World Stamps

The first-issue stamps of Austria that set the standard for Europe

May 4, 2021, 3 AM

By Sergio Sismondo

The Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1850 was by far the largest country in Europe, west of Russia. It was a conglomerate hammered together by collective and bilateral agreements between Austria-Hungary and all the other states. There were 11 major ethnic groups and at least 18 principal languages spoken.

The empire tried to treat all groups with respect and recognition. They knew the consequences of not doing so were not attractive. The first issue of postal cards, for instance, consisted of 18 separate issues, with instructions written in 18 languages, singly, or in combinations of two for use in areas where the use of more than one language was normal.

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The 14 languages closely associated with specific ethnic groups were, in alphabetical order: Bohemian, Czech, German, Hungarian, Illyrian, Italian, Ladino, Polish, Romanian, Ruthenian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovakian, Slovene, and Ukranian.

When it came to making stamps, matters were greatly simplified; after all, the use of postage stamps did not require much instruction. In the center of the stamp is a rendition of the arms of the empire, the double-headed eagle being the most salient interpretation of its duality. On top is an imperial crown, and the inscription in German “KK POST-STEMPEL” (meaning roughly “Postage Stamp of the Kingdom and Empire”). In the lower cartouche is the stamp’s denomination.

The stamps for regions of northern Italy — Lombardy and Venetia — were denominated in centesimi (100 centesimi = 1 Italian lira). The stamps for all other regions were denominated in kreuzer (60 kreuzer = 1 gulden). Obviously, Austrian gulden were in circulation throughout the empire. An exception was made for Italy, where Austrian money was not in circulation.

The denominations were roughly equivalent if centesimi were multiplied by five; thus, the issued stamps, maintaining the equivalence, were as follows:

1 kreuzer = 5 centesimi, black
2 kreuzer = 10 centesimi, yellow
3 kreuzer = 15 centesimi, red
6 kreuzer = 30 centesimi, brown
9 kreuzer = 45 centesimi, blue

The stamps of the first issue of Austria, while somewhat austere and less than brilliant in their design, set a precedent and a standard for European stamps to follow, many of which used the nation’s shield as the central subject of their design — Baden, Bavaria, Bergedorf, Bremen, Brunswick, Lubeck, Germany, Modena, Parma, Roman States, Naples, and Russia, to mention just a few.

In their defense, I also have to say that these stamps easily endear themselves to the person, such as myself, who studies them in detail and who has handled tens of thousands of them through the years.

The stamps of the first issue were in circulation between June 1, 1850, and Dec. 31, 1858. That eight-year period may be conveniently split into two halves according to the type of paper on which the stamps were printed. Until the last few months of 1854, the paper was handmade, and the sheets were watermarked.

Machine-made paper was gradually introduced in late 1854 when new printings became necessary. Machine-made sheets did not have a watermark. I do not know of any first issue of stamps that are collected with such a vast assortment of differentiating factors. Most of the collecting specialties are listed below. This column will deal with only a few aspects. A later article will deal with other aspects.

1. Plates and types for each denomination.
2. Colors, shades.
3. Printed on both sides.
4. Types of paper, handmade, machine made, laid, ribbed.
5. Thickness of paper, from pelure to carton.
6. Imperfections of the typographical impressions and printing faults.
7. Offset prints.
8. Watermark.
9. Sheet margins and sheet corners.
10. Multiples, strips, blocks.
11. Gutters.
12. Raised quads.
13. St. Andreas Crosses.
14. Cancellations (more than 10,000 post office names).
15. Postal usages. Unlimited variety.
16. Centesimi stamps used in Austria.
17. Kreuzer stamps used in Italy.


The different types came into being when the dies were modified between printings and at the time of making new plates. The differences between dies are generally small, and a matter of degree. The Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940 has explanations of the three types of 9kr, three types of 15c and three types of 45c, and that certainly helps. To distinguish the types of the other seven values of the series, it is necessary to consult a specialized catalog with pictures or diagrams of the various differences, which are in some cases rather minute.

For the 10 stamps issued, there are arguably 41 different types, according to my way of classifying them. Following are a few hints, chosen for their relative simplicity, which are hopefully helpful.

Stamps denominated 15c, type I, may be distinguished because the lower leg of the second “K” is missing or shortened, giving the appearance of “KF” rather than “KK.” No other stamps exhibit this anomaly.

All type III stamps may be attributed by the separation of the leaves adjacent to the shield at right and left from the frame of the shield itself. That is not always clear on overinked stamps, especially 6kr brown on handmade paper, but is generally a sound procedure for most stamps. All stamps on machine paper are from type III, but not all stamps of type III are on machine paper. Use this criterion judiciously.

There is an easy way to detect the subtype of the 2kr stamp, type III, which we may call type IIIb, in which a very small dot appears in the center white square, which is in the center of the shield. This variety, shown here, has a 50 percent premium over the regular handmade-paper values. On machine-made paper, conversely, it is type IIIa (without the mysterious dot) that commands a premium. This tiny variety never appears on the equivalent 10c stamp. The 2kr type IIIb stamp is shown nearby.


The initial color scheme was simple. During the eight years of production, colors did not remain consistent. Many variations occurred. Following are the rare and valuable color varieties to look for. Note that expert certificates may be necessary to ascertain one or another color; some differences are subtle.

For the 1kr handmade paper, the deeper the shades the more likely you have something of premium value. Bright brown-orange, shown nearby, and reddish brown-orange, only exist on type I stamps. Both are worth about five times the normal stamp whose color is yellow-ocher to pale orange-yellow.

For the 1kr machine-made paper, normal stamps are yellow, yellow-ocher, lemon-yellow (sometimes bright), and golden yellow. The best variety is very scarce; it was named mustard-yellow, but in recent decades the name was changed to olive-yellow. It is worth about five times the normal stamp.

For the 5c stamp, a great variety of shades are present, and most of them command good premiums. The most common colors are yellow-ocher, orange (broad range, from pale to deep), and brown-orange. Note that yellow is not present among the most common varieties. The premium varieties, in ascending order of scarcity, are: yellow, orange-yellow, olive-yellow, lemon-yellow and greenish lemon-yellow.

The scarce colors are worth between five and 30 times the normal stamps. Note,therefore, that the lemon-yellow, being one of the most common varieties of the 1kr stamps, is actually the rarest shade in the Lombardy-Venetia equivalent stamps. And, note also that the 5c stamp was never printed on machine-made paper. That fact could be an aid in identifying the characteristics of the two kinds of paper.

For the 2kr on handmade paper, the more common colors are black (to intense, as in Great Britain Penny Blacks, depending often on degree of inking) and gray-black. Stamps that appear gray and silver-gray are worth between five and eight times the normal stamp. The silver-gray variety is normally sold with a certificate of authenticity.

For the 2kr on machine-made paper, the more common shades range from black to deep or intense black. Premium varieties that are much sought-after are mouse-gray (a very pale shade with very sharp impression), and gray. These grayish varieties are worth between 10 and 20 times the normal stamps.

For the 10c on handmade paper, the normal color is black, which ranges from grayish black to intense black. Gray and silver-gray shades command premiums of four to seven times the normal stamps. The silver-gray variety is normally sold with a certificate of authenticity. A true silver-gray variety is the 2kr shown in the third illustration.

For the 10c on machine-made paper, normal colors are black to gray-black. Premium colors are gray, as before, with the new appearance of “blackish-gray.” Premiums are five to 12 times the normal stamps.

For the 3kr on handmade paper, a large variety of colors can be obtained, from rose, rose-red, red and deep red (shown nearby on handmade paper, type I), to vermilion and bright vermilion (shown on handmade paper, type III). In contrast, premium shades are in the family of carmines: brownish-carmine, deep carmine, deep carmine-red. These shades are worth up to 100 times the basic stamp.

For the 3kr on machine-made paper, common colors are rose to red and carmine-red, as before. Premium shades are very deep carmine and very deep tomato red. These very deep shades are worth up to 100 times the basic stamp.

For the 15c on handmade paper, a wide variety of colors are listed in some specialized catalogs: several vermilions, several roses, red-rose, carmine-rose, deep red, brick red, salmon red, and more. Premium stamps are very deep carmine and brownish carmine. Most stamps with very deep carmine and brownish carmine colors are overinked, sometimes obliterating the details of the design, especially the details of the imperial shield.

For the 15c on machine-made paper, the distribution of colors is about the same as for stamps printed on handmade paper, except that premium colors do not exist.

For the 6kr on handmade paper, there is a wide range of colors. Specialized catalogs list 16 distinct colors. Among the common ones, you can find brown, deep brown, chestnut brown, red-brown, gray-brown, rust brown, chocolate brown and their minor variations. Only two are very scarce: deep violet-brown, and black-brown or “earth brown.” These are worth 20 to 30 times the more common varieties. As before, examples of the deepest colors are often overinked examples with details of the design obliterated.

For the 6kr on machine-made paper, there is a range from rose-brown to chocolate-brown and violet-brown, but none of the colors are particularly scarce nor deserve premiums.

For the 30c on handmade paper, again we find a broad range of brown colors, but only a dark violet-brown shade merits a price premium. It is worth about 10 times that of the more common stamps.

For the 30c on machine-made paper, there is a range from yellowish-brown to gray-brown, but none merits a price premium.

For the 9kr on handmade paper, we can find blue, pale blue, bright blue, greenish-blue, steel blue and deep dark blue, but only a dark blue or black blue type I or type III are somewhat scarce and merit a modest premium of five to seven times the basic stamp value.

For the 9kr on machine-made paper, there is a similar range of shades, from pale blue to deep dark blue, but all shades are fairly common, and none deserves appreciable premiums. For the 45c on handmade paper, there is a wide range of shades, and only the very dark ones — blackish blue (type III) and deep dark blue (type I) command premiums, between 20 and 40 times the value of the most common shade, which is a pale blue.

For the 45c on machine-made paper, we can find four distinctive shades: pale blue, blue, dark blue and slate-blue. They are found with about the same frequency, and none demands a premium over the others.

Hint: a nice specialized collection can be made of the 3kr and 15c stamps, which offer a full range of colors and varieties, and come with a huge number of different cancellations, ranging from common to very rare. Most of them are not expensive.


While printing the 1kr and 5c stamps, in January 1851, it became apparent that an entire batch, of several thousands of sheets, had yellow-ocher impressions that were too light for the public to read the inscriptions on the stamps. In order not to waste the watermarked paper, it was decided to turn the sheets over and use the reverse side to print stronger impressions of the stamps.

The stamps created in this manner earned the distinction of being the only stamps of the world that are printed on both sides not by accident or by error, but following a printer’s decision to do so. These stamps are listed in the Scott catalog as Austria 1a and Lombardy-Venetia 1a.

For the second pass, printers purposely placed the sheets in such a manner as to make the impressions on reverse not coincident with those in front. Therefore, all the stamps properly cut in front bear parts of two or more stamps on reverse. Actually it was intended that each stamp would bear parts of four stamps on reverse.

There was a logical reason for this decision. It was thought that if the stamps in front and in back were coincident there would arise fraudulent uses of the back of the stamp to frank letters, postcards, postal stationery, and packets. Having the images quadrisected, trisected or bisected on reverse would alert imperial postmasters if they should come across fraudulent use of these stamps.

Another interesting fact regarding this second pass, which gives rise to another stamp variety, is that not all the sheets were placed in the printing machines in the same direction. Some sheets show the stamps on reverse being inverted with respect to the images in front. Thus Scott 1a represents two quite different stamps. Shown nearby is the front and back of a pair of stamps with the images printed in the same direction.

There is also a mystery regarding this stamp. Two multiples exist showing on reverse stamps positioned tete-beche (upside down in relation to each other). Both items are from the Lombardy-Venetia printings denominated in centesimi. However, there are no tete-beche positions in the issued stamps.

Philatelic sleuths have worked on this problem and have written about it. Some thought that the presence of the tete-beche position on the reverse is the real reason why this entire stock of stamps was rejected and the sheets were reused for a new printing. However, the rarity of the items — only two examples discovered, from thousands possible — renders this hypothesis most improbable.

My best guess is the following. It may be, instead, that in the original printing the inverted cliche was noticed and corrected very early in the printing. Then the error sheets, however many there might have been, were set aside on a table with other printer’s waste.

When the decision was taken to make a new printing using the thousands of weakly printed sheets, all the stock was brought out, and the rejected sheets were added to the mountain of paper to be reused. After all, both kinds were considered to be printer’s waste, and all could be used for the new purpose.

The printing continued as planned, without inverted cliches. Only a few sheets had on their reverse side the evidence that at an earlier stage there had been a tete-beche pair on that plate. The two items discovered bearing tete-beche images are the only scraps of evidence left of that obscure and arcane fact.

I leave this first installment here, having dealt with the types, the colors, and the printed on both sides. I will cover a few more subjects in a second installment for the November issue of this fine magazine.

The illustrations are from the archive of Liane and Sergio Sismondo.