An overprint gives a new identity to an existing stamp

Oct 13, 2010, 12 PM

Throughout the many listings in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers and the Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940 are stamps marked with an overprint: printing applied over the original completed design of a stamp to change it in some manner.

There are many reasons why a postal authority might overprint a stamp. Certain types of overprints are referred to as provisional stamps, because they fill an urgent need. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary even includes a definition for the word provisional that reads, "a postage stamp for use until a regular issue appears."For an overprint to be considered authentic (and therefore, to be listed in the Scott catalog), it must be authorized by the postal authority of the country issuing the stamp.

One type of provisional is a stamp that is overprinted with a new value. There are a number of reasons why this might happen.

It is much easier and faster for a postal authority to overprint existing stamps with a new value than it is to design and print all-new stamps with the value needed for mailing purposes.

As an example, France needed stamps with new values in 1940, during a time when the country was being invaded and occupied by German forces in World War II. To simplify matters, existing Ceres design definitive stamps in three different values (Scott 335, 337 and 338) were overprinted "1F" in red, representing the stamp's newly assigned value of 1 franc.

From that point forward, the new overprinted stamps sold for 1 franc, and had a postage value of 1 franc.

An overprint of this sort, which alters the postage value of the stamp, is called a surcharge, regardless of whether the overprint increases or decreases the value of the stamp.

More often than not, as in the case of the 1940 French stamps, the surcharge is less than the original value of the stamp to which it is applied. That's because a simple overprint might be easily forged to defraud the postal authority, but if the new value is lower than the original value, there's no profit in faking the new surcharge.

Stamp collectors consider the original unoverprinted stamp and the newly overprinted stamp to be two different issues. The 1938 1.75fr dark blue Ceres stamp is listed in the Scott catalog as France Scott 335. The surcharged 1.75fr stamp, with its new 1fr value, is Scott 397.

Another form of provisional stamp is created to indicate a different country or area in which the stamps may be used.

In 1899, the French postal authority authorized overprints of its Peace and Commerce definitive stamps with the name "ALEXANDRIE" to indicate their intended use in French post offices in Alexandria and Port Said, Egypt (France Offices in Egypt Scott 1-15).

The United States overprinted some of its regular-issue stamps in 1919 and 1922 for use by the U.S. Postal Agency in China, to be used on mail dispatched to addresses in the United States (Scott K1-K18).

These U.S. overprints not only read "SHANGHAI CHINA" to designate this purpose, but they also include a surcharge in local currency (such as 2¢ on a 1¢ stamp).

In the case of Ireland in 1922, stamps of Great Britain were overprinted with different messages as Ireland sought and achieved independence.

Stamps issued Feb. 17, 1922, were overprinted with text in the Gaelic language reading "Provisional Government of Ireland 1922" (Scott 1-8).

Several months later, stamps were overprinted with a message in Gaelic reading "Irish Free State" (Scott 44-62).

Similarly, when a country or territory is occupied by another country, its stamps might be marked to indicate its occupied state. In the aftermath of World War I, areas of Hungary occupied by French forces used Hungarian stamps with an overprint reading "Occupation francaise" (Hungary Scott 1N1-1N41).

The Scott catalog includes a detailed warning that many of Hungary's French occupation stamps have been extensively forged, and that is a problem the collector can encounter with a number of overprinted issues.

Compared to creating a counterfeit or forged printed postage stamp, forging an overprint is unfortunately much simpler. If a genuine overprinted stamp has a greater collector value than the original stamp without overprint, the forger sees an opportunity to create a fake overprint and reap profits.

Forged overprints are common for some issues, and the Scott catalog often warns collectors if forgeries of overprints are known.

Another fairly common use of overprints is to designate a specific purpose for an issued stamp.

This is most often done with the application of initials or words that indicate a specific postal duty.

Between 1875 and 1935, a span of six decades, Luxembourg issued more than 180 Official stamps — stamps intended for use only by designated government authorities.

Unlike the United States, which created Official stamps with printed designs different from its regular issues, Luxembourg simply overprinted its regular issues with a message to indicate the new purpose.

The overprint on all of Luxembourg's Official stamps read either "Officiel" or "S.P." (representing the phrase "Service Public").

In some instances the overprint is fairly plain, but for many years, the "Officiel" overprint was printed with stylish lettering that includes a stem with flourishes growing out of the bottom of the first "f." The issues of 1908-26 (Scott O80-O135) are among those overprinted with that attractive lettering.

Many other overprints for service designations exist, covering nearly every back-of-the-book stamp one can imagine.

Romania overprinted the phrase "TAXA DE PLATA" on two of its 1908 regular-issue stamps to create two postage due stamps in 1918 (Scott J50-J51).

The first issue of airmail stamps for Honduras in 1925 (Scott C1-C9) were 1915-16 regular postage stamps overprinted with the words "AERO CORREO."

North Borneo created its first semipostal stamps in 1916 (Scott B1-B13) by overprinting a red cross on its attractive 1909-22 pictorial issues.

France issued stamps for military use from 1901-39 by overprinting the initials "F.M." on its regular-issue stamps (Scott M1-M9).

And the list goes on and on.

As the stamps illustrated here show, many overprints appear on older classic stamps.

While the need for overprinted stamps has not disappeared, many countries have found ways to print new stamps to fulfill postage needs, instead of overprinting.

There certainly are many exceptions, however.

Many years ago, stamps would occasionally receive an overprint to mark a special event.

Germany, for example, issued two airmail stamps in 1928 and a third in 1931, all showing the Graf Zeppelin above the globe, crossing the ocean.

From 1930 to 1933, these airmail stamps were overprinted to commemorate special flights of the zeppelin, including the 1933 flight to the Century of Progress International Exhibition in Chicago (Scott C43-C45).

The overprint for that issue consists of the small words "Chicagofahrt Weltausstellung 1933" in the upper left corner.

Many countries still find it convenient to commemorate special events by overprinting.

The British territory of Anguilla in the West Indies overprinted a number of stamps in the 1980s for special events and commemorations.

When Prince Henry of Wales (commonly known today as Prince Harry) was born in 1985, Anguilla marked the occasion with an overprint on stamps that were issued three years earlier to celebrate the 21st birthday of the prince's mother, Princess Diana (Scott 639A-639F).

The new overprint reads "PRINCE HENRY BIRTH 15.9.84" (marking the birthdate of Sept. 15, 1984).

Overprints of this sort should not be overlooked when creating a topical or thematic collection. Many overprinted stamps have been issued to celebrate international soccer victories, for example.

This survey of overprints just scratches the surface of the many varieties that exist.

You'll find several interesting examples in David Alderfer's Great Britain column in this issue on page 24.

Overprints are special varieties of stamps that deserve a home in your collection. You can specialize by collecting a certain type, such as surcharges or commemorations, or just include them with the unoverprinted stamps in your favorite country collection.