Think twice before you remove that selvage

Apr 29, 2021, 7 AM

By Michael Baadke

Can margin paper affect the value of a postage stamp? The answer may surprise some collectors, but yes, the value of a stamp can change depending on whether or not margin paper is attached.

Margin paper, also known as "selvage," is sometimes blank, and sometimes has information printed upon it. On modern United States stamps, collectors may find a copyright statement, a printing position diagram, or information about the stamp subject printed upon the margin paper.

Most collectors of United States stamps are familiar with the concept of a "plate block" or "plate number block."

When U.S. stamps are printed, numbers identifying the printing plate or printing cylinder used often appear somewhere on the printed sheet of stamps.

On early U.S. coil and booklet issues the numbers were usually trimmed away during processing, but they appeared in the margin paper of sheet stamps that were cut from press sheets and sold at post offices.

A block of stamps is a group of stamps consisting of more than one row that have not been separated from one another.

Plate blocks consist of unseparated stamps attached to all surrounding margin paper, including the paper that shows the printing plate number.

Often the plate number is printed upon selvage attached to a stamp in the corner of the pane, though for many earlier stamps the numbers were printed near the center of the selvage.

When it comes to value, having the plate block sometimes contributes little or nothing beyond a normal block. Many plate blocks from the 1950s containing four stamps are listed in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps with retail values of 30¢, while a single stamp is listed at 15¢.

That doesn't mean you can increase the stamp's value by separating the stamps in your plate block.

The 15¢ value represents the minimum value set by Scott Publishing Co. for single postage stamps. Those stamps simply have no noticeable premium value as plate blocks.

Other issues may be substantially more valuable as plate blocks, however.

Examples of this can be found among the U.S. Famous Americans issues of 1940, for instance. The 35 stamps in the set have face values of 1¢, 2¢, 3¢, 5¢ or 10¢.

The 10¢ values were issued in lesser quantities than the lower values, about one-fourth that of the 1¢ and 2¢ values.

Buying several plate blocks of four 10¢ stamps probably seemed like a great expense for many collectors nearly 60 years ago, and among these issues the catalog values reflect these facts.

A plate block of Scott 863, the 10¢ Samuel L. Clemens stamp, for example, has a retail value of $35, though single stamps are listed at just $1.65.

In this instance, the plate block of four stamps has a value of more than five times greater than the value of four individual stamps. The difference, of course, is the margin paper.

That value difference can change considerably if the plate block has the wrong number of stamps or if some of the margin paper is missing.

As an example, Figure 1 shows two blocks of stamps with different values.

The U.S. 2¢ Battle of Fallen Timbers stamp, Scott 680, was issued Sept. 14, 1929, and a single unused stamp has a catalog value of 80¢.

For this issue, a plate block is cataloged at $22.50 ($29 if never-hinged).

One of the two blocks shown in Figure 1 has that higher value, while the value of the other is no greater than the sum of its single stamps.

To determine what's what, the collector can consult the Scott U.S. specialized catalog. The listing for Scott 680 is shown in Figure 2.

Near the end of the listing is the description of the plate block: "P# block of 6."

The block of stamps shown at right in Figure 1 is missing two stamps and margin paper. It probably has little value greater than that of four single unused stamps.

The block of stamps at left in Figure 1 is a true plate block, and it qualifies for the Scott-assigned value for a plate block.

The plate numbers on this issue are printed near the center of the margin paper along the edge of the pane. The plate block of six stamps described by the Scott specialized catalog should include the plate number centered among the three attached pieces of selvage.

For stamps with plate numbers at the corner of the pane, collectors must save all margin paper on the two adjoining sides of the block that have margin paper.

Margin paper also plays an important role in the case of booklet stamps.

Up until about 10 years ago, stamps in booklets were perforated, had water-activated adhesive (you had to lick them to use them for mailing), and came between paperboard covers.

The pane or panes of stamps inside the covers often had a strip of margin paper at one end (a tab or stub), which was affixed to the inside of the covers, holding the stamps within.

When mailers used these stamps, they tore each one off, left the selvage inside and discarded the covers when the stamps were all gone.

However, when collectors look for full panes of unused booklet stamps, they insist on having the selvage paper attached. After all, without the selvage, a part of the pane has been lost.

Shown in Figure 3 are examples of Lindbergh booklet stamps from U.S. Scott C10a, described in the Scott specialized catalog as a "Booklet pane of 3."

The difference between the two illustrated items is the small piece of margin paper attached to the top of the pane.

The three stamps and margin paper at left in Figure 3 are what makes up Scott C10a.

The three stamps at right in Figure 3, with no margin paper, make up an incomplete pane. They can only be considered as three attached single stamps.

This information all becomes important to the U.S. collector as he shops for items to add to his collection.

A collector unfamiliar with the plate block for Scott 680 or the booklet pane Scott C10a may end up purchasing a wrong or incomplete item.

Some foreign stamp issues also are collected in varieties that include margin paper.

Among the most well-known of these are the stamps of Israel.

Israeli sheet stamps are printed with one row of labels attached to either the bottom or side of the sheet. Stamps with the attached labels, known as "tabs," are actively sought by many collectors of Israel.

Figure 4 shows Israel Scott 74, with tab attached at bottom. Note the tab is in two sections on this issue.

The Israeli stamp listings in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue include a list of stamps, such as Scott 74, that have tabs with two parts. If the small blank portion at the bottom is missing, the tab is incomplete.

A single unused copy of Scott 74 has a catalog value of 35¢. A single unused copy of the same stamp with tab attached has a catalog value of $9.

On some early Israeli stamps (the first were issued in 1948), stamps with tabs have values hundreds of dollars greater than that of stamps without tabs.

The condition of the margin paper on plate blocks, booklet panes, stamps with tabs and similar items is important, just as the condition of the stamps is important.

The collector should never write information on the margin paper, and should make sure the perforations between the margin paper and the stamps are sound and have not been creased.

Should all margin paper be left intact?

The margin paper on most modern stamps doesn't add substantial value, though some collectors like to leave margin paper attached. The selvage, in many cases, tells the collector where the stamp was positioned on the pane.

Margin paper is still important in the collecting of plate blocks and booklet panes.

The collector who is uncertain of whether selvage should be left or removed may do well by reading the Scott catalog or a specialized catalog to determine if the paper has any significance. As with any hobby, reading and learning more about the collectible helps the collector to make wise decisions.