Expertizing of stamps is almost as old as stamp collecting itself. In the very early years, dealers and knowledgeable collectors would offer their “expert” opinions on the genuineness of particular items. In 1945, the Philatelic Foundation was formed and I believe it is one of the earliest organizations to use a pool of experts. It shifted away from individuals rendering opinions to using an anonymous panel of experts who have no financial stake in the submitted item. Formal expertizing has been with us for about 70 years.
The focus of expertizing has changed over the years too. In the early years, collectors just wanted to know if their stamps were genuine or not. Forgers such as Sperati and de Thuin were extremely good at forging valuable stamps. In later years, expertizing expanded its scope to include things like original gum, reperforated stamps, hidden repairs, or stamps that have been tampered with to make them appear as if they are missing color errors. And so forth.
The techniques used by expertizers have evolved over the years. Early on, people use perforation gauges, magnifiers, and watermark fluid. Those items are still used today. But today, computers and microscopes play a part in expertizing stamps too. These technologies weren’t around in the 1940s when the PF started operations.
Will we ever get away from having people expertize stamps? In my opinion, no. But I think there will be much less of a need for human involvement.
We are on the brink of technology where computers, scanners, and other devices will be able to precisely detect the makeup of physical objects. In particular with stamps, we will someday have devices that understand the paper used to print an item. They will understand the chemical makeup of the gum used on that item. In short, they will be able to examine the characteristics about stamps like we’ve never been able to do before.
We do these things today with human DNA. Police and forensic experts use DNA from, say, a murder victim and compare that DNA to suspects and look for a match. You see news articles saying that they have a DNA match to Joe Smith and there is a one in 20 trillion chance that it could be the DNA from someone else. Thus, securing convictions.
I think the same will be true of stamps someday. We’ll be able to take a tiny speck of paper from, say, a perforation tip and put it through analysis. We’ll know what the paper is made of, what the chemical composition of the gum is, what the composition of the ink is, and so forth. We can compare that data to a database of known genuine copies and the computer will be able to say how closely the subject matches the known item.
Will this technology completely replace humans? No. Why not?
Well, for the ordinary type questions such as “is this item original gum or not?” yes I think the technology will be able to answer those types of questions very easily in most cases. What if, for example, someone came along with a unique 2¢ Magenta stamp from British Guiana claiming it to be a sister stamp to the famous 1¢ British Guiana Magenta stamp? Now what?
You could do the analysis to the 1¢ stamp and determine if it’s the same kind of paper or not. Now what? There are no known 2¢ stamps, so the computer is stuck. The computer can only tell you how closely it matches the 1¢ stamp. You need a human for the final determining factor. Is this item a fake? Or is it a genuine copy that took over 150 years to turn up?
I remember an auction lot a few years ago from a major auction house that contained a dozen or so stamps that had multiple certificates with conflicting opinions. For example, one certificate would say a stamp was genuine, original gum and another certificate for that same stamp would say it was regummed. They both can’t be correct. Which one is right? This shows that when humans are involved, there are going to be cases where experts disagree. The use of sophisticated technologies could reduce these kinds of cases.
Technology has many benefits. But it has limitations. I predict that organizations like the PF will increasingly move to using advanced technologies to render some opinions, with little or no human intervention.