Grading Stamps and Covers
This aspect of philately is the cause of so much confusion among seasoned collectors and beginners alike. There are two primary reasons for this. The first is that most of the standard stamp catalogues like Scott state that their prices are for very fine stamps and go on to define what constitutes very fine, but they do not explicitly define the other condition grades. The result is that one often finds two stamps that meet the definition of a condition grade such as very fine, but one stamp clearly has more eye appeal than the other. So in this sense, the conventional grading systems consistently fail to adequately rank stamps in terms of their quality. A second reason is the widespread use of relative grading, which is to say grading based on scarcity. You will often see in auction catalogues descriptions that say "VF for this issue". Unless you are familiar with the issue, you will have little idea of what this means, although the Unitrade catalogue does attempt to explain this by way of a note in the relevant sections of their catalogue. My belief is that scarcity and grade are two separate issues, both of which affect price. It makes more sense to me to accept the idea that some issues may simply not exist in the high condition grades, such as the perforated pence issue, which are nearly always found with the perforations touching or cutting into the design. Then the scarcity of the actual grade can be evaluated in determining the value of the item. Conventional grading systems do not explicitly address the grading of covers or multiples either.
A good and reliable grading system should identify all of the factors that affect the condition and the eye appeal of a stamp or cover. It should then give appropriate weight to each factor so that it will accurately rank stamps and covers in a way that reflects the preferences of the majority of collectors. In addition, the grading system should be sufficiently objective that two collectors can apply the same system and assign approximately the same grade to the stamp.
A point system from 0-100 makes sense and enables all factors to be assessed and weighed. I find that the use of terms like very fine, extremely fine and the like to be limiting because most of the time a stamp will possess some attributes normally associated with one grade, while possessing other attributes normally associated with another grade. For example a stamp may have full margins on all sides, but may have a shallow thin. Does it make sense that this stamp be assigned a lower grade than a stamp with only 2 margins and no thin? The use of a point system alleviates this problem.
It is useful though to assign a point value to those grades that most of you are most familiar with. My grading system assigns the following scores to commonly known grades as follows:
1. Superb - 95 to 100
2. Extremely Fine - 85 to 94
3. Very Fine - 75 to 84
4. Fine - 65 to 74
5. Very Good - 55 to 64
6. Good - 45 to 54
7. Fair - 35 to 44
8. Poor - 25 to 34
9. Spacefillers or study material grade: less than 25
Factors That Determine the Grade
The factors that one takes into account when evaluating a stamp or cover can be divided into two broad groups: visual factors and non-visual factors. This is a visual hobby, so it makes sense that visual factors should weigh more heavily than non-visual ones. At the same time, the top grades will be reserved for those stamps which possess both eye-appeal and soundness in terms of the non-visual factors. Because mint stamps, used stamps and covers possess different attributes, that impact the visual appearance of each item differently, the actual factors used to grade these items, although similar, are different and are weighted differently.
The visual factors are:
1. Freshness of the paper;
2. Depth and freshness of the colour;
3. The size of the margins around the design;
4. The clarity and strength of the printing impression
5. On perforated stamps, how well centered the design is within the margins;
6. On perforated stamps, how even the perforations are and how intact they are;
7. On used stamps the degree to which the cancellation obscures or discolours the design;
8.On used stamps and covers, how crisp and readable the cancellation is;
9. On covers, the presence or absence of stains and paper faults;
10. On covers, the atractiveness of the handwriting on the front;
11. The presence or absence of paper flaws that are visible from the front of the item.
Each of these factors will be weighted differently for mint stamps, used stamps and covers. In this way,a superb looking stamp that is perfect in every respect, except for having a hidden fault will be at least fine, but will generally not be more than very fine, no matter how minor the flaw. On the other hand, attractive stamps with minor defects are not automatically relegated to the low condition grades.
The non-visual factors are:
1. The presence or absence of flaws in the paper of the stamp on the back
2. For covers, the presence or absence of flaws to the backflap of envelopes, or paper faults on the inside or back of folded letters.
On the next page, I describe how I weigh these factors to arrive at a final grade for my stamps and covers.