A guide to stamp condition and value: cancellation (part 5)

Cancellation quality

When describing the postmarks of the nineteenth century, the word ‘obliteration’ is synonymous with ‘cancellation’ – because, of course, that was what they were designed to do – to ‘obliterate’ the stamp in such a way as to prevent any opportunity for reuse.

The Maltese cross is an attractive cancellation, especially when applied in red or one of the ‘fancy’ colours, but many early Great Britain line-engraved adhesives are heavily cancelled by over-inked black crosses, which detract considerably from the beauty of the stamps.

A ‘fine’ cancellation should be lightly applied, if possible leaving a substantial part of the design – ideally including the Queen’s profile – clear of the cancellation. Also desirable are well centred examples displaying all, or nearly all of the cancellation on the stamp.  This is particularly true where the cancellation is more significant than the stamp, such as a Wotton- under- Edge Maltese cross. Here, you would want to have as full a cancellation as possible, although it would still be preferable to have it lightly applied.


This rule remains valid after the arrival of the ‘1844’ numeral cancellation. The duplex postmark, incorporating a circular datestamp alongside the numeral obliterator, was not introduced in London until early 1853, so for nine years nearly every stamp continued to be ‘obliterated’ by a barred numeral. On the odd occasion where another form of cancellation was used, such as the circular ‘Town’ marks or ‘Penny Post’ handstamps, the postmark has become more desirable than the stamp anyway.  For stamps used during those nine years, therefore, lightly applied postmarks which leave a significant part of the design clear continue to be desirable and stamps which fall short of this will not be categorised as ‘fine’.


Other countries followed the practices established by the British Post Office, using ‘anonymous’ cancels which can only be identified by individual peculiarities, or numeral postmarks of one form or another.  Again, stamps with lightly applied cancellations should be sought out for preference, although it is necessary to bear in mind the current postal practices in the country or at the individual post office concerned.


In spite of the fact that pen cancellations are not generally popular among collectors, where this was a normal method of cancellation, as on the first issue of St Helena, for example, they would be acceptable, although in practice most such examples have since been cleaned in an attempt to make them appear unused.  Indeed, early GB stamps with manuscript cancels, such as the hand drawn ‘Maltese cross’ of Dunnet, often fetch high prices at auction if their provenance is sound.


Circular datestamps 

With the arrival of the Duplex cancellation, the possibility that a stamp might receive the circular dated portion of the handstamp increases, although this was not supposed to happen.  Here, we should perhaps return to the statement in the front of the Stanley Gibbons catalogue, that:

‘The prices are … for examples in fine condition for the issue concerned. Superb examples are worth more, those of a lower quality, considerably less’.

Thus, a postally used stamp cancelled by a lightly applied numeral portion of the postmark would generally be considered ‘fine’, while one which showed only the dater portion would be rated as ‘superb’, especially where that datestamp is upright, well-centred and lightly but clearly applied. A stamp in this condition could rate two or three times the price of a fine example, all other factors being equal.

As Duplex postmarks were replaced by new forms of cancellation such as squared circle handstamps and various forms of machine cancellation, new criteria come into play, but essentially the aim is the same, to find stamps which have been attractively cancelled.

Squared circles were designed to combine the date and place of posting (in the central circle) and the obliteration (in the form of the corner bars) in one small and convenient handstamp. Their adoption by many postal administrations around the world would seem to indicate what a good idea they were felt to be at the time.  In the case of squared circles it is necessary to make your own judgement; heavily inked bars obscuring the main feature of a stamp’s design would not be ‘fine’, but a light but legible postmark which allows the design to show through would be. Of course, once again, squared circles are very collectable in their own right, so a clear complete (or almost complete) cancellation would almost certainly outweigh the ‘marking down’ which might normally be applied because the stamp itself was almost obscured.

Just as in the case of wing margins and perfins, discussed above, fashions are changing in relation to cancellations. In the past, the aim was to find stamps on which the cancellation fell across just one corner of the design, leaving the major part of it clear. Today, interest in exactly where and when the stamp was cancelled, not to mention the possibility that such partial cancellations may have been forged, have made clear, centrally applied or ‘socked-on-the-nose’ cancellations much more desirable – although, again, they do need to be lightly applied.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, rubber packet, newspaper and parcel cancellers began to appear. These, inevitably, obliterated more of the stamp’s design than a steel datestamp and any stamp cancelled in this way would fall well short of ‘fine’. The rectangular parcel cancellations which replaced the old parcel labels in the twentieth century are also shunned by all, other than postal historians seeking particular markings.


Manuscript cancellations 

We have briefly touched upon this issue already, but it is worth pursuing in greater depth. The reason why many collectors eschew stamps cancelled by pen marks is that they very often suggest fiscal, rather than postal, use.  Fiscally used stamps are normally much cheaper than postally used examples, even with the significant increase in interest in revenue stamps which has taken place in the last decade. However, individual post offices in a number of countries have resorted to this form of cancellation from time to time and examples are sometimes even more desirable than the same stamp with a clear dated postmark.

On the other hand, Australian postage due stamps are often found correctly cancelled in manuscript, rather than by a dated postmark. Although these are perfectly collectable, they are certainly nowhere near as desirable as similar examples with a ‘proper’ postmark and would probably rate no more than 20 per cent of catalogue, if that.

Returning to fiscal cancellations, these take a number of forms and, since the stamps concerned are often of high face value, some are more desirable than others. The early ‘Arms’ high values of Rhodesia are relatively common fiscally used, cancelled by rubber handstamps in a variety of colours and often perfined as well. Such examples would rate barely 5 per cent of the catalogue price of postally used examples.

The New Zealand ‘long’ Queen Victoria and ‘Arms’ high values were designed for both postal and fiscal use and the prices given for them in the catalogue are for examples with clear postal cancellations. However, some revenue cancels are similar in form to postal ones, so it is important that sufficient of the cancel falls on the stamp to guarantee postal use. Again, fiscally used examples would generally rate only 5 per cent or so of the price of postally used ones, while, among stamps which have seen revenue use, clear black ‘Stamp Office’ and other similar types are much more desirable than purple rubber handstamps, embossed cancels, manuscript markings and stamps which have been perforated through.

Telegraphic postmarks 

Generally speaking, just as stamp collectors prefer stamps which have not been fiscally used, they are also not keen on those which have identifiable telegraphic cancellations.

Often, the same canceller was used for both purposes, in which case a stamp, once removed from a telegraph form would be indistinguishable from a postally used example and would therefore be equally acceptable.  However, Indian high values that have been used telegraphically can often be identified by their cancellations which have three concentric arcs in the segments of the postmark immediately above and below the band across the centre of the cancellation which contains the date of sending.  It is noted in the catalogue, for example, that India SG 147, the Edward VII 25r., can be supplied at one third of the price quoted in the catalogue (currently £1000), with a telegraphic cancellation. Other values should be similarly discounted.

In light of this, it may seem strange that Great Britain Queen Victoria high values which were almost exclusively used for telegraphic or accounting purposes should be more highly priced than any which were used postally, simply because the quality of cancellation was vastly superior and, here, the prices quoted in the catalogue would be for telegraphically used examples, since this would be the only way of obtaining ‘fine used’.

Probably, the vast majority of fine used middle values, from 4d. to 2s. were also once attached to telegraph forms and many are relatively common in this form; notably the Is. green from plates 5 and 6, which would not be worth a premium over catalogue in this condition, while others, notably the 2½d. rosy mauve or any 9d. value would merit the premiums, sometimes substantial premiums, quoted in the catalogue for ‘well centred, lightly used’.

It has sometimes been remarked upon that some GB surface-printed issues are more highly priced in the main GB listing than they are in some of the ‘used abroad’ sections. An 1873-80 2½d. rosy mauve (SG 141), for example, is priced at £50 in the GB listing, but £27 used in Suez, £24 used in Constantinople, £21 used in Gibraltar and just £17 used in Malta. This is not because there is less interest in GB used abroad, but because the prices are for ‘fine condition for the issue concerned’.

GB stamps used in Malta are generally fairly heavily cancelled by the ‘A25’ obliterator and the price quoted would be for an example in this form, whereas the price in the GB listing would be for a considerably better stamp.  The two conclusions which can be drawn from this are that, firstly, a British stamp with a light Malta c.d.s. should be priced according to the GB listing where that price is higher, and, secondly, that one should expect to pay very considerably less than the price in the GB section of the catalogue for a stamp with an ‘average’ numeral cancellation, which would only rate between 10 and 20 percent of catalogue, depending on the scarcity of the stamp and the extent to which it is obliterated by the postmark.

Forged cancellations

The problem of forged cancellations has gained much greater prominence in the last few years. This is at least partly due to the increased demand for fine quality insofar as mint stamps are concerned.  Heavily mounted or toned stamps are, as commented earlier in this series, worth only a small fraction of catalogue price, so there is clearly an opportunity for the unscrupulous to turn them into ‘fine used’, in order to enhance their value.

Fiscally used stamps may also have had their cancellations removed and any remains of them covered up by forged postmarks, while a great many stamps simply command a higher price used than they do mint, having been little used at the time they were current.

The upshot is that we all need to be aware of stamps which, at first sight, appear to be used, but bear cancellations which cannot be identified.  A nice clean ring across the corner of a stamp, an apparently smeared c.d.s. on which neither the place of posting nor the date can be seen, or a general black smudge, reminiscent of many modern British Post Office operational postmarks, should all be avoided, unless they are known to be typical of the place and period concerned.  Such stamps are really of ‘spacefiller’ status only and would usually not merit a price of more than one tenth of catalogue, if that.

More sophisticated forged cancellations also exist, of course and it is fair to say that the extent of this problem has only recently been recognised.  Some of them are becoming collectable in their own right. However, these have now become of such interest that a stamp catalogued at less than about £10 is often of greater value with a clear Madame Joseph cancellation than it would be genuinely used.

Higher value stamps would be discounted, though, but would still rate around one third of the price of a genuine example, taking the cheaper of the used or unused prices. Thus, a 1933 Falkland Islands Centenary £1 with the famous Port Stanley, ‘6 JA 33’ forged postmark sells for about £650.  Other forged cancellations are of less interest, especially more modern ones and those which have been drawn in by hand!

While on the subject of ‘drawn in by hand’, collectors in the past – including some very eminent ones – were in the habit of ‘enhancing’ slightly unclear postal markings by drawing over them in Indian ink. Less expensive stamps are seriously devalued in this condition, especially if the postmark is a heavy or disfiguring one. Major rarities would be less devalued in percentage terms, however, and could still rate up to about one third the price of an ‘unenhanced’ stamp with the same cancellation.

Many businesses in Asian countries, especially forwarding agents, were in the habit of cancelling their stamps with ‘chops’, while individuals frequently wrote across them in manuscript in order to discourage theft.  Catalogue prices are for stamps without such endorsements, with a neat handstamped ‘chop’ reducing the price by at least one third and a handwritten one by around two thirds.

Cancelled to order 

Prices in the catalogue are, generally, for fine postally used, but for many modern issues they relate to cancelled to order examples.  This does not refer to the selling of cancelled stamps for less than face value for the making up of stamp packets, as was the practice in many Eastern European countries between the 1950s and 1990s, and in North Borneo up to 1912 or Ghana in the 1950s. These latter examples are noted in the catalogue, with separate prices for the North Borneo stamps, while it is noted that catalogue prices for Ghana refer to cancelled to order, properly postally used stamps being worth a little more.

As the volume of worldwide stamp issues has escalated in the last 30 years and the cost of having postally used stamps removed from envelopes, soaked, dried and sorted has risen, it is no longer practicable for the stamp trade to supply fine postally used examples of most modern issues. They are therefore supplied cancelled by the postal administration concerned at the same price as mint examples, although as new issues they may be slightly more expensive, owing to the extra handling costs involved. Catalogue price is therefore for stamps ‘cancelled to order’, although fine postally used examples would merit the same price.

Unfortunately, as collectors in Britain and the USA are aware, ‘fine’ and ‘postally used’ are two expressions which are rarely used together when discussing modern issues, since our respective postal administrations have deliberately returned to the philosophy of their Victorian predecessors and ‘obliterated’, rather than ‘cancelled’, any stamp being used to prepay postage.

In the circumstances, therefore, catalogue price for used twentieth century GB refers to stamps cancelled by a light circular or oval datestamp.  Rubber packet or parcel handstamps, slogan postmarks or wavy lines are worthy only of a small proportion of catalogue, the size of that proportion depending, once again, on the appearance of the stamp and its relative scarcity.

That, indeed, encapsulates the relationship between condition and price.

In this article series part 1, 2 and 3, we have reviewed the various aspects of ‘condition’ and how they can vary from country to country and from issue to issue. The catalogue price is for ‘fine for the issue concerned’, meaning fine in every respect, although a better than fine cancellation might outweigh a slight deficiency in centring, to allow a stamp to still be classified as ‘fine’.

The end result is that, when buying, it is vitally important to carefully consider the condition of the item as well as its price and whether or not you want it and, when satisfied on all three counts, make your purchase – before anyone else gets in first!

This guide is part of a series of 5 guides: “A guide to stamp condition and value”. The entire series can be found here:

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