Which Stamp 1.jpg (28943 bytes)               Which Stamp 2.jpg (24065 bytes)

How to Identify Stamps


Which Stamp 3.jpg (48119 bytes)  

Page Index 

Identifying stamps is relatively easy in most cases. There are however times when being precise about the identity of a stamp can be quite difficult and even sometimes almost impossible without specialist knowledge or detailed information.

Generally most of us can identify very many stamps very easily and most of us can, with a fairly high degree of certainty identify most stamps, but without the information on the features of a stamp we can have problems in some cases.

To highlight the possible features one has to look for in identifying stamps the following, although not an exhaustive list, will provide some useful information. Some of the following may be considered by some to be plain common sense, old hat or even confusing but, here it is.

1. Country.

The country name is the most obvious place to start however, be aware that some counties names don't start with the most obvious letter of the alphabet.  Another point to watch for is the name of countries that have gained their independence which, are no longer found under their old name, for example: Nyasaland is found under Malawi, British Guiana is found under Guyana, Virgin Islands is found under British Virgin Islands, so be sure to refer to the country index at the back of the catalogue which will save you time. It should be noted that the stamps of Great Britain do not have the country name printed on such as United Kingdom or Great Britain and it is probably the only country to do this.  Stamps of the Channel Islands for example do, except for a few earlier ones.

In the case of using British Commonwealth Catalogues published by Stanley Gibbons, Part 1 and Part 2, (now being superceded) please be aware that you have the correct Part, especially if you are buying one since they can be quite an outlay. Having said that they can be very useful references for many years if looked after.

2. Face Value.

The face value of a stamp is also a very useful indicator of it's identity especially when dealing with overprints and surcharges.  The catalogue provides the identity of the stamp by noting the surcharge value on the original face value of the stamp, so you would be looking for these to concur. Quite often you may find an identical stamp with a different face value, as those below. Click images to enlarge.


GB SG 1341.jpg (65717 bytes)      GB SG 1342.jpg (67428 bytes)

3. Colour. 

Colour is perhaps one of the most difficult and subjective feature of a stamp and whilst in a lot of cases there is only one colour, there are quite a lot of stamps that have shades and even the same stamp in a different colour. What to remember is that the catalogue identifies the stamp by reference to the colours from the inside of the design out so, where a stamp has two or more colours the central colour is noted first. The following stamp is described "Scarlet and Indigo"

Cyprus SG 163.jpg (28098 bytes)

There are colour charts in various forms available on the market to help you identify the colour but, even with this problems arise.  Unless you use good daylight and preferably are able to make a comparison with a similarly identified and coloured stamp subtle shades can be confusing and difficult to pin down. In most cases the catalogue identifies significant shades but not all of them. Please also remember that where stamps have been subject to exposure to light for a period of time the colour will change and you can end up with a colour that does not exist! 

In the case of some stamps, the colour identification follows slightly different rules such as with the 1971 Australia Christmas Block of 7, where the colours are stated in the catalogue as being the colour of the "Star" and colour of "Australia" - see image below which can be enlarged by clicking on the image.

Australia SG 498 - 504.jpg (89189 bytes)

Try to identify which stamp is "Royal Blue, pale mauve and green"

4. Paper. 

There are many different types of paper used in the production of stamps and these are noted in the catalogue. Specialist catalogues provide more detailed information on this.  The general catalogues note most common paper types such as "thick" and "thin" papers and although perhaps not a paper type as such, chalk surfaced paper. Generally "thick" and "thin" papers may be easily distinguished in most cases by the clarity of the watermark looking from the back and also the quality of the print on the front.

For example the stamps below are printed on "thick" and "thin" papers and the print quality is quite discernable. The first stamp is printed on "thick" paper and the second on "thin" paper. Click on the stamps to enlarge.

Australia SG 176.jpg (56038 bytes)         Australia SG 176a.jpg (20224 bytes)

Paper colour is also a very useful indicator and there are many different colours of paper which together with the design provide a very attractive and impressive display.  There are however shades of colour in paper and they also include things like "white backs" where the colour of the back of the stamp is whitish instead of the same colour as appears at the front of the stamp.

           Leeward SG 80.jpg (50529 bytes)          CEF SG C9.jpg (28398 bytes)           Jamaica SG 69.jpg (31357 bytes)           GB SG 201 shade.jpg (29419 bytes)           GB SG 233b.jpg (29071 bytes)  

5. Perforations. 

Perforations can be a clear feature which identifies a stamp and many stamps of similar design have perforation variations. In many cases the mere fact that a stamp of the same design has a different perforation is the difference between it being worth a few pence or several pounds or more.

Perforations are determined using a perforation gauge of which there a  number of types. Perforation Gauges are not expensive and are well worth having in order to determine which perforation variety you have. A very common one is the Instanta transparent gauge which allows you to see the stamp through the gauge whilst sliding the gauge over it to find the correct match as below. Click the images to enlarge.

Finding a Match

Perforation Gauge 1.jpg (43181 bytes)   

Perforation Gauge              

Perforation Gauge.jpg (109871 bytes)


6. Watermarks.

Watermarks in many cases are quite easy to distinguish with many of the Commonwealth stamps having Multiple Crown CA, Multiple Script CA and Crown CA type watermarks. There are many different watermarks and some are very hard to see clearly and require the use of a reliable watermark detector or appropriate watermark fluid.  Watermark fluid can be used on mint stamps but this is not a recommendation.

Problems arise when watermarks are reversed, inverted, sideways inverted and so on and such variations turn some collectors in to contortionists trying to view the watermark from different angles!

Probably the most difficult are the GB Postage Due stamps which as a result of the stamp design make it extremely hard to determine.  If there is a section of selvedge with the stamp, keep it, as via this the watermark can be seen quite clearly otherwise, be prepared for much confusion.

There are a number of interesting watermark varieties with flaw's and as the type of watermark may be the only way to determine the identity it is important to be sure which watermark you have as, in some cases the difference in catalogue value is significant.

7. Overprints.

Enthusiastically collected by many, the overprinted stamp is an interesting aspect of the hobby and offers many challenges to collectors seeking something different. There are many "varieties" of overprinted stamps and this is where the determination of the actual stamps is important because, again the catalogue value and it's uniqueness is affected.

Varieties of overprints arise due to the often "local" application of overprints on stamps rather than by the stamp printers at time of printing. Quite often this was done as a result of a change in currency or postal rates or for tax raising purposes notably during World War I and for official uses. Variations of size of overprint, either height or width of lettering, letter type, colour, missing dots or stops, large letters, small letters, position, and many others were the result of the overprinting process and as such provide much material for collectors.

The following show various overprints including different positions, change in currency and colour of overprints.

Click on stamps to enlarge.

     MEF SG M21.jpg (62375 bytes)      Jamaica SG 69.jpg (31357 bytes)       Jamaica SG 71.jpg (29811 bytes)      BAT Overprint for Web.jpg (14215 bytes)      Aden SG 40.jpg (51868 bytes)

8. Underprints.

Underprints are what they sound. They are stamps with printing on the back of the stamp as opposed to the front which is an overprint. In modern Great Britain stamps they are found on Commemorative and Definitive Machin stamps.  These are not expensive and may be worth collecting as a variety to add interest to your collection.

Earlier stamps had printing on the back of the stamps which were mainly adverts and these are generally more expensive and sought after. "Pears" soap is one such advert that is well known on earlier GB stamps. Click on the following sample underprint images to enlarge.

Star Underprint.jpg (14333 bytes)      Star Underprint 1.jpg (25854 bytes)       Double Star Underprint.jpg (31249 bytes)        D Underprint 1.jpg (28108 bytes)  

9. Phosphor Bands.

Many of the modern issues of GB stamps have phosphor bands across the face of the stamps. Some have one band, others have two. The bands are central, left hand side or right hand side. Occasionally there will be issues with 'missing' phosphor bands. Phosphor bands are best identified using an ultra violet light but in many many cases holding the stamps in the correct light will reveal the phosphor band.

10. Imprint Dates.

Imprint dates are used in modern issues of many commonwealth stamps and identify the year of issue. Care should be taken to look for this and ensure what year is printed thereon as later issues of the same design will have a different year. Present day commemoratives of GB also have the date of year of issue printed on. This is sometimes difficult to see but if you look for it you will most often find it on the left hand side of the stamp. Click on the stamps below to see the imprint date at the centre bottom of the left stamp and bottom left side of the right stamp.


Gibraltar SG 474.jpg (43195 bytes)           GB SG 1549.jpg (33650 bytes)

11. Design.

Design is another important indicator. It may not seem so but there are quite a number of issues that have the same design, the same perforations and the same watermark but from a different reign, which means that the monarch's head is obviously different. This to many may seem obvious but if you are not up on your monarchs and the period in which they reigned then you may find you can't be sure which stamp you have.

12. Size.

Who size size doesn't matter? Well it does in the identification of stamps. There are issues which are of the same design but of a different size so check your catalogue and make sure you are looking at the correct section and year.

13. Cancellations.

Cancellation on used stamps can also help identification.  Clear well defined cancellations can provide the date which in turn is evidence of when the stamp was in circulation and in the case of some issues proves beyond doubt which stamp you have.

14. Certificates of Authenticity.

For those of us who just cannot tell with 100% accuracy there is the option of asking an expertising committee to authenticate the stamp.  This is not for the run of the mill stamp or for every situation in which you find difficulty since there is a cost for this service but, in the case of valuable stamps it can be worthwhile and also a useful aid if you are selling. Many countries have expertising committees and can be found through through contact with the trade.

15. Catalogues.

Catalogues are a must if you wish to be certain about the identity of your stamps and there quire a few publishers of catalogues around the world. The most common ones available in UK for all the world are issued by Stanley Gibbons. Catalogues can be expensive but second hand ones can be obtained from various sources which, unless you require up to date price information, continue to contain good information that may be sufficient for many for a number of years.


The above is a very brief outline of the features you can look at when identifying stamps. It is by no means exhaustive and no doubt could be expanded on by many. Indeed if you are reading this and have anything to add, please feel free to e mail us and let us know of any little secrets of methods you may have. We will then add it to this list and share it. Whilst we appreciate that the above will be quite simplistic for some readers it may not be the same for others and, for those experienced collectors who know all the above and more, and those just starting who have become confused in reading the above we apologise to you both. Have fun in indentifying your stamps and if it is becoming all too frustrating remember, put it away and come back to it another day. You can often be surprised how a fresh look on a new day can make it all that much easier.


Up to Top

Page Index