The Simplicity of Basic Forgery Detection

Should stamp collectors be concerned with forgeries or unofficial reprints which are not sanctioned by any postal body or recognized as authentic philatelic material? This depends on the readers collecting area an concern for throwing money at stamps with the belief that they are real, when in fact they are not (wasting money). This seems like a bold statement for one of the most popular hobbies in the world, whose audience includes young children to adults of all ages. However, the fact of the matter is, forgeries abound and are bought, sold and traded every day with the belief of being real. Forgeries are not limited to just expensive stamps but are found with common stamps just as prolifically as the expensive issues. This article will explain why its important to be cognizant of forgeries and should convince the reader that with little effort any collector can reduce the possibility of acquiring a stamp under false pretenses.

Most collectors do not worry about forgeries because they do not realize they are out there, or believe that its too hard to detect forgeries and put their trust 100% with the sellers' abilities. One would think this philosophy should be fool proof when buying and selling from reputable (or knowledgeable) dealers. While this may reduce the probabilities, it still is not good enough. All of the stamps pictured in this article were purchased from VERY reputable dealers, who are very respected and knowledgeable in the craft. It is important to understand, that while honest dealers try to catch all forgeries before selling a stamp, it is just not feasible, and not a practical expectation for a buyer to have. There are many reasons why the buyer should be concerned when buying stamps from any dealer of seller:

Since dealing with reputable dealers will not protect a buyer from obtaining a forgery, it is clear that the buyer must take some responsibility for either avoiding the purchase of a forgery, or for detection at some point in time, so that one does not end up with a book of unwanted items. To aid the collector in forgery detection there are organizations which have services that certify whether a stamp is authentic or not. The APS (American Philatelic Society) offers such a service and has a very good reputation for being accurate. Such organizations have experts take a look at a stamp and render an opinion as to its authenticity. The opinions are not always right, so any opinion can be challenged, but more than not, they are correct. So why not send in all of your stamps? This would get too expensive, too quickly, as the minimum charge per stamp by the APS is $15 and the final cost is based on the value of the stamp. The more valuable the stamp, the more expensive the service. Stamps sent into for expertising should be ones believed to be authentic (possibly to aid in resale value) or are items the collector is unable to make a final determination one way or the other on. Expertising services only make sense for stamps of higher value and thus, are not practical for all stamps.

The best defense and most cost effective way of dealing with forgeries is to avoid purchasing them in the first place. Using services, like APS, should be a final safeguard. The examples provided below will show the reader just how easy it is, and will demonstrate that with very little effort and experience, a buyer can avoid the purchase of a bad stamp by the do-it-yourself method, thus saving lots of money by only purchasing genuine stamps. Collectors of inexpensive stamps may chose to not worry about forgeries as the potential cost, or loss, will be negligible, but it should be well noted that many inexpensive stamps, some valued less than .25c, have been forged in great numbers. In many cases, there are more forged copies than authentic copies in existence.

There are a number of good publications out on how to detect forgeries. These include books, pamphlets and journals. If you are interested in buying stamps from a certain region, then it would be in your best interest to find a book that specializes on stamps from that area. For the stamps used in this article the following books were used: "Distinguishing Characteristics of Classic Stamps" by Hermann Schloss and the GPS (German Philatelic Society) Reference Manuals on Forgeries. These kinds of books are available for checkout at various philatelic libraries (such as the APS and Western Philatelic Library). Since stamps are being forged all the time, new information is always coming out and periodic checks with a library is recommended. (NOTE: The quality and number of reference materials used in forgery detection will help the reader better detect forgeries. Some stamps are difficult, even for the very experienced, so the key to more advanced forgery detection is experience.)

The first example of how to detect a forgery will be done on Baden #7. Pictured below is a good copy and a forgery. By visual inspection, can you determine which one is the forgery? Many people will say that the stamp on the right is the forgery because it looks sloppy, with bad details in the design. While this is the forgery, this is not the reason. Many stamps look like this because of the printing methods, worn plates or the design (engraving) was rough to start with.
baden 7   baden 7
pic. 1   pic. 2

Consulting the reference material listed above, the detection process becomes quite obvious. Pictures #3 & #4 highlight some of the points, as listed in the references, used in determining authenticity of the stamps, or in the case of the stamp on the right, why it fails the tests of authenticity. While there are more than 3 checks in the literature, the illustrations are enough to help the reader understand the potential simplicity of forgery detection. Some of the other examples provided may require magnification (with a glass piece) to spot the items.
baden 7   baden 7
pic. 3   pic. 4

The numbered items in pictures #3 & #4 are key things to look for in determining if these copies of Baden #7 are real or forgeries. The numbered items represent the following:

  1. On the authentic stamp this points to the engravers "secret mark", which is a small curved line coming off the right side of the scalloped ring. On the forgery this curved line is not present.
  2. On the authentic stamp the 5 in 1850 is smaller than the rest of the numbers. It is the same size as the other numbers on the forged stamp.
  3. The top of the F in FREIMARKE is clear of the frame on the authentic stamp, while touching on the forged copy (though its hard to see on this stamp because of the cancellation, which appears to be forged as well).

The current catalog value of a Baden #7 used is $6.50. This is not considered a valuable stamp by any means and thus, serves as a warning to collectors who scuff at the notion that only expensive stamps are forged. Also, this stamp shows that detecting a forgery is easy, once the collector knows what to look for. In many cases, detection is just a matter of knowing what line belongs and which does not.

Adhering to the belief that expensive stamps are heavily forged, we now look at two mint stamps from an early German State which catalog $300 apiece. However, one of these Bremen #5 is a forgery. Looking at pictures #5 & #6 can you tell which one is authentic?
bremen 5   bremen 5
pic. 5   pic. 6

Unlike the Baden example above, both of these stamps have a very sharp appearance. Both are clean and have the same coloring, and what appears to be an exact make up. Yet one of them is a forgery. If we look at the numbered items in pictures #7 & #8 we see that there are differences between the two.
bremen 5   bremen 5
pic. 7   pic. 8

The numbered items tell us the following:

  1. In the middle of the circle of the letter P in POST is a dot on the authentic stamp and no dot on the forged stamp. (see picture #7a)
  2. Between the legs and under the crossbar of the A in AMT should be a dot if authentic and would be missing in the forged copy. (see picture #7b)
  3. &
  4. In the upper and lower lobes of the S of STADT should be a single dot in the real stamp and missing in the forged stamp. (see picture #7c)

bremen 5   bremen 5   bremen 5
pic. 7a   pic. 7b   pic. 7c

Given the 3 items above you should be able to determine that the forged stamp is the one on the right (pictures #6 & #8). Without the reference material it would be impossible to actually differentiate between an authentic copy and a forged copy of this $300 stamp. Making a mistake could cost a buyer good money.

There are some stamps worth more used than unused. Many of these stamps typically have forged cancellations to make a mint stamp appear postally used. When a forger decides to forge one of these stamps, it is usually forged with a fake cancellation or is actually placed on an envelope and is postally used to make the stamp appear valid. A postally used forgery may have some value to some collectors, but will normally never have close to the value of its authentic counterpart, and to most collectors would be worthless. The following example of Lubeck #4 (pictures #9 & #10) shows a mint copy of the authentic stamp, which is valued at $19 and its forged counterpart, with cancellation, valued at $575 if authentic. This example concentrates on the stamp itself and not the cancellation.
lubeck 4   lubeck 4
pic. 9   pic. 10

Pictures #11 & #12 point out three items that are used to differentiate between an authentic and forged copy of this stamp. There are many other indicators, but these three should suffice in demonstrating that you would not want to pay anything close to $575 for the stamp in picture #12.
lubeck 4   lubeck 4
pic. 11   pic. 12

The numbered items should be interpreted as follows:

  • The authentic stamp should have 2 dots between the griffins heads. On the forged copy there are none.
  • Below the horizontal line of the lower center ornament there should be 4 dots. Most forgeries contain no dots, as is the case with this example.
  • The vertical concave rule between the upper and lower ornaments on the right should be 5.3 mm long. It is much shorter than this in the forged copy depicted in this example.

    All of the examples up to this point have compared a forged copy against an authentic copy. This is the preferred method (many dealers build up collections of both authentic and forged stamps to be used for forgery detection of new stamps acquired) as its very easy to see the differences. The following examples will look at a single copy of a stamp and the indicators used, to help determine authenticity versus forgery. It will be apparent when visually inspecting the items, that its harder in making the final determination, but is still straightforward, in these examples, for the novice to make the correct assessment.

    The following two examples will use some very clean copies of stamps from Bremen. Picture #13 represents Bremen #3 and picture #14 represents Bremen #7.
    bremen 3   bremen 7
    pic. 13   pic. 14

    Both of these stamps are forgeries. Pictures #15 & #16 point out what was used in determining them to be forgeries.
    bremen 3   bremen 7
    pic. 15   pic. 16

    Bremen #3 fails the following checks:

    1. The b in Sieben is opened at the bottom in the authentic copies. On this stamp the bottom of the b is complete, though the line is thin.
    2. The lines in the shield protrude over the upper frame line into the border area of the shield. In this copy the lines do not penetrate into the border area.
    3. Authentic copies of this stamp have a single dot in the r and k of Marke. There are no dots in either letter of this issue.

    Having an authentic copy of Bremen #3 would have made the first point crystal clear whether or not the b in this copy is legitimate or not. However, with a magnifying glass, it is quite clear to see that the b is closed. Using good judgment and a bit of confidence, one should come to the conclusion that this is a forged stamp.

    Bremen #7 is difficult to determine authenticity, but with sound judgment, the following points clearly define this stamp as a forgery:

    1. The 0 is usually open or very thin in the authentic copies. This stamp clearly shows that the 0 is closed.
    2. The 0 has dash lines in the white part. The 1 may have them but they are not always visible. This copy has no dash lines in either numeral.
    3. All 0 are flattened on the bottom. This particular 0 is very well rounded.

    The differences between an authentic Bremen #7 and a forged Bremen #7 are slight, but quite easily detectable. With some simple knowledge, it is easy to tell the difference between two Bremen stamps which are valued at $650 and two forged stamps which are not worth much at all.

    The examples so far have concentrated on detecting a forged stamp. The goal of forgery detection is to find authentic stamps. The last example presented will highlight the items used in determining that a stamp is authentic. The stamp to be used is a Bergedorf #1, picture #17, which has been forged many times over (GPS lists six different common forgeries of this issue). Picture #18 highlights the main points used in differentiating this stamp from its forged counterparts.
    bergedorf 1   bergedorf 1
    pic. 17   pic. 18

    The main points used in the determination of the stamp, as pointed out in picture #18, are as follows:

    1. The R of HALBER is broad and flat-topped.
    2. The N of EIN does not contain a large dot in its upper right extremity and the letter is composed of three thick lines.
    3. The left tower of the castle is bisected vertically.
    4. The cross-bars of all letters A, F and H are intact (or very nearly so).
    The final check, against a Sperati forgery, is paper color; blue if authentic, white or grey if forged by Sperati. Looking at the descriptions of some of the forgeries, one would find that this stamp does not fit the description of any of them, while meeting all the points of a genuine stamp. This would lead one to believe that this stamp is authentic, the desired goal.

    Having now gone through a number of examples, the reader should be convinced that all collectors should be aware of forgeries and that anyone can do basic forgery (authentication) detection. With simple research, and a good book, forgery detection is available to any collector who wishes to embark on this endeavor. It still must be pointed out that some forgeries are so good, that detection is best left up to experts in the field, and for those stamps, services like the "APS expertising", should be consulted. Failure to detect forgeries may leave a collection full of worthless stamps and great disappointment when a stamp is put up for sale or shown to another collector.

    [ home ]