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Sunday 6 December 2015

What's Wrong With Stamp Catalogues

I was thinking about the general catalogues we use without thinking – Michel, Gibbons, Scott, Yvert, in Russia Standard and maybe a few others. Some are good, some are not. It often depends on the country you are interested in.

But all these catalogues date back to the days when collectors were most often one of each collectors and dealers one of each dealers. The collectors wanted to stick stamps in pre-printed albums or “write them up” and the dealers kept stockbooks by numbers.

You get lots of information which makes writing up easy: Date of Issue, Method of Printing, Paper type, Perforation gauge, sometimes (Gibbons) stamp designer and printer's name. You get a numbered list of stamps and Mint and Used prices, sometimes with some note distinguishing Used and CTO.

Many of these catalogue entries have been essentially unchanged for decades – well, a hundred years in some cases - as if there is no such thing as on-going philatelic research. Yvert is an example.

What you don’t get is a sort of overview which creates a context for understanding what you might find and what you will not find. In the days of one of each collecting that may not have mattered very much. Today, when people collect covers and do social philately, the old-style catalogue is not very helpful.

Let’s take an example. Look at your preferred catalogue for the Northern Army (OKCA) issue of 1919. It will be under “Russia” and will show five values, none of which is worth anything either mint or used. You will get additional information, varying from catalogue to catalogue. 

What you don’t get is a Thumbnail Sketch which sets out what we know about this issue, 100 years on. Here’s my own attempt at a Thumbnail, which could be made more precise from the literature available (mostly due, in this case,  to Alexander Epstein and Dr R J Ceresa):

This issue was printed in very large quantity in sheets of 200 made up of two panes of 100, separated by a wide gutter and printed tête-bêche to each other. Most sheets were separated into two halves, so that the gutter variety is quite scarce. Most of these stamps were sold to the stamp trade, at the time or later, and are very common as singles (often now in poor condition) and small blocks. Sheets of 100 are quite common. Despite being common, the stamps were forged and the forgeries are much scarcer than the genuine stamps. Very little Proof material or Printer’s Waste is known and when found is worth significantly more than the basic stamps. The absence of such material suggests that this issue was originally planned as a perfectly legitimate stamp issue.

The stamps were extensively Cancelled to Order in sheets and also CTO on philatelic covers, which are quite common and obviously philatelic. Specialists are not entirely clear which cancels were officially authorised. Some may have been manufactured by stamp dealers. It seems likely that some of the CTO material, and maybe most of it,  was produced in Estonia and not at the post offices in Northern Army controlled areas of Russia.

Postally used examples of the stamps are virtually unknown, and only about a dozen covers are recorded which appear to have gone through the post from the few post offices controlled by the Northern Army. Most of those covers originate from Gdov where however the Imperial Russian canceler of POLNA SPB was in use.  Any stamp or cover with a POLNA SPB cancel should be examined carefully and submitted for an Expert opinion.

A specialist could improve on that thumbnail and a good catalogue editor could make it shorter. If I am right about this, a Thumbnail like this orients you to a specific stamp issue and gives you some idea of what to expect and what to look out for.

For more dicussion of OKCA stamps,see my next Blog


  1. A good example of this practice is in the Lobko handbook for Ukrainian local issues. General catalogs are pretty useless...The Russian Standard Kollektsiya catalogs are probably the best of the bunch.

  2. "Many of these catalogue entries have been essentially unchanged for decades – well, a hundred years in some cases - as if there is no such thing as on-going philatelic research. "

    Spot on! Though I'm nothing more than a worldwide collector, this has been a pet peeve of mine for years.


  3. The catalogs are slow to change, but they do eventually make adjustments when former editions are found to have errors. And, were they to include commentary on all stamps, their girth would expand alarmingly, not to mention their expense. So I say let catalogs be catalogs, and leave the specialist commentary to bloggers and limited edition technical books.

    1. Like Keijo I am an all-world collector but like to delve deeper. I don't have a deep pocket and often buy stamps "on the cheap". However I use the semi-specialised catalogues for the basics -then trawl the internet for the detail. I have a list of specialist sites, blogs ( like this which I read avidly but have never had to use "in anger" ) and message boards with their specialities.

      The trouble with providing more info in the general catalogues is that with respect the number of serious collectors of the more esoteric material would not justify the cost or the space. If you look at the byways of Russia( in the broadest sense) the increase of even the most cursary additional information would double the size ( and price) of the catalogue. Besides you don't want your blog to be put out of business do you?