Mystic’s Premium Grading Guidelines

Collectibles like baseball cards, coins, and stamps, are graded and priced according to their condition, scarcity, and overall appeal.   A group of 10 of the same stamp can have 10 different grades and values.  The starting point, or base, starts with the most typical grade and is graded up or down.  A graded stamp can be used or unused, have small faults or be fault-free.  A grade can make a big difference in the value and price of a stamp.

 Grading Mint Stamps 

The following gives an idea how stamps are graded.  As you will see later, there are 5 different eras, each with its own guidelines.  Stamp grading is best defined as categorizing stamps according to their characteristics, such as: centering, gum, and overall condition.  Sometimes a number is assigned, but more likely an abbreviation of the stamp’s grade is used.

All About Centering

What is centering?

Centering is the relationship of a stamp’s design, margins, and perforations – or edges, if the stamp is imperforate.

Abbreviations and Descriptions

You’ll understand stamp centering better if you know what Mystic abbreviations and descriptions mean. The abbreviations are explained below, along with how stamps are described according to their centering.

There are 5 eras of stamp production, each with its own guidelines for what is typical for each level of centering. Centering varied for many reasons, including differences in paper, temperature, and humidity.

Mystic’s Centering Guidelines

The following guidelines are detailed definitions and samples of centering and grades from four different eras of printing.  These are the same guidelines our graders use.   These stamps are priced according to condition and how well the stamp is centered between the 4 margins.  Less than 25% of stamps issued are considered “premium” and less than 1% are perfect “Gems.”
 Click the links below to view stamps and centering guidelines by issue:
1847-57 First Issues, Imperforate (Scott #1-17)

1857-61 Issues (Scott #18-39)

1862-69 Issues (Scott #62B-101)

1869 Pictorial Issues (Scott #112-22)

1875-93 Banknote Issues (Scott #145-218)

1890-93 Small Bank Note Issues (Scott #219-29)

1893 Columbian Issues (Scott #230-45)

1894 Regular Issues (Scott #246-84)

1898 Trans-Mississippi Issues (Scott #285-92)

1861-1900 Centering Guidelines 

1901 Pan-American Issues (Scott #294-99)

1902-03 Issues (Scott #300-13)

1907 Jamestown Commemorative Issues (Scott #328-30)

1908-09 Issues, Perf. 12 Coil (Scott #348//389)

1908-09 Issues, Perf. 12 (Scott #331-82)

1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Expo Issues (Scott #367-73)

1910 Washington Franklin Issues, Perf. 8.5 Coil (Scott #390-96)

1912-14 Washington Franklin Issues, Perf. 12 (Scott #405-23)

1913-15 Panama-Pacific Expo Issues (Scott #397-404)

1915 Washington Franklin Issues, Perf. 10 (Scott #424-80)

1917-19 Washington Franklin Issues, Perf. 11 (Scott #498-519)

1919 Victory Issue (Scott #537)

1919-21 Coil Waste Stamps (Scott #538-46)

1920 Pilgrim Tercentenary Issue (Scott #548-50)

1922-25 Regular Issue (Scott #551-73//631//701)

1924 Huguenot-Walloon Issues (Scott #614-16)

1926-28 Rotary Issues (Scott #632-701)

1932 Washington Bicentennial Issue (Scott #713)

1901-1940 Centering Guidelines

1940 Famous Americans Stamps (Scott #859-93)

1955 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Issue (Scott #1064)

1974 Skylab Issue (Scott #1529)

2000-11 Self-Adhesive Sheet Stamps

2000-11 Self-Adhesive Coil Stamps

1940 – Present Centering Guidelines


Mystic’s Premium Grading Guidelines

1847-57 Imperforate Centering Guidelines (Scott #1-17)

Very Good (VG)                                       Typical for the issue. One or two edges cut or touch the design.
Fine (F)                             Two edges may just touch the design.
Very Fine (VF)                Two edges come close but don’t touch the design.
Extremely Fine (XF)                                                     Design is well centered between four margins.  One edge may come close to the design but will not touch it.
Superb (S)                                                                     Design looks perfectly balanced and has equally balanced margins on all four sides.

1857-61 “Small Margin” Perforate Issues Centering Guidelines (Scott #18-39)

These stamps were not designed to accommodate perforations. The plates from the imperforate first issue were used, and stamp sheets were perforated with the newly invented stamp perforator. Margins were not considered and stamps were perforated leaving extremely small margins.

Very Good (VG)
Typical of this issue.  One or two sides cut into the design.
Fine (F)
Perforations on two sides touch or slightly cut into the design.
Very Fine (VF)
Better than fine. Perforations on one or two sides touch or cut the design.
Extremely Fine (XF)                                                                            Design is well centered between four margins. Perforations may touch or slightly cut into the design on two sides.
Superb (S)
Design is centered between four margins. Perforations on one side may just touch the frame line. Extremely rare and valuable.

1862-69 Issues (Scott #62B-101)


1869 Pictorial Issues (Scott #112-22)


1875-93 Banknote Issues (Scott #145-218)


1890-93 Small Bank Note Issues (Scott #219-29)


1893 Columbian Issues (Scott #230-45)


1894 Regular Issues (Scott #246-84)


1898 Trans-Mississippi Issues (Scott #285-92)

1861-1900 Centering Guidelines

Very Good (VG)                                      Typical for the issue. Perforations on two sides may touch the design or cut slightly into the design on one side.
Fine (F)                            Perforations on one or two sides may come close to the design but not touch. There will be a visible white space between the perforations and the design.
Very Fine (VF)               Full margins clear the design on all sides.
Extremely Fine (XF)                                                        Design is well centered between four margins.
Superb (S)                                                                    Design is balanced between four large margins.

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1901 Pan-American Issues (Scott #294-99)


1902-03 Issues (Scott #300-13)


1907 Jamestown Commemorative Issues (Scott #328-30)


1908-09 Issues, Perf. 12 Coil (Scott #348//389)


1908-09 Issues, Perf. 12 (Scott #331-82)


1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Expo Issues (Scott #367-73)


1910 Washington Franklin Issues, Perf. 8.5 Coil (Scott #390-96)


1912-14 Washington Franklin Issues, Perf. 12 (Scott #405-23)


1913-15 Panama-Pacific Expo Issues (Scott #397-404)


1915 Washington Franklin Issues, Perf. 10 (Scott #424-80)


1917-19 Washington Franklin Issues, Perf. 11 (Scott #498-519)


1919 Victory Issue (Scott #537)


1919-21 Coil Waste Stamps (Scott #538-46)


1920 Pilgrim Tercentenary Issue (Scott #548-50)


1922-25 Regular Issue (Scott #551-73//631//701)


1924 Huguenot-Walloon Issues (Scott #614-16)


1926-28 Rotary Issues (Scott #632-701)


1932 Washington Bicentennial Issue (Scott #713)

1901-1940 Centering Guidelines

Very Good (VG)                                      Typical for the issue. Perforations/edges on two sides may touch the design or on one side may cut slightly into the design.
Fine (F)                            Perforations/edges on one or two sides may come close to the design but do not touch. There will be a visible white space between the perforations/edges and the design.
Very Fine (VF)               Full margins with perforations/edges clearing the design on all sides.
Extremely Fine (XF)                                                        Well-centered design.
Superb (S)                                                                    Design is balanced between four large margins.

 

1940 Famous Americans Stamps (Scott #859-93)


 

1955 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Issue (Scott #1064)


 

1974 Skylab Issue (Scott #1529)


 

2000-11 Self-Adhesive Sheet Stamps


 

2000-11 Self-Adhesive Coil Stamps


Note: Stamps issued from 1940 to present are at least fine centered and generally never-hinged.

1940 – Present Centering Guidelines

Fine (F)                            Typical for the issue. Full margins on all sides.
Very Fine (VF)               Well-balanced design between four wide margins.
Extremely Fine (XF)                                                        Very well-balanced design between four generous margins.
Superb (S)                                                                    Visually perfect centering, design is balanced between four large margins.

How to Grade Stamps

Stamps are like snowflakes, no two are alike.  Even today’s stamps seen side by side will have subtle differences in centering, ink color, and design.

Grading stamps requires a mix of science, history, and art.  The science part requires skill and expertise, and the art is an ability to analyze the item as a whole instead of focusing on individual parts. History can fill in the missing pieces.  Take a look at the stamps shown below.  Printed in 1914 without perforations, sheets were cut into single strips.  The strips were pasted together to form a coil roll for use in private vending machines.  Vending machines were on their way out and the leftover rolls of stamps were no longer needed.  Instead of being scrapped or destroyed, the stamps were perforated by hand to form a perforated coil roll.  Due to the mechanics of early perforating machines, the perforations were rarely in alignment with the center of the margins.

Most stamps issued from 1861-1930 are centered like the stamp on the left and will have a grade of Very Good (VG).  The more evenly the design is centered or balanced between the four margins, the higher the grade and value.  (Stamps with flaws can have the same grade, but the value will be lower.)  A stamp with full, even margins that has never been hinged (NH), like the one shown here, is very scarce.  Stamps with this kind of centering are extremely rare – only two examples of the stamp above are known with centering like that shown.  They are known as “Gem” quality – the highest grade given.  If centering is important to you, but you feel the price is more than you want to pay, you could opt for less good condition.   If condition is important and cost is an issue, centering may be less important to you.  In both cases the cost will be lower.  It’s a matter of choice and what is important to you.

Grading Used (Cancelled) Stamps

Canceled stamps follow the same guidelines as mint stamps except in relation to gum.  In 1847 postmasters were authorized to create their own cancels.  A piece of cork was dipped in ink and applied to the stamp.  It was important to obliterate or “kill” the face value to deter re-use.  The whole stamp except for the denomination was to be obliterated.  The more artistic postmasters would carve a design or object in to the cork.  Affectionately known as “fancy cancels,” these cancellations are highly prized by collectors.  The “running chicken” is the most famous fancy cancel and sold at auction for $300,000.

In many cases the stamps produced in the first two periods shown in the following information will have killer cancellations as intended by the Post Office authorities.  Remember, these cancellations were produced by early postmasters and were often hand-carved.

 

Running Chicken—Waterbury Cancelation