Canadian Stamp Auctions

Stamp market commentary

Commentary No. 20 - 17 April, 2001

Bidding Using Auction Catalogues

This is the second of a series articles

to be presented for the collector who

would like to learn more about this valuable

tool for building a more complete collection.

It can take years to learn how to accurately view stamps in an auction catalogue and to judge their quality or lack thereof.  While this is no easy task, you can at least take your time to do the job carefully, free from the pressure that often accompanies a viewing at an auctioneer's office.  Slowly going over each stamp methodically can save buyers a lot of grief.  It can be very embarrassing to realize that you made a mistake in bidding on a stamp through the mail and have to return the stamp to the auction house because you disagree with the description in the catalogue.  However, it does happens to all of us from time to time.

One could say that most of the stamps offered at auction are of a fairly good quality.  In other words, they are not dirty and they are not damaged.  If there are any obvious flaws, these are usually mentioned.  As a result, when analyzing the images in the catalogue, buyers can focus on two key factors. These are: the centring and the perforations.

The Importance of Good Centring

Of the two factors mentioned, the centring of a stamp probably has more impact on its value than anything else.  Even stamps that are issued by Canada Post today with our modern equipment and controls are sometimes off centre.  Stamps issued 100 years ago were almost always off centre.  A perfect example is the Admiral series of stamps (Scott 104 to 122). 

Realised $160

Realised $625


Realised $300

Realised $425

These were issued ninety years ago in the hundreds of millions and yet, there are very few well-centred specimens that have survived to this day. These few treasures sell for prices that are many times their catalogue value. 

When an auctioneer offers a particular stamp that is clearly superior in terms of centring, he is often at a loss for words in describing it.  He uses phrases such as "unusually well centred" or "seldom seen in this quality", etc.  But, when a stamp has, let us say, a centring that is adequate and satisfactory, he may simply described it as very fine (VF).  One should never accept an auctioneer's description of a stamp being "very fine" without questioning it. It is our experience that all auctioneers use this term loosely. 



We don't mean to suggest any sloppiness on their part, just a bit of over enthusiasm, which is very understandable. For the individuals who are responsible for preparing the catalogue descriptions for hundreds or thousands of stamps, this is no easy task. It is their job to sell those stamps and at the same time be informative and credible. But for the collectors out there who are spending their hard-earned money, this is an area where the phrase "buyer beware" really means something. 

When looking at the photo of a stamp in a catalogue, you are actually seeing two separate things.  The first is the image in the middle of the stamp.  The second is the white border that surrounds it.  It is normal that, when focusing on these two aspects of the stamp, your eyes become confused. They are trying to be both subjective and objective. In being subjective they are telling your brain what a pretty picture they are seeing. In being objective, they are asking all kind of questions about the centring. 

The Solution

Long ago we were taught a technique that very often will avoid this confusion.  By simply turning a stamp upside-down, one can see at a glance whether it is centred. 




The reason for this is that the eyes are no longer looking at the image, trying to recognize what it represents, but are concentrating on a coloured rectangle surrounded by white borders. Now, with the stamp turned upside down, they can focus on the evenness of each white border and make a judgement call on whether the stamp is very fine. Try works! 



Problem Areas

There can be other factors that can come into play when determining the centring of a stamp, but these usually occur rarely. It is frequently difficult to judge the centring of a block of stamps, even if you turn the block upside down. As well, some auctioneers will “cluster” stamps so you can't evaluate each one individually.  If they are placed very closely together in a line, it can be hard to see where one starts and the other ends. Even more difficult is the situation where stamps are displayed on a light background; this makes it next to impossible to distinguish the borders of the stamps.



We at Canadian Stamp Auctions hope you have found these comments helpful. The next in this series will be "How to Check Perforations"

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©2001, Canadian Stamp Auctions Ltd., Montréal, Québec, Canada