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FAQ on how to collect art stamps

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Over time many people have asked me various questions on how to start collecting and organizing art stamps, as well as questions about printing methods. I have collected some of the most common questions here in a small FAQ. 

If you have questions that are not answered in this FAQ, please send me an email through the link quoted in the footer of this page, and I will respond soonest possible. eventually also include your question in this FAQ so that all collectors may benefit from it. 

Table of Contents

  1. What is understood by an art stamp? 
  2. What does "del." and "sc." stand for?
  3. How do I start collecting art stamps?
  4. Where can I find information about art stamps?
  5. Should art stamps be collected mint or used?
  6. Which is the best way to organize a collection of art stamps?
  7. Has a collection of art stamps any commercial value?
  8. Which are the different Production- and Printing Methods?
  9. What is a bogus stamp?
  10. Are bogus stamps the same as fakes or forgeries?


What is understood by an art stamp?

There is no explicit understanding of what art stamps are, it depends on how you yourself define the topic.  I normally understand an art stamp as a depiction on stamps of an existing work of art, e.g. a painting, a piece of porcelain, an artifact, or an art work that is especially designed for the stamp format.  I would also include "literature", when either a world famous author and/or his works are depicted on stamps. Examples of "literary art stamps" are included on this site in the section about literature.  Some collectors exclude "standard portraits" of state leaders (no matter how much such portraits might be defined as paintings) from art stamps. 

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What does "del." and "sc." stand for?
These abbreviations appear in the corners of the lower selvedge, and define
del.    delineavit (from Latin) = drawn or designed by (the stamp designer's name). 
sc.     sculpsit (from Latin) = carved, or engraved, by (the engraver's name).

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How do I start collecting art stamps?

There are several ways to approach this interesting topical area.

Many examples and inspiration to such collections are given throughout this site.  The options are only limited by your own imagination.

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Where can I find information about art stamps?

The only art specific stamp catalogue I know of is a catalogue of art stamps world wide, published by

Dr. med.habil. Hubert Meinel
Teterover Strasse 78
D-17179 Gnoien
e-mail:  hubert.meinel@t-online-de 

The catalogue is in German only, and refers to the German Michel Catalogue.  Maybe you can be inspired to make your own catalogue?

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Should art stamps be collected mint or used?

Many philatelists consider a collection of mint stamps "less philatelic" than a collection of used stamps.  I do not, because it all depends on what *you* want and what *you* like. 

Generally spoken, a topical collection where the image of the stamp is the important part, mint stamps are the most suitable, but for collections that focus on cancellations or postmarks, it must naturally be used stamps.  

If at a later date you wish to display your collection, for example on the Internet, mint stamps are better for the purpose.

Personally I collect stamps both mint and used, and I try always to have any mint stamp also in used condition, preferably on cover.  

Some collectors collect only pictorial postmarks related to an individual artist, or artistic movement. 

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Which is the best way to organize a collection of art stamps?

You can organize your stamps in several ways.

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Has a collection of art stamps any commercial value?

This depends largely on what you collect, and how you organize your collection. 

Generally spoken stamp collecting has no "investment values".  A collection of many single different stamps kept in a glassine has no commercial value at all.  If your stamps are organized in complete series on stockpages or album pages, the value raises immediately.  It is even better if you can relate your collection to some historical or art historical context through the write-ups. In general, the more work you put into your collection, the better value you will obtain. However, remember that stamp collecting should be for fun, not for "investment".  If you work seriously on your collection, you will end up by having an absolutely unique collection, that may pay off. 

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Which are the different Production- and Printing Methods? 
There are several printing methods, and they are all described below. Quoted from R.J. Sutton 6th edition revised by K.W. Anthony. "The Stamp Collector's Encyclopaedia". Published 1966. 

Line Block
An unscreened photo-mechanical printing block, normally of zinc (zinco), which is used as a 'master'
for the requisite number of 'electros' or 'stereos' from which stamps are printed by the letterpress,
typographic, or surface method. For short runs, the original zinco may be used, and both the original block, and the copies may be steel, chromium, or nickel faced to resist wear.

It is also used (in the U.S.A. especially) to describe a block of stamps with either a vertical or horizontal
line gap running between rows of stamps or an inserted guide line for colour registration, perforating,
or slitting. 

Photo-mechanical printing process in which the tones of the original are represented by raised dots. 
Rarely used for stamp printing but instances are:Uruguay 1908 Declaration of Independence set (centres only), and Kishengarh, India, 1913.

This modern stamp printing process consists of photographing the artist's finished drawing on to process film and printing down on to sensitised carbon tissue which is transferred to a copper plate (or cylinder for rotogravure), and etched.

It is distinct from photo-mechanical engraving in that the final image is in intaglio, or recess. Ink is forced into the design hollows, the surface wiped clean, and picked up by the paper being pressed into the recessed design, in a very similar manner to the early line-engraved processes. High-speed rotary presses are now usually employed. and the process is known as Roto-Gravure. 

Is the photo-mechanical process of producing line and half-tone blocks, used for what the philatelist calls the 'surface' or 'typographic' methods of print production (neither of which definitions are exact or descriptive of the means employed). 

Briefly the process consists of photographing the artist's drawing, printing down on to sensitised zinc or copper, etching in acids leaving the printing surface in relief, and finally mounting the block type-high.  This master block can be duplicated the requisite number of times to produce the set required to print a whole sheet of stamps. 

Litho., Lithography
Plane surface printing method based upon the antipathy of oil (or grease) and water.  A specially prepared limestone or soapstone was formerly used. Upon this the design was drawn  in reverse direct, with a greasy ink; or transferred thereon by means of special transfers.  In printing, the stone is kept damp, and only the greasy ink image, with its affinity for the special inks used, transfers the design the right-way round on to the paper.

In offset lithography, the image is first picked up by a rubber blanket, which in its turn transfers the design to the paper. In modern photo-lithography the image is printed photographically on to an etched or grained zinc or aluminium foil or plate, which can then be attached to the cylinder of a rotary press. It will be seen that the process is radically different from the recess (or intaglio) methods, and the relief (or typography or surface) processes. 
Note: Modern lithography is the most popular printing method in use today. 

Surface Printing
Any printing method by which the ink is transferred from the surface of the plate to the paper.  In practice 
the philatelic meaning of 'surface printed' is usually taken to be the same as 'typographed' -- i.e. printed 
by letterpress. 

Alternative and preferable name for typography or 'surface' printing.  In stamp production it implies that normal typesetting methods of printing and machinery are employed.  Line and, more rarely, half-tone blocks, are thus printed on ordinary letterpress platens or rotaries and many thousands of stamps are still turned out by these methods.  The typeset early stamps of many nations are letterpress production. 

Line Engraving
The early line-engraved stamps were produced by the process invented by Jacob Perkins of the British firm of Perkins, Bacon & Petch, and consisted of hand engraving with a steel tool known as a burin on softened steel. The 'mother' or original die was then hardened, and a softened steel roller passed over it under very great pressure to produce the 'matrix' or secondary die. After hardening, this roller was used to produce multiple-impressioned plates from which the actual printing was done -- the 'tertiary' dies.

The final plate bore the design in intaglio (recess). Printing was done by inking the plate, wiping off the surplus surface ink, and applying pressure to an imposed sheet of dampened paper. The paper picking out  the ink from the incised design in the plate. Modern 'recess' printing is done from a plate mechanically inked and wiped, and on specially designed high-speed rotary presses. 

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Are bogus stamps frequent?

Yes. A bogus stamp is a complete impostor, a fraudulent production made only to deceive collectors. For example, stamp-like labels have been printed for non-existent countries, or countries which had no genuine stamps or postal service. In other cases bogus values have been added to genuine sets before sale to collectors. Bogus postmarks, overprints, and even perforations are also known. The WADP Numbering System, (WNS) is a database in Switzerland -- in English and French -- from which you may eventually identify bogus stamps against your item. The database is valid as per January 2002. 

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Are bogus stamps the same as fakes or forgeries? 

No. Bogus stamps (also known as phantoms or fantasies). should not be confused with fakes (which are genuine stamps 'doctored' in some way to make them appear what they are not) nor with forgeries (which are fraudulent imitations of genuine stamps).  The creation of fantasy stamps, also sometimes called 'cinderellas', and the collecting of such items has been a part of the hobby for many years. For instance, the Danish Christmas Seals -- a highly valued collecting area -- are Cinderellas, and neither bogus nor fakes. Learn more about Danish Christmas Seals here. (on this site). 

(Source: R. J. Sutton 6th edition revised by K. W. Anthony, The Stamp Collector's Encyclopaedia, Published 1966. Posted January 17, 2000). 

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