Correctly identifying a postage stamp in a worldwide catalog is a bit like trying to find your seat in an unfamiliar Major League ballpark. Knowing the nation that issued it may get you to the right city, and finding the right stamp design in a catalog gets you to the ballpark, but that’s only part of the challenge. Unusual commemoratives with dates printed on the face can make it easy, but look-alike definitives printed over decades with few minor changes in design and color can frustrate even patient philatelists.
Little League or Major League, you can’t play the game well if you don’t keep your eye on the ball.
Finding all of the different catalog numbers and years where your stamp could be hiding gets you to a section of the stadium and narrows down the search. Carefully reviewing every aspect of the stamp you’re searching for — basic details, such as watermark, perforations or lack thereof, and the color of the stamp — gets you to the row in that section of the stadium, and unique details of a specific catalog number get you to your seat in the ballpark. That’s how you can enjoy the game. Over time, like any regular fan, finding your way can become second nature. But find a new stamp from a country with which you’re unfamiliar and the challenge is back.
There’s a simple rule for this that is fundamental to baseball, a rule that has its counterparts in every other activity as well, including the stamp hobby: Keep your eye on the ball.
Attention to detail matters, sharpened by relentless curiosity. To generate the necessary humility on your hunt, it may help to bear in mind that the two rarest stamps in the world weren’t found by rich men, influential stamp dealers or lifelong exhibitors with a study full of trophies and testimonials. They were discovered by schoolchildren who fed their need to collect stamps by rooting around in the attic, hoping to find something new and interesting to put in their albums. They succeeded.
Nearby are a few examples of stamps with similar designs but different catalog numbers, where specific design details determine their true identity.
The 1886 ½¢ North Borneo stamp on the left (Scott 25) pays “POSTAGE,” but the 1887 version on the right (Scott 35) pays fees for both “POSTAGE & REVENUE.”
The two North Borneo ½¢ rose stamps have very similar designs, but notice that the 1886 stamp on the left (Scott 25) has “POSTAGE” near the bottom and the 1887 version (Scott 35) has “POSTAGE & REVENUE” on a scroll that spreads to the edge of the design. This one was rather easy, but newcomers to collecting North Borneo may miss the difference.
Issued under Austrian administration between 1912 and 1918, the earliest stamps of Liechtenstein include 11 showing the profile of Prince Johann II. The 1917–18 20-heller dark green stamp on the left was a definitive (Scott 8), but a similar stamp released November 12, 1918, commemorated the 60th anniversary of the accession of the Prince by replacing the upper corner designs with the year-dates of his reign. The Scott catalog pictures both types of stamp accurately, but it’s so hard to see the dates that the listing for Scott 10 includes the boldface note “Dates in Upper Corners” to help you find it.
Similar stamps can serve different purposes. Liechtenstein’s 1917 20-heller Prince Johann II stamp on the left was a definitive (Scott 8), but the stamp on the right (Scott 10) was released November 12, 1918, to commemorate his 60th anniversary by adding the year-dates of his reign.
Some typographed definitive stamps of Iceland issued between 1920 and 1937 picture Denmark’s King Christian X, the titular head of Iceland under the 1918 Danish–Icelandic Act of Union. A used copy of the earliest of these designs, a 40-aurar claret stamp of 1920 (Scott 123), is shown next to mint stamp of the same shade and value with a redrawn design introduced in 1931 (Scott 184). Note the more filled-in look of the later portrait and the oval lines, as the horizontal lines were closer together and had vertical crossing lines.
The first design of Iceland’s King Christian X definitives, seen on the used 1920 40-aurar claret stamp (Scott 123), is very different from the redrawn 1931 design on the stamp at right (Scott 184).
United States stamps are represented by two double-line watermarked 2¢ carmine stamps of 1895. The shading within the triangles tells the tale on the identity of these stamps.
In the Type I version of this stamp (Scott 265, not shown) horizontal lines of shading run across the design and through the upper triangles. We have enlarged those upper left triangles on the two stamps shown here 1,000%. The one on the left has Type II corner shading (Scott 266), with thin lines that run through the triangle border and the triangle. The one on the right has Type III corner shading (Scott 267), with the thin lines only in the triangle itself, and not in the triangle border. These stamps reside in the APS Reference Collection, as do the other stamps shown here.
The double-line-watermarked 1895 2¢ carmine First Bureau Issue definitive, Scott 265 (not shown), is Type I, with horizontal shading running through the triangles at the top of the stamp. These Type II and Type III stamps (Scott 266-67) have had the top corners enlarged so you can see the differences: Type II with thinner lines running through the triangle; and Type III with thin lines only in the triangle, and not in the border of the triangle.
Some collectors may see these examples as elementary, but you would be surprised at how frequently we have seen misidentifications of these types. Details in stamp collecting are very important and should be studied. In past columns, we have tried to show some of these details, particularly on the 1¢ green Franklin stamps of the 1920s. We hope we have been helpful to your collecting.
Farewell, My Friends
After 39 years in the Sales Division (Circuit Sales), and recent stints in Special Projects and Expertizing, May 31, 2019, will be my last day here. (I also spent 4 years working part-time in the Sales Division in the 1970s — including a year as janitor and the man who mowed the lawn — while attending graduate school at Penn State University.)
On the same day I leave APS, my wife leaves PSU after 20 years working with the Alumni Association there. There are too many plans for us to outline them here, but I do plan to help organize the postal history part of the APS Reference Collection as a volunteer later this year. That should keep me occupied, along with nine grandchildren in the area to enjoy.
I could not have asked for a better career than working in my main hobby! The learning process has never stopped for me. Service to members and developing relationships with members have been the most rewarding parts of my work at APS and there are too many great friends in the hobby to name them all.
I will not be disappearing, as I plan to occasionally volunteer at the American Philatelic Center. After all, I am a 48-year APS member.
Editor's Note: The "Expertizing" column was originally published in the May 2019 issue of The American Philatelist. We are bringing the archives of The American Philatelist to the Newsroom - to read back issues of The American Philatelist, click here and scroll down to the Back Issues section.