I wish my Dad could have seen the two stamps above (figures 1, 2), which live in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Postage Museum next to Union Station in Washington, D.C.

The stamp in its usual form is an ultramarine engraved image of Columbus’s fleet issued, with the other values of this large commemorative series, on 03 January 1893 (figures 1, 3). Figure 3 is a nice photo of a fresh copy which may have been enhanced in Photoshop a bit before I got to it. The photo I took in the poor light of the museum (figure 1) is closer to the shade I am accustomed to see in routine copies of the stamp. Even the best copies I have seen personally always look a little faded to me.

Figure 3. U.S. Postage, 1893. 4-cent Columbian Exposition issue, Scott # 233. Photo: Gwillhickers, Wikimedia Commons. Stamp: public domain.

My father would have loved seeing the Smithsonian copies because he treasured his collection of the great Columbian commemorative postage stamp series that accompanied the famous 1892-93 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Although he was never able to buy the high-denomination stamps in the series, he repeatedly refined his collection of the values he could afford. In this he was led by Lester G. Brookman, whose monumental The United States Postage Stamps of the 19th Century (1967) treats the series in its third volume. Here’s Brookman on its significance:

Few if any series of stamps are so sought after by U.S. collectors as the “Columbians.” The degree of completion of the Columbians in any collection is one yardstick by which a collection is measured.

Lester G. Brookman, The United States Postage Stamps of the 19th Century, v. 3 (1967), p. 50.

The different denominations in the series were printed in different colors to facilitate distinguishing among them. Also for the beauty of it, of course. The American Banknote Company printed the stamps, and though the U.S. had been printing stamps for some fifty years by 1893, it was still a rough-and-tumble age of stamp production. Variants of the shades of the different denominational colors are quite common.

It turned out that at least two sheets of the ultramarine blue 4-cent stamp were instead, and erroneously, printed with a striking dark blue that is reminiscent of the bright blue of the 1-cent denomination. As you can see in the image gallery contrasting figures 4, 2, and 1, the color in the error is even darker than the blue of the 1-cent issue. This is a true printer’s blunder and not just a slight variant that escaped quality control.

Brookman again:

Many collectors have thought they had the 4c Error of color but the truth of the matter is that few of them ever have or ever will see one—let alone own one. The shade is very different from the normal ultramarine and once seen it is not likely to be forgotten. The usual statement that it is like the color of the 1c is not exactly accurate. It is much more like the 1c than it is the normal 4c but, if such a phrase means anything, the color seems to be a richer and more lively color than that of the 1c.

One error pane was found by J.V. Painter of Cleveland and bore the plate number D17. It is almost certain that at least one more pane of these existed in this shade and that the used copies come from this other pane. We understood that Theodore Steinway of New York found a used copy on mail received by his father. When J.V Painter found the sheet he sold half of it to George Worthington while most of the balance was purchased by J.W. Scott, Sr. It is not known what became of the half sheet sold to Worthington as these were not found among his stamps when his estate was sold.

A superb mint block of this 4c error was in the Col. Green Collection and there was a very fine mint block of 4—not the same block as was in the Green Collection—that was sold at the Robt. Laurence Sale of September 17, 1940. We have seen a third block of four in a western collection and have seen several mint singles but we have never seen a used copy although they are known to exist. An Imprint Plate Number strip of 4 of the error was sold by Harmer, Rooke & Co. in 1962.

Lester G. Brookman, The United States Postage Stamps of the 19th Century, v. 3 (1967), p. 62.

The 4-cent blue errors command prices in four or five figures, as compared to the more famous “inverted Jenny” upside-down biplane airmail stamp that commands prices in the low seven-figure range for single mint copies. Still, the 4-cent blue is a very rarely seen error. I have seen inverted Jennys now and again at prominent exhibitions, and there’s one in the Smithsonian. Still, everybody’s seen a picture of one, and the nature of the error is obvious to all. The relatively obscure color error of the 4-cent blue Columbian, while striking to a collector in the know, is a connoisseur’s error and so much the greater pleasure to actually see so that one can understand what Brookman was talking about when he discusses the shades of blue.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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