By Ken Perkins

image476Non-collectors thinking about stamp collecting could be forgiven for believing that the front of the stamp must be the most important part of a stamp. After all, the colorful designs, values, country names, and postmarks are all on the front. But we wily philatelists know that there’s lots of interesting stuff to be found on the back of a stamp too.

Some of the stuff on the back of stamps is a pain: unpeelable ‘peelable’ stamp hinges are a common plague. But some stamps show carefully applied, tiny hand-stamps on their backsides. On the backs of some recently acquired Bavarian stamps, for example, I found small (7.5mm diameter) circular stamped markings containing the words “INFLA BERLIN” and “ECHT”, along with the letter “H” in the center.

image287Well, “ECHT” is German for ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’, so this must be some sort of authenticating mark. A little research on the web revealed that “INFLA BERLIN” is a German philatelic group dedicated to research on the German inflation issues of the post World War I period. Among their members are philatelic experts who will, for a fee, render their opinion as to the authenticity of German area stamps and cancellations. The little hand-stamp on the back of my Bavarian stamps means that an INFLA BERLIN expert has certified that this stamp is genuine. And the “H” identifies the expertizer.

One odd issue is the fact that my “INFLA BERLIN” expertized stamps aren’t particularly valuable. The Bavaria Scott #209 shown, for example, is a 1919-1920 issue with a 2010 value of $14.50 in used condition. The $14.50 is, however, in italics, and a check of the widely ignored “Understanding valuing notations” section in the introduction to the Scott catalogue reveals that “Stamp values in italics generally refer to items that are difficult to value accurately”. The catalogue goes on to say that “For inexpensive items, a value in italics represents a warning.” One such warning is that when the used stamp is valued much higher than a mint one, it’s essential to be certain that the cancellation is genuine and contemporary. Bavaria Scott #209 is valued at only 60 cents mint, much less than the $14.50 used stamp.

And a check of the INFLA BERLIN website reveals that their round hand-stamp is only used on stamps with legible, genuine cancellations. That explains the appearance of an expert’s mark on a stamp I can afford.

But wait…reliable sources on the web tell me that some INFLA BERLIN markings, including the type I’ve been discussing, have been forged! Fine…now the expert marks need expertizing. What’s a poor collector to do? As luck would have it, I found a website illustrating the forged “INFLA BERLIN H” marking, and the ones on my stamps look genuine. If the decimal point in the Scott value were a couple of places to the right, I’d consider having the stamp re-evaluated, but as it stands, I’m happy with the current situation.

Here in the USA we stamp collectors don’t like any markings to be added to our stamps: we’re more
accustomed to stamps being expertized via a certificate containing the expertizers’ opinions and a photo of the stamp. Such certificates are issued by the APS’ American Philatelic Expertizing Service, as well as others.  Apparently our European cousins aren’t so picky.

Not all European expertizing is done by marking the stamp, however. I have an Italian stamp which came with a short letter from a dealer in Padova. Written in 1994, the dealer announces to the stamp’s owner: “I’m returning your piece to you; unfortunately, the cancellation is forged…please send 15,000 Lire for my services and postage.” Pretty cheap expertizing: in 1994, 15,000 Lire was about $9.00 US.