A Classic Stamp Error
E. A. Smythies F.R.P.L., A.P.S. 

    Nearly 100 years ago some untrained and probably illiterate, operators were busy in the hot and humid climate of Calcutta, India, printing the first stamps ever made in Asia. These were the India 1854 Four anna lithographs, prepared by a rather complicated process in two colours, a brief description of which is necessary to understand how the error occurred.

The design consisted of a profile portrait of Queen Victoria in blue inside an octagonal red frame with the words INDIA above and FOUR ANNAS below.

First of all, two engravings were made on small copper plates, of the head die and frame die respectively. From these two dies a large number of impressions were taken on small pieces of transfer paper and transferred on to two different series of lithographic stones, the head stones in blue and the frame stones in red. On every stone there were 12 impressions, i.e., three rows of four, carefully synchronized to exact measurements to ensure that later the 12 blue heads would fit exactly into the centers of the 12 red frames. At the first printing of these 4 anna stamps in October, 1854, at least 8 and possibly 12 head stones were thus prepared, and an equal number of frame stones. 

When all these printing stones were ready, printing operations started, and the procedure was as follows. One lot of operators worked with the frame stones, using red pigment only, and printed the red frames on to sheets of paper which had been to the right size, and which had a characteristic oval watermark covering all the 12 impressions. These sheets were then put aside to dry, and later--possibly next day--were taken by another lot of operators working with the head stones, and using blue pigment only. By very careful alignment of the half printed sheets, the blue were printed as exactly as possible into the enter of the red frames, thus completing the bi-coloured stamps, and making the sheets ready for issue to the post office department. There were no perforations to bother about in 1854, but in the early printing the head stones also had blue wavy lines between and around the head impression. These were later omitted when (from April, 1855) the number of stamps per sheet was doubled. 

1854 Inverted Head

Such in brief was the method of printing adopted for producing these bi-coloured stamps, a rather complicated method, as I have mentioned above, but inevitable as simultaneous printing in two colours by lithography was unknown. But if, without some fool-proof device, an operator put a sheet of red frames the wrong way up on to his stone of blue heads, what happened? Naturally, all the 12 heads on the sheet would be inverted relative to the red frames, and 'Moreover head No. 1 would fall into frame No. 12, head No. 2 into frame No. 11, and so on. This is exactly what happened, and so was created the classic error, India 4 annas "Inverted Head." This was not the first error ever made in stamp production-the "Inverted Frame" of West Australia beat it by a month or two, and of course the most famous error of all time, "POST OFFICE" instead of "POST PAID" of Mauritius, had instead been issued 7 years earlier.

In the first printing of these 4 anna stamps in October, 1854, 17,170 sheets were printed. It was a rush order and very urgently wanted, since postage on a small letter from India to Europe at that 'time was eleven annas, and it was quite impossible to find room on the small envelope for eleven I anna stamps (the -next-highest denomination). So it is not surprising that an occasional sheet was printed with the, heads upside down; considering the circumstances it is surprising that there were not more of them! Careful research among all the known copies of the "Inverted Head" error, (about 24 genuine copies in all), has shown that at least 6 or 7 sheets were printed inverted and issued to the public, some in Calcutta and some in Bombay. Presumably there was no careful scrutiny of printing in those early days, to prevent such obvious mistakes going into circulation. All the known copies belong to the first printing, and although later there were larger and even more hurried printings, e.g., in December, 1854, nearly 33,000 sheets were printed in under two weeks, yet no genuine specimen of the error is known from these later printings. It rather suggests that some fool-proof device must have been evolved and adopted! 

Although the upside-down head is such an obvious and striking variety, twenty years passed before it was first noticed and recorded. This happened at a meeting of the Philatelic Society, London, in 1874, when a copy was noticed in one of the collections shown. A few years later it was recorded for the first time in a catalogue. In 1899 the big London stamp dealers, Messrs. Stanley Gibbons, in the ordinary course of business bought a large number of cut-to-shape 4 anna stamps from a gentleman who had kept them from old correspondence, and amongst them were four or five "Inverted Heads," including two on one cover. The cover was cut in half, one copy now resides in the Royal collection in Buckingham Palace, the other found its way into the collection of Col. E. H. R. Green of the U.S.A., but where it is now no one seems to know. Another ,copy, perhaps the finest of the Gibbons haul of 1899, is now in my collection, and it has an interesting and unbroken pedigree. In the archives of the Royal Philatelic Society, London, there was recently discovered the original letter from Mr. C. J. Phillips, at that time head of the firm of Stanley Gibbons, Ltd., addressed to Lord Crawford and dated December, 1899, offering him this fine copy for E60; the deal was completed and it passed into his collection. At his death in 1912, the India section was acquired by the Indian expert, ,Gordon Jones, who sold the "Inverted Head" to E. A. Fleisher, of Philadelphia. U.S.A. In 1919, Stanley Gibbons acquired. it again and sold it to an English collector, Sir R. M. Watson-Smythe (for F160). In 1926 it appeared in a London auction, and passed for the 'second time into the hands of Gordon Jones, who sold it the same year to an Indian collector, from whom I acquired it in 1930.

Not all the known copies of this error have an unbroken 50 year pedigree! In fact, only six or seven years ago a copy was found in a school boy's collection in Belgium, and still more recently a square-cut copy, the finest copy known, was discovered in Bombay, in 1945. As at least 72 copies of the error were originally printed, and at present 24 copies are known, there is still a chance that further copies may be discovered. Details and illustrations of all the known copies are given in that interesting publication, "Stamps of Fame," by L. N. and M. Williams. This classic error has, not unnaturally, attracted the attention of the skillful faker, who has from time to time produced out-and-out forgeries, which any expert can easily recognize as such, but also very skillful fakes made from genuine stamps, which are a much more difficult problem. The faker takes a genuine normal stamp, and by chemicals or other means fades out part of the design, either the head or the frame, and then prints another head or frame, as the case may be, upside down. Thus the fake so produced has genuine paper with genuine watermark and postmark, and half the design is also genuine. One fake of this nature was in the Ferrari collection and sold as genuine at one of the Ferrari auctions in Paris for about £110. However when submitted to the expert committee in London, it was proved to be a fake. The original red frame, which had been faded out, showed up under the quartz lamp not inverted. An additional point of interest about this fake was that the head (which was genuine) belonged to the second printing of December, 1854, and this variety is still recorded in Gibbons catalogue, although no genuine inverted copy of the second printing is known! So this famous catalogue still records a fake!

Another cut square fake or forgery at a London auction in 1920 fetched the then record price of £320, but when this was turned down by the R.P.S. Expert Committee, the sale was cancelled, and, the unfortunate owner received an unpleasant shock. I have in my collection a third fake, made from a genuine stamp of the fifth printing of October, 1855. In this copy, the frame is genuine and shows certain characteristics of the fifth printing, but the head is faked. One or two other fakes are believed to have been included in collections in the U.S.A. These examples suggest the advisability of obtaining an expert opinion before indulging in the luxury of acquiring one of these rare and classic errors. If any reader of this article has a copy of the "Inverted Head" error, I should be very glad to have details of it, and if possible a photograph.

Credits, Acknowledgements and Disclaimer:
Back to Main page