US Stamps

James E. Lee

Collecting plate proofs on a budget is not as tough as you might think

March 09, 2017 07:00 PM

  • Cardboard plate proofs are known for their vivid colors and razor-sharp impressions. Here is a handsome set of the 1875 reprints of the 1857-60 issue. These proofs are often seen with poor centering.
  • This set of 1869 Pictorial plate proofs features bright, crisp colors. Note, in particular, the vivid blue of the 3¢, 6¢, and 30¢ denominations.
  • These examples of the five different printings for the 1¢ 1861 proof show slight variations in the blue color.
  • Shown here are three of the five shades for the 24¢ 1861 proof. Note the stark difference between the color of the first proof and the colors of the second and third proofs.

Essays and Proofs — By James E. Lee

When I moved back to Chicago from college in Champaign, Ill., in fall 1971, my stamp budget on a good week was something south of $20. 

This was derived from my Saturday adventures of traveling from stamp store to stamp store, in the Chicago area (there were about 25 of them), buying from one dealer and then selling to another.

It was a tough way to make money to spend on my collection. But it provided me with a great experience and taught me the discipline to collect on a modest budget.

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My commissions from this venture would be plowed into plate proofs for my collection. A plate proof is a trial impression from a printing plate before actual stamp production.

Proofs are made to examine the plate for defects or to compare the results of using different inks.

By late 1972, I discovered proofs were my passion and proceeded to sell off my stamps.

One could buy plate proofs of most of the 1861 issue, my favorite, for $5 each back then. That equates to about $30 in today’s money, which is what they typically cost today. This is a testament to the stability of the market for plate proofs. 

There are several reasons that cardboard plate proofs should appeal to the beginning or intermediate collector. 

First, there are absolutely no issues with gum because they do not come gummed. Next, most surviving examples are well-centered. Finally, they possess amazing color and razor sharp impressions. 

When compared to their stamp brethren, the color contest is over. You will be hard-pressed to find issued stamps with the same intensity of color.

You do need to be selective and search for examples that have the qualities just mentioned. Just like stamps, proofs can come off center, possess weak or faded color, and have thins.

Be sure to watch out for thick hinge remnants on the backs, which might hide thins. 

You can remove hinges by soaking the proofs in water — the same way you would do with stamps. 

Just be careful not to let any with deep colors stay in the water very long because the colors will run.

I started out buying individual plate proofs and building my own sets. This allowed me to match centering and color. It is not easy to find complete sets that meet stringent criteria. 

The first illustration in the slideshow above demonstrates the centering issues that plague plate proofs of the 1875 reprints of the 1857-60 issue (Scott 40P4-47P4).

The layout of the plates for this issue was extremely tight, resulting in very narrow margins. Thus, many examples exhibit margins that cut into the designs.

Illustrated in the second image above is an example of what I call matching the colors. Note the uniform brightness of the colors of these 1869 Pictorial proofs, especially the blues on the 3¢, 6¢, and 30¢ denominations. More often than not, the blue will be flat or washed out. 

In addition to building sets, there are my other ways to collect cardboard plate proofs and not break the bank.

All cardboard proofs came from five different printings conducted between 1879 and 1893. 

Each printing produced 500 examples of each proof, and the shades will vary slightly as well as the thickness of the cardboard between printings.

Therefore you can do shade studies and identify the various printings of a particular denomination. Building a topical collection based on the 6¢ Washington, 1¢ Franklin, or 90¢ Lincoln Pictorial plate proofs is a possibility.

In the third illustration above, examples of the five different printings for the 1¢ 1861 proof (Scott 63P4) are shown.

Note the slight variation in color among the printings. If you measure the thickness of each with a micrometer, you will find differences as well. 

The last illustration features three of the five shades for the 24¢ 1861 proof. Note the stark difference between the color of first proof and the colors of the second and third proofs. 

Now let’s examine the actual cost of cardboard proofs based on the current market. 

More than 90 percent of the basic card proofs from the 1847 issue through the newspaper issues run between $10 and $75 each. 

The scarce or key denominations — such as the 24¢ 1861 red lilac (Scott 70P4); the 1¢, 3¢, 6¢ and 10¢ Continental proofs (156P4, 158P4, 159P4, and 161P4, respectively); and the dollar-denominated Columbians — bring up to $500 each. Thus, there is plenty of room for enjoyment before tackling the more expensive proofs.

As a young collector, I wanted to pursue beautiful, well-centered used examples of the 1861 stamps, each with face-free cancels. I soon learned that this was impossible on a very thin budget.

So, I turned to proofs, which met and exceeded my needs at a fraction of the cost. This allowed me to remain well within my budget. 

The topic for my June column is still in the development stage. If there is a topic dealing with essays and proofs that you would like me to write about, please contact me at the email address below.


James E. Lee has been a full-time professional philatelist for more than 25 years, specializing in United States essays and proofs, postal history and fancy cancels. He may be reached via email or through his website.