You may recall that I ranted, raved, vented and generally made a scene over so-called Cinderella stamps for more than 150 pages, profusely illustrated. (see blog posts of 2017 — 7/30, 8/3, 8/18, 9/5, 12/28; and 2018 — 2/23, 3/23) While I thought I had covered the topic at sufficient length, if not comprehensively, I realize now that I barely touched on another, Cinderella-like side of philately — fiscal stamps and in particular, revenue cancellations of postage stamps.
This is a particular challenge for British Commonwealth collectors like me. In the United States, it is against the law to use postage stamps for revenue purposes — that is, to apply them as proof of payment of a non-postal fee. The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing began issuing sets in the 1800s for a variety of non-postage purposes — General Revenue, Documentary Revenue, Proprietary Stamps, Future Delivery Stamps, Stock Transfer Stamps, Hunting Permit Stamps and stamps to cover fees for everything from playing cards to beer, potatoes, wine, even marijuana. Between 1873 and 1881, the government issued complete sets of “official” stamps for
use by federal departments like Treasury, Internal Revenue and State — some of which are quite valuable. This kept things simple for collectors. If you wanted, you could collect revenue stamps, official stamps, postage stamps or all of the above. But it was easy to tell them apart.
Not so, necessarily, with British colonial stamps. The British Empire did not observe the same philatelic convention as the USA. To make matters even more confusing, British colonies like Rhodesia, Nyasaland and Natal issued revenue stamps as well as using postage stamps for revenue purposes. (Seeing the colorful engraved revenue stamps is so unnerving to me that I don’t even want to include pictures of them here; they seem like subversive incursions into the stamp world from some parallel planet.)
I can’t tell you with authority how many colonial postage stamps have been used for revenue purposes, but there are many. This happens with low-value stamps, but most notably with high-value stamps. Each time a postage stamp received a revenue cancellation, it essentially ceased to be a postage stamp. (Remember the UPU definition — a legal stamp has to be used for postage, or in the case of mint stamps, be available for use as postage.) “Fiscally used” stamps have been shunned by collectors — me included — who insist on “postally used” stamps. Because the high-value fiscally used stamp has become a non-stamp, its value to collectors is a small fraction of what postally used copies are worth. Some
would discount the fiscal as much as 95 percent. Thus the same stamp with a legitimate postal cancel might sell for $200, while the fiscally used example would be offered for $20 or less.
Patience is a virtue for stamp collectors. I’ve found that waiting for stamps usually produces welcome results — eventually. All stamps come to he (or she) who waits. However, at my advanced age, with so many spaces left to fill in my albums, I have softened toward “fiscals.” I hereby admit to having added numerous of them to my collection in recent years. Illustrated above and below, for the first time, are some of them for your viewing pleasure. You can see by the “price” notes written in pencil that I paid fairly modest bucks for these high-value stamps that would have cost more than I ever would have been willing (or allowed) to spend, had they carried postal cancels. I just made a decision: These stamps are the same darn stamps that are used on envelopes and packages in the mail. The only difference is the cancellation. They’ll always be worth something, and they will look awfully good in my album. So go for it!
I’m not alone in my willingness to settle for fiscals. Here’s what one chat-room participant had to say on the subject: “It’s a cost-effective way to fill some of those elusive holes in the collection. Just keep in mind that the market value is 5-10% of catalog value for fiscal cancels.”
Online conversation touches on unscrupulous sellers who try to sell fiscals for the same price as postally used copies. There are reports of philatelic phelons rubbing out revenue cancels and applying forged postal marks. It’s enough to make you think twice before you invest hundreds of dollars in high-value rarities. One collector says his approach is to assume that all cancelled high-value British colonial stamps from the old days were fiscally used — unless there is clear evidence or authentication of a postal cancellation.
Let’s not get too far into the weeds with fiscals, but I do need to add a word about “remainders.” These are stamps officially cancelled by the P.O., but never used postally; that is, never pasted on a letter. Included here, below, are examples in my collection from Natal and St. Helena. You can tell it’s a remainder by the oddly angular postal strike. The catalog value of the St. Helena stamps, in used condition, is in the $100 range. Yet I was able to buy them for under $20. Notice that I added the pencil note “remainders” as a reminder. Last words on the subject: Here is an odd remark from the Scott catalogue: “Rhodesian authorities made available remainders in large quantities of all stamps in 1897, 1898-1908, 1905, 1909 and 1910 issues, CTO (ed: cancelled-to-order). Some varieties exist only as remainders.” Among the
remainders were overprints that inadvertently were inverted. I have one of them, which you see here. This must have posed a challenge to the catalogue editors: Here is a stamp, cancelled as a remainder by the post office, that carries the same overprint as the regular stamp from the series, but inverted. Should this be a variety? Or should it be shunned as a non-stamp? (Answer: The editors relegated the remainder-inverts to a footnote, giving them a relatively modest value.) Remember the stamp illustrated at the top of this essay? While it is clearly a fiscal, we know at least it’s not a remainder, cancelled-to-order. It may have been fiscally used, but at least it was used!
My latest foray into fiscals involves the one-pound stamp from British Bechuanaland. (see below) Issued in 1888, it’s a marvelous “bas-relief” bust of Queen Victoria in profile. The shading and the delicate lilac shade convey an impression that the stamp is carved from stone, some kind of pink marble perhaps, or ruby-infused quartz. I knew this was a fiscally used copy — the seller offered it as such, for $15, while noting that the catalogue value of a postally used copy was $800. Wow! What a deal. (Not to be confused with the five-pound value, which rattled me in an earlier encounter. See “Deal too Good to Be True” blog post, 11/18/18)
Only after I had the stamp in my hands did I notice something: There was some
kind of scuff or thin or other discoloration on the stamp, at the lower back of the queen’s neck! Eek! What did I spend $15 for — a worthless, damaged fiscal stamp? Below is a close-up look at the worrisome patch of creamy white.
The closer I looked, the more it appeared to be not a thin, but actually a confetti-like piece of off-white paper, a remnant somehow stuck to the surface of the stamp. i began to pick gingerly at the spot, using my stamp tongs and a magnifying class to keep track of my efforts. Sure enough, the tongs seemed to catch an edge of the paper. Easy now, it’s moving. Is it … could it be … it is! The paper fragment was attached to the stamp, but not really stuck on it. My stamp tongs gradually dislodged the speck of paper sufficiently that I could lift it harmlessly off the stamp,
leaving the surface completely undamaged. What a rescue operation! Is there a lesson here for readers of the FMF Stamp Project blog? Something about risking and daring? The value of close observation? I felt like a philatelic archaeologist, carefully teasing and brushing away detritus to reveal the centuries old beauty underneath … Quite a thrill!
TO BE CONTINUED