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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Danish "Bicoloured" Stamps of 1870-1903

Being born and raised in Denmark, it was only natural that my primary stamp collecting interests included Danish stamps. After all, they came in the mail, and it was what most of my school friends collected. Back then (mid- to late 1960's) lots of kids collected stamps.

My first "really old" stamp
My first ever "very old" stamp was the 8 øre value from the "Bicolours" series, issued between 1870 and 1903. I clearly remember how exciting it was to discover (with the Danish AFA catalogue, at the local library) that I actually had a stamp from 1875! It didn't matter to me that it was actually very common-- an estimated 754 million of these stamps were printed in three different series-- to me it was "ancient treasure."

Many many years passed. Although I was an active collector of Danish stamps, my collection was mostly "general" in nature-- that is, I was collecting "one of each" by the main stamp catalogue numbers. However, in my late 20's, I had reached a point where "filling the next empty space" in my Denmark collection had become more costly than I could afford, on my limited income.

Although I was now a resident of the US, I would still return to Denmark at least once a year to visit family. One of my favorite things to do while "home" was to get in touch with my cousin Ib-- and we'd see if we could have a "date" to either go to a stamp show or to a public stamp auction. Ib-- who was actually some 20 years my senior-- was also a keen Denmark collector, and he'd taught me a lot about stamps. On this particular occasion, we discovered we'd be able to attend a large stamp auction in Copenhagen, over a two-day period.

In the course of our conversation, I explained to Ib that I really wasn't sure what I was going to bid on-- if anything-- because I couldn't really afford any of the stamps I was missing in my Denmark collection, but since I'd also taken up Sweden and France (and had much smaller collections of these) I might look for something there... although all "the really good stuff" was from Denmark, given where the auction was being held.

My first interest in the Bicoloured stamps
was actually related to numeral cancels
"Maybe you should consider some kind of specialty collection," Ib suggested.

I wasn't too sure about that. I'd seen "specialized" collections at stamp exhibitions, and it seemed to me that those collectors had invested thousands and thousands in rarities I couldn't even hope to own one of. I also had this "image" of specialized philatelists being mostly "grumpy old cigar-smoking men who isolated themselves in their offices."

However, I'd seen Ib's recently started collection of the Danish "Wavy Lines" issue, and his enthusiasm was considerable. "Suddenly every box of stamps is a treasure hunt," he explained, "you just never know what you might find, and usually the stamps only cost a few kroner each!"

And so, my first "adventure" with specialized stamp collecting became an interest in Danish numeral cancels. Since I was quite little, I'd always thought it was interesting how "old stamps" were often canceled with a number, instead of a place name. And finding nice upright and readable number cancels seemed like it could be a challenge, but without costing a fortune... after all, there were millions and millions of 4 øre and 8 øre bicoloured stamps with numeral cancels.

So one thing led to another, and I ended up bidding on-- and winning-- a "messy stock of mostly common classic period stamps" in a shoe box. I think I paid the princely sum of 1500,- Danish kroner (about $175.00 US, at the time), when all was said and done. And I suddenly had thousands of stamps to look at-- a very large number of which (as expected) were 4 and 8 øre Bicolours.

A 100 øre Bicolour from the 1st printing, with the
scarce "RM2B" frame type
Also in the box was a copy of the 1981-82 "AFA Specialkatalog" which included an extensive specialist section about the Bicoloured issues, showing lots of varieties and plate flaws. Which, of course, I found extremely interesting, given that I had just become owner of several thousand of these stamps. At the time, I had no idea that this was possibly the single most popular stamp issue with specialist collectors in Denmark.

The rest, as they say, "is history."

I've been collecting the Bicolours for about 25 years now. I wouldn't call myself a fanatic or "flyspecker" exactly, but I have built a pretty nice collection of notable plate varieties across the many printings. My primary interest is in the "fine perforated" (first øre set) issues, and I also have quite a few of the skilling stamps. And I still continue to look for really nice numeral cancels-- which was, of course, what I originally set out to do.

So what is the appeal of these stamps? And why are they so popular with specialist collectors?

As classic stamps go, the Bicoloured stamps are attractive and colorful. In the course of 33 years, four separate series were released: First came a set of stamps denominated in skilling; then came the first øre set in 1875, after monetary reform in Denmark. A second øre set started in 1895, this one perforated 12 3/4 instead of the original 14 by 13 1/2. Finally, a third øre set started in 1902, this time with watermark large crown III. Although other other stamps were in use concurrently with the Bicolours (the "Arms" types), the design remained effectively in use until the introduction of the "Wavy Lines" type and Christian IX type in 1904-05.

A 5 øre stamp with a so-called "pearl flaw," one
of the most sought after frame varieties 
The design elements are fairly detailed-- especially the outer frame. This created an opportunity for lots of varieties to be discovered-- both in the original plates, as well as in subsequent plate damage from use. In addition, because the stamps were printed from two passes through the printing press-- one for the frame, and one for the oval-- a number of stamps ended up having "inverted frames." The frames look "similar enough" right way up and inverted that they would routinely be printed oriented in either direction. Thus, inverted frames were not "major errors" (although some are quite rare), merely varieties that help collectors identify stamps by printing and position within each sheet.

Part of the appeal lies in the relatively low cost to start a specialized collection of truly "classic period" stamps. The 4 and 8 øre values both had more than 100 printings, each of which can be identified by a skilled specialist... with the implication that the majority of these stamps have low catalogue values, yet it is possible to form a specialized collection (definitely the work of a lifetime!) of thousands of distinct stamps... all without "breaking the bank."

Another nice aspect of these stamps-- today, in 2014-- is that they have been studied by thousands of collectors for well over 100 years, so there's lots of information available to the aspiring specialist, from small handbooks, to an impressive 6-volume reference work by expert Lasse Nielsen detailing virtually every known variety discovered. That said, there were so many of the stamps printed-- and they were in use for so many years-- that you can still find varieties in collections and duplicates stocks that have not been through the hands of a specialist.

The above all figure into my own interest in the Bicolours. However, as much as anything, they evoke a memory of stamp collecting in my childhood and youth-- and of that first "really, really old" stamp in my collection.

2 comments:

Fred said...

Interesting article. I have sometimes wondered why I don't have a greater interest in Danish stamps, but so far I have only tried to fill in a Scott International album thru 1965, nothing of any great specialty. Maybe someday.
Fred Danes

Marie Shaw said...

Peter, over the past couple of days I've been researching these Danish stamps a bit ... Thanks for the info.

Marie