8 May 2009

Some Romanian Semi-Postal Plate Varieties

Plate varieties are a kind of minor variety due to imperfections in the printing plates, producing one or several stamps that are different from the rest in their sheet. Also called constant varieties, they were not too rare when stamps were printed with the engraving (a.k.a. Intaglio) method, which was commonly used in past times. One way to hunt for plate varieties involves inspecting several full sheets of the same stamp, searching for marks present in some, but not all, of the specimens, that repeat exactly in the same positions in the rest of the sheets, or at least in some of them.

I was able to do that with several copies of full sheets of Romanian semi-postal stamps from World-War-2 times. One example is the elegantly-designed stamp shown below, which was issued in 1941 marking the 50th anniversary of the present Central University Library of Bucharest.

If you zoom in the picture (by clicking on it), you will notice that, in the central specimen, LEI (i.e., the Romanian currency) is spelled as tEI. The exact same imperfection is present in all the sheets that I own, in only one stamp of the sheet of 100, at the 29th position. Also with those that don't have the CHISINAU overprint. By the way, that overprint celebrates the occupation of the city of Kishinev, now capital of the Moldovan republic, by the Romanian army acting as part of the Axis forces.

This minor variety is due, probably, to a crack or some other kind of plate flaw. The mint personnel might have been aware of it but didn't consider a restoration or replacement of plates to be justified, given its costs. The result is that many of these stamps, but not more than 1 in every 100 that were printed, have this "spelling" mistake. According to Michel Katalog, 70,000 of these stamps were printed with no overprint (Michel #687, Scott B150) and another 70,000 overprinted, half of which with the CHISINAU legend (Michel #692 II, Scott B160) and the other half (Michel #692 I, Scott B155) celebrating the taking of another historically-disputed city the Romanians called Cernăuţi (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine). Therefore, no more than 700, 350 and 350 of the minor varieties were printed, which are pretty few (as long as there are no reprints unreported by Michel).

In some cases, such a variety sparks the interest of collectors. If that were the case, they could have some value, due to their scarcity. The value of each specimen of the regular issues, in very fine mint never-hinged condition, was estimated, by Michel (2004), at 2.50 euros (no overprint) and 3.50 (overprinted), and by Scott (2008) at 1.10 and 1.50 dollars respectively. If you have any info about this variety or its estimated value, please comment! The same request applies to the plate varieties presented below. :)

The next stamp, issued in 1942 and pictured on the right, shows the statue of Miron Costin, an author, historian and political figure from the 17th century. It is dedicated to the occupation of another disputed region in Moldavia, called Transnistria. It is worth mentioning that, in spite of the innocence and cultural profile of these stamps, these occupations were followed by ill-treatment and murdering of locals, particularly Roma people and Jews, like in the Odessa massacre. At the time, Romania was under Ion Antonescu's fascist rule.

The plate flaw in this case can be seen by comparing the two specimens shown (Michel #754, Scott #B194). The one on the right has a spot in front of the statue's face, with the shape of a torus (or donut). As in the previous case, this imperfection is repeated in the other sheets in my collection, always at the last, 50th postion (these are 50-stamp sheets).

It's fun when meaning can be attributed to these random flaws. Is it ok if we say that the variety consists of a bug flying in front of Costin? :) The value of each specimen of the regular issues, in very fine mint never-hinged condition, was estimated by Michel (2004) at 2.50 euros and by Scott (2008) at 1.25 dollars. According to Michel, 50,000 were printed, hence only as many as 1000 of the minor variety were created.

The last example has less meaning (it is not a spelling mistake nor it resembles a bug) but I find it interesting from a stamp-production point of view. It is a variety of another stamp in the same Transnistria series, namely Michel #753, Scott #B193. If you look closely at the image below (might need to click on it), you will notice that there is a shadow below Costin's feather pen, but only on the specimens on the left. All the sheets I have, present that shadow in every stamp on the 3rd and 8th column. The shape is the same, although the intensity varies a little. But it is normal, with this manufacturing process, for the amount of ink to differ from stamp to stamp.

The difference with the previous cases is that many of the stamps in this sheet share the imperfection. How can that be? The reason can be found in the engraving process. The sheets were printed from plates that were created from a master die picturing one stamp. To transfer this single design into the 50-stamp plate, a transfer roll was used. With the Intaglio method, it was common to put more than one engraving of the master die in the transfer roll, to save time. For this plate, the flaw is evidence that a transfer roll with 5 impressions was used, to engrave the plate half a row at a time. The impression in the middle of the roll must have had some foreign material stuck on it, or a different sort of flaw, that produced this mark on every stamp in the middle column of each half of the plate (namely, the 3rd and 8th columns).

In philately, this is called a primary flaw, to differentiate it from the previous kind, that occurred in the plates, termed secondary or tertiary flaws, depending on the number of steps in the process.

I guess that, if I owned one specimen of the last stamp's minor variety, I would never have realized that the shadow was not an intentional feature of the design. If this stamp is in your collection and you haven't checked yet, find out if it is a specimen of this variety, you might have overlooked it. Unfortunately, this one is not as scarce as the previous ones, because 10 stamps in each of sheet of 50 share the flaw, although maybe not all sheets were printed with the same plates.

Notice that I avoid using the term error here, as it is usually reserved for more flagrant aberrations, that have higher philatelic value as long as they are constant (i.e., not a one-specimen printing accident but a repeated mistake), such as in the famous U.S. Inverted Jenny that sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars each, or more. In contrast to constant errors, the value of minor varieties based on plate flaws is disputed. Collecting based on such varieties is frequently termed flyspeck philately, sometimes with a negative connotation.

Other Romanian plate flaws are published in romanianstamps.com . For more about the country's history through its stamps, visit Romania, as Shown by its Stamps.

Please comment! There's surely a lot to add and correct from what I wrote. This varieties are probably reported in specialized, Romanian catalogs, which I don't have access to. If you do, I would appreciate receiving some info. Moreover, what do you think about 'flyspeck' philately? Have you searched for these rarities in your collection?

This happens to be the first posting in this blog, I hope it turns out to be the start of something fun and interesting for all of us. That depends, in great measure, on your commentary. By the way, among the world stamps I would like to exhibit, I have more material from Romania.

Take care and have fun!