is found on stamps, most commonly around the edge of older stamps. Most frequently known as toning, it is sometimes referred to as tropical stains.
While different shades exist for many stamps, stamps can also change color over time. Environmental conditions might have caused sulfurization (often and erroneously also called oxidation), which most frequently causes orange-colored stamps to turn brownish. The color of a stamp or cover can also be impacted by sunlight or exposure to chemicals. Some stamps have been printed with fugitive inks that will run or be impacted if soaked or exposed to water or possibly even high humidity. If not properly cared for (or in some cases because of events such as a plane crash or fire, which are beyond the control of the collector) items can become soiled or stained.
APEX typically does not comment on heavy cancels, but many collectors consider a cancel that is over inked or impacts the visibility of the stamp design as a fault. The color of a cancel may also be impacted by similar issues. Finally, the paper of a stamp may have natural imperfections, often called a paper inclusion.
The above are many of the most common conditions that are routinely considered as faults. You should also be aware that, as dealer Jay Smith recently observed in his weekly email to his customers, collectors in different areas of the world place different weight on different aspects of stamps. Paraphrasing Smith, in the United States centering is a more prominent criteria than in much of Europe. In much of Europe, gum status and perforation tooth perfection may be more important than they are in the United States. For example, a collector in Germany might be perfectly happy with a never hinged stamp that only has fine centering, but would not even consider looking at a mint, lightly hinged, superbly centered stamp. Similarly, expert marks on the back of stamps are more common in Europe, and more likely to be considered a fault in the United States.
Finally, a correction. My apologies for the misspelling of Richard Celler’s name in a previous column.