Feb 13, 2018
When I began collecting dead country stamps, I thought that I would only include “countries” that printed at least one non-overprinted, unique stamp. However, I changed my mind when I realized that a significant number of dead countries only issued overprinted stamps, especially those short lived ones.
Overprints are defined as additional markings applied to the face of a stamp after it has been printed. These markings can either be applied by a printing press or hand-stamped. When the marking indicates a change in value or unit of currency, it is usually called a surcharge.
Properly identifying overprints is a subject which can be daunting to stamp collectors. Many can be difficult to identify, and most of them have been extensively counterfeited. Therefore, understanding how to identify overprints is a key skill for collectors, especially those who specialize in dead countries.
This will be the first of several issues of the DCStamps Investigator which will focus on learning how to identify an overprint, and discovering how it fits into your collection.
OK, let’s start with some easy ones —
Overprints with Identifiable Country Names
For English speakers like me, many overprints are straightforward, and clearly identify the “country.” As long as the language uses a romanized alphabet, it is easy to make out. It don’t have to be in English, it’s usually easy to identify country names in German, French, Italian, Portuguese, etc.
Examples of this include:
After a costly victory over the Zulu Nation in 1887, the British annexed the territory and created the colony of Zululand. The first stamps were issued by Zululand in 1888 by overprinting “ZULULAND” on stamps of Great Britain. Although we will talk about counterfeits later, Zululand has some very good counterfeits out there. To the best of my limited knowledge this one is a genuine stamp.
A very popular area for stamp collectors. The city state of Danzig (today Gdansk, Poland), was established by the League of Nations after the defeat of the German Empire in WWI. Initially, German stamps were overprinted “Danzig” and issued for postage on Jun 14, 1920. The first Danzig printed stamps were issued on Jan 30, 1921, while the overprints continued to be acceptable for postage until Mar 31, 1923. This is a good example of how a newly formed country uses overprints. Applying overprints to existing stock is the fastest way to establish control over the postal system before new stamps can be designed, printed and issued.
C. Hatay State
A country not well known to people, Hatay was formerly the Sanjak of Alexandretta during Ottoman times. In Sept 1938, Hatay separated from Syria and declared independence in Sept 1938. With WW2 looming, they were looking to France and Turkey for military defense. The first stamps of the new republic were issued early 1939, as stamps of Turkey overprinted “Hatay Devleti” (Hatay State) and surcharged with new denominations. Even though the overprint is in modern Turkish, it’s recognizable. Turkey changed to a romanized alphabet in 1929.
Overprints in Non-English Languages
Many other overprints also clearly specify the “country.” However, they are printed in a language which we might not be able to read. For native English speakers like myself, who are limited in the ability to read multiple languages, some overprints can present a challenge. This is where being able to recognize a language and its written characters is important. While you might not be able to read it, but it narrows down your search to identify the region. Here are a few examples:
After the second Balkan war, the region of Epirus (formerly under Ottoman rule) was split, and the north was to became part of a newly formed Albanian state. Unwilling to be a part of Albania, the people of Northern Epirus revolted in Feb 1914, proclaiming the formation of the Autonomous Republic of North Epirus. The first stamps of the fledgling republic were issued in February, 1914 on Ottoman stamps. They were overprinted in Greek “ΗΠΕΙΡΟΣ” (Epirus) and surcharged in Greek currency. In March, they added the word “ΑΥΤΟΝΟΜΟΣ” to read “Autonomous Epirus.” Greek script is easy to recognize, and easy to learn. Alternatively, you can access a Greek alphabet table on the internet.
A short lived government led by General Mikhail Diterikhs, in the Russian far east, primarily out of Vladivostok. This was the last stronghold of the Russian anti-bolshivik army in the far east. During Diterikhs reign, they overprinted Russian stamps “Приам. Земскій Край.” in 1922, which is translated Priamur Rural Province. This overprint, written in the Cyrillic alphabet is a little harder to read as it is somewhat stylized. Cyrillic, like Greek is easy to learn, and pronounce. Again, you can also find a Cyrillic alphabet table on the internet.
In the 1930s, Japan invaded and controlled much of Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. On Dec 8, 1937, Japan created the puppet government of Menjiang. For the first 4 years, Japanese postal authorities used existing Chinese stamps for postage. However, in 1941, Chinese currency underwent severe deflation, and hordes of stamps were smuggled into Japanese occupied areas for resale. To prevent the practice, the Japanese began overprinting control marks on the stamps with the name of the various provinces. For Mengjiang, the stamps were overprinted “疆 蒙”.
This is a good example to see that all dead “country” stamps were not issued to demonstrate sovereignty. The postal systems generated revenue, and interferemce with the flow of money had to be stopped. Some dead country overprints were printed to assure control over the postal system, rather than define the “country.” In this case to combat smuggling of cheap stamps China. Not all such marks designate a separate country. In fact, in the North China occupations, only Meingjiang and Manchukuo were established as separate puppet governments.
Basic Overprint Identification Hints
As we begin this series on overprints, I thought I would cover some basic techniques to help identify stamps with overprints or surcharges.
- Access to a good stamp catalog. This is probably one of the most important and basic tools for identifying any postage stamp. It doesn’t have to be the latest edition, but is’s an invaluable tool. As for me, I use Scott as my primary catalog, supplemented by Stanley Gibbons for Russia, and Michel for German stamps. There are also many great online resources as well.
- Learn to identify the base stamp. Finding out what country the base stamp originates from before it was overprinted, will help narrow down your search. This will take time and experience, but if you enjoy stamp collecting as a hobby, it can be fun.
- Learn to identify languages, or language families. With a little bit of study, you can easily learn to identify many languages. Learn key alphabets such as Roman, Greek and Cyrillic. Know what an Arabic language looks like, and learn the number system, it is easy. Know the general look of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, south Asian languages., etc. You will find it opens up a whole new world.
Well that is it for now, in the next issue of the DCStamps Investigator we will begin discussing overprints which are not so straightforward.