Color is important in stamp collecting. Catalogs sometimes place premiums on specific color shades of a design, causing them to be listed separately as major numbers or minor numbers with letter suffixes, often with decidedly different values. Even when the values are not different, many collectors may wish to acquire as many of the issued shades as they can.
An extreme example is the common 5-neugroschen Coat of Arms stamp issued by the Old German State of Saxony in 1863 (Saxony 20). Scott lists it in a basic shade of dull violet (20), but also in gray violet (20a), gray blue (20b) and slate (20c). Germany's Michel Deutschland-Spezial catalog lists the stamp as "Sachsen 19" in nine different shades. All but one of these are fairly common unused, a shade called "reingrau" (pure gray), that runs from light to middle gray (Michel 19f).
Figure 1. Four 1863 stamps from the German State of Saxony from the APS Reference Collection show that common stamps exist in a baffling array of shades. On the left is Scott 20 in dull violet, followed by a slate stamp (Scott 20c), followed by a significantly darker gray stamp, with a color listed only in a German catalog as "mittelgriinlich-blau" (medium greenish blue), Michel 19aa.
Figure 1 shows four examples of this stamp from the APS Reference Collection. On the left is Scott 20 in full violet, followed by a slate stamp (Scott 20c), followed by a significantly darker gray stamp, ending on the right with a color listed only in the German catalog as "mittelgri.inlich-blau" (medium greenish blue), Michel 19aa. No one tried or wanted to create all these shades, but in the mid to late 19th century, creating stamp inks that would not vary from one batch to the next was almost as much alchemy as it was science.
Even today, there are some colors that are more susceptible to naturally changing shades over time than others. Examples are the 1861 3¢ Washington designs Scott refers to as A25, the famous rose, rose pink, pigeon blood pink, and pink Washingtons. Also worthy of mention are the yellow and orange colors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that tended to sulfurize into brown. These include the 1869 10¢ Eagle and Shield Pictorial (Scott 118), 1890 90¢ Perry definitive (Scott 229), 1894 50¢ Jefferson definitive (Scott 260) and 1896 4¢ Indian Hunting Buffalo Trans-Mississippi commemorative (Scott 287). We use the term "sulfurized" because that is the chemical change that happens to the ink with exposure to a sulfur-rich atmosphere, whereas the term used by most collectors, "oxidized;' is in fact the chemical reaction that restores the original color.
Figure 2 shows two examples of the 1918 6¢ Jenny airmail stamp, Scott Cl. The first is unused, revealing the vivid orange color of the stamp. The second has been enlarged from an oversized Zeppelin cover, and clearly displays the process of sulfurization in action, in the blackening of the spandrels on either side at the top of the canceled stamp, and elsewhere in the design. Like tarnish or rust, sulfurization is a gradual process. Unchecked, it can continue until the affected stamp almost appears to be black.
Figure 2. Two 1918 6¢ Jenny airmail stamps, Scott C1. The vivid orange of the mint stamp contrasts sharply with a used copy enlarged from an oversized Zeppelin cover, which shows sulfurization in action, blackening the spandrels on either side at the top of the design and elsewhere.
Many modern stamp collects are mystified that sulfur has discolored their old stamps, but it's no mystery. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, today only about 0.1% of Americans burn coal to heat their homes, but as recently as 1940 it was used in 55% of American homes, as it had been for a century or more. Sulfur can make up as much as 10% of coal by weight, though it is more typically 3% to 4%. Still, in cities, the amount of sulfur in the urban atmosphere when most of these stamps first were issued must have been formidable.
A number of the APEX experts are experienced at identifying differences in color shades. They have reference pieces showing the differences and the progression of changes in those shades over time.
Another study is that of missing colors on a stamp, meaning that the correct ink was not applied during the printing process. To be a true error, there cannot be even one speck of the missing color anywhere on the stamp. If there is one speck, the stamp is considered a freak, because during the process, ink was still applied, even though not in the quantity needed to print a perfect stamp. It's an error if a step in the printing process was completely omitted, but it is a freak if a step in the printing process simply was not done properly or completely. Our experts have the equipment and expertise to detect color variances and understand printing well enough to know how something could have gone wrong during the process.
Now we turn to another tricky area, the alteration of color on stamps. With this column there are images of the original stamps and the color changelings of the original stamps. In these examples, the colors yellow, blue and red have been chemically eliminated from the original stamp. Please keep in mind that the colors may have been intentionally altered to create the appearance of an error or they might have been changed by accident, possibly through exposure to a cleaning fluid or an accidental solvent spill. Photochemical changes also can occur through prolonged exposure to ultra violet or infrared light, as when a stamp or cover are repeatedly exposed to sunlight in a shop window, but the examples shown here were changed through deliberate chemical exposure.
As in Figure 2, these stamps are best seen side-by-side with normal copies of the same issue, which makes the distinctive appearance of the changeling easy to recognize.
Figure 3. An 1898 1¢ Trans-Mississippi commemorative next to a copy in which yellow has been chemically removed, producing a blue color changeling.
Figure 3 shows an 1898 1¢ dark yellow green TransMississippi Scott 285, next to a used copy in which the yellow has been largely removed from the original ink and as a result is now blue. It may have been cleaned in a vain hope of improving its grubby appearance.
Figure 4. A 1923 3¢ violet Lincoln and a used stamp that has had the blue removed, producing a red color changeling.
Figure 4 shows an unaltered 1923 3¢ violet Lincoln definitive, Scott 555, alongside a copy that has had the blue component of the ink removed, now appearing to be a shade of red. Under magnification, though, the area at the bottom of the stamp retains some of the original, darker pigment, almost appearing to be the lake shade seen on the stamps of the early 1900s. The remains of the darker ink are especially visible in the large inked portions of the two numerals of value, which shows that color removal is many times inconsistent.
Figure 5. A mint 1975 10¢ Haym Salomon commemorative next to a changeling that has had red removed, leaving little but green and greenish yellow.
Figure 5 shows an unused 1975 10¢ Haym Salomon U.S. Bicentennial stamp, Scott 1561, next to a copy which has had the red color removed from the design. The changeling we are left with is a stamp having various shades of green and greenish yellow. We will not comment on what may have been used to eliminate these single colors from these three stamps, as that is what we need to ask experts. We do know that yellow and red are more easily changed or eliminated than other, darker colors on most stamps.
Figure 6. An unused 1979 $1 Rush Lamp definitive, Scott 1610, is shown with two very different changelings: one where light application of solvent removed orange, lightened yellow, and turned the engraved brown lettering and iron lamp black; and a heavily canceled stamp where solvent has left only faded brown and yellow, and even the tan background has been faded to dull gray.
Finally, an unused 1979 $1 Rush Lamp stamp from the Americana definitives, Scott 1610, is shown in Figure 6 with two used copies that show how diverse changelings can be. In the first, slight application of some solvent has removed the orange and lightened the yellow, but also had the effect of turning the engraved brown portion of the design to black, including the lettering and the iron base of the lamp. In the second, a heavily canceled copy has been exposed to some cleaning product for far too long. Faded brown and yellow are all that remain, and the tan background of the stamp has been faded to dull gray.
Color changelings are damaged stamps, pure and simple. Their differences in appearance from ordinary stamps didn't come from the security printer by way of the U.S. Post Office. These stamps are far from the collectible varieties and elusive errors and freaks they might at first appear to be. They only have value as reference pieces or curios.
This column should spark you to inspect your collection for color changelings. Study what may have happened to them, which colors have changed and make a mental note to inspect stamp errors, freaks and oddities carefully before you buy them.
Editor's Note: The column was originally published in the March 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.