Thursday, April 3, 2008

Technique - How to Find Stamps in a Catalog - Part 1

Most stamp collectors enjoy the quiet-time activity of sorting through stamps, finding them in stamp catalogs, and putting them in their proper place in their stamp albums. It is a good way to relax and de-stress from a busy day.

Often it is difficult to determine exactly where to begin looking in a stamp catalog in order to find the stamp we're trying to add. Some stamp series are printed for years, some just for a few weeks. Either way, unless you are very familiar with the country of issue, you might end up wasting a lot of time trying to find the persnickety stamp.

Over the next few days I will discuss several ways in which you can at least estimate the date of issue for a stamp. These methods are not fool-proof, but can offer valuable clues as to the date of the stamp.

  1. Examine the stamp closely for printed dates. You might think this is an obvious choice, but sometimes we get so busy looking at the forest, that we forget to notice the trees. Look over the stamp carefully, noting any printings in the margins. A magnifying glass is handy to help sort out the tiny margin details.

    Sometimes you might see the full year in the margin (2005, for example), or only an abbreviated year (such as '05). On other stamps, the date might be in the actual stamp design, but printed in a very small script so as to not be obvious. Most stamp issuers seem to be putting a date on their stamps, so hopefully the problem of date-less stamps will diminish.

    However, the printed dates are not always reliable. The United States, for example, will often re-issue definitive stamps for several years, with many of the issues having the current year printed on it. Stamp catalogs typically group all stamps in a specific definitive issue in the year that the first stamp appeared, even though some of the stamps in the series may have been issued several years later. So even with the date printed on the stamp, the catalog may lump it in with stamps issued on an earlier date.

  2. Closely examine the stamp cancellation. If you are looking up used stamps in your catalog, the postal cancellation may bear clues to the dating of the stamp. If the date is legible, remember that it represents the latest date in your catalog ... the stamp could not have been issued after it was postmarked. Be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that just because a stamp is cancelled on a certain date that it was issued a few months prior. I have received stamps from collectors that are at least 50 years old, postmarked this year. Again, only the last possible date of issue can be determined from a cancellation.

    If you are familiar with the postal history of the country you are processing, you might be able to guess the years of issue from the layout or design of the postmark. For example, some countries might have used a cancellation that looks like a star to cancel the stamp from 1870-1895. This could give you a last possible date, if you are familiar with the cancellations that the country used.

  3. Examine the printing methods and colors used on the stamp. Determining whether a stamp is engraved, lithographed, typographed, etc., can pinpoint date ranges in which a stamp was issued. Most countries issue stamps of the same era using the same method, although the more expensive stamps are frequently engraved, no matter when they were produced, as an anti-counterfeiting attempt.

    Also look for the distinctive colorations of the stamps. Early stamps were printed in one color, or possibly have a frame of one color plus an inner image of a different color. As stamp issuers began to use multiple colors, often they choose just a few and those colors have a washed-out appearance. More recent stamps are photographic in appearance, as opposed to earlier "cartoonish" designs.

These are just a few examples of how to find the date of issue for a stamp. Be sure to check back tomorrow, when I present additional tips to finding a stamp in a catalog.

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