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Describing the Universe
By Rick Range
for the Virtual Stamp Club

I always remember the cartoon that shows a student taking a final exam. There is only one question: "Describe the universe." In this case, it is Collector's Universe, the large company that recently purchased Professional Stamp Experts (PSE) - a company known for expertizing collector's philatelic treasures.

There has been much negative press about PSE "slabbing" stamps. Well, I decided to find out for myself what this was all about. Collector's Universe is located not too far from my home and through a mutual contact, I was able to get an appointment to "see the facility." After I made the arrangements, I was pleased to find out that I had an appointment with PSE founder Randy Shoemaker, the owner and operator of PSE from its inception in 1987.

I made it clear that I had no hidden agenda and asked permission to take notes and report my findings in the Virtual Stamp Club, the Virtual Stamp Club. The following report was based on questions posted in the Message Board and the ensuing discussion from the questions.

The first thing I learned is that the proper term for encasing stamps is "encapsulation." I don't know where the term slabbing came from, but like most things these days it seems that something happens to upset someone and a negative term is assigned to it.

Let's make it clear up front that whether to encapsulate a stamp is the collector's choice.

PNC is offering two new products - a PSE-graded stamp in a tamper-evident display case, and a PSE Certificate of Authenticity with an assigned standardized philatelic grade - and its original product, a PSE Certificate of Authenticity. When submitting an item to PSE, the collector chooses which product to purchase. The only way I can see this bringing the focus of philately back to investors is if every stamp that gets submitted is encapsulated and then the other expertizing groups follow suit and offer the same product.

The "flip" (plastic case for the stamp) is water-resistant, although Shoemaker recommended not taking your stamps into the shower or scuba diving with you. The plastic used is totally chemically-inert and free of plasticizers. There is no glue used to seal the flip as it is sonically sealed or fused without the use of chemicals.

When asked if a stamp could be removed from the flip, Shoemaker replied that the individual would first have to know how to break the case or the stamp could possibly be damaged. He stated that the only reason he could see for doing this would be if a future owner of an encapsulated item wanted to exhibit the item.

PSE's product cost has been and will continue to be based on the amount of time given for the service. The highest cost is associated with the Premium Service of approximately 10 days. The next level is Express Service (approximately 30 days) and then the Standard Service of approximately 45 to 60 days.

PSE has the backing of Greg Manning for the encapsulation process as well as the other two products. While PSE does not assign values to stamps, they are expecting to have several authorized PSE dealers available to appraise a stamp's value.

PSE established the grading standards that will be used. They are still being reviewed by several independent sources. The grading system is based on points: 70 points for a Very Fine (VF) example; 90 for Extra Fine (XF); and 98 for a Superb mathematically-centered specimen. The stamp can lose or gain points based on gum condition, color, freshness, and other conditions. PSE feels that the standardized grading process will do away with dealer grading, which in the long run will protect the collector.

When asked about customer satisfaction studies in reference to coin and card encapsulation, Shoemaker stated that Collector's Universe has revolutionized the card and coin collecting fields and that they have plenty of feedback from collectors to back up their process.

Thankfully, there will be different groups of employees grading cards, coins and stamps. The card graders are the employees with the lowest average age and require approximately one year of training. An average card grader can review between 400 and 500 cards per day. The next group in terms of age is the coin graders, each of whom reviews about 800 coins per day.

The stamp graders (actually, about 70 independent consultants which were with PSE and will remain with Collector's Universe) are the oldest group and can review about 100 stamps per day. The names of several in this group are viewable through www.collectors.com or directly on www.stampexpert.com/experts.htm. These consultants are not located at the Collector's Universe headquarters, but rather the items are sent to them and a minimum of three expertizers look at each item. Shoemaker provided me with the extensive expertizing work sheet.

On the left is space for up to five experts to provide original comments. On the right, there are five columns of check-off boxes, one for each expert. The categories are:

  • Properly identified
  • Improperly identified (with space for the correct identification)
  • Counterfeit
  • Reprint
  • Genuine in all respects
  • Unused, o.g. [original gum], never hinged
  • Unused, o.g., hinged
  • Part o.g.
  • Unused, no gum as issued
  • Unused, no gum
  • Used
  • Genuine but as noted below
  • Forged overprint
  • Forged surcharge
  • Fake grill
  • Fake cancellation
  • Fiscally used
  • Reperforated (L, R, T, B) [left, right, top bottom]
  • Fake perforations (L, R, T, B)
  • Perforations trimmed off (L, R, T, B)
  • Regummed
  • Cleaned
  • Bleached
  • Pen cancel removed
  • Creased*
  • Thinned*
  • Repaired*
  • Torn*
  • Altered*
  • Defective*
  • [Three blank lines]
  • Unable to render an opinion
The items marked with an asterisk include space for comments.

Down the side is a space for "Certified as Cat. No. [Catalogue Number]."

The Internet has certainly played a role in increasing stamp collecting activities - just look at the number of items offered and sold on eBay. Collector's Universe will be focusing on mainstream philately and on the continued Internet stamp sales growth. PSE and eBay have a new, yet to be launched, co-branded Internet site offering the expertization of stamps purchased on eBay.

An informal poll of Virtual Stamp Club members in early December 1999 resulted in 91% of those responding calling encapsulation bad for philately. Fifty-eight people took the survey.

Although the poll is now over, you can still participate in the discussion.

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