Stamp collecting is one of the world’s most popular hobbies and pastimes. There are estimated to be around 60 million collectors of rare and valuable stamps. Collectors are motivated by the thrill of buying or swapping stamps and the prospect of discovering a rare and valuable specimen. In addition, they are considered as financial investments by many. Increasingly, collectors are acquiring stamps with unintended printing or design errors, which fall into many diverse categories. These include inverted centres, missing colours, colour or object shifts, perforation shifts, missed perforations, and design errors.
Stamps are printed in sheets of up to or over 100. Obvious errors in the printing process are usually discovered quickly and the offending sheets are discarded because they are useless as regular postage stamps. However, a few sheets with obvious mistakes may still escape being destroyed and find their way into the hands of collectors. Being scarce they are collectible. On the other hand, stamps with subtle errors may not be discovered by the printer until significant numbers of sheets have been sold to customers. They are still of interest to collectors because they are uncommon compared to the many thousands of correctly printed sheets. In this article I will describe and discuss several prominent classes of errors including stamps that are highly sought after because they are rare, beautiful, and spectacular, giving examples of each class. I will reveal how the errors might have arisen, and address the question: are error stamps trash or treasure?
A 2/6d orange and grey King Edward VII Transvaal revenue stamp in which the grey centre with the King’s head is inverted was discovered by a Johannesburg lawyer in 1902. Only one sheet of 60 of these stamps is known to have survived, but it is not known how many found their way into private collections. They fetch up to £1,000.
In 1902, before the introduction of multi-colour printing, stamps that were to be printed in more than one colour had to be fed through the printing press once for each colour to be printed. If a sheet in one of the print runs was accidentally inserted in the wrong orientation, one of the coloured areas, the King’s head) will appear upside down.
Recently, a rare US 24 cent stamp issued in 1918 featuring a biplane printed upside down, was sold at auction for the staggering sum of £1.6m – a record for a US stamp. Although only 100 of these stamps were printed and a fair number survive, they are highly prized and capture the imagination of collectors all over the world. The ‘inverted Jenny’ is considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of stamps.
There are numerous examples of one or more colours in a stamp being missed out, which can occur if a step in the multi-run mechanical printing process is omitted. The resulting appearance can be striking, and they may be valuable. The 1966 Christmas red, blue, and white 1/6d stamp was discovered by a lady in York in 1966; she bought two blocks of stamps, some of which were missing the Queen’s head in gold. One block of six with five correct stamps and one without the Queen’s head were sold at auction in 2010 for £4,500.
Colour shift errors are where one or more objects on a stamp are shifted, and it can be in any direction. The 1978 101/2p stamp on the left in the above image, commemorating 100 years of cycling shows a dramatic downward shift of the Queen’s head. In general, stamps with the greatest shifts are the most sought after. It happens when a sheet of stamps is required to pass through the press multiple times (once for each colour) and on one occasion the cylinder is offset.
Perforations are holes introduced on all four sides of a stamp sheet to allow easy separation of the individual stamps. The green 20p Scottish regional stamp is an extreme example of a perforation shift, also known as a ‘misperf’. Perforation shifts are surprisingly common and occur when the stamp sheet is not correctly aligned with the perforation equipment, resulting in the perforation and the join being placed in the body of the stamp. This renders it useless as a postage stamp but may be coveted by collectors. In general, the greater the shift, the greater is the interest from collectors.
Missed perforations are known as imperforate (also ‘imperf’) and can occur on one, several or all sides of a stamp sheet. The Australian dull green 5d block of six is a good example of a vertical imperf. Stamps which are imperf on all four sides are considered the most desirable.
Tête-bêche(French for ‘Head-to-Tail’) refers to a pair, strip, or block in which one or more of the joined stamps appears upside down in relation to the others. The 1956 Queen Elizabeth II strip of four 3d stamps is a good example of a tête-bêchethat is produced accidentally. However, stamps that are destined for booklets can have tête-bêchepairs produced intentionally, so it may be difficult to determine whether a specimen is accidental or intentional. Accidental errors occur when an engraved die on the printing plate is fed into the press in the wrong orientation. These stamps are legal when they are used individually.
With some exceptions, ‘Head-to-Tail’ errors are surprisingly common but are still collected by philatelists and can be bought for less than £60. A few ‘Head-to-Tail’ errors have proved highly desirable. In 2011, an extremely rare French one Franc tête-bêche pair printed in 1849 featuring the Goddess ‘Ceres’ fetched US$190,000 (£150,000) at auction.
Not all errors are generated at the printing and production phase. Many types of error are revealed at the design stage; these include spelling errors, wrong colours applied, incorrect face value, the wrong text, and the wrong portrait. The word ‘postage’ is misspelt ‘psotage’ in the Liberia 5c stamp commemorating President Tubman’s 1956 visit to the Netherlands. Another example is the 150F Republic of Mali stamp issued during the 1978 football World Cup with Argentina misspelt as ‘Arbentina’; while the adjacent 250F stamp has ‘Republique’ misspelt as ‘Repuplique’.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
The true value of an error stamp is determined by several factors other than its face value. Collectors may value error stamps not only for what they are worth in monetary terms but also for the excitement of owning attractive and historically unusual stamps. Value is highly subjective and unpredictable, or to put it another way, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’
What determines the financial value of an error stamp? The most important factors are rarity, visual appeal, condition, and face value. Stamps where only a handful exist command the greatest interest from collectors, and the most visually appealing and obvious errors are particularly valuable. Condition is a factor, but a unique specimen in poor condition may still be highly sought after. Stamps with a high face value may generate greater interest than their counterparts with a low face value. Their financial value is determined by supply and demand and is realised when they are bought and sold. Error stamps which attract little attention may be regarded as trash by many collectors, but for others they are treasure. In stamp collecting, it is certainly true that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.