A guide to stamp condition and value: margins and perforation (part 2)


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’.

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.’

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.

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!

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 theUSA 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.

Canada postage

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.

Booklet stamps

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.

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.

Wing margins

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.

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.

This guide is part of a series of 5 guides: “A guide to stamp condition and value”. The entire series can be found here:

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