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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Philatelic Evangelism

I wanted to take some time today to address one of my pet beefs with the philatelic establishment and some collectors in this hobby. My issue is with the obsession with expert certificates and the readiness with which some collectors are prepared to label a stamp "fake" even when they can't explain how they know it to be so.

I want to start by relaying a story of something that happened to me three or four years ago. I had listed some 1c and 2c coil stamps from the Admiral Issue that were issued in 1913. These were the ones with the horizontal perforation 8. I identified the second 2c as a fake. They are shown below:






Shortly after I listed them, I got an e-mail from an e-bay member informing me that he and a group of other philatelists had taken it upon themselves to police e-bay's listings and identify coils that they thought had been faked. He told me in no uncertain terms that he was certain that both my 2c coils were fake.

Naturally, I was polite in my response. I asked him respectfully what made him so certain and he said that Marler, the great student of admirals had written in his book that all the 2c coils from this printing had a characteristic break in the vertical shading line in the lower right numeral box at the upper right corner of this box. Since mine did not, they must be fake.

I pointed out to him that the perforations on the first 2c were perfectly aligned on both sides of the stamp (i.e. 90 degrees), that the width of the teeth matched that of the 1c strip above and that while the exact number of these coils issued is not generally known, it must have been in the tens of millions, and therefore how could Marler be so sure that all of them had to have this break? Remember that the experiments with coils were over and had been a success, so that this was not an experimental issue -it would have had a full print run. Other sets like the Scroll and Arch Issues that followed all had print quantities in the tens of millions, so why not this one? Given that kind of quantity, how could Marler possibly draw a statistically valid conclusion about the characteristics of a population that large on the basis of the stamps he looked at? He simply re-itereated that he was only trying to help me and suggested that e-bay could and would remove my listings unless I did. So I removed the listings the next day.

I want to be clear about the fact that I respect the work of expert philatelists. I understand the painstaking level of attention to detail that most of them have in the study of their stamps. But I would be the first to point out that in many cases, their conclusions cannot be anything more than convincing hypotheses, unless they have based their findings on documented, known facts from the security printing firm that produced the stamps. Why? Because their conclusions often lack statistical validity.

The general principal in statistics is that you can draw a valid conclusion about the characteristics of a large population from a surprisingly small sample.  But they are only valid if the items in your sample have been selected completely at random. Most people misunderstand what that means. For instance if they have a pile of 1000 stamps in front of them and they say, I'm going to pick out every 10th stamp for my sample, they may think that they are selecting randomly. But they aren't. The only way to randomly select in this case is to put them in a covered box, shake it up and pull them out without looking at them. Of course that is not how philatelists approach things. If they view their collection as their sample, then the only way that their collection will represent the population at large is if it has been formed from all the stamps that person can find. So off-centre, torn, heavily cancelled , no gum, thinned etc. examples must be part of that sample for it to represent the population. This is especially true for the classic stamps because most of them are badly centered and damaged in some way. A collector who tries to study an issue by looking only at superb or fine examples is at best only going to be able to make plausible generalizations about the population of fine and superb examples, but not the issue as a whole.

So in my opinion, given the large quantities of Admiral stamps printed and issued, there is no way that Marler's conclusions about them based on his observations of plate characteristics can be taken as a foolproof guide. I believe that his work is extremely useful in suggesting which stamps are  definitely genuine. But I wouldn't go so far as to label a stamp that lacks the plate characteristics he is describing to be a fake. Why? Because the plates consisted of 400 subjects (I think), were often re-worked, and there was more than 1 plate used for most values. So unless he conducted his study by looking at the complete proof sheets from every plate used, I don't see how he could be sure of the specific plate characteristics of each and every stamp printed. It's similar to the issue of position dots on the Montreal printings of the Small Queens: 90% of the stamps have them. So it would not be that difficult to form a collection of Montreal printings that all had guide dots and conclude that this was how all the Montreals had to look, when the reality is that 10% of the stamps have no dot.

I am what I consider to be an old-school philatelist in the sense that I believe that a solid knowledge of basic philatelic principles will allow a collector to identify most fakery. These principles include:

1. An understanding of the gumming and perforating process for most stamp issues, which will enable you to uncover situations in which a stamp has been re-gummed. Generally perforation tips should have gum on them right up to the point where they have been separated from their neighbour, Some may have minor gum loss from the shearing action that takes place when they are torn, but if all of them have missing gum, that is a sign that a re-gummer has filed them down carefully to remove the excess gum left over from the re-gumming process. When this hasn't been done, little globules of dried gum will appear at the very edge of the perforation tips where they shouldn't be.

2. Understanding that genuine contemporary cancels must have their ink on top of the ink of the stamp design. If it is the other way around, the stamp has probably been faked by fading out a genuine used example and being re-printed on top. This was Jean De Sperati's favourite technique for producing forgeries.

3. An understanding of how stamps are perforated, which will enable you to identify when a stamp has been re-perforated. Generally either the perforation holes are the wrong size of shape (though not a foolproof test) or they don't line up more or less exactly with the perforations on the opposite side. If you take a ruler and join the perforations on both sides, your ruler should be at more or less a 90 degree angle. If it isn't you probably have a re-perforated stamp on your hands.

4. Issue specific knowledge of the plates and formes used for overprints and surcharges including inks and fonts will enable you to uncover fake surcharges and overprints, though I would venture to suggest that this is one area in which a good many genuine stamps are being labelled as fake today. I say this because most overprints and surcharges are provisionals - temporary issues made to relieve some kind of shortage. Therefore it is often possible that substitutions will have been made that were not well documented. Here expert knowledge of the issue gleaned from years of painstaking research is needed to be certain that some examples of overprints or surcharges that appear genuine are actually fakes.

5. An understanding of how inks fade and change colour, or are otherwise affected by chemicals will enable you to differentiate between genuine shades or colour changelings.

There are others, but hopefully you get the idea.

It is on the basis of these principles that I identified the second 2c coil to be fake. Firstly, the perforations don't line up with one another when I place a ruler at 90 degrees through the perforations on top. Secondly, the stamp doesn't have Marler's characteristics. Thirdly, the perforation gauge doesn't match the 1c strip above. Fourthly, the carmine is too bright and close to scarlet compared to the other stamps I have seen that are genuine. I am quite prepared to accept the likelihood that this is a wide margined booklet single that has been cut down and re-perforated.

However, first 2c coil above does have perforations that line up perfectly at 90 degrees, and while it also doesn't share the plate characteristics described in Marler, it is the correct rose-carmine shade that one sees on other genuine coil pairs of this issue. The shade is different from the booklets on vertical wove paper that one usually sees, which are usually the colour of the second stamp. So on that basis, I believe that the first coil is perfectly genuine. Unless someone can tell me how both sides could re-perforated and get perforations perfectly aligned and the right gauge, shape and depth, then I would not accept the conclusion that it is a forgery, just because it does not have the broken shading line in the right numeral box.

What I do find disturbing is that there is a growing trend towards over-zealous policing of stamp listings and conclusions that while they can sound plausible, are not based on vaild statistical research and in some cases are far-fetched in the extreme. I saw a debate in Stampboards a while back in which some poor guy in the UK who had discovered a cover in a large lot that had the rare 1d red plate 77 used from the Isle of Wight. Philatelic experts were falling over themselves to declare it a fake simply on the basis that they had seen and studied all known examples, and understood the exact circumstances in which the plate had been rejected and the stamps rounded up and destroyed. The poor fellow had a chemist analyze the cover for evidence of scraping and re-painting and chemical alteration and that chemist came back and said that no alteration had taken place. The result? The experts still wouldn't accept this. Their theories that the stamp was a plate 177 with the 1 painted out or a an altered 73 were just ridiculous once you read them. But this was their story and they were sticking to it.

There is no substitute in this hobby for experience and knowledge. But what I have also learned in 37 years as a philatelist is that you should never, never, take anything for granted in philately or assume that the last word has been written. New discoveries are being made all the time and just because a group of experts think they have all the answers doesn't mean that they do. At the end of the day they are all philatelists like you and I. I know some people personally who either do or have served on expert committees and while I respect their knowledge and expertise, I know they are fallible. In the example above with the 1d plate 77, unless you were there in the 1870's when this plate was rejected and you witnessed the specific events it is impossible to be certain of how many stamps were actually spared, regardless of what the written correspondence might have said. Lots of times written instructions are not followed by the people they are given to. What makes the experts so sure that this cover wasn't one of those?

Some definite food for thought.



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