Refresher Course

Collectors keep an eye out for stamp errors

By Michael Baadke

If you're dining at a restaurant and there's something wrong with the meal you ordered, you'll probably send it back and ask for a replacement.

Figure 1. One of the world's best-known stamp errors is the Inverted "Jenny," a 1918 24¢ airmail stamp from the United States with the center of the design printed upside down (right). A normal example of the same stamp is shown at left.
 
Figure 2. Color-missing errors can be very dramatic. The 1983 20¢ Science & Industry issue from the United States is known with all intaglio black printing absent (right). A normal stamp of the same issue is shown at left for comparison.
 
Figure 3. This block of four 29¢ Wonders of the Sea stamps should have perforation holes separating each of the four stamps. Without them, the item is an imperforate error.
 
Figure 4. Otherwise normal stamps that are missing perforations between them are created when a single row of perforations is missing from the pane. The error shown is an imperf-between horizontal pair of the 1985 14¢ Sinclair Lewis stamp.

When you go to the post office and ask for postage stamps, if there is something wrong with the stamps you get, you may want to take them anyway.

From time to time, stamps or postal stationery items are discovered that are different from normal issues because of a mistake made during production.

Although stamp printers are very careful about creating only properly manufactured postage stamps, there are times when something goes haywire during production and the mistakes are not caught before the stamps are distributed.

The most prominent of these inadvertent varieties are known as "errors," and many have a value to collectors that is far greater than the value of a normal example of the same item.

In the stamp hobby, there are specific guidelines that determine what qualifies as a major error. Some stamps that look wildly unusual still may not be errors because they do not fit specific descriptions.

Production varieties that do not qualify as major errors are usually called "freaks" or "oddities." Although they usually have less value than errors, they still can be of interest to collectors and regularly trade for more than face value.

The Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers lists United States stamp errors, assigns them each a minor number designation, and often, a retail value.

The values of errors can vary wildly depending on factors such as scarcity, demand and the attractiveness of the error.

Some major errors can be purchased for only a couple of dollars. Others sell for $100,000 or more.

Modern production varieties properly described as freaks or oddities also may be described in the Scott U.S. specialized catalog, but they are not assigned an identifying catalog number.

Because freaks and oddities are far more numerous than errors, many are not noted in the Scott U.S. specialized catalog at all.

Let's start by looking at the different types of stamp errors that exist. Although the examples shown here are all varieties of U.S. stamps, foreign issues released unintentionally with the same characteristics are also regarded as errors.

Inverts are probably the most dramatic type of production error. An invert is created when one part of a stamp design is printed upside down in relation to the remainder of the design.

One of the most famous stamp errors in the world is an invert.

In 1918 the United States issued a 24¢ airmail stamp showing an airplane known as the Curtiss "Jenny."

A few of the stamps were placed on sale in Washington, D.C., May 13. The following morning a 29-year-old stamp collector named William T. Robey went to a branch office in Washington to buy a full pane of 100 of the new issue.

When Robey received his stamps from the window clerk, he immediately noticed that the blue airplane in the center of the design was printed upside down.

A normal example of the 24¢ airmail, identified in the Scott catalog as C3, is shown at left in Figure 1.

The invert error, Scott C3a, is shown at right in Figure 1.

Robey's original 100 stamps are the only ones ever discovered and sold.

In the book Jenny! (now out-of-print) published by Linn's Stamp News, George Amick points out that "it is the Jenny invert which the layman thinks of when he thinks of a stamp rarity."

This production mistake occurred because the blue airplane and the red frame were printed in two separate actions. Amick notes that after the red frame was first printed on the pane, it is likely that the blue printing plate was unintentionally inserted upside down, creating the inverted image on the stamp.

A single unused example of the Inverted "Jenny" is listed in the Scott catalog with a value of $150,000. The normal stamp lists for $105.

However, Scott C3a is neither the first U.S. stamp invert, the scarcest, or the most valuable. Inverts of the 15¢ and 24¢ issues of 1869 take those honors.

There is a grand public fascination with the Inverted "Jenny" that exceeds the interest in those other notable rarities, however, and which has made it one of the most cherished stamps in the world.

Another type of invert is less dramatic but is still considered a major error.

From time to time, postal administrations apply overprints to stocks of unused stamps, changing the denomination or even the name of the issuing country, or sometimes commemorating an event of some sort.

When this overprint is accidentally applied upside down, it is considered an inverted-overprint error.

Color-missing errors range from startling varieties that immediately catch the eye, to errors that are nearly indistinguishable from the normal issue. Figure 2 shows an intriguing color-missing error of the 20¢ Science & Industry commemorative of 1983.

As with the Inverted "Jenny," the printing of the Science & Industry stamp involved two different printing steps. In this case, however, different printing processes were involved.

The colorful background of the stamp design was printed by offset-lithography, a process that transfers an inked design from a printing cylinder to a rubber blanket roller, and then onto paper.

The lettering and gridlike pattern in the same stamp design was printed in black by the intaglio method, where ink from the recesses of an engraved plate is deposited directly onto the paper.

The black intaglio printing is entirely absent on the stamp at right in Figure 2, which qualifies it as an error.

Sometimes stamps are discovered with part of a color missing but still showing some evidence of the ink on the stamp.

These are considered freaks, not major errors. On a color-missing stamp error at least one color that is supposed to be present in the design must be absent without a trace.

Tagging-omitted errors are considered by most specialists to be very similar to color-missing errors.

The term "tagging" describes luminescent material that is applied to printed stamps or to stamp paper to make it glow when exposed to certain ranges of ultraviolet light.

Often it is not possible to see tagging on a stamp in normal light.

One method of applying tagging to a stamp is to cover all or part of the design with a luminescent compound similar to invisible ink.

Some U.S. stamps in the 1960s were intentionally printed in two varieties: with and without tagging.

Those stamps printed intentionally without tagging are identified in the Scott catalog as "untagged" and are not considered errors.

For many later issues, the entire print run of the stamp would be tagged. Examples of those later tagged issues that have been found with absolutely no tagging present on the stamp are considered "tagging-omitted" errors and are listed in the Scott catalog as "tagging omitted."

Imperforate stamp errors are issues that are supposed to have perforation holes separating individual stamps but do not.

The term is also sometimes used to describe self-adhesive stamps that are missing the straight or wavy-line die cuts that separate individual stamps, though the more-specific term die-cut omitted is also used.

There are several different kinds of perforation errors.

Stamps that are fully imperforate do not have any perforations on any side.

Figure 3 shows a corner block of four stamps from the 29¢ Wonders of the Sea issue of 1994. There are no perforation holes anywhere on this block.

An imperforate block of four of these stamps lists in the Scott U.S. specialized catalog at $2,250. The block in the illustration is actually a plate number block — the plate number appears at top in the margin paper — so it may have additional premium value.

Sometimes stamps are discovered where horizontal rows of perforations are missing and vertical rows of perforations are present, or the reverse: horizontal rows of perforations present but vertical rows missing.

If a single vertical row of perforations is missing from a pane, it can create an error known as a "horizontal pair imperf between."

That means a side-by-side pair of stamps are normally perforated on all sides, except that no vertical perforations separate the two.

Figure 4 shows a horizontal pair imperforate-between of the 14¢ Sinclair Lewis stamp of 1985.

If all vertical rows of perforations are missing, a pair of side-by-side stamps would be called "horizontal pair imperf vertically." The two stamps would have perforations at top and bottom but none between them or on either side.

Similar configurations occur if one or more horizontal rows of perforations are absent and all vertical perforations are present.

Because some perforation errors can be faked simply by trimming off the edges of a normally perforated stamp, collectors usually choose to save imperforates in pairs, strips or larger blocks to fully show the extent of the error.

A few other interesting varieties qualify as errors but do not specifically fall into any of the categories previously described.

These will be described in next week's Refresher Course column, along with information about freaks, oddities and similar production varieties.