Keep an eye out for uncommon stamps — you could get lucky

Jun 27, 2011, 12 PM

By Janet Klug

Anyone can find and collect uncommon stamps

If you mention you are a stamp collector to someone who does not collect stamps, the odds are that one of the first things they will say is, "Do you have one of those upside-down airplane stamps?"

The coveted 1918 United States 24¢ Jenny Invert airmail error stamp (Scott C3a) is, arguably, the most famous postage stamp in the United States and possibly the world. Because only one sheet of 100 was ever found, and because a few of them have gone missing, the remaining stamps have become valuable, often selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. That certainly puts it right out of my price range, and possibly out of yours as well.

But I can still collect inverted center stamps and so can you, because not all stamps with inverted centers are rare. Conversely, not all rare stamps have inverted centers, nor are all rare stamps expensive.

Shown in Figure 1 is a beautiful inverted center stamp that cost less than $80 to acquire. This Nyassa 75-reis Camel stamp (Scott 33 variety) was issued in 1901. It features a central picture area – called a vignette – of two camels in carmine lake, with a frame in black. The vignette is inverted.

The Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940 values a normal example at just $1.75 in unused hinged condition.

The inverted center stamp is not listed, but there is a footnote that explains this stamp. It reads: "Nos. 26 to 38 are known with inverted centers but are believed to be purely speculative and never regularly issued. Value $80 each."

Other stamps in this series have giraffes, so for around $160 you can have an inverted camel and an inverted giraffe. They are just as beautiful as an inverted Jenny, just not anywhere near as expensive.

The inverted camels and giraffes are stamps that look rare, but are not. Some stamps look common but are rare. These kinds of stamps can sometimes be found for pennies in inexpensive mixtures by an astute collector. You just have to know what you are looking for, and that requires knowledge of varieties that exist.

Take a look at the stamp shown in Figure 2. This Fiji 2-penny King George V stamp (Scott 98) is listed in the Scott Classic specialized catalog as being perforated gauge 14 and printed on paper with watermark type 4.

For those who never visit the Scott Classic specialized catalog introduction, illustrations of British Commonwealth watermarks are found in that section, where watermark 4 is described as "multiple crown and script CA."

British colonial watermarks are usually among the easiest to see. Often they can be seen just by turning the stamp on its face. If that doesn't work, placing the stamp in a small black watermark tray and adding a few drops of watermark fluid will make the watermark visible for a few seconds. This will not hurt the stamp. After checking the watermark, it helps to place the stamp face down on absorbent paper, such as a paper towel, until it is dry.

The Fiji 2d King George V stamp on paper with watermark 4, shown in Figure 2, has a Scott Classic specialized catalog value of $1.40 in unused hinged condition. I have been on the hunt for this stamp for years, and I have a few hundred of them lined up like soldiers in uniform in a stock book. Why? Because I am looking for something that cannot always be seen, so in the off chance that I may find what I seek, I buy the stamp and check it out when I get home.

To date, the ones I have acquired are always on paper with watermark 4. But once, decades ago, a friend of mine found one that did not have watermark 4. It had, unbelievable as it may seem, an Irish watermark listed in the Scott classic specialized catalog as watermark 44, described as "SE in monogram."

This variety is not listed in the Scott Classic specialized catalog because the Fiji stamp on paper with the Irish watermark was not regularly issued.

In the British-based Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth Stamp Catalogue, Western Pacific, however, a footnote below the listing for the Fiji 2d King George V stamp, listed as Stanley Gibbons 233, reads: "The 2d imperforate with watermark Type 10 of Ireland [the same watermark listed in the Scott catalog as watermark 44] came from a trial printing and was not issued."

The 1922 printing on paper watermarked SE in monogram was a trial to see how the new watermarked paper would take a stamp image prior to producing postage stamps for the Irish Free State, or "Sarostat Eireann" in the Irish language. That also explains the meaning of the monogram SE within the watermark.

So I keep buying examples of the Fiji 2d King George V stamp, both perforated and imperforate, on the outside chance that I might stumble upon a very rare variety just like my friend did many years ago. There is also the chance of finding a rare value-omitted variety of the 2d stamp that is listed in the Stanley Gibbons catalog as Fiji 233a. One lives in hope.

The Fiji stamp with an Irish watermark is an example of an uncommon stamp. In the world of stamp collecting there are many terms that are used to indicate that an item is not plentiful.

Linn's style is that to qualify as rare, no more than 10 examples can exist.

The British North American Philatelic Society lists on its web site ( a rarity factor scale developed by George Arfken. The scale runs from VC (very common) to RRR (exceedingly rare) with no more than three examples known. RR stands for very rare with no more than six examples known. RR (rare) is followed by 5 degrees of lesser rarity.

The Dvoracek Rarity Scale uses numbers to acknowledge rarities. The number "1" is used when only one example is known. The numbers "2 to 10" refers to a world rarity. Five more levels of rarity are noted in this scale, which ends with "1001 to 3000" indicating what is described as "valuable material."

How many examples of a stamp exist is not always known, but sometimes it can be learned through researching printing records. Using the 24¢ Inverted Jenny as an example, we know from Bureau of Engraving and Printing records that the stamps were printed in sheets of 100. According to the book Jenny! by George Amick, nine sheets of the 24¢ Jenny airmail stamp were printed in error with the vignette inverted to the frame. But only one sheet was sold to the public. That sheet was purchased on the day of issue, May 14, 1918, by William T. Robey at a post office in Washington, D.C. According to the Dvoracek Rarity Scale, the Inverted Jenny is a great rarity, with a maximum of 100 known.

Some collectors participate in gathering information about numbers that are known to exist for certain uncommon stamps. This is accomplished by polling other collectors who know the stamps, and searching auction catalogs and dealers' listings past and present.

It is a time-consuming job, but it is work that benefits the entire hobby. The absolute key to finding and collecting uncommon stamps is to be aware of what exists and how scarce it might actually be. Then keep looking everywhere for it. Through dogged determination, each of us might find our own special uncommon stamp.

I will never own a Jenny Invert, but I did acquire a normal example of the stamp. I mounted it upside down in my album, so every time I open the album to that page my heart beats a little faster.

Stamp collecting is about having fun, after all.

Happy hunting.