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Collecting Stamps: Stamp Condition
Condition is a very important factor in determining the value of stamps. This would apply in the swapping of stamps, as in the buying and selling. In the early days of the hobby the reverse was true. The stamp was the thing, and a small tear, missing piece, thin spot, or pin point, was of no great concern. Certainly no one took great pains to see that the margins about the stamp were of equal space, or that all of the-original gum was present. Actually, dealers were in the habit of pinning stamps to a board for display and sale purposes, and the art of hinging was not too carefully followed. With such goings-on, it is a wonder many of the earlier stamps exist in fine to superb condition, by modern standards, at all.
No one will probably ever know who started placing a premium on the "condition" of a stamp. It may have been the dealers, when they bought only better stamps for their stock, and it may have been collectors who resented poor items in their albums. It is sufficient to state that condition greatly determines the demand, and the price, today.
Harry M. Konwiser, in his The American Stamp Collector's Dictionary, defines Condition as, "A term generally used to denote the characteristics of a postage stamp, as to its degree of centering, cleanliness, completeness, etc. Usually stated as superb, very fine, fine, good, fair, damaged, poor, or repaired."
Superb, as a description, should indicate that a stamp is practically mathematically centered, without any trace of soiling, and with bright color, fully gummed if issued thus, and obviously with full perforations. Since this is the ultimate, it is sometime abused.
Very Fine is a more properly used term, indicating that the stamp is well centered, clean and with gum-although it may be, or may have been, hinged. Perforations must be intact, and there must be no creases, thin spots or tears.
Fine stamps are not as well centered, but it is generally agreed the perforations must not cut into the design. The color should be good, but not bright, the gum must be present though hinged, and perforations may be frayed but not missing.
Good, fair, damaged, poor and repaired are at the bottom of the ladder, and obviously must be taken literally.
Unfortunately some of the higher-rating descriptions are used in a misleading manner, at times. A stamp may be described as "superb ungummed," which simply means the gum is missing and the otherwise superb stamp is no longer that.
A leading auction firm, noted for careful descriptions, stipulates as a prologue to each sale that, "Stamps described as 'Mint' have never been hinged and are in exactly the same condition as they came from the Post Office. Otherwise, original gum (o.g.) is not to be expected unless specially mentioned."
In fairness to all, it must be stressed that condition is comparative. Thus, the U. S. Pilgrim issue calls for one description, where the Pan American set would require another. The Pilgrim issue was very poorly perforated, and an above average copy receives a higher rating.
Poor copies of any stamp, sometimes referred to as "spacefillers" are no more than that, and if they must be acquired they should be replaced as quickly as possible. Poor stamps, and damaged ones, generally drag down an entire collection except in the case of a few great rarities. Dealers, in appraising collections and finding poor and damaged stamps, take a dim view of the entire collection, and tend to quote a lower price. It is better to have a blank space, or, if the damaged stamp is a part of a set, it should be marked to indicate that it is the exception-slated for replacement-rather than the rule.
While "condition cranks" are taking much of the pleasure away from collecting, everyone should use as much care in adding to a collection as would be used in the purchase of a suit of clothing or piece of furniture. Such care will prevent future heartaches and will add to the salvage value of the collection. Stamps are, after all, fragile bits of paper, and handling, mounting, and unmounting, take their toll. The safest rule is to select the best copy available, and then help keep it that way by careful handling and mounting. Unfortunately philately is suffering from "conditionitis." Dealers do not like to buy stamps unless they are well-nigh perfect, because collectors, in turn, will not buy poorer stamps from them. Thus it becomes a vicious circle, and someone is bound to suffer.
The very manner of stamp production makes it impossible for every stamp to be mathematically centered. Even the inhuman electric eye, which is supposed to guide the perforating of United States stamps mechanically, is far from perfect. How much worse it was, then, in years gone by, when men or women sat before the perforation machine and attempted to steer the perforating punches between the stamps vertically and horizontally.
Primarily, stamps are produced for normal postal duties, and it doesn't make any difference to the commercial user where the perforations fall.
Be that as it may, the demand for very fine to superb stamps is here, and therefore stamps should be secured in the finest possible condition and should be kept that way.
The Scott catalogues all have sort of a preface, or special notice, in the front, which is of vital importance to those using the book, yet all too few read the helpful hints and remember them.
In the case of condition, the Scott prices are based upon stamps in fine condition, and it is stated that in most instances extra fine copies bring higher prices. This is borne out in auction sales, where very fine and superb copies sell well above catalogue prices, while poorer specimens bring under catalogue price.
Scott furthermore notes that unused stamps with full original gum, in most cases, sell for more than copies without gum or with partial gum. Off-center stamps, or those heavily canceled, faded or stained, are usually sold at large discounts, it is noted, while damaged stamps are not desired. There are exceptions, of course. The world's rarest stamp-the i-cent British Guiana-is a poor copy, but, after all, it is the only one. In the case of the U.S. Pilgrim issue most copies were so poorly centered that an above-average copy demands a premium.
John A. Fox, an auctioneer, defines five standards of condition in his auction catalogues. Superb is a stamp in excellent condition, mathematically centered and truly all that can be desired; very fine is perfect in every respect but not as well centered as a superb item; fine is a sound copy, not damaged, and with perforations clear of the design; good is a sound copy, but the perforations may cut into the design; and damaged stamps have their defects listed.
As noted, prices are affected by condition. Stanley Gibbons, Inc., largest of the U.S. stamp dealers, has adopted a premium, or percentage, basis. Since this firm's list is used by most dealers in U.S. stamps as a sound basis, these percentages mean a great deal. In the case of the 1918-20 U.S. offset issue there is a premium of 75% where fine centering is desired. In the case of the Jamestown commemorative issue of 1907 the premium is 200%-a substantial jump. The Pilgrim issue of 1920 demands a 65% premium for fine condition, while the Columbians, Trans-Mississippi, Louisiana and Panama Pacific issues all call for 50% premiums.