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 Behind The Scenes  
 Problems With Stamp Mounts:
 8 Things That Can Go Wrong
by Jay Smith

Part 1

The vast majority of the time, the use of stamp mounts protects stamps from damage, wear & tear, handling, etc. However, as any experienced dealer who buys collections will attest, sometimes the way that stamp mounts have been used causes more harm than good. I have recently purchased several collections in quick succession that showcase the potential problems and brought this subject to mind.

First a not-so-quick review of stamp mounts. There are two basic types of "modern" stamp mounts. They are sold under several different brand names and there are sometimes apparent differences in the materials, but most of them seem to be made by the same methods. Over the years, I have been told that some of the different brands come from the same factory (but also others certainly do not, based on appearance). [In this article I do not intend to discuss the whole-page-as-mount systems found in Lindner and Safe albums.]

Since at least the 1940s, different types of stamp mount systems have appeared and disappeared. Most had fatal flaws in the materials that damaged stamps and/or it was so difficult to get the stamps in or out that many stamps were damaged in the process. One type of "tubular" mount shrunk after a few years, crushing untold thousands of stamps.

The surviving two types of mounts are really just variants of the same. There are split-back (perhaps most familiar as the brand Showgard) and open-on-three-side mounts (most familiar as the brand Hawid). Those two brands indeed seem to be from the same factory and they are sold in the U.S. by the same distributor.

Split-back style mounts have a clear front and either a black or clear back with a horizontal split in the center of the back.

The other, open on three sides, style is essentially HALF the same mount, it has just been cut horizontally through the middle where the split is, thus the top is not sealed.

In terms of the safety of the materials, there is apparently no difference between black and clear; choosing one or the other is entirely a matter of personal preference. Regardless of style, I do not have any information on the potential safety of different brands; I have not noticed any more problems with one brand than another.

Pre-printed albums always use the clear mounts so that the information and pictures on the printed page can be seen through the mount. If black mounts were used, the collector could not see which stamps go in the album spaces. (I get that question a lot.)

To use split-back mounts, you have to carefully hold open the split back, while maneuvering the stamp in, being careful not to bend (or fold over!) the perforations. The length of the split-back mount can be cut to whatever you want, but the height is fixed. If a mount is used that is slightly too short (not tall/high enough), then the perforations can be scrunched and blunted. If the mount is too tall, then there is extra empty space at the top which can make it look unbalanced, especially if the back is black.

To use the open-on-three-sides style of mounts, one simply uses a tongs to SLIGHTLY (and I do mean SLIGHTLY; otherwise the mount can be broken) open the top of the mount while the stamp is slipped in from the top. Since it is open on three sides, this is very easy to do and there is extremely little risk of damaging the stamp. Even though the mount is open on three sides, unless the stamp is very thick or very heavy, such as a large souvenir sheet or a complete booklet, there is little risk of the stamp falling out -- if the mount is installed right side up! -- because the weld between the front and back hold the stamp firmly in place. (Many/most pre-printed albums use the open-on-three-sides mounts, but they will usually use the split-back style for those larger, heavier items such as booklet panes and souvenir sheets.)

Note: You can make your own "open" style (also called "Hawid style" by many collectors) mounts from the larger sizes of split-back mounts. Assuming that the split in the back of split-back mounts is exactly in the middle, then a size about 20% larger than double what you need will usually work. So if you need a size 40 "open" style mount, you can make it from a size 90 to 100 (approximately) split-back style mount. In this way, you can make many "open" sizes from just a few sources of material. This is a key advantage of the "open" style mounts; you make the sizes you need of "open" style mounts instead of having to buy dozens of sizes of split-back mounts. Tip: If you buy a stamp collection that has good quality split-back mounts in it and you intend to strip the stamps out of the collection, the bottom half of the mounts holding souvenir sheets can usually be salvaged for use as "open" style mounts.

So, what could go wrong?

Let me count the ways.

Part 2

Number One: Open-on-three-side mounts should be installed right side up. That means that the mount is open on the left, top, and right; the sealed edge is at the bottom. In the last year, I have purchased two collections in which all the "open" mounts were upside down. The stamps were not all falling out (the mounts did their job), but in some cases, the stamps were crooked in the mount and did not look attractive. If the previous owner had dropped the album while carrying it, the shock could have dumped some of the stamps out.

Number Two: Avoid cutting mounts with the stamps in them. For some common sizes of stamps, pre-cut mounts are available. However, pre-cut mounts are more costly and soon the collector will need to do some mount cutting anyway for other sizes of stamps. Cutting the mount with the stamp in it is risky. This may be obvious, but apparently not to a few people. I have purchased collections that contained more than a few "chopped" stamps. Honestly, I cut mounts with stamps in them thousands of times per year and I have never cut a stamp, though I have come close once or twice. The key is to hold the mount in such a way that one of your fingers, behind the mount, acts as a barrier to prevent the scissors from getting too close. I use scissors because I am always in a hurry and I can usually cut straight.

Many people prefer -- and I do think it is a better idea -- to use a mount cutter (miniature paper cutter). We sell a good one on the website here (with image):


Hillary uses one of these thousands of times per year and really likes it -- but you can also get something similar from your favorite stamp supplies dealer. Art supply companies also sell larger versions in various styles. These types of cutters do/should have a clear plastic hold-down piece that you have to press on to prevent the mount (maybe with a stamp inside it) from shifting at the last critical moment. Because it is always safer to cut without the stamp in the mount; one suggestion for common stamp sizes is to simply cut a few pieces of paper that are the size of the stamps for which you need mounts. I suggest using brightly colored paper so they are not as easy to misplace. Then you can cut with the paper pieces in the mount to easily see your positioning.

Number Three: Inserting and removing stamps from split-back mounts is risky. If you don't have steady hands, I suggest using the "open" style of mounts instead. Even the steadiest of hands can have difficulty with split-back mounts. This is one of the primary reasons that I choose "open" style mounts for my own personal collection. In the Scandinavian realm, the Finnish "big tooth serpentine rouletted" stamps should NEVER EVER be put in a split-back mount. The money you paid for those nice teeth can quickly be wasted. If you like to remove and examine your stamps from time to time, you will be better off with the "open" style.

Number Four: NEVER lick the back of a mount with a stamp inside it unless you want to turn a NH stamp into a no-longer-NH stamp. Most people seem to have little tongue control and/or too much saliva. Even if the mount is licked and put in the album with no stamp in it, look at it carefully before you put the stamp in (especially if it is a clear-back mount) to be sure that no moisture has gotten in (the mount should be allowed to sit untouched for a couple of minutes anyway). This point was recently brought home to me in a very stark way. We purchased a very large Scandinavian collection in which the collector mostly used split-back mounts. He licked the mounts with the stamp inside and he managed to lick across the split on the back quite often -- a little bit of saliva would be drawn inside and INSTANTLY the gum was no longer post office fresh. This affected many, many hundreds (perhaps a couple of thousand) of stamps! In some cases, even when using "open" style mounts he also got moisture inside at the right or left edge and damaged the gum of some stamps.

There are two problems here. First of all, capillary action (were you awake in high school science class?) INSTANTLY WICKS in any tiny amount of liquid. Try an experiment: lick the back of an EMPTY mount and accidentally-on-purpose get a little moisture on the open edge of the mount; observe how quickly it gets inside and how far it travels (which depends upon the amount of moisture). The other problem (at least in some cases, especially if moisture comes in from the side) is that the moisture is trapped with the stamp; it first dissolves a small amount of gum and then as the moisture is sucked into the paper, it carries that dissolved gum into the paper making a translucent spot (almost like glassine or waxed paper) -- I call this "gum soak staining". The greatest loss from the aforementioned collection was a NEVER HINGED Sweden Scott #92 (1918 80 öre Black Gustav in Round Frame) that became no-longer-NH and with slight gum soak staining on the perf tips in one corner. The very real financial loss was about $1500 in an instant. That collector never took his stamps out of the mounts and he was completely unaware of these issues. He is a very smart guy; he just did not know.

Part 3

Number Five: Split-back mounts should only be licked on the TOP HALF. Licking the whole back instantly results in the problem in Number Four, but also licking the whole back means you have to have the stamp already in the mount (again see above). But the point I want to make here is that if the whole split-back mount is stuck down, there is no SAFE way to get the stamp out. Thus if you want to examine the stamp you end up messing up your whole album page. And, it can hurt you financially because....

Number Six: A future potential buyer of your collection must be able to safely, easily, and neatly remove stamps from mounts to examine them. Someday you, or your family, will probably sell your stamp collection. The buyer, whether a dealer or collector, will need to examine the stamps to assess their quality and thus determine the amount they are willing to pay. Never hinged (post office fresh) stamps are worth more than stamps with gum that is not perfect, thus the buyer MUST look at the backsides of the more valuable stamps to determine value. Many collectors obtain hinged stamps, but wisely put them in mounts; thus the future buyer cannot just assume that if stamps are in mounts that they are NH.

If split-back mounts have been completely stuck down, the process of opening them to examine the stamps is messy and results in an ugly page, that if presented to a different possible buyer, will not be attractive. Also, ugly pages further reduce the value of a collection to a potential buyer because ugly pages with ripped open mounts are not very salable as a collection that can be continued on those pages (many collector-buyers of collections want collections that they can continue in that same album).

This subject also applies to some older styles of mounts which are very dangerous in terms of inserting and removing stamps.

Wrongly installed mounts or the wrong style of old mounts can reduce the value of a collection by 10-20% in addition to any reduction in value that might have occurred due to gum damage, if any. Always keep in mind that if a buyer cannot fully see what they are buying, they will probably offer less for the collection. (Note: It is still usually better to leave the stamps in an actual album rather than transferring them to a stock book.)

Number Seven: Pressure-sensitive adhesive tape (such as Scotch brand and all the others) should never be anywhere in or near a stamp album. Sometimes a collector will use tape to keep a large or heavy item contained in a stamp mount. This is a terrible idea. I don't care what the tape's advertising claims are -- history has shown that nearly 100% of pressure-sensitive tapes have ended up damaging (or nearly so) whatever they come in contact with. Experienced collectors have seen the devastating results of tape used on covers, stamp mounts, and even using tape as "hinges". Tape either eventually turns dark and brittle and/or becomes sticky and oozing. The chemicals can travel right through stamps, album pages, and affect nearby materials. Just don't do it. Find a different way.

Number Eight: Pressure-sensitive adhesive stamp mounts (and "cover corners"). Here I get into a tricky subject. I can't afford to get sued by the manufacturers of these products, so I am just talking here about my personal preferences. What you do is your business. Many of the failed mount systems of the 1950s through the 1970s involved pressure-sensitive adhesives on the backs of mounts. I have never seen one that I felt worked well and was safe in the long term. Yes, the technology has certainly improved since then, but I don't care. The DAVO brand has recently come out with a new product line of self-adhesive mounts, promoting their convenience of use. The legendary Stanley Gibbons company is even promoting the DAVO mounts. However, though I don't have any proof to offer you, my personal opinion is that such products are potentially unsafe in the long term. Frankly, I feel that their potential risk, should something go wrong, overwhelms any convenience they might offer at the time of use. I would absolutely never use such product in my own collection. When I have bought stamp or cover collections that used pressure-sensitive self-adhesive mounts or attachments, I have stripped everything out of the collections and discarded the pages -- that is a lot more work and greatly reduced salability since there is no more "mounted collection" to offer for sale. (Yes, this subject does say something about self-adhesive stamp issues, but there is nothing we can do about those, if we choose to collect them, other than put each stamp in its own mount or other protection to keep the stamps from touching each other.)

Lastly, there is a closely related subject that affects the value of a collection being offered to a potential buyer, whether a dealer or collector: Boldly writing or stamping you name on each page. Many collectors choose to mark their pages with something (such as "APS #123456") to identify their property in case it is stolen. If this is done neatly in the BINDING-EDGE page margin or the back of the page (at the BINDING EDGE), it is not a terrible thing. And it might result in the return of your property if it is stolen. However, some collectors boldly write their name or stamp their address (keep in mind that some day you may move!) in an obvious place on the page. No potential buyer of such a collection wants to look at that for the next 30 years. As a result, obvious or ugly markings will somewhat reduce the value of the collection because its salability (as an intact collection that can be continued in the current album) is lessened. I recently purchased a very large collection on which hundreds of pages boldly bear the collectors name. I was not able to pay as much for the collection as I would have if the pages were "clean" and usable by the next owner. I am having to completely strip all the stamps from the album pages: I can't sell any of the collection on the pages.

[From a risk management perspective -- the risk of theft is why the identity markings have been put on the pages -- there is an almost-guaranteed built-in immediate reduction of value (i.e. risk) from ugly markings. However, stamp insurance professionals have told me that the risk of theft is smaller than the risk of house fires and associated water damage.]

The nice thing about stamp collecting is that everybody can do their own thing and there is no externally imposed "correct" way to do it. Though there are suggestions and guidelines and best practices, nobody is judging the collector or his/her methods. However, there are actions and decisions which can significantly affect the financial value of a collection when it comes time to sell. It is best to be fully informed and then do whatever you enjoy!


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Pair $22.00
Block $40.00

Other reprints also available.


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Unplanned Vertical Coil "Error" Stamp.

Updated 13 December 2019

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