Resource of the Month – Color Guides

“Any Colour You Like” is the title of a memorable song from a timeless album but in philately one of the trickiest and most challenging aspects of the hobby that can change a stamp from regular to rare is the particular color or hue of a given issue. The color of stamps is a hotly debated topic in philately among collectors as one shade of difference can have a tremendous impact on a stamp’s identification and thereby value.

Different denominations of the same stamp images have been printed in different colors since the very first issues. In attempting to determine a stamp’s specific color, this initial determination is a necessary step in any collector’s understanding and education in the hobby. While philatelists will pay high prices for rare shades, it may not be easy to tell those apart from variations caused by age, light, chemicals, and other factors.

Leading to even more confusion is that stamp colors are routinely described by a specific color name rather than with any sort of a numerical system like CMYK. The names by which stamp colors are known, how to identify them and how to differentiate among similar shades of some colors, can cause a great deal of debate among stamp collectors. Yet the correct identification of a given stamp’s color and shade is the most critical descriptor when identifying stamps.

Philatelic color guides, although not perfect in their attempt to clarify colors and their hues, can be a very useful resource in assisting collectors to at least begin to identify the colors used with stamps. One of the first scholarly works on the subject of philatelic color was “Color in Philately” by R.H. White (HE6184 .C719 W587c) in which White attempts to standardize color identification for collectors. For early U.S. issues White’s subsequent book “Encyclopedia of the Colors of United States Postage Stamps” (G3701 .C719 W587e CLOSED STACKS OVERSIZE) is a vital resource for the early U.S. collector.

Although the Scott (Amos) Publishing Company chose not to publish a universal color guide that was tied to its catalogs, it did publish a very useful color guide for U.S. stamps, “Scott Specialized Color Guides for United States Stamps” (G3701 .C719 M877p 2005). Scott’s British counterpart Stanley Gibbons, Inc. did however decide to produce two very instructive color guides that are keyed to their catalogs “Stanley Gibbons Colour Guide for Stamp Collectors” (HE6184 .C719 G441s) and “Stanley Gibbons Stamp Colour Key” (HE6184 .C719 G441s 1979). Both provide a wealth of information in order to identify and standardize colors and the color names found in the Stanley Gibbons stamp catalogs.

Finally, not to be outdone, the German catalog Michel produced a very detailed color guide “Michel Farbenfuhrer = Colour Guide Introduction” (HE6184 .C719 M623i 2007) which for the German and German Colonies collector is an invaluable resource for color identification and nomenclature.

These are but a few of the color guides that can be borrowed from the American Philatelic Resource Library (APRL). There are also more specific color guides also available at the APRL for the stamps of Bayern, Confederate States, Canada, and Italy among others for more specialized collectors. If you would like to borrow these color guides or others you can contact the APRL at (814) 933-3803 ext. 240 or at

4 thoughts on “Resource of the Month – Color Guides”

  1. If you are serious about establishing colours, you should use a photospectrometer for smart colour measurements. You may then compare with a printed colour guide and determine how the printed colour guide standardises or catalogs that colour. We are all using UV and other lamps, electronic microspcopes etc to check our stamps – why do we not use advanced technology when it comes to colours? I find it unsatisfactory that philately does not seem to have developed a standard system of determining colours, based on technical colour analysing methods. Any reason for that? Or have I overlooked something? This would be worth an article in the American Philatelist!

  2. Can you explain how a photospectrometer works. How tech savvy do you need to be. What about the cost. Thanks

  3. I agree thoroughly with Joachim Duester on the need for developing analytic tests to standardize colors.

    In 2010 I wrote an article for The American Stamp Dealer & Collector No. 44 October 2010 titled “PhotoShop That Picture Before You Bid” demonstrating how to use Photo editing software to reveal repairs, missing stamps, cleaned cancels, rips and other condition issues. In it I also showed how to use the RGB component color numbers to determine the green to blue color ratios in classic US cancellations.

    The Institute for Analytical Philately (IAP) has a reference library with some colorimetry references that may be of interest..

  4. There seem to be countless ways to alter a stamp. To check for each sure takes the fun out of collecting.

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