Introduction to Stamp Collecting

Describing Stamp Condition

By Jim Watson

Although centering and gum (for unused stamps) are two of the major factors in the condition of a stamp, other factors which must be considered are impression, color, and cancelation (for used stamps). Often both centering and overall quality of the stamp are mentioned as in "Very Fine Mint Lightly Hinged." A complete condition evaluation must consider all the condition factors. The stamp must be free of defects or any defects must be noted. Any deficiencies in impression, color, and cancelation must also be noted. A scan should not be relied on to reliably portray impression, color and cancelation. For example, a perfectly centered stamp with a hole should not be classified as extra fine or superb. While there are no absolute rules for defining these characteristics, the following are general guidelines.


The centering of stamps is generally rated S, XF, VF, F-VF, F and Ave. The letters stand for Superb, Extra Fine, Very Fine, Fine to Very Fine, Fine, and Average. Often, collectors, dealers, and catalogs use these terms only to describe a stamp's centering. This practice should be supplemented by recognition of the other factors affecting condition.

The stamp vignette is exactly centered on the paper; opposite margins are equal and ample. On many older stamps this condition is quite unusual. Its use for modern stamps is inappropriate since most modern stamps should have excellent centering to begin with. For these reasons, the term Superb should be used very sparingly.

The stamp's design is almost perfectly centered, with all margins nearly the equivalent of a superb copy. It should require a second look to assess the centering as not quite perfect. Imperforate stamps will have 4 normal-sized margins. Early issues for which clear perforations were not an issue may have perforations just clear of the design or even touching in the most difficult issues.

The designs of Very-Fine stamps are fairly well-centered, but one can easily assess how off-center the stamp is. All margins are substantial, with perforations well away from the design. Imperforate stamps will have at least three margins of normal size. Early issues will have perforations into the design.

Fine-Very Fine
The designs of Fine stamps may be a noticeably off center to one or two sides. Imperforate stamps will have at least two full margins, and the design will not touch the edge. Perforations of early issues are often well into the design on two sides.

Fine stamps are visibly off center, but the perforations do no more than touch the design. Imperforate stamps may have small margins although small margins on imperforates often lead to questions of authenticity.

Stamps that show the perforations cutting into the design. These are the lowest quality of perforation.


Gum Condition

Gum condition is generally divided into six major classifications. Of course, it is only a question when dealing with Mint/Unused stamps.

Original Gum (OG)
The stamp has all of the gum with which it was issued. Original gum is a significant question for most of the classic stamps from the 19th century. It is not likely to be a question for stamps issued in the modern era -- since 1930.

Regummed (RG)
New gum has been applied to the stamp. Such stamps are considered as no gum and are discounted appropriately. In the past, regumming has been detectable with a microscope or strong magnifying glass; examination of the perforation teeth would show very minute strands of new gum extending outward or gum would be seen on the sides of the perforation. That couldn't have happened during the original printing, since stamp paper is gummed before it is perforated.

However, regummers have become more expert now. In fact, regumming is now so difficult to detect that many collectors no longer will pay extreme prices for a so-called original-gum stamp. Even most stamp experts will not judge gum to be original or not. For these reasons, the beginner and even the experienced collector may want to avoid limitiing his collection to original-gum stamps.

No Gum (NG)
The stamp was issued without gum, or the gum has been removed. Stamps which have not been cancelled but do not have gum as issued are often described as Unused.

Never Hinged (NH)
The stamp shows no traces of being hinged even under bright light when examined with a magnifying glass, and the gum has not been disturbed. If the gum has been disturbed, the stamp's price will not be valued as having original gum. Never hinged stamps are often described as Mint Never Hinged (MNH).

Lightly Hinged (LH)
The stamp has been hinged with a peelable hinge that has been carefully removed. Only slight traces of hinging remain. This is the desired condition of stamps that have been hinged.

Hinged (H)
Where the residual effects of hinging are so clear that the stamp cannot be considered to be lightly hinged then they should be deemed hinged. For example, a readily visible hinge mark which is the size of the small end of the hinge would be considered hinged.

Heavily Hinged (HH)
Stamps that have severe gum disturbances, are missing gum, or show multiple marks as a result of hinging are considered heavily hinged.

Hinge Remnant (HR)
Stamps which have pieces of the hinge remaining on the stamp are described as having a hinge remnant. Such stamps are discounted quite a bit because of the uncertainty of what may lie under the remnant and how it may be removed.

Hinge Thins
When a hinge has been improperly applied and removed in such a fashion as to separate a noticeable layer of fibers from the stamp, it is thinned. Hinge thins are a defect and should always be mentioned. They are often described by their dimension as in "2mm hinge thin."


Other Characteristics of Condition

The discussion of the other factors affecting condition which follows draws heavily on the excellent discussions of Richard McP. Cabeen in his Standard Handbook of Stamp Collecting copyright 1965 and published by Thomas Y. Crowell.

Early impressions from the plate of an engraved stamp show clear and deep lines and the fine lines are clear as well. As time proceeds the wear on the plate makes the lines less clear and the overall impression of the vignette becomes fuzzy.

When plates are not cleaned adequately, some of the lines become filled with dried ink and disappear. Also, during the process, the plates may not be wiped properly. If they are not cleaned well between impressions (sly-wiped), the stamp will be toned from the excess ink. If they are wiped too strongly, ink will be removed from the recessed lines and the printed image will be weakened.

Plates wear as the combination of ink and paper is an abrasive which causes the finely traced lines to dull. Such problems are not so important with lithographed and typographed stamps as the plates can be relatively inexpensively replaced.

Cabeen used these descriptive terms for impression from the very best to the least attractive: "Early, very light; Fine; Good; Ordinary; Underinked or dry or dirty plate; Heavily overinked."

The fresh, clear, bright color of early impressions of a stamp are often noticeably nicer than those which come later. There may be a tendency to use less or cheaper inks with time.

An additional factor is the effect of time on the color itself. Many colors used in inks tend to change with time and exposure to light and chemicals. Faded stamps are not desirable. Choice stamps should match the original color hue and brightness. There are some stamps in which distinct color changes have been made deliberately with chemicals. These color changelings should be avoided. None have any philatelic merit.

Cabeen used these descriptive terms for color from the very best to the least attractive: "Fresh, full; Fine; Good; Dull or slight fade; Faded; Badly faded."

Although some collections may be made where the cancelation is the primary reason for interest in the stamp, the standard for other stamps is to have used stamps with small, unobtrusive cancels. Heavy, smudged, and all-over cancels detract from the stamp and lower its appeal.

Clear town marks which do not obscure the eyes of the subject of the focus of interest in the vignette are generally perferred. Stamps which have special cancellations such as "Paid," "Way," "Steamboat," are due a place because of the cancel but the condition of the stamp is not changed by such a cancel.

Cabeen used these descriptive terms for cancelation from the very best to the least attractive: "Sharp, legible; Same but obscures features; Faint, slightly heavy or machine; Heavy or slight smudge; Worse than last or pen cancelation; Heavy smudge."

Final Word on Condition

The condition of the stamp is made up of all the factors. The attractiveness of a stamp depends on favorable conjunction of each of the factors. A stamp which has superb centering may be valued much less due to a smudgy cancellation.

Poor stamps are used as space fillers until a better copy may be obtained. Sellers should always recognize such condition in their offerings. The perforations are well into the design, and the centering is awful. The stamp may be dirty and smudged. There are likely to be serious defects such as thins, straight edges, tears, short perfs, fading, or a combination of such factors. For a few rare and valuable stamps, such as the 1 cent magenta of British Guiana, only poor copies exist. Only then are stamps in poor condition acceptable as other than space fillers. You should consider space fillers as only a temporary solution until you can find a better copy.



A Brief History
Why People Collect Stamps
Major Stamp Categories
Factors Influencing Value
Tips for Finding and Buying Stamps
Tips for Listing and Selling
Displaying or Storing
Stamp Collecting Tools
Caring for Stamps
Insuring Your Collection
Books and Other Sources
Building a Collection
Describing Stamp Condition
I Have This Stamp Collection...
Appendix I: Tips for Finding
   and Buying Stamps on eBay

Appendix II: Tips for Listing
   and Selling Stamps on eBay

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