Determining the value of a stamp can be a complex affair. It’s made more so by the existence of forgeries.
The motives for producing counterfeit stamps is no doubt very much the same as for forging currency: to increase the value of a piece of paper otherwise worth much less. The methods are often ingenious, since practitioners have had over 150 years of techniques from which to learn. Counterfeiting stamps has been going on since they were first produced.
Making fake stamps to evade the cost of ordinary postage is rarely worth the effort. But when the price of a stamp – such as the Tre Skilling Banco Yellow – can reach $2.2 million at auction, there is some incentive to try forging rare samples.
Even far less expensive items may incent a counterfeiter, however. Just as producing counterfeit $20 bills can be profitable if you make and pass enough of them, so it is with stamps. And there are a great many stamps that sell anywhere from a few dollars to a $100 or more that are in wide circulation. Producing a thousand of the latter could lead to a tidy illegitimate profit.
The value of stamps, like coins, varies with condition. In general, other things being equal, a stamp that is in better shape will fetch more – particularly if it’s an older issue. Counterfeiters know this, of course, and one relatively inexpensive and simple technique used is to simply repair the stamps.
Ink stains can be removed, tears mended, backs re-gummed, hinge marks improved… nearly any degradation that can occur can be (at least partially) reversed. Modern technology has come to the aid not only of conservationists but the counterfeiters as well.
Of course, as with any practice in any collectible, some will argue that repairs don’t constitute forgery. After all, centuries-old paintings are restored every day. And there’s some merit to that position. But cleaning decades or more of accumulated chemical damage to the surface of a painting isn’t an attempt to pass it off as new or in mint condition.
Tears, ink stains and some other kinds of ‘damage’ may well be part of the history of a particular issue or individual stamp. If the Princess Sforza tore an 1899 Hungarian while mailing a letter to her lover, repairing the damage is re-writing history. And it’s that history, in part, that gives value to the stamp.
Forgeries sometimes go beyond attempts to fake a particular stamp. Since, in some cases, part of the value is the cover (envelope, packaging, etc) to which the stamp was affixed, these too are sometimes counterfeited.
Postal marks, the paper used, handwriting on the envelope and other elements are all part of the totality of the artifact. Forgers learn their craft well and can fake anyone of these elements in an attempt to create a valuable collectible out of worthless scraps of paper.
Identifying forgeries is an interesting bit of detective work, often best left to experts. They have the experience, tools and skill to distinguish the genuine article from the fake. But, as with anything related to stamps, there’s nothing preventing you from becoming an expert, too!