Refresher Course

Easy and fun tips for finding and collecting stamp varieties

By Janet Klug


What do you do after you learn that varieties exist on stamps that you have in your collection? You may have read about them in a stamp catalog or in an article.

Figure 1. Two Australian King George VI 3-penny stamps.
Figure 2. A pair of 1897 Tongan 1-penny Ovava Tree stamps (Scott 40).

You eagerly whip out the album containing the stamps and look for the variety. Then you scratch your head and put the album back on the shelf, muttering the words of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind: "I'll think about that tomorrow."

Many years ago, I discovered a method of finding varieties that works for me and turns the entire process into a game.

The trick lies in the find-the-difference puzzles that used to be a staple of puzzle books.

The puzzle works like this: Two pictures are printed side by side; they look identical, but subtle and maybe not-so-subtle changes have been made to one of the pictures. The differences can be spotted upon careful closer inspection.

These puzzles provide perfect training for stamp collectors bent on finding varieties.

Using the find-the-difference puzzle as a model, I put two common stamps side by side to see if I could spot any differences between them.

The stamps have to be from the same printing with the same watermark and color (or colors).

The comparison process may then commence.

This was a lot easier when I was younger and had not a shred of presbyopia, but the elder-eye problem can be effortlessly overcome by using a good magnifying glass.

It is helpful if the magnifier has a lens large enough to see two stamps at the same time without causing distortion. You will need to make many back and forth comparisons, just as you would if you were solving a find-the-difference puzzle.

The difference is that you know there are differences to find in the puzzle. There might not be any differences between the two stamps.

Begin with a small area in the upper left corner of the stamp on the left. Look carefully. Compare the same area on the stamp on the right.

Are there any differences? If yes, then write down a brief description of the differences in a notebook.

If no, then move to another area of the stamp and continue making comparisons.

This takes time, and your eyes will get tired. Try to limit yourself to not more than a half hour to 45 minutes looking for varieties. This will reduce eye strain and actually improve your ability to spot differences.

When first attempting to find varieties, work with stamps that are lightly canceled or, better still, have no visible postal markings.

They don't necessarily have to be unused, but if the stamps are not canceled, it makes the process much easier.

A specialized catalog will help you know what varieties have already been found for a particular stamp. Some of these varieties may have catalog values that exceed the major-listing stamps.

Finding a few of these varieties will give you confidence to begin seeking and perhaps discovering unrecorded varieties.

Look at the two Australian King George VI 3-penny stamps shown in Figure 1. At first glance, the stamps look alike, but by comparing the two stamps at about an eighth of an inch at a time, little by little you can spot a few significant differences.

Can you see them?

The Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, Vol. 1, lists the 3d stamps of this design as Scott 170, 170a and 183. Their colors are given as ultramarine, deep ultramarine and dark ultramarine, respectively. All depict King George VI in military uniform.

Both stamps shown in Figure 1 are on paper watermarked small crown and "C of A" (watermark 228), but the gauge of their perforations is not the same. The stamp on the left is perforated gauge 13½ by 14, and the one on the right is perforated gauge 15 by 14. The perforations alone tell you that the stamp on the right is Scott 183, but what about the differences in appearance?

A footnote in the catalog reads: "No. 183 differs from Nos. 170-179a in the shading lines on the king's left eyebrow, which go downward, left to right, instead of the reverse. Also, more of the epaulet shows."

The epaulet (rank insignia on the uniform shoulders) is the easiest to spot. If you compare the two stamps, you can see that the epaulet on the stamp on the right is a good bit larger than the one on the left. The left eyebrow on the stamp on the left does indeed make an upward and outward slant, similar to that of Star Trek's Mr. Spock.

Are those the only differences? Look again, specifically at the two branches that flank the crown and sit below the "Postage" inscriptions at both sides of the stamp on the left.

The shading in the branch and the little berry-like flowers is nearly nonexistent. This variety is known as the white wattles variety.

The Australian Commonwealth Specialists' Catalogue goes into great detail about this stamp, but even with the detail from that catalog, close inspection will expose even more differences not noted in the catalog.

For example, the hairlines in the king's forehead are different. The detail in the king's collar is more pronounced on the stamp on the right, and the medals on his chest are more defined and bigger on the stamp on the right.

Different dies were used to make the printing plates for each of these stamps, and that accounts for the differences.

The methods just described to discover differences for varieties that are already known also can be used to check any stamp for varieties. If you have many multiples of a favorite stamp, spend some time looking at them closely and see what you might find.

Figure 2 shows a pair of 1897 Tongan 1-penny Ovava Tree stamps (Scott 40) with a significant variety previously unrecorded that I discovered several years ago when examining some stamps in my collection.

The stamp on the left is a normal example, and the stamp on the right has the variety.

Can you see it?

Look closely at the longest limb on the right side of the tree on the stamp on the left, and then look at the same limb on the stamp on the right. Now do you see the difference? Someone came along and pruned that limb.

Although this lopped branch variety is not listed in the Scott standard catalog, the Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth & British Empire Stamp Catalogue 1940-1970 does now list this variety after proving that it was recurring in a specific position.

It helped having several blocks of the stamp, a full sheet, and lots of friends with similar interests who could aid in determining that the variety occurs in position 47 in a 60-subject sheet.

This proves that new discoveries can still be made about stamps that are more than a century old.

With tenacity and a little luck, you could make a new discovery yourself.