STAMP GRADING AND WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
Grading of stamps (and other philatelic materials such as covers) is the application of a number rating that is assigned based on the condition of the item being graded. Think of a report card in school. The scale ranges to a maximum grade of 100, though ratings at and above 95 are typically extremely rare and stamps that earn those high grades are extremely costly. These might be the types of stamps one reads about in the newspaper: “An 1892 XYZ stamp sells at auction for $7 bazillion!” The grade numbering system is universal since 1987 and is employed by all reputable graders, so that a grade of 90 is always going to be Extremely Fine (XF) and so on. Often, the grading process can reveal that a stamp has significant value depending on factors including the market for that specific stamp (who is interested in owning it) and how many are graded in a similar fashion (how many available in the same quality). The value of a stamp or cover is based on not only its rarity, but also its condition. Grading can also reveal that a stamp is significantly flawed or even damaged, altered, forged or counterfeited, which is an unfortunate finding, but one which the owner or a potential buyer needs to know.
The grading process provides identification, examines condition and quality, and certifies authenticity of a philatelic item based on its review by a team of philatelic experts. The numerical grade value relies heavily on the centering of the stamp. Deductions are factored in, depending on severity, for a number of different types of faults. The importance of grading should not be overlooked when it comes time to assess the quality of your collection or to sell your stamps. Grading isn’t rocket science. There are plenty of consistent standards, a wealth of references, resources and literature since the United States has been producing postage stamps for nearly 170 years. But the importance of grading cannot be overemphasized. You need it to fully understand what you purchased and now own. You need it before you ever even think about selling a stamp. You need it to be completed by a body of experts who have learned all that can be known about a broad variety of stamps and, preferably, with extensive experience grading American-issue stamps.
TERMS YOU MAY SEE ON YOUR GRADING CERTIFICATE
Centering – The position of the design on a postage stamp. On perfectly centered stamps, the design is exactly in the middle (there is equal spacing on all four sides between the perforation and design).
Commemorative stamps – Stamps issued for a limited period of time, in a larger format than most stamps. Commemoratives usually honor persons, organizations, events or causes on significant anniversaries.
Condition – Considers questions such as: Is the stamp cancelled? Is it hinged? Does it have any flaws? How well it is centered?
Cover – An envelope or package with an address, typically with postage stamps that have been cancelled. In the days before envelopes were common, writers folded another piece of paper around their letter (or even simply folded the letter over to form a blank surface). A stamp may be referred to as being “on cover”. Grading for a stamp on cover should reflect the findings both about the stamp(s) and the cover.
Definitive stamps – The “workhorses”. Used on most mail, generally these are smaller stamps printed in huge quantities, often in a single color ink, that are available for an indefinite period of time which may be many years.
Denomination – The amount of postage which the stamp pays.
Gum – Adhesive that is used to attach a stamp to an envelope.
Hinge – Stamp hinges, or mounts, are small, folded, transparent, rectangular pieces of paper coated with a mild gum. They are used by stamp collectors to affix postage stamps onto the pages of a stamp album and have been used for more than 100 years.
Imperforate – A stamp designed and sold without perforations or separating holes.
Perforations – Holes punched between stamps to make it easier for an individual to separate two or more stamps. Collectors use a perforation gauge to measure the perforations helping them to identify their stamp.
Mint – Mint means never used, still having full gum, never hinged. It is not a measure of your stamp’s quality or value in that “mint” is not about condition other than whether used or not.
Removed cancel – Stamps altered in an attempt to present a used stamp as mint. Some cancellation inks used in past eras are fairly easy to remove, though examiners can typically find evidence of removal.
Reperforation – An easy way to “improve” a stamp’s appearance or make it better than it was originally. This is done by either altering or creating perforations on the edge(s) of a stamp. This is often done to create the illusion of better centering.
WHAT THE EXPERTS LOOK FOR AND WHAT THEY WILL REVEAL ON YOUR GRADING CERTIFICATE
- Correct identification of your item, including the proper Scott Catalogue number(s);
- Whether your item is used, mint or on cover;
- Condition of your item (centering is foremost, true color as intended by the U.S. Post Office Department counts highly, conformity to the known standards for the specific stamp is very important) including mention of faults such as:
Trimming of any kind Tone spots Creases
Paper thins Reperforating Added perforations
Added margins Rebacking Paper inclusion
Repainting Tears Residue of any kind on stamp face
Removed cancels Gum wrinkles
Various perforation irregularities
Faults are generally unintentional collector-caused issues from improper handling over time, but sometimes faults will divulge that someone has purposely tried to alter a stamp’s appearance.
If your stamp is mint its gum will be examined to see if it has retained its original gum or whether it has been regummed or had its gum redistributed.
If your stamp is used, it can be graded but several different standards are applied. Miniature Artworks USA sells significantly fewer used stamps than mint stamps, and typically only upon request.
To illustrate the degree of differentiation and detail that is applied to grading, below is a sampling of three stamps of identical variety, each mint, each authentic, each never hinged, each professionally graded. To allow for differences in monitor resolution, consider the color shade and intensity to be identical. The stamps you see are graded 85, 90 and 95 reading left to right.