“If you are going to seriously collect British Empire stamps, the first thing you need to buy is a copy of Stanley Gibbons’ Commonwealth & British Empire Stamps.” - George Holschauer, 2004
Commonwealth & British Empire Stamps 1840-1970, 2022 Edition Stamp Catalogue. By Stanley Gibbons. Hard cover, 780+ A4 pages with color illustrations. Published by Stanley Gibbons, 2021. 124th edition ISBN: 978-1-911304-88-3. Price $118.88 (plus shipping outside of UK), available from stanleygibbons.com.
I received this advice from George when I joined “organized philately” late in my stamp collecting career. In the past 18 years I’ve purchased eight different editions. And benefited each time, I did. The 2022 124th edition is no exception.
The Stanley Gibbons (SG) family of philatelic catalogs is broad and far reaching. The Stamps of the World 2021 edition consists of six volumes and is as comprehensive in scope as comparable offerings from Scott, Michel, and Yvert & Tellier.
Foreign nations are also treated with 19 different country-specific catalogs, including the U.S., China, France, French Colonies, and Switzerland, among others. There are also 21 individual catalogs for the larger of the British Commonwealth members.
SG, of course, covers Great Britain with both three simplified catalogs and the penetratingly detailed Great Britain Specialized series. This latter consists of four volumes in six parts. Volume 1, Part 1 details the Queen Victoria line-engraved and embossed issues. (See my review in the September 2021 AP on page 830.) The second part is due to be released in 2022. Volume 2 is a deep dive into King Edward VII and the two Georges. Volume 3 includes the Queen Elizabeth II pre-decimal issues. Volume 4 requires two parts to catalog the QE II decimal definitive issues.
But, for collectors of the British Empire in its entirety, the must-have catalog is SG’s Commonwealth & British Empire Stamps 1840-1970, now in its 124th edition. The erudite and perspicacious Hugh Jefferies has been its editor since 2003, and his understanding of the philately of the British Empire is clearly evident in this latest edition. Attention to detail and straightforward presentation are the hallmarks of Jefferies’ editorial handiwork.
This 2022 edition of Commonwealth weighs in at a hefty 5 pounds 4 ounces for a total of 764 + xliv pages. The table of contents cites 110 distinct Commonwealth members, plus ten front matter topics and four appendices. The detailed index, however, consumes two full pages and identifies about 400 individual stamp-issuing entities.
I am a persistent advocate of reading the front matter sections. If you wish to maximize the value of your investment in this (or any) catalog, I urge you to give a careful read to the “General Philatelic Information and Guidelines to the Scope of Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth Catalogues” section. It is a solid primer on British Empire stamps, their production, characteristics, watermarks, paper, gum, perforations, and cancellations, among many topics. The section on condition will be helpful to collectors of any country’s stamps.
This year, the Commonwealth also includes two interesting articles. “Sierra Leone: 1932 Rice Field Definitives” by Majed Halawi is extracted from his 2019 book Echoes of Empire - Sierra Leone Philatelic Legacy 1786-1980 (see my book review in the September 2021 issue of AP on page 378). Beyond an interesting vignette about the philately of Sierra Leone, this section presents readers with insight into the importance of the subject matter selected for printing on the Empire’s definitive stamps during the reign of King George V.
The section “Trinidad and Tobago WWI Red Cross Stamps” by Edward Barrow is effectively a primer on “how to do philately.” Barrow takes two WWI-era stamps and explores the philately and postal history nuances from these apparently simple issues. This is very much worth a perusal.
Stamp catalogs require updated editions because our philatelic knowledge is not static, even when the topics being cataloged are nominally stable. As in prior years, Commonwealth includes a listing of “Stamps Added” and another for “Catalogue Numbers Altered.” If one considers that this is a catalog of stamps issued ending in 1970, there might be an expectation that there would not be much to add or alter. But we see stamps of 38 different commonwealth nations with approximately 175 new varieties. To cite one example, “India Used in Iran” highlights 13 new varieties.
Figure 1 Rhodesia SG 242 £1 Admiral
There were also 13 varieties added for Rhodesia. These additions give a good explanation of why annual editions can be skipped for the casual collector but really are a must for advanced specialists. New research by the Rhodesian Study Circle resulted in greater discrimination among the 1913-1924 Admirals (Figure 1). Quoting from Commonwealth: “…shaded and unshaded King’s ears are now illustrated and separately listed. The shade descriptions have been adjusted … to bring them into line with the Stanley Gibbons Colour Key…” The Admirals are a very popular topic among British Empire enthusiasts and this stamp group comprises two full pages within Commonwealth (Figure 2). Subtle catalog changes in such an important group can result in renewed enthusiasm – including buying enthusiasm – among specialists.
Figure 2 Commonwealth Admirals pages
Figure 3 Great Britain SG 220 1d Bright Scarlet
Another 20 Commonwealth nations had nearly 90 of their catalog numbers altered or deleted. Great Britain SG 220wi (watermark inverted) (Figure 3) was reclassified as really being GB SG 219wi. The former is a bright scarlet shade, whereas the editors now recognize the stamp as being the scarlet shade. So, this is not a new discovery, but a realization that a past classification was erroneous.
Figure 4 Malta SG 45
Deletions are a different matter. Malta SG 45y (Figure 4), the ¼d red brown watermark Crown to left of CA and reversed, was deleted in the 2022 edition. To my uninformed reading, this seems like a rather specific description and one not easily misidentified as some other variant of the SG 45. I find unexplained deletions like this perplexing. As it stands, one must refer back to a previous catalog, as I did with my 2013 edition, to identify what is no longer cataloged. A footnote in the year of deletion – or perhaps an external cumulative index – would be helpful. But I quibble.
Catalog values are called prices by Stanley Gibbons. The reason for this different nomenclature is that the SG firm is one of the oldest and largest philatelic merchants. Many catalogs started their existence as price lists but evolved into purely catalog publications. The SG catalogs also continue their original purpose as the firm’s price list. SG will offer to sell the listed stamps at the quoted prices. So, in the case of Stanley Gibbons, “catalog values” have real market implications. Of course, they do not guarantee that they will have every listed stamp in stock. But if they do, you know their selling price.
Figure 5a GB SG 615 - comparing the 2013 and 2022 Editions
Figure 5b Great Britain SG 615 3d deep lilac
I think it is a worthwhile exercise to examine how the detailed listings for a basic stamp can vary over time. So, let’s consider one of the additions for Great Britain in the 2022 catalog, SG 615em, and look at how the listings for the basic stamp SG 615 have changed between the 2013 edition and the current one (Figure 5).
The basic stamp comes in two different varieties. SG 615 is 3d deep lilac QE II definitive printed with two phosphor bands, while SG 615c has only one such band at the right. The first thing one notices is the greatly expanded number of varieties between the two editions. Over the course of nine years, the total number of listings has doubled from eight to sixteen. I am not suggesting that this is typical. (Indeed, if we look at page count as more of an indicator of listing growth, between the 2013 and 2022 editions, a total of 100+ pages were added, an increase of about 17%.)
Scanning the added varieties, one observes that watermark varieties account for most of the increase. Careful perusal reveals that somewhere in between these two editions some renumbering has occurred: the previous 615a (Phantom “R”) is now identified as 615aa. And a new 615a has appeared. It is imperf three sides and has an unused price of £2000, the most expensive of all the listed varieties. Several other renumberings are also apparent.
Speaking of prices, it becomes clear that less common material shows relatively health price increases when compared with the more common issues. The 615ce (One center band) has remained unchanged at 40 cents unused & 45 cents used. On the other hand, that Phantom “R” variety (now 615aa) increased from £40 to £55 unused, a 38% increase. While not exactly a large nine-year return, it does demonstrate the value preservation of “better” philatelic material.
One curious thing about this 615 group is that the Stamps Added section identifies 615em as the new listing. Yet I can locate no such entry. There is a 615cem new entry, so perhaps that is what was intended as the addition.
I have previously cited one hidden asset found in stamp catalogs, especially so with the Stanley Gibbons publications: advertising. Stamp collecting is about knowledgably building your collection. Locating trusted sources of important philatelic material is critical to that process. Within the pages of Commonwealth are to be found a large number of dealers specializing in premier British Empire stamps. Experienced collectors will recognize most of these names as among the most respected vendors in the business. For new collectors of the British Empire, these advertisements serve as a reliable source to establish a network of trusted dealers.
Taken together, the 124th edition of Commonwealth & British Empire Stamps 1840-1970 continues the legacy of being the single most important reference for British Empire philatelists at all levels of the hobby. If you do not already own a copy, investing in this catalog will not only educate you about your collection, but will guide you to better buying decisions. That alone makes it a very worthwhile philatelic investment. George Holschauer’s counsel nearly twenty years ago has served me well. And I offer you the same counsel.