We have been publishing award-winning stamp catalogues containing stamp values since 1890.
Looking for stamp values?
Our full colour catalogues contain values for mint and used stamps and are arranged in chronological order.
The Importance of Condition - An Illustrated Guide
A guide to Stanley Gibbons' definition of ‘fine'
The quality and overall condition of a stamp are vital when determining its value and each feature of a stamp has to be considered. The state of the gum on the reverse, the condition of the margins and perforations and whether it has faded or sustained damage are just some of the factors that can have a dramatic impact. The article below covers the subject in great detail and is essential reading.
What exactly does ‘fine’ mean and how do slight defects affect the price? To quote in full the relevant paragraph in the introduction to the current Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth and British Empire Stamps Catalogue;
‘The prices quoted in this catalogue are the estimated selling prices of Stanley Gibbons Ltd at the time of publication. They are, unless it is specifically stated otherwise, for examples in fine condition for the issue concerned. Superb examples are worth more, those of a lower quality, considerably less.’ This single paragraph is probably the most significant piece of information in the entire catalogue – but one that is frequently ignored or forgotten. The big question, of course, is just how much more is ‘more’ and how much less is ‘less’?
Not surprisingly, the ability to answer that question depends on experience. A knowledgeable philatelist will be able to assess fairly quickly what the price of a particular stamp should be in relation to that quoted in the catalogue. Many sellers, however, both professional and collector, find it simpler to price items for sale by a standard percentage of ‘catalogue’; probably only marking down those that are actually damaged. This can mean that stamps in better than ‘fine’ condition are underpriced, while poorer ones are too expensive; something which buyers need to bear in mind.
Talking to the experts, it quickly becomes obvious that every single feature of a stamp needs to be considered separately before a judgement on its overall condition can be passed. So this article will look at each of those features individually, before drawing them all together and attempting to assess how much more than catalogue price a superb example might be worth and, conversely, how low a price should be put on one of lower quality.
Some stamp are more acceptable
than others without gum
Some stamps are more acceptable than others without gumAs for post-1935 stamps in lightly mounted condition, the story is just as complicated. As it says in the catalogue;
‘Some stamps from the King George VI period are often difficult to find in unmounted mint condition. In such instances we would expect that collectors would need to pay a high proportion of the price quoted to obtain mounted mint examples. Generally speaking, lightly mounted mint stamps from this reign, issued before 1945, are in considerable demand.’
This may hold good for Commonwealth stamps, but on the continent the demand for unmounted has severely affected the market for even lightly mounted specimens. The current Part 7, Germany, Catalogue provides some clear examples of this. This catalogue gives unmounted and mounted mint prices for all Third Reich issues, from 1933 to 1945, with unmounted prices only for later issues. The differences are quite dramatic, with the 1936 Local Government Congress set (SG 614/7) rated at £16.00 unmounted, but only £2.75 lightly hinged, and the 1942 Hamburg Derby stamp (SG 804) is priced at £19.00 and £5.25, respectively. Thus, for most mounted mint post-war European stamps, one should probably be thinking in terms of deducting 75 or 80 per cent from the catalogue price.
Even for King George VI stamps the
discount for mounted mint can vary
Even for King George VI stamps the discount for mounted mint can varyAs suggested earlier, Commonwealth collectors are fortunate in that the price differential is not nearly so dramatic. On average, mounted mint prices for post-war King George VI sets are approximately ‘half catalogue’. Again, there are exceptions: to take three examples; the first King George VI 3d. of Ascension, the black and ultramarine stamp (42), would only rate around 25 per cent of catalogue in mounted condition, on the other hand, the 1938 set of Perak (103/21) would be more like two thirds, while for some of the Indian Convention States high values the proportion would be even higher. For the first issues of the present reign the proportion drops to around a third, but after about 1965 there is really very little demand for mounted examples of anything other than the more expensive sets, even in fine lightly hinged condition.
Some gum toning can be acceptable
on certain King George VI issues
Whether or not a hinge has been attached to it is not the only gum feature that can affect the value of a stamp. Discoloration or toning can also be significant. Stamps which have spent time in the tropics frequently suffer from gum browning and, in extreme cases, cracking and ‘crazing’, sometimes affecting the face of the stamp as well as the back. The value of such specimens should be marked down accordingly.
For stamps of King George VI one would normally aim for no gum toning at all, but the first 10s. definitive of Grenada only exists toned, so that would be considered ‘fine for the issue concerned’; later stamps in the series should have cream or white gum, depending on the original issue. Again, the vast majority of the first Hong Kong definitives have at least some gum toning, so here the discount for lightly toned examples would be smaller than usual.
The demand for unmounted mint, as well as very real concerns that the gum applied to nineteenth century issues was, in itself, potentially damaging, has inevitably led to a certain amount of regumming. Stanley Gibbons’ policy is not to sell stamps which have been regummed, especially since the new layer of gum may disguise damage or attempts at repair. It is important, therefore, that the edges of early mint stamps be checked very carefully to make sure that there are no suspicious signs of gum on the surface. (There is one set of stamps, China SG 457/9, which was gummed after printing and perforating, while stamps printed on top of the gum are clearly not a problem – but these are very much the exceptions.)
Another feature which has long been a part of the ‘Stamp Improver’s’ repertoire has been the adding of margins to stamps which have been deficient in them. Once again, this ‘service’ has developed because of the premium placed by collectors on ‘fine four-margin’ examples of stamps like the Penny Black.
For some years now the Commonwealth and British Empire 1840-1970 (Part 1) and GB Concise catalogues have provided guidance on this matter; illustrating ‘good’, ‘fine’, ‘very fine’ and ‘superb’ examples of the first postage stamp. As stated, the standard adopted in the catalogue is for stamps described as ‘fine’, which, in terms of margins, means that the area outside the printed design should be ‘approximately one half of the distance between two adjoining unsevered stamps’ – on all four sides, of course! Anything more than this will take the stamp into the ‘very fine’ or ‘superb’ categories, with the stamp’s price rising accordingly.
Ultimately, one arrives at a point where the stamp has ‘stolen’ the margins from all of its neighbours, in which case exaggerated expressions such as ‘gargantuan’ or jumbo’ margins are frequently resorted to. Such examples are, indeed, rare and would expect to be valued accordingly; at least double catalogue price and probably more, if other aspects of its condition are ‘up to scratch’.
Stamps with abnormally large margins
are worth a substantial premium
One factor which needs to be borne in mind is that the distance between two adjoining unsevered stamps varied quite a lot in the early days. So what would be considered only ‘fair’, or even ‘narrow’, for the Indian lithographs or the first issue of Norway would be ‘enormous’ on the early issues of several British colonies whose stamp printing plates were laid down by Perkins Bacon. Ceylon, Queensland and Tasmania are typical examples of countries whose stamps, suffer from this problem – and where narrow margins do not necessarily prevent a stamp being described as ‘fine’.
Mention of the Indian lithographs raises the issue of octagonal stamps which have been cut to shape – often to fit into the spaces provided for them by the manufacturers of early stamp albums! Again, the catalogue provides helpful guidance with a note explaining that ‘catalogue prices for Four Annas stamps are for cut-square specimens with clear margins and in good condition. Cut-to-shape copies are worth from 3% to 20% of these prices according to condition.’
What might be described as 'narrow margins'
for one stamp could be wider for another
For more conventionally-shaped imperforate issues, a stamp which has lost one of its margins might be priced as high as half catalogue if it is fine in all other respects, but the price declines rapidly if more than one side is affected. Of course, there are exceptions; the Penny Black, because of its unique desirability, can merit a higher proportion of catalogue price, even with no margins at all, than just about any other stamp – certainly more than its much scarcer partner, the Two Pence Blue!
When we look at the influence which perforations have on value, the situation is no less complicated. Here there are two factors to consider, the condition of the perforations themselves and centring of the stamp image within them.
Centring is easy to understand; in a perfect stamp the space between the edge of the design and the perforations should be equal on all sides. For most modern stamps, perforated on comb machines, good centring is normal and perfect centring would not merit a premium. Even 100 years ago the quality controls at De La Rue, where most British and colonial stamps were produced, were such that poorly centred stamps, particularly the keyplate types, are seldom encountered, so once again, it is hardly an issue.
It makes sense to seek out
stamps that are perfectly centred
The attractive engraved pictorials, popular with post offices in the mid-twentieth century and popular with collectors to this day, were more variable – irrespective of which firm printed and perforated them.
A stamp slightly off-centre could still merit the description ‘fine’, but if it is visibly off-centre in more than one direction or the design touches the perforations, then a discount from catalogue price could be expected – the clearer the displacement, the bigger the discount. If, of course, the perforations pass right through the middle of the stamp, it becomes an error – and that’s a completely different story!
Early stamps are seldom found perfectly centred,
especially those printed from plates laid down
before perforating was introduced
The moral is that it certainly makes sense to try and seek out stamps that are perfectly centred, although in the case of the above issues it would be unlikely that you would be charged extra for them.
When discussing the problem of finding imperf stamps with good margins, it was noted that the designs were some times placed so close together on the plate that it required considerable care on the part of the post office clerk to separate stamps from the sheet without cutting into them. This became even more of a problem when stamps printed from those same plates were required to be perforated.
It is not surprising that, in view of the materials they had to work with and the experimental nature of perforating machinery at the time, early stamps are seldom found perfectly centred. For this reason it would be unrealistic to suggest that a slightly off centre perforated Penny Red was less than ‘fine’, although to command full catalogue price, the perforations should not touch the design.
Centring is also an important issue among more modern line-perforated stamps, notably those of the USA and Canada – right up to quite recent times. Here, poorly centred stamps were the norm and even a slightly off-centre example could merit the description ‘fine’.
Because of the inaccuracy of the perforating machines, the stamps can also vary in size quite a bit, and oversized, well-centred stamps, because of their relative scarcity, can be the subject of fierce competition when they come up at auction and can fetch prices vastly in excess of catalogue. In the case of cheaper stamps five or ten times catalogue price is not unknown.
Nibbled, Short or Pulled?
Perforations are easily damaged, especially if the gauge is coarse and the paper soft. On a De La Rue keyplate issue, with a standard perforation of 14, one would expect a ‘fine’ stamp to have all its perforation ‘teeth’ intact. One ‘nibbled’ or ‘nibbed’ perf tooth (slightly short) would call for a slight discount, but the more teeth affected or the shorter the tooth the greater the reduction in price.
Incidentally, a ‘short perf’ would still show a vestigial ‘tooth’, a ‘missing perf’ shows no tooth at all and a ‘pulled perf’ signifies that there is a ‘hole’ in the stamp where the perforation tooth was pulled away).
Even worse than a short perf on one of the sides is a short corner: Here again, the more of the corner missing the lower the price – but if the damage has resulted in part of the stamp design being torn away then the stamp would be unlikely to be worth more than a tenth of catalogue and possibly much less.
Canadian coil stamps with
full perfs are far from common
Whereas on a perf 14 stamp a damaged perforation tooth would be considered a defect which would force a reduction in the price, on a perf 8 stamp, such as some of the Canadian coil stamps of the 1920s and 30s, stamps with full perfs are far from common. Here, one or two shortish perfs would probably be acceptable, providing they were not too short. Such a stamp with all its perforations could command a premium over full catalogue price, especially if it was also well centred.
As the gauge increases, however, the impact of short perfs increases, so that a King George V ‘Seahorse’ with one or two short perfs would probably carry a 20 per cent discount, any more than that and the price would drop to half catalogue.
Check the perfs on King George V Seahorses
Damaged perforations are not only caused by careless separation. Until very recently, most stamp booklets were made up from reels of stamps, bound into covers by stapling, stitching or gluing and then guillotined to produce the finished books. Inevitably, this cutting was seldom totally accurate, resulting in the majority of booklet panes being trimmed on at least one side. Prices for stamp booklets in the Stanley Gibbons catalogues are for examples with ‘average’ perforations – that is, slightly trimmed; the prices for booklet panes are for examples with full perforations.
Catalogue prices for booklet panes
are for examples with full perforations
If a pane of six has good perforations at the top and side, but is trimmed along the foot, then its value should be based on the three stamps in the top row, the three stamps at the bottom being virtually discounted. A single stamp which only occurs in booklet panes, such as most of the definitive watermark varieties of Queen Elizabeth Great Britain, should also have full perforations. Trimmed perfs bring the price down significantly and if they are missing completely than even a scarce variety would only merit a tenth of catalogue.
Another perforation issue is ‘wing margins’. When De La Rue began producing the surface-printed stamps of Great Britain, their printing plates were made up of separate sections which printed as ‘panes’. In the case of the 1861 3d., for example, the printed sheet of 240 stamps was made up of 12 panes of 20 stamps. Between each pane there was a ‘gutter’ and where the panes were side-by-side the gutter was perforated down the centre, giving the stamps at the side of the pane a wide (5mm) margin – the ‘wing margin’.
Wing margins were frowned upon by early collectors, who liked their stamps to fit exactly into the stamp-size rectangles printed for them by album manufacturers. As a result, stamps with wing margins generally commanded a lower price than stamps from the centre of the pane which had ‘normal’ perforations and many stamps had their wing margins cut off or had fake perforations added to provide collectors with stamps of the required shape.
Wing margins were frowned uopn
by early collectors but not any longer!
Fashions change, and wing margins are now no longer despised, indeed, because of their slightly larger size, they frequently compare well with a ‘normal’ and they certainly show a postmark to better advantage. Thus, there is no longer a discount for a wing margined stamp, although we have not yet reached a situation where one has to pay a premium for their relative scarcity!
Sadly, however, those stamps which were ‘doctored’ in order to appeal to earlier fashions are now considered to be considerably devalued, except in the case of a good basic stamp such as the 2s. brown, or perhaps where the stamp has some other redeeming feature such as an attractive cancellation. For more run-of-the-mill stamps a price of one tenth of catalogue would usually be appropriate. With this in mind, of course, it pays to be aware of the corner letters of British surface printed stamps which should have wing margins, in order to spot ones which have had fake perforations added. This information is given in both ‘Part 1’ and the GB Specialised Catalogue.
De La Rue printed stamps by the same technique for many British colonies; stamps which do not have corner letters to allow today’s collectors to identify those with ‘dodgy perfs’. The early stamps of Hong Kong are an obvious example and, bearing in mind the prices which these can fetch in fine condition, it behoves us all to be aware of stamps which may have had wing margins removed and to check them carefully before purchase.
For modern stamps, an intact sheet margin should not add to the value, although one might expect to pay a small premium for a plate block or imprint block over the price for a plain block of four. For most of the earlier twentieth century stamps, also, a plain margin will do little for a stamp’s value, but if that piece of margin includes a control number, plate number or printer’s imprint then the difference can be very significant indeed!
One might expect to pay a premium for a modern plate block
Great Britain control numbers were widely collected at the time they were current and are widely available to this day. Reference to volume 2 of the Great Britain Specialised Catalogue demonstrates that, in spite of the fact that there was only one control single in a sheet of 240 stamps, apart from a few rare examples, they generally only merit a premium of between 50 and 100 per cent over the price of a normal mounted mint example.
Great Britain control numbers are widely available
Plate number singles of colonial stamps occurred once or twice a sheet but, judging from the infrequency with which one encounters them, they were not sought after at the time of issue and are still undervalued today – again a small premium over the price of a fine mint basic stamp is all one should expect.
However, perhaps the Australian market indicates that this may not always be the case. In Australia huge premiums are now being paid for imprint strips and singles at auction. At a recent sale in Australia a 5s. Kangaroo, third watermark, mounted mint ‘CA’ monogram single, catalogue price for a single stamp £225, sold for A$21,000 – getting on for £9000 pounds after tax and premium were added!
Even a partial marginal inscription can make
a great difference to the price of a Penny Red
The first stamps of Great Britain bore an inscription in the sheet margins, advising the public as to the price of the stamps, where they should be placed on the letter and warning against the removal of ‘the cement’. The early surface-printed stamps also bore inscriptions in the sheet margins. The latter are not currently considered to impact significantly on the value of the stamp to which they are attached, but a partial marginal inscription can make a great difference to the price of a Penny Black or Penny Red, and a complete corner, with plate number attached, will be very desirable indeed.
What’s the damage?
We have looked at some aspects of damage in this article, notably in relation to perforations, so let us conclude by reviewing other aspects of damage. All young collectors are advised from the outset to avoid torn stamps, and the advice obviously holds good throughout one’s philatelic life. However, that is not to say that all torn stamps are worthless, because even a torn example of a desirable stamp is still collectable and can therefore command a price.
In a GB context, a fine used £5 orange or 2s. brown with a 3mm tear, but otherwise superb, would probably rate about one third of catalogue price; A more common stamp, such as a 2s.6d. or 5s. value, would be worth much less and, naturally, the larger or more obvious the tear, the greater its impact on the price. A ‘bend’ will generally not be evident on the face of a stamp, only on the back, and will result in a 10 or 15 per cent reduction in price; a gum crease is the natural result of gum ageing and its effect on value will depend upon the damage caused to the face of the stamp.
A crease is clearly evident on the surface of the stamp and will result in a more common stamp being worth between one fifth and one tenth of catalogue, depending on the harshness of the crease and where it is – a crease across a corner will be less significant than one right across the middle, for example.
A ‘wrinkle’ gives the appearance of a series of light creases, whose effect on value will depend on its extent and clarity. Once again, a crease or wrinkle on a valuable stamp will be less significant in percentage terms than one on a more common one – all other factors being equal.
The impact a thin will have will similarly depend upon its extent and the effect it may have on the surface of the stamp; a surface abrasion having a greater impact than a hinge thin. Some of the chalksurfaced key types of the early twentieth century are particularly prone to ‘rubbing’ and, again, this will always reduce the price of a stamp, the size of the reduction depending upon the degree of the damage and the scarcity of the stamp itself.
Stamps bearing perforated initials were at one time treated as little better than rubbish and many were destroyed. The fact that there is now a specialist society devoted to perfins should indicate that the situation has changed; but it is fair to say that the majority of collectors avoid them like the plague.
Perfins can enhance the value of a stamp
Many official perfins are now listed in the catalogue and some of them carry a price higher than they would as normals. Some, indeed, are very desirable, notably the China ‘Large Dragons’ perforated ‘NCH’ by the North China Herald. Demand from specialist perfin collectors has pushed up the price for ‘proving covers’ that is, covers which show which organisation used a particular set of initials, while some commercial perfins are sought after and command a premium over the price of an unperfined stamp.
Nevertheless, a set of perforated initials would still usually result in an otherwise fine stamp being worth only about one tenth of catalogue.
One of the reasons why the firm of De La Rue held such an important position in stamp production in the British Empire at the turn of the last century was the security offered by their fugitive inks. The green ink they used, in particular, dissolved into a pale yellow-green upon immersion inwater. A footnote in the catalogue under the 1883 definitives of Great Britain comments;
‘The above prices are for stamps in the true dull green colour. Stamps which have been soaked, causing the colour to run, are virtually worthless.’
This seems rather harsh, particularly in the case of the difficult 9d., but fairly reflects the current market position. The comment is just as relevant to many other stamps, both from Britain and the colonies. The same inks were used in the production of many colonial middle and high values, such as the Federated Malay States ‘elephants’. Such stamps, when water affected, would be worth from one fifth to one tenth of catalogue, depending on the degree of discolouration.
Water damage is not only a problem for the typographed issues of De La Rue. Although it is generally recognised that recess-printing inks are more stable, there are examples of such stamps which are susceptible to ‘washing’ – some of the Rhodesian ‘double heads’, for example, can be devalued in this way.
Colour change is not, of course, brought about only through immersion in water; sunlight can sometimes have a very significant effect and seriously faded stamps should be viewed in the same way as ‘washed’ ones – more common items being ‘virtually worthless’, rarer ones rating up to one fifth of catalogue, providing that the fading is not too serious.
Tone spots – the brownish spots encountered on many stamps which have been stored in damp conditions – especially in the tropics – will also reduce the value of a stamp or cover; the degree of reduction once again depending upon the extent of the toning and the value of the stamp in fine condition.
A few toned perforation tips should, say the experts, be viewed in the same way as if they were ‘short’. A small brown spot in the centre of a stamp, providing it cannot be seen on the front, would reduce an otherwise fine King George VI stamp to around half catalogue, or quarter catalogue if it were mounted as well. Earlier stamps would require similar discounting but toned examples of more modern issues should be considered almost valueless. Similarly, any stamp with extensive or more disfiguring brown marks should be avoided, especially as the fault can ‘migrate’ to other stamps.
When describing the postmarks of the nineteenth century, the word ‘obliteration’ is synonymous with ‘cancellation’ – because, of course, that was what they were designed to do – to ‘obliterate’ the stamp in such a way as to prevent any opportunity for reuse.
The Maltese cross is an attractive cancellation, especially when applied in red or one of the ‘fancy’ colours, but many early Great Britain line- engraved adhesives are heavily cancelled by over-inked black crosses, which detract considerably from the beauty of the stamps.
A ‘fine’ cancellation should be lightly applied, if possible leaving a substantial part of the design – ideally including the Queen’s profile – clear of the cancellation. Also desirable are well centred examples displaying all, or nearly all of the cancellation on the stamp. This is particularly true where the cancellation is more significant than the stamp, such as a Wotton- under- Edge Maltese cross. Here, you would want to have as full a cancellation as possible, although it would still be preferable to have it lightly applied.
The Maltese cross is an attractive cancellation,
especially when applied in red
This rule remains valid after the arrival of the ‘1844’ numeral cancellation. The duplex postmark, incorporating a circular datestamp alongside the numeral obliterator, was not introduced in London until early 1853, so for nine years nearly every stamp continued to be ‘obliterated’ by a barred numeral. On the odd occasion where another form of cancellation was used, such as the circular ‘Town’ marks or ‘Penny Post’ handstamps, the postmark has become more desirable than the stamp anyway. For stamps used during those nine years, therefore, lightly applied postmarks which leave a significant part of the design clear continue to be desirable and stamps which fall short of this will not be categorised as ‘fine’.
Where the cancellation is more important than
the stamp it should be clear, upright and lightly applies
Other countries followed the practices established by the British Post Office, using ‘anonymous’ cancels which can only be identified by individual peculiarities, or numeral postmarks of one form or another. Again, stamps with lightly applied cancellations should be sought out for preference, although it is necessary to bear in mind the current postal practices in the country or at the individual post office concerned.
Numeral postmarks which leave a significant
part of the design clear are desirable
In spite of the fact that pen cancellations are not generally popular among collectors, where this was a normal method of cancellation, as on the first issue of St Helena, for example, they would be acceptable, although in practice most such examples have since been cleaned in an attempt to make them appear unused. Indeed, early GB stamps with manuscript cancels, such as the hand drawn ‘Maltese cross’ of Dunnet, often fetch high prices at auction if their provenance is sound.
Line-engraved stamps cancelled only by
the datestamp would be rated 'superb'
With the arrival of the Duplex cancellation, the possibility that a stamp might receive the circular dated portion of the handstamp increases, although this was not supposed to happen. Here, we should perhaps return to the statement in the front of the Stanley Gibbons catalogue, that:
‘The prices are ... for examples in fine condition for the issue concerned. Superb examples are worth more, those of a lower quality, considerably less’.
Thus, a postally used stamp cancelled by a lightly applied numeral portion of the postmark would generally be considered ‘fine’, while one which showed only the dater portion would be rated as ‘superb’, especially where that datestamp is upright, well-centred and lightly but clearly applied. A stamp in this condition could rate two or three times the price of a fine example, all other factors being equal.
Squared circles are collectable in their own right
As Duplex postmarks were replaced by new forms of cancellation such as squared circle handstamps and various forms of machine cancellation, new criteria come into play, but essentially the aim is the same, to find stamps which have been attractively cancelled.
Squared circles were designed to combine the date and place of posting (in the central circle) and the obliteration (in the form of the corner bars) in one small and convenient handstamp. Their adoption by many postal administrations around the world would seem to indicate what a good idea they were felt to be at the time. In the case of squared circles it is necessary to make your own judgement; heavily inked bars obscuring the main feature of a stamp’s design would not be ‘fine’, but a light but legible postmark which allows the design to show through would be. Of course, once again, squared circles are very collectable in their own right, so a clear complete (or almost complete) cancellation would almost certainly outweigh the ‘marking down’ which might normally be applied because the stamp itself was almost obscured.
'Socked on the nose' cancellations have become more popular,
especially if they show something significant like the misspelling 'MAURITUS'
Just as in the case of wing margins and perfins, discussed above, fashions are changing in relation to cancellations. In the past, the aim was to find stamps on which the cancellation fell across just one corner of the design, leaving the major part of it clear. Today, interest in exactly where and when the stamp was cancelled, not to mention the possibility that such partial cancellations may have been forged, have made clear, centrally applied or ‘socked-on-the-nose’ cancellations much more desirable – although, again, they do need to be lightly applied.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, rubber packet, newspaper and parcel cancellers began to appear. These, inevitably, obliterated more of the stamp’s design than a steel datestamp and any stamp cancelled in this way would fall well short of ‘fine’. The rectangular parcel cancellations which replaced the old parcel labels in the twentieth century are also shunned by all, other than postal historians seeking particular markings.
We have briefly touched upon this issue already, but it is worth pursuing in greater depth. The reason why many collectors eschew stamps cancelled by pen marks is that they very often suggest fiscal, rather than postal, use. Fiscally used stamps are normally much cheaper than postally used examples, even with the significant increase in interest in revenue stamps which has taken place in the last decade. However, individual post offices in a number of countries have resorted to this form of cancellation from time to time and examples are sometimes even more desirable than the same stamp with a clear dated postmark.
On the other hand, Australian postage due stamps are often found correctly cancelled in manuscript, rather than by a dated postmark. Although these are perfectly collectable, they are certainly nowhere near as desirable as similar examples with a ‘proper’ postmark and would probably rate no more than 20 per cent of catalogue, if that.
Individual post offices have resorted to manuscript cancellations
from time to time, the Gold Coast stamp was used in Dodowah
Returning to fiscal cancellations, these take a number of forms and, since the stamps concerned are often of high face value, some are more desirable than others. The early ‘Arms’ high values of Rhodesia are relatively common fiscally used, cancelled by rubber handstamps in a variety of colours and often perfined as well. Such examples would rate barely 5 per cent of the catalogue price of postally used examples.
It is important that sufficient of the cancel
falls on the stamp to guarantee postal use
The New Zealand ‘long’ Queen Victoria and ‘Arms’ high values were designed for both postal and fiscal use and the prices given for them in the catalogue are for examples with clear postal cancellations. However, some revenue cancels are similar in form to postal ones, so it is important that sufficient of the cancel falls on the stamp to guarantee postal use. Again, fiscally used examples would generally rate only 5 per cent or so of the price of postally used ones, while, among stamps which have seen revenue use, clear black ‘Stamp Office’ and other similar types are much more desirable than purple rubber handstamps, embossed cancels, manuscript markings and stamps which have been perforated through.
Generally speaking, just as stamp collectors prefer stamps which have not been fiscally used, they are also not keen on those which have identifiable telegraphic cancellations.
Often, the same canceller was used for both purposes, in which case a stamp, once removed from a telegraph form would be indistinguishable from a postally used example and would therefore be equally acceptable. However, Indian high values that have been used telegraphically can often be identified by their cancellations which have three concentric arcs in the segments of the postmark immediately above and below the band across the centre of the cancellation which contains the date of sending. It is noted in the catalogue, for example, that India SG 147, the Edward VII 25r., can be supplied at one third of the price quoted in the catalogue (currently £1000), with a telegraphic cancellation. Other values should be similarly discounted.
1s green from plates 5 and 6 are not worth a premium
In light of this, it may seem strange that Great Britain Queen Victoria high values which were almost exclusively used for telegraphic or accounting purposes should be more highly priced than any which were used postally, simply because the quality of cancellation was vastly superior and, here, the prices quoted in the catalogue would be for telegraphically used examples, since this would be the only way of obtaining ‘fine used’.
Probably, the vast majority of fine used middle values, from 4d. to 2s. were also once attached to telegraph forms and many are relatively common in this form; notably the Is. green from plates 5 and 6, which would not be worth a premium over catalogue in this condition, while others, notably the 2½d. rosy mauve or any 9d. value would merit the premiums, sometimes substantial premiums, quoted in the catalogue for ‘well centred, lightly used’.
It has sometimes been remarked upon that some GB surface-printed issues are more highly priced in the main GB listing than they are in some of the ‘used abroad’ sections. An 1873-80 2½d. rosy mauve (SG 141), for example, is priced at £50 in the GB listing, but £27 used in Suez, £24 used in Constantinople, £21 used in Gibraltar and just £17 used in Malta. This is not because there is less interest in GB used abroad, but because the prices are for ‘fine condition for the issue concerned’.
A British stamp with light Malta c.d.s. should be priced according to the GB listing
GB stamps used in Malta are generally fairly heavily cancelled by the ‘A25’ obliterator and the price quoted would be for an example in this form, whereas the price in the GB listing would be for a considerably better stamp. The two conclusions which can be drawn from this are that, firstly, a British stamp with a light Malta c.d.s. should be priced according to the GB listing where that price is higher, and, secondly, that one should expect to pay very considerably less than the price in the GB section of the catalogue for a stamp with an ‘average’ numeral cancellation, which would only rate between 10 and 20 percent of catalogue, depending on the scarcity of the stamp and the extent to which it is obliterated by the postmark.
The problem of forged cancellations has gained much greater prominence in the last few years. This is at least partly due to the increased demand for fine quality insofar as mint stamps are concerned. Heavily mounted or toned stamps are, as commented earlier in this series, worth only a small fraction of catalogue price, so there is clearly an opportunity for the unscrupulous to turn them into ‘fine used’, in order to enhance their value.
Fiscally used stamps may also have had their cancellations removed and any remains of them covered up by forged postmarks, while a great many stamps simply command a higher price used than they do mint, having been little used at the time they were current.
The upshot is that we all need to be aware of stamps which, at first sight, appear to be used, but bear cancellations which cannot be identified. A nice clean ring across the corner of a stamp, an apparently smeared c.d.s. on which neither the place of posting nor the date can be seen, or a general black smudge, reminiscent of many modern British Post Office operational postmarks, should all be avoided, unless they are known to be typical of the place and period concerned. Such stamps are really of ‘spacefiller’ status only and would usually not merit a price of more than one tenth of catalogue, if that.
'Madame Joseph' cancellations are becoming very collectable
More sophisticated forged cancellations also exist, of course and it is fair to say that the extent of this problem has only recently been recognised. Some of them are becoming collectable in their own right. However, these have now become of such interest that a stamp catalogued at less than about £10 is often of greater value with a clear Madame Joseph cancellation than it would be genuinely used.
Higher value stamps would be discounted, though, but would still rate around one third of the price of a genuine example, taking the cheaper of the used or unused prices. Thus, a 1933 Falkland Islands Centenary £1 with the famous Port Stanley, ‘6 JA 33’ forged postmark sells for about £650. Other forged cancellations are of less interest, especially more modern ones and those which have been drawn in by hand!
Look out for forged cancellations which have been drawn by hand!
While on the subject of ‘drawn in by hand’, collectors in the past – including some very eminent ones – were in the habit of ‘enhancing’ slightly unclear postal markings by drawing over them in Indian ink. Less expensive stamps are seriously devalued in this condition, especially if the postmark is a heavy or disfiguring one. Major rarities would be less devalued in percentage terms, however, and could still rate up to about one third the price of an ‘unenhanced’ stamp with the same cancellation.
Many businesses in Asian countries, especially forwarding agents, were in the habit of cancelling their stamps with ‘chops’, while individuals frequently wrote across them in manuscript in order to discourage theft. Catalogue prices are for stamps without such endorsements, with a neat handstamped ‘chop’ reducing the price by at least one third and a handwritten one by around two thirds.
Cancelled to order
Prices in the catalogue are, generally, for fine postally used, but for many modern issues they relate to cancelled to order examples. This does not refer to the selling of cancelled stamps for less than face value for the making up of stamp packets, as was the practice in many Eastern European countries between the 1950s and 1990s, and in North Borneo up to 1912 or Ghana in the 1950s. These latter examples are noted in the catalogue, with separate prices for the North Borneo stamps, while it is noted that catalogue prices for Ghana refer to cancelled to order, properly postally used stamps being worth a little more.
As the volume of worldwide stamp issues has escalated in the last 30 years and the cost of having postally used stamps removed from envelopes, soaked, dried and sorted has risen, it is no longer practicable for the stamp trade to supply fine postally used examples of most modern issues. They are therefore supplied cancelled by the postal administration concerned at the same price as mint examples, although as new issues they may be slightly more expensive, owing to the extra handling costs involved. Catalogue price is therefore for stamps ‘cancelled to order’, although fine postally used examples would merit the same price.
Unfortunately, as collectors in Britain and the USA are aware, ‘fine’ and ‘postally used’ are two expressions which are rarely used together when discussing modern issues, since our respective postal administrations have deliberately returned to the philosophy of their Victorian predecessors and ‘obliterated’, rather than ‘cancelled’, any stamp being used to prepay postage.
In the circumstances, therefore, catalogue price for used twentieth century GB refers to stamps cancelled by a light circular or oval datestamp. Rubber packet or parcel handstamps, slogan postmarks or wavy lines are worthy only of a small proportion of catalogue, the size of that proportion depending, once again, on the appearance of the stamp and its relative scarcity.
Modern GB prices are for c.d.s. used, wavy lines
are worth only a small proportion of catalogue
That, indeed, encapsulates the relationship between condition and price.
In this article we have reviewed the various aspects of ‘condition’ and how they can vary from country to country and from issue to issue. The catalogue price is for ‘fine for the issue concerned’, meaning fine in every respect, although a better than fine cancellation might outweigh a slight deficiency in centring, to allow a stamp to still be classified as ‘fine’.
The end result is that, when buying, it is vitally important to carefully consider the condition of the item as well as its price and whether or not you want it and, when satisfied on all three counts, make your purchase – before anyone else gets in first!
More Stamp Collecting Guides