Refresher Course

Stamp identification often lurks in watermark

By Rick Miller

According to Linn's World Stamp Almanac, Millennium Edition, a watermark is: "A deliberate thinning of paper during its manufacture to produce a semitranslucent pattern. Watermarks appear frequently in paper used in stamp printing or envelope manufacture."

Watermarks were usually used in stamp production as a security device. A counterfeit or forged stamp that lacks the proper watermark is less convincing and more easily detected.

There are many cases, particularly in the classic period, where stamps of the same color, design and gauge of perforation are printed on paper with different watermarks, or on watermarked and unwatermarked paper.

Figure 1. Is this £1 intense black Queen Elizabeth II and Windsor Castle stamp Scott 312, 374 or 528? The watermark is the difference. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 2. A sampling of watermark designs: an Argentine Small Sun (Scott watermark 85), a Cape of Good Hope Anchor (watermark 15), a Danzig Honeycomb (watermark 108), a British Spray of Rose (watermark 25), a Latvian Multiple Swastikas (watermark 212) and a Norwegian Post Horn (watermark 160). Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 3. A British 1-shilling Queen Victoria stamp (Scott 5) with a stitch watermark. The watermark has been graphically enhanced. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 4. This Swiss Cross in Oval watermark (Scott watermark 182) is a pseudo-watermark pressed into the paper after production. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 5. The Crown and "C A" multiple watermark (watermark 3) is clearly visible from the back of the Virgin Islands 2sh 6d King George V stamp (Scott 45). Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 6. Watermark detection fluid and watermark detecting tray make the "DBP" and Rosette multiple watermark clearly visible on this Germany-Berlin occupation stamp. Click on image to enlarge.

You cannot properly identify such stamps without identifying the watermark. Differences in value between similar stamps with different watermarks can be striking.

An example is the Great Britain £1 Queen Elizabeth II and Windsor Castle stamp shown in Figure 1.

Three different £1 stamps use the design. All three are perforated gauge 11 by 12, and all three are the same color, intense black. The difference is the watermark.

If the stamp shown in Figure 1 has a St. Edward's Crown and "E 2 R" multiple watermark (Scott watermark 308). The stamp is Scott 312, with a catalog value of $150 for mint, never-hinged condition.

If the stamp has the St. Edward's Crown multiple watermark (Scott watermark 322), it is Scott 374, with a catalog value of $12.50 for mint, never-hinged condition.

If the stamp is on unwatermarked paper, it is Scott 528, with a catalog value of $5.25 for mint, never-hinged condition.

Purists will tell you that only handmade paper has real watermarks.

Prior to 1750, handmade paper was made in a mold that consisted of a bed of parallel wires. When the paper was formed, it was thinner in the places where it touched the wires, producing laid lines.

After 1750, most handmade paper was produced on a bed of fine wire mesh. Handmade paper produced in this method is called wove paper.

Metal designs, called "bits" could be attached to the frames used to produce laid or wove paper. The thinned patterns produced in the paper by these bits are true watermarks that are pressed into the under-surface of the paper.

Properly speaking, machine-made paper has a watermark effect instead of a true watermark. In machine-made paper, the designs for thinning the paper are pressed into the surface of the paper by a roller called a "dandy roll."

In practice, most stamp collectors make no distinction between bit-produced true watermarks and dandy-roll-produced watermark effects. Most collectors call both types of markings watermarks.

Watermark designs vary widely from relatively simple to fairly complex.

A sampling of watermark designs is shown in Figure 2: an Argentine Small Sun (Scott watermark 85), a Cape of Good Hope Anchor (watermark 15), a Danzig Honeycomb (watermark 108), a British Spray of Rose (watermark 25), a Latvian Multiple Swastikas (watermark 212) and a Norwegian Post Horn (watermark 160).

Watermarks illustrated in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue and Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue 1840-1940 are shown as viewed from the back of the stamp.

Three broad categories of watermarks are overall watermarks, spaced watermarks and multiple watermarks.

The design of an overall watermark covers a large area of the paper, often the entire sheet from which the stamps are printed. Individual stamps can have only a small part of an overall watermark. The Danzig Honeycomb watermark shown in Figure 2 is an overall watermark.

Spaced design watermarks are repeated continuously at intervals on the paper sheet, usually spaced so that one complete watermark design appears in each stamp. The Argentine Small Sun, Cape of Good Hope Anchor, British Spray of Rose and Norwegian Post Horn watermarks shown in Figure 2 are spaced design watermarks.

If the sheet is not properly aligned when fed into the printing press, stamps can bear parts of two or more spaced watermarks instead of one complete design.

A multiple watermark has a single design that is repeated across the sheet so that it appears multiple times on a single stamp. The Latvian Multiple Swastikas watermark shown in Figure 2 is a multiple watermark.

If the sheet is fed into the printing press bottom-edge-first, the stamps will have an inverted watermark (upside down in relation to the stamp design).

If the sheet is fed into the printing press upside down, the stamps will have a reversed watermark (mirror image).

If the sheet is fed into the press bottom-first and upside down, the stamps will have watermarks that are both inverted and reversed.

If the sheet is fed into the press sideways, then the stamps will have sideways watermarks. British coil stamps are identified by their sideways watermarks. They were produced that way intentionally.

The Scott standard catalog usually does not list inverted, reversed or sideways watermark varieties, but they are highly collectible, especially for the specialist.

Papermakers often identified their product with a papermaker's watermark that appeared in the margins of the sheet or in the central gutter between panes.

The papermaker's watermark was not intended to appear on the printed part of the sheet, but because the sheets were sometimes imperfectly aligned with the press, parts of a papermaker's watermark can sometimes be found in stamps from the outer rows or columns of the sheet or panes.

Stitch watermarks are another type of unintentional watermark that is sometimes found on stamps. Stitch watermarks, which usually appear as a row of short parallel lines, are caused by the stitching together of the ends of cloth aprons on which the pulp is assembled in the paper making process.

Stich watermarks are usually very faint and are often lost in paper finishing operations.

A Great Britain 1-shilling pale green Queen Victoria stamp (Scott 5) with a stitch watermark is shown in Figure 3. The watermark has been graphically enhanced to make it easier to see.

Batonne paper is a type of watermarked paper. Linn's almanac defines it as: "A wove or laid paper with watermark-like lines deliberately added in the papermaking process and intended as a guide for handwriting." Some stamps of Afghanistan, Fiji and the Indian feudatory state of Poonch were produced on batonne paper.

Quadrilled paper is similar to batonne paper, but it has batonne watermark lines (crossed lines) in two directions forming small squares, oblong rectangles or diamonds. The Spanish stamps of 1856 (Scott 40-43) were printed on quadrilled paper.

Pseudo-watermarks are marks added to paper after it is finished to simulate watermarks.

Some pseudo-watermarks are produced by pressing a design into the paper after it is finished. The Swiss Cross in Oval watermark (Scott watermark 182) shown in Figure 4 was pressed into the paper after it was manufactured. Egyptian stamps of 1867-79 also have Crescent and Star pseudo-watermarks.

Some pseudo-watermarks were pressed in so hard that the paper is damaged and can fall apart as a stamp ages or is soaked in water.

Another type of pseudo-watermark is produced by applying a chemical to the paper that makes it semitransparent. The German Ostropa semipostal souvenir sheet (Scott B68) and the Hindenburg airmail stamps (C57-58) are examples of stamps with chemically induced watermarks.

The New Zealand 1925 definitive stamps (Scott 176-78) have "N Z" and Star pseudo-watermarks that were printed on the backs of the stamps, usually in blue ink.

Watermarks vary from easily visible to very faint. Many watermarks can be seen with the naked eye without special lighting or equipment.

The Crown and "C A" multiple watermark (Scott watermark 3) is clearly visible from the back of the Virgin Islands 2sh, 6d King George V stamp (Scott 45) shown in Figure 5.

Other watermarks are visible to the eye by holding the stamp obliquely to a light source, by holding the stamp in front of a light source or by viewing the stamp against a black surface.

Many watermarks can be seen only with watermark fluid or a watermark detector.

Commercially produced watermark-detecting fluid is sold by stamp accessories and supplies dealers. Watermark fluid will not hurt the design or gum of most stamps.

Some collectors use lighter fluid instead of a commercial product.

Watermark fluid is used in conjunction with a watermark-detecting tray. Commercially produced watermark trays are available, but any black plastic or glass receptacle, such as a clean ashtray, can be used.

The stamp is placed face down in the tray and a small amount of fluid is added.

The liquid will penetrate the watermarked part of the paper first because it is thinner than the rest of the paper. The watermark will be most clearly visible at this point.

After the fluid penetrates the rest of the paper, the watermark might become less visible. The fluid evaporates quickly, leaving the stamp dry and undamaged.

A watermark detection fluid and watermark detecting tray shown in Figure 6 make the "DBP" and Rosette multiple watermark clearly visible on a Germany-Berlin occupation stamp.

There are several other types of watermark detectors available.

The Safe Signoscope is a type of light box detector. The detector works by side-lighting the stamp under variable amounts of pressure and with variable contrasts of lighting.

Some watermarks are difficult to see, even with a watermark detector. The United States USPS doubleline and singleline watermarks are notoriously difficult, especially when only a small part of one letter is present.