Overview - The Concept of Numeric Grading

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, Unitrade and Gibbons state that their prices are for very fine stamps (or fine stamps in the case of Gibbons) and go on to define what constitutes very fine (or 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, Scott and Gibbons catalogues do attempt to explain this by way of a note in the relevant sections of their catalogue. Our belief is that scarcity and grade are two separate issues, both of which affect price. It makes more sense to us to accept the idea that some issues may simply not exist in the high condition grades, such as the perforated pence issue of Canada, or the earliest Perkins Bacon line engraved stamps of the 1860's 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, nor do they make any accommodation for major and minor faults. 

A good and reliable grading system should identify all 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 most 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. We 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 to some extent.

It is useful though to assign a point value to those grades that most of you are most familiar with. Our grading system assigns the following scores to commonly known grades as follows:

1. GEM - 100.

2. Superb (SUP) - 95 to 99.

3. Extremely fine (EF) - 85 to 94.

4. Very fine (VF) - 75 to 84.

5. Fine (F) - 65 to 74.

6. Very good (VG) - 55 to 64.

7. Good (G) - 45 to 54.

8. Fair (FR) - 35 to 44.

9. Poor (P) - 25 to 34.

10. Spacefillers or study material grade: less than 25.

Under this system what generally happens is that within each qualitative grade like very fine, fine and very good, there will be a high end, a mid-range and a low end grade. So for VF, the common numeric values will be VF-84, which is the high end grade, VF-80, which is the mid-range, and VF-75, which is the lower end grade. The mid-range grade meets all the requirements of the grade solidly, while the high end grade falls just short of the next highest grade. The lower end of the grade still meets the criteria of the grade, but just barely. 

Grading in this manner enables the quality of material to be evaluated more reliably and thus priced more fairly and consistently. 

 Factors That Determine the Grade

The factors that one considers when evaluating a stamp, booklet 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. For perforated stamps, how well centered the design is within the margins.
  6. For perforated stamps, how even the perforations are and how intact they are.
  7. For used stamps the degree to which the cancellation obscures or discolours the design.
  8. For used stamps and covers, how crisp and readable the cancellation is.
  9. For covers, the presence or absence of stains and paper faults.
  10. For covers, the attractiveness of the handwriting on the front.
  11. The presence or absence of paper flaws that are visible from the front of the item.
  12. For complete booklets, the centering and freshness of the panes, the condition of the cover edges, the freshness of the cover, including the absence of stains and the condition of the contents, including any interleaving. 

Each of these factors will be weighted differently for mint stamps, used stamps booklets 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, if all other factors rate highly.

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.

The non-visual factors are generally weighted in a way that will not preclude an item from being very fine, but will prevent an item from being meeting any of the very high condition grades.