Condition-grading is perhaps the most important skill that anyone who wishes to engage in the business of buying and selling stamps must learn. Beginners and those outside of the hobby are often surprised to learn that depending upon its condition, a stamp may sell for as little as 2% to as much as 100% of its catalogue value, or more. This is particularly true of U.S. stamps. Due to the current grading fetish (described in an earlier article), some U.S. stamps graded XF or higher have sold for multiples of their catalog values. So-called "condition-rarities," graded Superb or "Gem," have even sold for hundreds of times their Scott values.
Many beginning collectors make the costly mistake of purchasing overgraded stamps - stamps which have been described as being in better condition than they really are. While most stamp dealers and auctioneers are honest, there are some who intentionally overgrade stamps, and some who even alter stamps so that they appear to be in better condition than they are. Most dealers are not blatantly dishonest, but there are many who accidentally overlook defects, or are somewhat "liberal" when grading stamps which they are trying to sell. Also, some issues are notoriously poorly centered, and are graded on a "for issue" basis- for instance, "Very Fine for issue. " To an extent, condition-grading is more of an art than a science.
Average...... Fine....... F-VF........ Very Fine
When examining a stamp, the obvious first step is to look at its front. Centering is the first consideration. Pictured above are four 2c Washington stamps which grade from Average to Very Fine. Note how the perforations cut into the design at bottom of the first (Average) stamp. The perforations clear the design of the second (Fine) stamp, but are still close to the design at left and on the bottom. The third (Fine to Very Fine) stamp is better centered than the second, and the fourth (Very Fine) is the best centered of the four. Two higher grades also exist - Extremely Fine (almost perfectly centered), and Superb (perfectly centered). Unfortunately, the author did not possess XF or Superb examples of this stamp to scan.
Other criteria also apply when examining a stamp, such as whether the stamp has a defect or fault. Defective stamps are known as seconds, because they are the "second choice" of most collectors, who generally would prefer to own a sound, fault-free stamp. Nevertheless, the frontal appearance of a stamp is important in determining its value, even if it is faulty. A second which appears to be Very Fine is worth more than a second which appears worse.
Among the defects which are obvious from the front are faded or oxidized colors. Fading is usually caused by excessive exposure to light over a long period of time. Oxidation is a chemical process which effects certain types of inks, and causes them to rust. Reds and oranges often take on a brownish color when they oxidize. Other considerations include whether the stamp (if used) has a killer cancel which obstructs much of the design, abrasions, pin-holes, short perfs, tears or pieces missing, creases, stains, or inclusions. Inclusions are contaminant particles inadvertently mixed into the paper when it is being produced, and if such particles are large enough to be obvious, they can detract from the stamp's value. When examining old stamps, especially those without gum and for which the catalog value is much greater for unused than used, it is always prudent to look for indications of chemically-removed cancels. These may be difficult to detect, but a UV light will sometimes reveal traces of them.
The next step in the process is to turn over the stamp and examine its back. If the stamp is unused and was issued with gum, then gum condition will be an important consideration. The highest grade for gum is OG NH (original gum, never hinged), followed by LH (lightly hinged), OG (more heavily hinged), HR (hinge remnant) and No Gum. A stamp which is NH, but with disturbed gum, will be worth less than a NH stamp with pristine gum. Sometimes gum will appear brown or toned. Often, stamps which were stored under conditions of high humidity have toned, or tropicalized, gum, and toning can detract from the value of a stamp, especially if it is heavy (dark) or affects the paper as well as the gum.
Another type of defect of which to be aware when examining the back of a stamp is known as a thin. A thin is actually an abrasion of the back of a stamp, usually caused by careless removal of a hinge, or by heedlessly pulling the stamp off of something to which it was partially stuck. In effect, a part of the stamp's paper has been torn off its back and rendered "thinner" than the rest of the stamp. Larger, deep thins detract more from a stamp's value than smaller, shallower ones. The best way to detect a thin is to place a stamp in a black watermark basin (front side down), pour in some watermark fluid, and then observe whether a portion of the stamp appears darker than the rest of it. Of course, if the stamp is watermarked, one must take into account that the watermarked area will also appear darker, even if there is no thin. Occasionally one may also find a stamp for which the seller has attempted to conceal a thin, either by attaching a heavy hinge remnant to it, or by writing over it in pencil.
When purchasing an expensive stamp, the buyer should require expertization as a condition for purchase if he has any doubts whatsoever about either a stamp's authenticity or its actual condition. Most issuers of certificates will comment on a stamp's condition as well as its authenticity, and a few actually grade stamps. While there is nothing wrong with selling a repaired or altered stamp as long as it is described as such, there are dishonest individuals who profit from misrepresenting such stamps as being in their original condition. Repairing stamps is a lucrative business in Europe, especially in Germany, and there are practitioners of the trade who do a pretty convincing job of repairing tears, ironing out creases, filling thins, removing cancels, and regumming stamps. To an extent, developing an instinct or "gut-feeling" about when a stamp's authenticity or apparent condition seems questionable requires time and experience, but hopefully this article will serve as a start for those who are new to the game, and will make the learning experience less of a "school of hard knocks."