What is Scientific Analysis in Stamp Collecting, and how has it Benefited the Philatelic World?

By Thomas Lera

thomas laraAnalytical philately — that is, scientific philately — investigates the questions people may have about the authenticity of a stamp, a cover, or a document. Is the gum original? Was the paper woven? Is the signature genuine?

Nearly 10 percent of all objects in an individual collection, museum, or auction house is questionable. And it’s for that 10 percent that the scientific analysis of philately is important.

Before the relatively recent practice began — approximately 30 years ago — people relied on very subjective visual comparisons to tell whether something was genuine or counterfeit. Looking at a single stamp, one person might say the color is fuchsia while another might deem it magenta, since everyone sees color differently.

As a longtime collector who spent my early career as an ecological scientist, I wanted to get to the quantitative proof, so instead of going through a long visual analysis, I could use technical methods to tell within a minute whether something is real or fake. Today, working in the Smithsonian National Postal Museum’s laboratory, I perform comparative analyses between a known sample and one in question, to come up with an answer.

Take, for example, the 4-cent Columbian — an ultramarine blue stamp produced in 1893. When the American Bank Note Company printed the stamp, it accidentally ran a small number using the ink of the 1-cent stamp, producing an error in which the 4-cent design is a darker shade of Prussian blue. The Scott catalog value for a 4-cent Columbian is roughly $350, but the error can fetch between $14,000 and $40,000, depending on the condition. So determining whether the stamp in one’s collection is indeed an error can obviously be of great importance.

For this stamp, I conducted a comparative analysis on errors and genuine stamps, using the museum’s series of machines to determine the makeup of the stamps’ pigment.

A spectrograph, for instance, analyzes the reflectance of the ink between 400 and 1000 nanometers; if we find differing shaped curves, that may indicate that different inks were used on the samples under review. A handheld X-ray spectrometer qualifies nearly any element from Magnesium to Uranium, and again, varying results may indicate a difference in inks. Other equipment identifies organic and inorganic materials and so on. The analysis process is non-destructive, leaving stamps unharmed.

In the case of the 4-cent Columbian, the results from each piece of equipment complemented the other, totally confirming our hypothesis that the same ink was used for both the 4-cent error and the 1-cent issuance.

Similarly, for the First International Symposium on Philately held in 2012, I looked at the first stamp issues of Chile, which were first printed in London and later in Chile (1853 – 1865). When the printers shipped them from London they also sent ink to use moving forward, but Chile instead began issuing stamps using its own ink — a color believed to match perfectly.

By conducting an elemental analysis on the pigments, I demonstrated the difference between the various first issues: Those printed in London were high in iron, creating a bright brick-red color, while stamps printed in Santiago were high in mercury and sulphur, creating vermilion red.

Scientific analysis is exciting work. The Smithsonian National Postal Museum laboratory in Washington, D.C., is open to anyone on an appointment basis. People who come into the lab not only receive answers to their questions but find their minds opened to future exploration.(Source-USPS)

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