What determines the condition, and thus the value, of stamps?

Once I heard a collector say that cancelled stamps that are missing some teeth, are partly torn to pieces or are even missing a part, are still used stamps and thus collect-worthy.

Example of a damaged, and thus not collect-worthy, stamp
A stamp that is clearly not collect-worthy

When this is the starting point to build a stamp collection, all articles about quality are completely superfluous. But someone who strives to get a collection with stamps that can stand the test of quality, will browse through his stamp albums with pleasure.
To start immediately with collecting only superb stamps can make that a collector has to deal with missing items in his collection for a long time. Most times a compromise is sought. Stamps of lesser quality complete a collection and can, as soon as a better quality specimen is found, be replaced.

When purchasing stamps, but the same holds for other collectibles, 3 aspects are important: the quality of the offered specimen, the price (asking price and what it is worth to you) and the question how eager you are to have it. When you are satisfied on all 3 aspects, it is important to decide quickly to buy, before someone else is faster.
What an acceptable price is and how eager you are to get it are very personal questions. Regarding quality I hope to give some information in this article, so a buyer knows where to look at when purchasing new items for his or her collection.
I want to shortly look at all different aspects that determine the quality of a stamp, with matching examples of lesser and good quality.

We start with looking at the gum. For stamps in mint condition it goes without saying that the original gum is still present on the stamp. Of some older stamps the gum can be crackling. When stamps were intended to be sent to tropical regions, it is possible that they have been sent to these areas without gum, and have been gummed at location. Unused stamps are stamps that are not used postally but where the gum layer is (slightly) damaged by a neat sticker. For used stamps the presence of the original gum layer does not play any part.

Example of crackling gumExample of a neat sticker
On the left crackling gum and on the right a neat sticker

Margins of imperforated stamps
From the backside of the stamp we go to the frontside, and look how the imaged is placed on the stamp. The first stamps were not perforated and had to be cut out of a printing sheet. Challenge is to find a stamp which has equal margins around the image on all sides.

Example of a stamp with bad marginsExample of a stamp with nice margins
On the left bad margins and on the right very nice margins

Qualification of margins as used by Stanley Gibbons
Qualifications of margins as used by Stanley Gibbons

Perforation and centering
Since it is common use to perforate stamps for easy separation, we only want stamps of which the image is neatly in the center of the perforation. The margin between stamp image and perforation equal on all sides, the image nicely centered. Because of the printing techniques that were used the first perforated stamps are not always neatly centered, but when techniques evolved this problem became less and less and it became easier to find neatly centered stamps.

Stamp image shifted to the left and upVery neatly centered
On the left stamp image shifted to left and up, in the right very neatly centered

Shifted so far that we can call it a misperforation

Qualifications of centering as used by Stanley Gibbons
Qualifications of centering as used by Stanley Gibbons

Damaged, short or missing teeth
Because the perforation of stamps is not always done in the same way, different types of perforation exist. The most common types are line, comb and harrow perforation. But we also know Serpentine perforation, rouletted (pierced) and slit perforation. The nicest stamps are those where the teeth are completely undamaged. In the beginning the quality of different types of paper and gum made it difficult to make correct perforations, often leading to damaged stamps.

Postzegel met beschadigde tandingPostzegel met beschadigde tandingStamps with torn, nibbled and undamaged toothing
Torn, nibbled and undamaged teeth

Sheet margins and sheet margin marks
Sheet margins are a remainder from the use of composed printing plates to print multiple counter sheets. Between them was a wide blank margin. This was no problem for imperforated stamps, but after the introduction of perforations those were in English regions made in the middle of the blank intermediate margin. This made that the stamps directly next to the intermediate margin got wider margins, the so-called wing margins:

Stamp with so-called wing margins

Nowadays many collectors use pre-printed albums to put their collection in (especially in case of a country collection). For each stamp exactly the required space is reserved, and this makes that there is no room to include stamps with extra sheet margin peculiarities. That's a pity, as especially these peculiarities give information about the production process of stamps: printers marks, cutting lines, perforation lines, plate numbers and colour dots. Sometimes it is possible to fold stamps with sheet margin peculiarities on the perforation, and still put them in the album. Or start a separate collection of them.

Stamp with margin with etching numbers and colours used
Etching numbers and colours used

Stamp with margin with plate number
Plate number 556 and perforation line

Stamp with sheet margin with printers mark
Plate number B and printers mark motor

Off course we don't want to have damaged stamps in our collection. We avoid stamps with cracks, thin spots, discolorations etcetera. But it is important to recognise damages that originate from the production process, because damage resulting from (imprudent) use of stamps lowers the quality, but damages due to the production process are real assets.
First a few examples of damages that we should avoid:

Stamp with fold

Examples of damaged stamps

Example of a torn stamps

Example of a partly discoloured stamp
partly discolored

But there are also damages that are an asset in your collection:

Example of a stamp with a paper fold during printing
Example of a paper fold during printing

Example of a stamp sheet with paper splice
Stamp sheet with paper splice where 2 pieces of paper have been joint

Perforated Initials or short perfins have been made in stamps to prevent theft of business stamps by own personel. In the past there stamps were regarded to be damaged, but nowadays they are very popular within a large group of specialised collectors. A nice perfin can be an asset in a standard collection.

Example of a Perfin

Disappearing colours
Most times disappearing colours are the result of incorrect storage of stamps. But it can be caused by the type of ink that has been used. During a certain period disappearing or releasing colours have been used to prevent re-use of already used stamps. During removal by soaking the ink was released at the same time as the paper. Talking about destroying. In the collecting area Netherlands and its overseas areas we find amongst others the stamps from Dutch East Indies:

Example of stamps with disappearing colours

Example of stamps with disappearing colours

Quality of cancellations
Cancellation of stamps is intended to prevent re-use of already used stamps. In the beginning this was taken quite literally by using the so-called destruction postmarks. The cancelled stamps were really impossible to re-use. Later this became somewhat less and the various types of cancellation postmarks that have been used over time give the opportunity to collect nicely cancelled stamps.
Most important is that the image on the stamps stays visible. In case of an image of a chief of a state it is important that the portrait stays recognizable. In case of thematic philately it is self-evident that the part that is related to the theme is still well visible.

Example of a stamp with very heavy cancellation mark
Very heavy cancellation postmark

Example of a stamp with nice cancellation
Nice cancellation

Less nice cancelled but rare label
Less nice cancellation but labels like this are very rare

Used cancellations
Since date cancellation postmarks with date, time and counter number are common use, the nicest cancelled stamps are those who "look into your face" from your album. Stamps that are nicely, light and as complete as possible postmarked. Summit are stamps with a Bulls-eye or "right on the nose" postmark.

Destructive rolling mark
Destructive rolling postmark

Nice  light mark
Nice light postmark

Stamp with Bulls-eye mark
Bulls-eye postmark

Pen cancellation
When stamps on a letter or postcard are not provided with a machine cancellation, the post man is obliged to still cancel them by means of a pen cancellation. As collector of a country collection it is simple: don't include them in your collection, unless it concerns a very rare stamp. But for specialised or thematic collectors pen cancellations can be interesting.

Example of a pen cancellation

Postmark forgeries
The difference in value between a mint and used stamp can be very large in case of scarce use, for instance by a short period of use. In some cases so large, that it is worhwhile for a forger to apply false postmarks. A problem to recognise this kind of forgeries is that a very thorough knowledge of the use of certain postmarks in the regarding period is required, which the average collector does not have. Unscrupulous sellers can misuse this lack of knowledge of a collector to fill their own wallet. Often these false postmarks are noticed not earlier than in case of a valuation or sale. Ignoring species with unclear postmarks in case of expensive stamps can often prevent a (later) deception.

Don't buy:

Corner postmark
Corner postmark

Heavy postmark
Heavy postmark

False point postmark
False point postmark

Good postmark:

Nice clear round postmark
Nice clear round postmark

Mass cancellation postmarks
Last point of attention are postmarks that are applied on request. Such postmarks that were applied beforehand, by hand or mechanically, were made to simplify the processing of large amounts of post. This is an example of a clear postal reason for pre-cancellation on request.

Pre-canceled stamp

Also modern stamps are often cancelled at the local post office on request of collectors. In contradiction to the pre-cancellations mentioned above those do not have a postal aim. The only reason to go to the post office to ask for a cancellation on new stamps is the fact that nowadays less stamps are used, especially the more special stamps (like the Dutch summer stamps or childrens stamps, but in fact all stamps except from the long-term standard stamp series with Queen Beatrix). Often the original gum is still present on the backside of these cancelled stamps. This can be prevented by sending a letter with the stamps to yourself, but this has the disadvantage that the stamps can be cancelled with a bad postmark. And those do not look nice in your collection.

Pre-cancellation at the post office
Pre-cancellation at the post office

Pre-cancellation at the post office
Pre-cancellation at the post office

I don't have the illusion that this story discusses all quality aspects in detail. But I hope that you now have a little more general knowledge that enables you to pick out those stamps that will improve the quailty of your collection. For those who want to start a special collection, for example of colours or perforations, I hope that this article has made clear that this requires specific knowledge.
Knowledge that you can get from fellow collectors within or outside a stamp collectors club, or in the Association's library. On that place is information available on a lot of different subjects that you can study at location or, when you are member of a club that is affiliated to the Association, you can take home some books to digest this knowledge in all rest.
I wish you a lot of fun with the expansion, improvement or deepening of your collection.


Nico Helling


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