Certificates - who needs them?

This is the slightly modified text of an article written by one of our staff on behalf of the Philatelic Traders' Society, London.

Both Rick Warren (Director) and Colin Avery (Auctions Manager) are members of the PTS

A bog standard GB 1/- EDVII stamp typically catalogues £80 as a mint stamp and £35 as a used one. Overprinted "Government Parcels" the catalogue value is somewhat higher: £1300 mint and £275 used. With an "Inland Revenue" overprint the catalogue value is higher still: £3500 and £700 respectively. Were you to be lucky enough to find a mint example overprinted "Board of Education" the catalogue says you would be richer to the tune of £140,000.

Or would you?

To put it bluntly, the temptation to take a relatively cheap stamp and fraudulently turn it into something else – a much more valuable something else – should be obvious. So much so that many have tried; forgeries of the expensive GB Officials are all too numerous: genuine examples rather less so. How can you tell whether that internet bargain is £1000 too cheap, or 99p too much?

The pragmatic answer is that if you can't tell, either steer well clear of temptation, or assume the worst. There's little harm to be had in spending a few pence or a few pounds on a spacefiller. After all, gaps in an album can be unsightly and not everyone can afford the real thing. But if you pay the "real" price – in the case of genuine rarities, often full catalogue value, or more – then you are entitled to expect that what you have bought, is what the seller says it is.

And not just when you are buying GB Officials.

With even limited philatelic experience, the most blatant forgeries should be obvious: overprints on top of the postmark, "missing" colours bleached out through sunlight, re-perforations making the stamp too narrow, or too short. That sort of thing. The more experienced eye can look up to the light for pinholes; or dark patches in the paper, where a thin spot has been filled in; or to check that the plate flaw, such as an "Extra Flagstaff" is not just a pencil mark on the stamp. That same experience will also teach you to be suspicious of close-cut imperfs, which may be no more than a perforated stamp with the perforations cut off; and not to assume that when you have three different shades of the same stamp (and the catalogue lists three shades), that one of them must be the rare shade; intermediate shades, not listed in the catalogue, are also possible.

Should this make you suspect everything in your collection, then don't; there's no need to lose sleep. Let me state the obvious. Forgers make forgeries to make money. In other words, they are not interested in making copies of, essentially, run-of-the-mill basic stamps; it's not worth their while. For this reason, at the cheaper end of the market, forgeries are all but unknown.

When you buy from an established dealer, part of the sales price is a contribution to his years of professional expertise. Any mistakes he has made, will have been at his expense; dealers who try to pass on their bad buys to their customers are found out quickly enough and discover they are out of business just as rapidly. That is one reason why dealers may not join the PTS the day they start to trade – we insist they show a satisfactory trading history first.

Through their regular hands-on experience, handling thousands of stamps a year, dealers become well-informed. Some can legitimately be described as expert. Whatever level of knowledge a dealer may have, a certificate of genuineness from an independent committee, gives you both the extra comfort of an autonomous written opinion of the status of the item in question. It is important to stress that word; you get an expert opinion and not a statement of fact. Committees are made up of human beings; however good they are at their job (and they are good!), mistakes are made and opinions differ.

It has been suggested that a certificate is the equivalent of a passport; an absolute guarantee of its identity. It isn't. (And that is without acknowledging that passports, too, can be forged.) To obtain a passport, it is necessary for the buyer to prove his or her identity to the issuer. When a stamp is submitted to an expert committee, the opinion of the committee is solicited and no proofs are required (though some may be requested later). A better analogy is that of the forensic examination during autopsy, or the psychiatric report following interview, where evidence is assembled, one way or the other and an hypothecated conclusion (opinion) reached based on that evidence. Less than perfect, no doubt, but like democracy, better than any of the alternatives.

As a result, there are examples where one expert committee opines the one thing and another something different; clearly both cannot be right (although logically, however unlikely, both could be wrong!). For a fee, typically between £50 and £100, an expert committee will thoroughly examine a stamp and will report its findings, variously, on aspects such as the actual genuineness of the stamp, the colour, the postmark, the watermark, the perforations and the gum, whether it is faded, damaged or repaired, also paying regard to any errors or varieties, dies, types and variants of all sorts. The certificate they issue will incorporate an image of the stamp, so that it is apparent that the certificate refers to that stamp and that stamp alone (without which, any certificate is all but worthless).

Consumer law provides you (automatically) with varying degrees of protection against misdescription, depending on the person or firm you buy from. Essentially a private transaction, such as from one collector to another offers the least legal comfort, purchase at auction rather more, whilst purchase from a dealer gives you the most. In all cases, for the avoidance of all doubt, if it is your intention to have your purchase expertised or re-expertised, you should make that intention clear before you make the purchase and not, for example, one month afterwards. (Especially important when buying at auction.)

So, do you need one?

Ultimately, it is for you, and you alone to decide. The following comments (also opinion and not statements of fact!) may help. Stamps costing less than £100 rarely need them (see above). If you are in the habit of buying stamps worth £10,000 or more each, then you will may find they already come with a suitable certificate, or you can arrange to have the item expertised yourself. For purchases between the two extremes, you may well be at ease – with justification - on relying on the expertise and reputation of the supplying dealer. Or you may prefer the added comfort of the expert opinion. Remember, too, that when the time comes to sell, certificates will set the buyer's mind at rest that you have taken care with your purchases, that they are what they purport to be – and not just the certificated items.

Behind every PTS Shield is a dealer who also takes care of your purchases. However he trades, a PTS dealer is bound by the PTS' Code of Ethics – a voluntary, but exacting policy, which all members are mandated to follow: in particular, a member undertakes to refund* promptly the full purchase price paid, should a stamp or cover be certified as not genuine, or be shown to have a material fault, such as a repair, or a forged postmark.

It's better to be tucked up safe, than just tucked up.

* Where any material fault was not declared at the point of sale. Actual terms will vary slightly from member to member. Other reasonable commercial restrictions may apply.

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