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 Behind The Scenes  
 When a Certificate is NOT Really a Certificate  
 
by Jay Smith
July 16, 2015

The purpose of a certificate (of authenticity) is to present the opinion of a person or organization that is supposedly an expert on the subject stamp. Expertizing, the process of examining the item, usually results in a certificate. The presence of a certificate does not mean that the stamp is good or bad, genuine or fake, sound quality or damaged, etc. A certificate just presents the opinion of the expert(s), whatever that opinion may be.

Keep in mind that, as stated, a certificate usually presents an OPINION, not a guarantee, and usually does NOT carry with it any financial protection if the certificate is later found to be incorrect. (There are exceptions.)

Many -- but not all -- collectors, especially of U.S. stamps, have become well educated to the necessity of having or obtaining certificates for certain stamp issues either because of potential identification problems or because the advertised quality needs to be supported by a proper expert examination. In addition to ensuring that you are getting what you paid for, a "good" certificate will make the item easier to sell (and maybe at a higher price) if/when you decide to sell your collection.

In the case of U.S. stamps, most certificates are currently being issued by only a few organizations (such as the APS, Philatelic Foundation, PSE, PSAG, etc.) and a very few individuals (William Weiss is an expert that I use and respect).

Most collectors have come to understand that, when buying a stamp, a certificate should probably be less than 15 or 20 years old (because the stamp could have been damaged or altered in the interim) and the certificate should clearly describe the QUALITY of the stamp, and any defects, in addition to the identification of the stamp. The more costly or tricky the stamp issue, usually the more important it is to have a fresh certificate when buying a stamp. When buying a stamp that needs a certificate (or a newer certificate), the matter should be discussed with the seller before completing the transaction (or bidding, if an auction) and then the certificate should be obtained immediately.

Note: Prior to 20-40 years ago, some (many) certificates from well-respected organizations only mentioned the identity of the stamps and the condition (mint, used), but did not comment on the quality. A certificate from that earlier era, without quality information, is NOT well respected in the current market and should be replaced/refreshed.

This whole subject was recently brought to mind when I acquired a large and valuable collection of early U.S. stamps from an estate. The collection included over 120 items with "certificates". The certificates fell into three categories:

- Modern certificates from respected organizations (PF, APS, PSE) and individuals (Weiss), WITH quality information.

- Old certificates from respected organizations (mostly PF), but WITHOUT quality information.

- "Dealer" certificates -- all from ONE particular dealer - that usually only mentioned the identification and condition (mint, used) of the stamp, but not the quality. Furthermore, this dealer's certificates bore the statement "The above is only our opinion and is not a guarantee. We cannot be held financially responsible in the event of an error." This dealer, who I will not name here, had sold many of the stamps to the deceased collector.

My reading of that dealer's statement includes the meaning that if the dealer is also the seller of the stamp and if the stamp pictured in the certificate is later determined to be repaired (and even if the repaired area can be seen in the picture), that dealer takes no responsibility giving a refund to the original buyer of the stamp.

I do not agree with that way of doing business!

Let me be clear: I am a dealer. I am also a professional expertizer (only for Scandinavian material). I do issue certificates, for a fee, for items submitted to me. I also issue a different type of certificates for stamps that I offer for sale. Thus I do not have a fundamental problem with "dealer certificates". However, I DO HAVE A PROBLEM if a dealer issues a certificate for an item that they own (or are selling on commission), but that the dealer refuses to take financial responsibility for that item.

As a dealer/expertizer, I issue two distinct kinds of certificates that express my opinion about the item:

For a SUBMITTED item (in which I have NO financial interest or involvement), my certificate states: "The opinion expressed for the item described and pictured carries with it no guarantee or warranty. Aspects of condition, quality, defects, or manipulation may have changed after the date of examination by Jay Smith."

For an item I AM SELLING (or in which I DO have some financial interest or involvement), my certificate states: "The item described and pictured, when accompanied by the original purchase invoice from Jay Smith & Associates, is guaranteed by Jay Smith to be as described, for the lifetime of Jay Smith. This lifetime guarantee extends only to aspects of authenticity and not to aspects of condition, quality, defects, or manipulation, which are beyond the control of Jay Smith after the date of examination."

See the difference? I take financial responsibility for my opinion if I am selling the item.

A closer reading of my "guaranteed" certificate text includes two important concepts that go beyond most dealer certificates that I have seen. 1) The guarantee is NOT limited to the person to whom I sold the stamp; I just ask that the original invoice be presented so that I can confirm what was originally paid for the stamp (if collectors can keep certificates, they can also keep the original invoice with them). Where I can otherwise reasonably track down the information, I would even be willing to be flexible about that. 2) While the guarantee does, of course, exclude future quality problems, it only excludes them when the problems are "beyond [my] control". For example, if the image on the certificate shows a corner perforation that a later expert demonstrates is a repaired corner (and we agree that it is the same corner perforation bit of paper as in the image), then my guarantee stands and I would refund the original price paid for the stamp, to whomever currently owns the stamp.

Well ... back to our story ... regarding the particular dealer certificates that accompanied so many of the U.S. stamps in the estate, almost all the stamps were correctly identified (just two or three really tricky ones were not). However, the vast majority of the certificates that only stated condition (mint vs used), actually had, in my opinion, defects ranging from small problems (thins, creases, ‘hidden' tears) to major repairs, reperforation, and manipulation.

There is no way for me to know how or why this occurred. The potential range of explanations should be obvious.

The important morals to this story are:

1) A certificate is (usually) only an opinion and is only as good as the skill of the person(s) doing the examination.

2) When the expertizer has a financial interest in the item being expertized there is ALWAYS a potential conflict of interest. That is why I have chosen to guarantee my certificates in those situations. Also, I am not the least bit bothered if a client asks for an "extension" so that they can obtain a certificate from a different expert.

3) Simply having a certificate means nothing -- everything depends upon what the certificate actually says, and what it does NOT say. If a certificate simply states that a stamp is #123 and is used or canceled, that does NOT mean that the stamp does not have defects or alterations; and it does not even mean that the cancellation itself is genuine or correct for the stamp and time period. One has to actually read the certificate and not assume anything that the certificate does not state explicitly.

4) Trust must be earned -- it cannot just be granted by a piece of paper. And the appearance of trustworthiness should be verified from time to time, especially when somebody is asking you to trust them and pay them money.

Sometimes a discussion such as this, that touches on a less attractive aspect of philately, can be a bit of a "downer". I have even been told by a few dealers that I should not talk about such things because they are not "upbeat" or "positive" and that such discussion caused too much worry or concern.

My opinion is that sometimes, yes, education can be a "downer" and it can upset beliefs or opinions, but that in itself, education always has a net-positive result even if there are a few bumps in the road along the way. So, rather than worry about what might go wrong with a stamp or a certificate, think of it as having more tools in your toolbox so that you will obtain the right kind of certificate for stamps that should have certificates.

By the way, though my philatelic experience is broad, I consider myself very lucky to be a specialist in Scandinavian stamps. Compared to many philatelic areas, Scandinavia has many fewer problems with forgeries and manipulations, and in some ways some types of them can be easier to detect. I never let my guard down, and I am always on the lookout for a new type of "attack", but I'm glad that Scandinavian philately is not under constant "attack" to the degree evident in some other specialties.
 
 

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