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What's the Difference? Part 2

by Peter Torraca

In the last article, we discussed how to distinguishing between similar looking stamps by their perforations. (Missed that discussion? You can read it here: What's the Difference? Part 1). compef.jpgThis article will focus more closely on the designs of similar looking stamps.

As you may remember, I promised that we would discuss the two stamps that were left out of my last article: E and F.

Now, to be completely honest, E and F do have different perforation characteristics, but for the sake of this discussion, we'll pretend they are the same. Take a second and look at E and F, do you notice a difference between them?

One thing immediately strikes me -- E has the the abbreviation "Kans." on its face. These little letters are not part of the cancel. They are an overprint, applied to the stamp before it was used in the post.

An overprint is some type of lettering or symbol added to a stamp after the stamp has been printed. An overprint changes the design of the stamp and thus its identity. Here are some examples:

Overprints are used by postal agencies to change the value or purpose of a stamp or even to commemorate an event. In the case of the green stamp, the overprint was used to change the stamp's purpose from postage to a tax stamp ("I.R." means "Internal Revenue"). The "Hawaii" overprint was applied to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the "discovery" of the Hawaiian Islands. And the "Kans." overprint was applied to stamps sold in Kansas in hopes of limiting the ability of thieves to steal and use the stamps in other states (the experiment didn't work). In other countries overprints have been used to change the face value of a stamp in order to accommodate inflation or emergency needs.

Now, there is another important design difference to be discussed, but you can't see it in any of the general images above or in the previous article. To find this kind of difference, you need a magnifying glass. Consider this close-up image of two similar looking stamps:

Do you see the difference? The important difference here is a small design change that was made to the original printing plates. In this case, the change was significant enough to be noticed and merit a different catalog listing for the design change. Here is the same close-up image, with the design change circled:

Although small, these few strengthened hair lines have a great influence on the stamp's value. The illustrated stamp is a used example of Scott #634A. If this stamp were mint, it would have a catalog value of $350.00, compared to a regular #634 which has a catalog value of $0.15!

Another rather important characteristic of stamps is the exact color of the design. Often the difference between two stamps that are similar in all other respects is a slight color shade. Look at the close-up illustration above. Notice how one stamp is somewhat rosy and the other is somewhat darker? You're seeing the difference between a carmine colored stamp and a "carmine lake". Unfortunately, though this distinction can be important, there is no easy way to illustrate it, especially given the color differences in computer monitors. There are color standards available to collectors, but even these do not account for all of the possible varieties. Color is an area where only expertise can help -- if you think you've come across a valuable color variety, it is really best to consult an experienced expert.

So you see, the differences between stamps is not always as simple as noting different designs. Frequently, especially with valuable stamps, it is necessary to examine the perforations, subtle design varieties, color shades, and then take into account features like overprints. No wonder beginners and non-collectors get tripped up! But we're not done yet -- we still need to look at the paper the stamp is printed on. What difference can there be in paper?