A customer of mine sent a cover with a 3¢ green Washington large Banknote stamp on it. He was having difficulty identifying the stamp and needed a little help. In general, I do not identify stamps for others. For the occasional question from a good customer, of course I will help them out. See my other section in this issue about why small dealers matter.
I was able to narrow it down to either #158 or #184. Without removing the stamp from the cover though, it was impossible to tell if it was the hard paper (#158) or soft paper (#184) variety. Because these are both inexpensive stamps and there is no price difference between the two, my recommendation was to leave the stamp on the cover as-is.
Would you ever remove a stamp from a cover to positively identify it? Yes, under certain circumstances.
Suppose this came down to a $2 stamp and a $20,000 stamp and the only way to know for sure was to remove it from the cover.
The last thing you want to do is dip your cover in a bowl of water and soak the stamp off. That will likely damage the cover and destroy some of the value, especially if it ends up being the $20,000 variety.
I am not set up to perform these kinds of operations. It takes someone with archival skills to do it. There are ways to safely remove a stamp from a cover without damage. The stamp can then be correctly identified (most of the time, expertized). Then the stamp is carefully returned to the cover, again, using techniques that will make it appear like the stamp has been there all along. All of this takes time, the proper equipment, and great care – none of which I have. The cost is not enormous, but it’s not zero either. If you are really convinced this could be the $20,000 stamp, the cost is well worth it to verify your suspicions.
You will sometimes see a description noting that the stamp was “lifted” from a cover. “Lifted” is a common and popular term, but not everyone uses it. It means the stamp was carefully removed from the cover, verified as to its correct catalog number, and carefully restored on the cover.
Some condition fanatics will be upset that the cover is not 100% pristine. However, most philatelists understand that in some unusual cases, positive identification of the stamp cannot be made without removing it from the cover. When done professionally, it is difficult to tell that the stamp was ever removed and returned to its original position. When done professionally, there is little, if any, change in the value of the item.