US Stamps

Looking for stamps missing colors not as simple as it might appear

Nov 5, 2018, 6 AM

U.S. Stamp Notes — By John M. Hotchner

Having just spent a couple of hours examining stamps that were candidates to be color-omitted errors, I think it is worthwhile to devote a column to things an expertizer looks for when one of these candidates comes in the door.

Starting from the basis that the owner believes the patient (as expertizers call a stamp submission) has a good chance of passing muster, I will break this subject into two sections: simple and complicated.

In the first category are stamps where a single color or two differentiable colors are printed and are easily seen to be omitted if they are. Colors are there or they aren’t. However, even if a color appears to be omitted, that may not be the end of the story because the reason it isn’t present is important.

The first image above shows four examples. Two of these are color-omitted errors, and two are not.

In the second category are stamps where two or more colors are laid on top of one another to produce a third color. One example would be varying intensities of yellow dots and red dots combined to produce shades of brown, and another would be combining yellow and blue to produce green.

If the color on a given stamp does not match the color on a normal stamp, the collector may believe a color needed to get to the right shade is missing. This is especially prevalent on photogravure-printed stamps, on which every shade of the rainbow can be displayed through the combination of four basic colors: black, yellow, cyan (blue) and magenta (red).

A few stamps subject to this form of omitted color are shown in the second image above. Only one is a true color-omitted error.

After receiving a color-omitted patient, the first thing an expertizer does is to take a preliminary look at it. After having done this for years, the brain assesses a range of factors to arrive at one of two conclusions: possibly good (a color-omitted error) and definitely bad (not an error).

In the latter case, we are dealing with stamps that have visible bits of the purported omitted color, stamps that are totally discolored, or examples where virtually all the colors of the design are altered. About 5 to 10 percent of all submissions will be eliminated at this stage.

After this preliminary look, the expertizer checks the remaining candidates against the latest edition of the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers, and the 16th edition of the Scott Catalogue of Errors on U.S. Postage Stamps by Stephen R. Datz.

Published in 2014, the Datz catalog is slightly out of date, but if the patient is not listed in either catalog, it must be treated with extreme caution. While it is possible for new missing-color discoveries to be made long after a stamp has been issued, it is unusual.

These catalogs also include notes about known errors that can serve as helpful guides to an expertizer and details about what colors were used to produce the stamp.

Linn’s U.S. Stamp Yearbooks (produced for the stamps of 1983 to 2010) are another useful resource.

The next thing to reach for is a 30x to 40x magnifier.

The inviolable rule of omitted colors is that to be a genuine error, every trace of the color at issue must be omitted. Our unaided 20-20 vision is not a reliable gauge.

Often, color-omitted stamps result from improperly inked plates or the press running out of ink. The latter will create “transition strips,” where stamps go from fully printed, to partially printed, to a color fully omitted.

In the first category of stamps, there may be no color that the eye sees, but microscopic dots in places where there should be color will disqualify the stamp as being an error.

This is especially problematic with the second category of stamps. Gravure printing is highly accurate, but there are often gradations of normal for final colors because it is difficult to deliver the exact amount of ink of each color over an entire press run. A small difference in ink amount may result in a visually different color, even if no color is entirely missing.

The use of a magnifier is important to check whether a heavy or light print of a particular color is responsible for the odd color, or whether an intended color did not print at all.

Generally, what the expertizer is looking for is the presence of dots of color of a certain size and intensity that should be present as seen on a normal example. A light print of those dots can have a major effect on the final color — enough to convince a collector that a color must be missing.

In my experience, about 30 percent of submissions will not pass the magnification test.

For those that do, out come the ultraviolet light detectors. At this point, having a normal example of the stamp to compare with the patient is critical.

There are three possible results: no tagging where there should be tagging, tagging that is clearly altered from normal, and what appears to be normal tagging.

No tagging may actually be a positive sign as some known errors simply skipped a part of production, including tagging.

Altered tagging is disqualifying. It indicates that not only the tagging but the printed design as well have been subjected to some sort of agent that has changed the stamp from what came off the press. Another 20 to 30 percent of submissions will fail this test.

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A finding of normal tagging is a good sign, but not determinative. There are some methods of altering colors that seem to have little to no effect on tagging, but they do affect the brightness of the white paper that will be evident on normal examples.

You can encounter a stamp where a color is definitely missing when viewed under magnification and where the tagging seems to be normal, but because the white areas in the design and the frame have a dingy appearance, it is probably altered.

This tip-off is more valid with mint stamps than with used. Stamps that have gone through the mails and stamps that have been washed from envelope paper may have been subjected to substances that changed the colors, thus mimicking an error or masking an alteration.

About 30 percent of the stamps that get to this point are identifiable as altered.

It needs to be mentioned that collectors are sometimes able to submit additional evidence with a color-omitted candidate. This evidence can include prior expertization records, expert opinions, articles in the philatelic press, a statement of how the submitter obtained the stamp, or a letter from the printer who may have been asked in the past to review the stamp.

These can be helpful as the expertizer works to reach a conclusion. However, prior conclusions cannot be accepted on their face. I have even found letters from a printer that are wrong. After all, the printer may not be especially tuned in to alteration techniques.

Please keep in mind that this is a brief overview to provide a sense of how an expertizer approaches a stamp submitted as a possible color-omitted error. Most patients will yield their secrets using these methods, but others may require much more study and research.

And using these methods may result in two experts coming to different conclusions, and an extended correspondence to try to resolve the issues. However, there will be a very few cases in which agreement is not possible, resulting in a “no opinion.”

Expertizing is as much art as science.