Heads or tails? You can bet these stamps are fun to collect

May 1, 2021, 3 PM

By Janet Klug

The world of stamp collecting has some odd terminology. For example, bull's-eye and socked-on-the-nose both mean a circular date-stamp that is perfectly centered on a stamp.

A killer is not someone who commits murder – it is the part of a cancel that strikes the stamp, making it invalid for reuse.

Two of the most misunderstood and confused stamp terms are tete-beche and se-tenant. Both are French terms.

Tete-beche (pronounced tet-besh) comes from a term meaning head-to-tail, or more literally, head-to-foot, according to the dictionary. It is used to describe a stamp pair or larger multiple, where the design of one stamp is inverted or upside down in relation to that of the other.

Some collectors might think tete-beche stamps are errors and thus are expensive to collect. That is true in some cases when a stamp image in a printing plate was unintentionally inverted. But in most cases, the tete-beche arrangement is intentional.

Figure 1 illustrates a tete-beche pair of Swiss 5-centime Viaducts stamps issued in 1949 (Scott 329a).

Switzerland has many stamps that can be collected as tete-beche pairs. These were printed deliberately in that form so the stamps could be easily made into booklets. These are impressive to look at, but inexpensive and fun to collect.

Issued in the 1960, the pair of Swiss 20c Messenger stamps (Scott 385a) shown in Figure 2 is another type of Swiss tete-beche pair. The designs of the two stamps are inverted in relation to one another, but there is selvage, called a gutter, with a printed diamond-pattern grid between the two stamps.

This type of tete-beche pair is called an interspace pair. This arrangement also came about to facilitate the production of stamp booklets.

A vertical interspace tete-beche pair of Swiss 30c Grossmuenster, Zurich stamps (Scott 387ac) is shown in Figure 3. This pair with the gutter between the stamps is actually going head to head.

Figure 4 shows a tete-beche pair of head-to-head Costa Rican 5-centimo Coffee Plantation stamps (Scott 103) issued in 1921.

It is probably obvious, but collecting tete-beche stamps requires that the stamps not be separated from each other. Separating them completely ruins the effect.

With so many stamps being issued today as self-adhesives printed on peelable backing, the head-to-tail effect becomes somewhat meaningless. I created my own tete-beche pair of United States 2¢ Navajo Jewelry stamps, shown in Figure 5, simply by peeling one stamp off and flipping it around and pressing it back down. The serrated die-cut edges fit perfectly against the stamp alongside it, but this doesn't count as a real tete-beche pair.

Se-tenant (the Americanized pronunciation is say-ten-ant) translates as joined together. It is used to describe two or more stamps with different designs that are joined together.

Although in se-tenant multiples the individual stamp designs are different, they often share a unifying theme or background.

Shown in Figure 6 is a se-tenant pair of Pitcairn Islands 45¢ Gecko stamps (Scott 391a) issued in 1993. The conjoined stamps show two geckos in different poses, but the unifying design feature is the leaves that run unbroken across the perforations between the stamps.

Se-tenant stamps may form a triptych (pronounced trip-tick). These are three stamps, joined together, that form a single, unified design. The 1980 Norfolk Island Red-tailed Tropic Birds Christmas stamps (Scott 275a) shown in Figure 7 are a triptych.

The three stamps have different nesting sea birds and different denominations, but the entire scene is held together by a unifying background of tree trunk, limbs, branches and a glimpse of the sea in the distance.

With the proliferation of self-adhesives that are completely separated from each other by die cuts and only held together by backing paper, the stamps are no longer attached to one another and so they do not meet the true meaning of se-tenant.

Perhaps we need to think up a new set of terms for designs that spread across multiple self-adhesive stamps to form a unified design.

Suggestions, anyone?