Collecting an uncommonly common stamp from South Africa

May 2, 2021, 9 PM

It certainly is not unusual for stamp collectors to accumulate quantities of stamps – after all, this is what we do!

Many of us especially enjoy gathering common stamps to which we are strongly attracted. 

Beyond the appearance of such stamps that catch our eye, there also may be subtle or not-so-subtle varieties of them.

Collectors might squirrel away those sorts of stamps for when a rainy or snowy day provides leisure time to inspect them carefully and identify some of those varieties.

The thrill of the hunt is certainly a big part of the fun of stamp collecting.

A box lot that I acquired many years ago contained hundreds of inexpensive South African 1¢ Coral Tree Flower (kafferboomblom) stamps (Scott 255) issued between 1961 and 1971.

Figure 1 pictures an example. The Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue has several listings for this stamp, and that already makes it interesting. 

The first listing (Scott 255) indicates the stamp has watermark 330. The watermark identifier at the beginning of the South Africa section of the Scott standard catalog shows this as the Coat of Arms watermark.

The second listing (Scott 269) is for an unwatermarked stamp.

The third listing (Scott 289) indicates Wmk. 348, which is RSA in Triangle Multiple, with all the triangles upright. 

The fourth listing (Scott 318) has the same RSA in Triangle watermark, but the inscription at the bottom of the stamp is in larger type.

Listing number five (Scott 327) has a redrawn image. The Scott standard catalog does not give the details of the redrawing, but the watermark also is different from earlier issues of this design. It, too, is the RSA in Triangle watermark, but it is Wmk. 359, with the triangles in a tete-beche pattern, pointing alternately up and down. Checking for this watermark saves the collector a lot of time trying to figure out if the stamp is redrawn or not.

All of these 1¢ stamps have the Scott catalog minimum value of 25¢. 

Now, you might wonder why anyone would care about the varieties or want to go to the trouble of sorting a bunch of stamps that look alike. My answer is, the thrill of the hunt and a golden opportunity to learn about stamp printing, perforations and design elements. 

The obvious first step for sorting these stamps is to separate those with the small, thin inscriptions at the bottom (Figure 2, left), used from 1961-64, from those with the larger, bolder inscriptions at the bottom (Figure 2, right), used from 1964-69.

The thin inscriptions will either have no watermark (Scott 269), a Coat of Arms watermark (255) or an RSA in triangle watermark (289). The larger inscriptions will be watermarked with either the RSA in upright triangles or RSA in tete-beche triangles. 

A watermark is a security device that is added during the manufacture of the paper. A cylinder or roll containing the desired watermark image in a raised design is rolled across the paper pulp, slightly thinning the paper in the pattern that becomes the watermark. Detecting watermarks on stamps is an essential skill that every stamp collector should learn.

In many cases, watermarks can be viewed quite clearly by simply placing a stamp face down on a piece of black paper. Otherwise, a small black tray and some watermark fluid (available from any source of stamp-hobby supplies) will do the trick.

Place the stamp face down in the tray, squirt a few drops of watermark fluid on the back of the stamp and the watermark will appear for a short time, until the fluid evaporates. Compare the image you see on the stamp in the watermark tray to the image in the stamp catalog. 

According to the Scott standard catalog, all of the 1¢ coral tree flower stamps have perforations that gauge 15 by 14, but it doesn’t hurt to check a few of the examples in your pile, especially if any strike you as not looking quite the same as the majority of the others.

I found one that looked different and checked a specialized South Africa catalog that mentioned two versions of the 1¢ stamp that had perforations that gauge 13½ by 14. 

The fun really begins if you can find printing varieties. Specialized catalogs and articles on the subject can be immensely helpful. 

For this stamp, the Stanley Gibbons British Commonwealth Stamp Catalogue, the South African Stamp Color Catalogue, and the Stanley Gibbons Catalogue of Commonwealth Plate and Cylinder Varieties contain information that made looking for varieties easy and intriguing. 

The Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth catalog noted three types for this particular stamp, with illustrations of each making it easy to know what to look for. The box lot hoard had examples of each variety, shown in Figure 3. 

How could I tell? The types are denoted by the lowest petal of the left-hand flower and its location above the word "POSTAGE." On Type 1, the point of the petal is directly above "OS" of POSTAGE. On Type II, it is over the "S" of "POSTAGE." On Type III, the petal point is directly above the "O" in "POSTAGE."

The South African Stamp Color Catalogue offered additional information about paper types and phosphored paper, which can glow when exposed to ultraviolet light. The catalog also notes that this stamp was issued in coil format in 1963. 

With all this research, the simple little 1¢ kafferboomblom was becoming increasingly complex.

The Stanley Gibbons Catalogue of Commonwealth Plate and Cylinder Varieties lists printing varieties, several of which were found in the hoard. 

The stamp in Figure 4 has a gray "bud" at the top of the bloom on the right. In Figure 5, there is a white dot below the "A" of "Africa" at the top of the stamp. The example in Figure 6 has a scratch between the two blooms. 

Playing with these stamps was a great way to spend a wintry day. I made an album page and mounted the stamps with captions describing what I learned about them and felt like I had really accomplished something. 

What do you have in your stamp accumulations waiting to be explored? Today would be a good day to start finding out.