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Published in Linns, December, 2006


In the November 6 edition, Mr. Kenneth Suess argues against marking on the back of stamps.


I would like to offer another perspective on the subject. I am a lover of and a dealer in classic U.S. stamps and covers. During the first 20 years or so of stamp history (beginning of course with the British “penny black” of 1840), postal authorities around the world struggled to meet a rapidly growing demand for stamps. This effort severely taxed the production technologies available then and resulted in the largely inadvertent creation of the many varieties and sub-varieties now known to philatelists. In the case of some stamps, the varieties were spread over a single printing plate. In these cases, it is possible to “reconstruct” a plate by discovering an artifact on a stamp that is peculiar to a specific position on the plate that printed it. This process of identification or “plating” is a specialty today of many of our fellow philatelists.


In U.S. philately, two of the more famous early students were Carroll Chase and Stanley Ashbrook. Much of their work in identifying U.S. stamps is preserved in the pencil notations that they made on the back of stamps and covers. These scholars handled and marked literally thousands of items. Ashbrook often added his distinctive signature to the piece. These markings are truly archival, and without them, much of their work would have been lost or at least would have had to be duplicated over and over. Here is an example of one of Chase’s markings on a 3ct 1851 stamp.


The notation on this stamp, 70 R 2L , means “stamp #70 from the right side of plate 2 in its late state”


Whereas I agree with Mr. Suess that indelible or strongly impressed marks are detrimental (to value as well as esthetically), the markings by the students noted above and their many successors actually enhance the value of the objects in question.


The following is an illustration of the ‘archival’ or positive aspect that responsible notations offer us:


When I acquired this beautiful cover and saw Ashbrook’s notation on the back I remember feeling the thrill of discovery. Covers showing uses that involved demonetized stamps shortly after the beginning of the Civil War are scarce. This one being a transatlantic use of the 24ct 1857 stamp on a patriotic cover made it something very special. However, aside from the Ashbrook notation there was also the “R Ishikawa” marking as well. Ryohei Ishikawa was a famous collector whose renowned collection was auctioned off several years ago. I happen to have copies of the auction catalogs and I looked up the lot in question. I was surprised to find that since Ashbrook’s analysis other scholars noted that this was not an “old stamp not recognized” at all. Rather it was a case of insufficient postage, which at the time carried no value on transatlantic mail. The “23” in the NY CDS on the cover indicated that 23 cents credit was due to the country whose ship carried the letter. Later, I found out that New York City was one of the last cities to demonetize the 1857 issue, and by October of 1861, had not yet done so.


So, if you see marks like the ones illustrated here, please do not erase them as Mr. Suess suggests. You may actually be reducing the value of the stamp or cover and you will certainly reduce a certain aspect of its provenance.





Don Tocher - U.S. Classics
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