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The Danger of Wishful Thinking

by John Valenti

Let’s face it.  We all love a bargain.  Who among us isn’t excited to find that great cancellation item, unidentified and underpriced, in a dealer’s stock.  That one item can make our whole day spent at a bourse.  Not only do we have something to add to our collection, but we have a success story to share.


And then, who among us has not also discovered, belatedly, that our great find is something less than the bargain we thought, a fake, an alteration, something created to fool the collector.  If only we had taken greater care examining the item.  If only we hadn’t let our wishfulness get in the way of our better judgment.


As a dealer with a specialization in cancellation material I examine thousands of “fancy” cancels, both legitimate and fake.  Nevertheless, I admit to succumbing to wishfulness like any collector.  So, I write this article to help the casual cancellation collector avoid (and to remind myself of) the pitfalls of wishful thinking.


First, there is the “toolset” that a collector needs to bring to cancellation collecting.  Of course, we all know the physical tools that allow us to examine and verify.  These include tongs, perforation gauge and 10x lens.  There are other tools, such as ultra-violet lamps that can help detect alterations, bleached pen cancels, and the like, but we generally do not have such tools available to us when we are examining potential purchases at a show.


Next, the cancel collector should develop a good basic knowledge of the killers used in his area of interest.  Reference materials are invaluable.  Some of the basics are Skinner-Eno1, Whitfield2, and Cole3.  It’s not that you need to carry your philatelic library with you to every stamp show, but publications such as these can provide a good sense of killers used during different periods.  Specialized cancellation references are also important.  I, for one, always carry a copy of the Weiss4 NYFM tracings.  Yet knowledge acquired through our repetitive viewing of volumes of items in our regular search efforts is easily the most valuable.


Perhaps the most important thing that a cancellation collector can bring to this hobby is skepticism.  Is the item or bargain “to good to be true?”  (Remember, not all fakes are offered cheaply.)  Why has no one else noticed this item?  (Am I the only “expert?”)  I do not know that much about this particular item, but surely it is worth more that what the dealer is asking for it.  (Hasn’t the dealer shown this to someone who does know?)  We all so much want our “find fantasy” to be true that it is easy to fail to consider such questions.


To illustrate how tools, knowledge and skepticism can help avoid the pitfalls of wishful thinking, I have selected two examples of my own mistaken wishfulness.



Figures 1a, 1b


Figure 1a shows a Scott #147 bearing what appears to be a VF, nearly SOTN strike of NYFM fancy killer, Weiss type GE-S6.  This is a rare NYFM, only known used on the National issue Banknote stamps.  This NYFM cancel is, however, fake.  This can be ascertained principally by two observations.  (1) The stamp shows clear evidence of another cancellation that appears to be a light quartered cork killer, obscured by the NYFM.  This killer, almost certainly the original, can best be observed under the chin of Washington and along the left edge of the stamp.  The fake NYFM only partly obliterates the earlier cancellation.  (2) As is apparent in Figure 1b, the ink of the NYFM killer bleeds through to the back of the stamp.  The inks used to apply the real NYFM killers did not do this.


I discovered this stamp on a sheet of 3 cent greens in a dealers stock, apparently previously unnoticed by casual collectors.  Other, obviously genuine but less rare, NYFM killers were also on this page of cancellations.  This was an item that I hoped to buy cheap.  And I better buy it before someone else recognizes its scarcity.  I knew several customers who would very much want this stamp, a real potential money maker.  Moreover, I had never previously encountered this rare killer in decades of collecting and dealing.


My encounter with this stamp is a perfect example of how my own wishful thinking clouded my judgment (and eyesight).  My wishfulness would not let me believe what technically I knew, that this was a fake.  Let’s look at the facts:


1)      Two inconsistent killers on the same stamp.  Most fakers of fancy cancels are amateurs and cheap.  A used 3 cent green can be acquired for pennies.  Selling the faked item for just a few dollars provides a significant return on investment.  More serious fakers may buy higher value used stamps and clean the original cancel (often a pen cancellation) before adding the new killer.  Same formula for deception for a little more money.  Close examination, using a lens if high detail is required, should help dispel the power of wishfulness. 

2)      Ink from the cancellation bleeding through the stamp.  Again, most fakers are amateurs.    They do not perform rigorous analysis and study of inks used in different periods.  Instead, they use what is convenient and available.  Thus, the ink pad becomes their tool of choice.  Unfortunately for the faker, the type of ink available for modern ink pads is completely different from that used by 19th century postal clerks.  Black ink pad inks are generally less intense; the pattern of the ink pad frequently transfers to the cancellation; and the ink used tends to bleed, both through the stamp paper and around the killer, reducing the sharpness of its impression.

3)      Is it the right stamp?  It is often important to be able to identify similar appearing stamps to verify the validity of a cancellation.  In the case of the Figure 1 stamp, the faker chose the correct issue to fake this NYFM killer, a National issue stamp.  Knowing when and where certain killers were used is important.  A similar situation arises with identifying faked Banknote grills.  I most frequently see fake grills on soft paper stamps, such as the 15 cent American issue (Scott #189) and the 10 cent re-engraved issue (Scott #209).  Fakers select the soft paper stamps because it is easier to impress the fake grill on these.  (A discussion of grills and the detection of their fakes are beyond the scope of this article.)




Figures 2a, 2b


Figure 2a pictures a Scott #26 tied on piece by a Wataga, Illinois postmark and an attractive diagonally split horizontal grid killer.  Here again, knowledge, references and tools can help one identify the killer on this stamp as a fake.  Figure 2b is an enlarged detail of the killer.


Again, let’s apply our “toolset” to analyze this item:


1)      Attribution.  Skinner-Eno5 lists this killer design as SD-G 88 on 1861 issues from Oquawka, Illinois.  Neither the fact that Skinner-Eno attributes this killer to Oquawka and not Wataga, Illinois, nor the fact that it is attributed to 1861 issues whereas here it appears on an 1857 issue, is a definitive problem.  Misattributions and uses of killers across different stamp issues are rather common events.  However, it is the first inconsistency.

2)      Killer design.  With a copy of Skinner-Eno one notes that it almost perfectly matches the tracing in the book.  Real killers normally show variations, the product of inking, angle of strike, wear to the killer device, and other factors.  Fakers do not have the real items from which to make copies, so rely on published tracings for their models.  Indeed, it is typical for fakers faithfully to reproduce the published images, even reproducing the known mistakes in these tracings.

3)      Killer placement.  Note the location of the killer relative to the postmark.  It almost appears to be duplexed, although this is highly unlikely since duplexing of killers with postmarks for this period is only known from a few large post offices.  What is more notable is the proximity of killer and postmark.  Why would the postmaster need to kill the stamp with both the postmark and a separate killer?  It is my experience with covers and cancellations from this period that where a separate killer is used, the postmark does not touch the stamp and is frequently well separated to another part of the cover.

4)      Killer ink.  Figure 2b reveals the most definitive condemnation of this fake.  First note the differences in intensity of the ink used in the postmark as compared to that for the killer.  The postmark ink is darker and more opaque.  A magnified examination of the killer itself delivers the final evidence of fakery.  Note the overall grainy pattern of the killer’s inking.  This and the lighter ink are clear evidence of the use of an ink pad to apply this killer.


As should be apparent from my experiences, even a professional can let wishful thinking impair good judgment.  I hope that sharing these provides you, the reader and cancellation collector, tools to avoid the pitfalls of wishfulness.



1 Skinner, Hubert C. and Eno, Amos, United States Cancellations 1845-1869, American Philatelic Society, 1980.

2 Whitfield, Kenneth A., Cancellations Found on 19th Century U.S. Stamps, U.S. Cancellation Club, 2002.

3 Cole, James M., Cancellations and Killers of the Banknote Era 1870-1894, The U. S. Philatelic Classics Society, Inc., 1995.

4 Weiss, William R., Jr., The Foreign Mail Cancellations of New York City 1870-1878, William R. Weiss, Jr., 1990.

5 Skinner, Hubert C. and Eno, Amos, op. cit., p. 28.