How to Buy Victoria Stamps with Line-Engraved Issues

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How to Buy Victoria Stamps with Line-Engraved Issues

Postage stamps were invented during the reign of Queen Victoria, as a means of paying upfront for carriage of letters. The first postage stamp was the Penny Black, which was introduced in 1840. This, and the other early stamps, were designed and printed using a process known as line-engraving.

Line-engraving was characterised by high quality images that were both attractive and difficult to forge. Many of these line-engraved stamps have since become collector's items. However, many others are available very cheaply, which makes it essential before buying line-engraved Victorian stamps, to learn as much as possible about line-engraved issues, as well as how to distinguish between those stamps which may be valuable and those which are not. Doing the necessary research saves a collector from spending a large sum of money on a stamp which is not in fact worth a great deal.

It is important when buying line-engraved stamps to study a wide selection, in order to be able to choose good specimens.Therefore experienced collectors often prefer to buy their line-engraved issues online, where Internet markets such as eBay offer plenty of choice as well as competitive prices.

The Line-Engraving Technique

Line-engraving was carried out by highly skilled craftsmen, who used to burn or engrave lines and dots into metal plates. The image was engraved in reverse, and this technique required intense skill and practice. One of the advantages of making stamps in this way was that it was extremely difficult to forge the stamp, as few craftsmen had the skill required to reproduce the plates used to print line-engraved issues. Once the engraving was complete, the image was impressed into a surface called a transfer roll, and then used to make metal plates for printing the stamps. The technique required slow and painstaking work, and within a few decades, this printing method was being superseded primarily by surface printing, which was faster and more efficient.

Types of Line-Engraved Stamps

Line-engraved issues dominated the early market for prepaid stamps in the period from 1840 to 1879. However, before the end of the 1870s, stamps were being produced using other printing methods. The line-engraved stamps were confined largely to small denominations, including halfpenny, one penny, one-and-a-half penny, and two penny stamps. This table shows the popular line-engraved stamps, and also records which had perforations and which did not.

Penny Black

Penny Red

Two Penny Blue

Halfpenny Rose Red

Three Halfpenny Red


Imperforate initially, then issued as perforate

Initially imperforate, then perforate



These stamps are considered so sought-after by collectors that scores of books have been written about line-engraved issues. Every plate used to print these stamps has been recorded and analysed, along with the different inks that were used to print line-engraved issues.

Rare Line-Engraved Stamps

The line-engraved halfpenny stamp of 1870, known as the 'Bantam', due to its small size, is a classic, which many consider among the best loved and most widely collected of all Victorian stamps. And the early 1840 Two Penny Blues, which were struck from the same die as the Penny Black, are also considered highly sought-after. Another rare line-engraved stamp is the rosy-mauve version of the Three Halfpenny stamp produced in 1860. Intended to be issued when a new postal rate was brought in, it became redundant when the new rate was rejected. Thousands of sheets of the stamp had been printed, and were then destroyed. A few however survived, and are highly prized by collectors today.

Perforate and Imperforate Stamps

The first stamps, which were Penny Blacks and Two Penny Blues, did not have perforations. They were printed onto a sheet, and the sheet was then cut or torn to remove the stamps. For this reason, early stamps often show ragged or uneven edges. In 1850, a few trial perforated stamps were struck, some of which were released on sale. In 1854, the first large scale issue of perforated stamps was introduced, and these quickly caught on to become the standard. The trial perforated One Penny Red stamps from 1850 are particularly prized by collectors today, and can easily be worth several hundred pounds each.

Matters to Consider When Buying Line-Engraved Stamps

A characteristic hallmark of line-engraved stamps is the fact that the ink applied to the stamp sits in a ridge on the surface of the paper. This can be felt by a careful running of one's fingertip over the surface of the stamp. A second test is to look at the stamp using a shallow angle, which should show the colour as being visible, unlike a surface printed stamps in which the colour disappears at a shallow angle.

The Purpose of the Collection

The first thing to decide before spending any money on stamps, is the purpose of the collection. Is it to make money? Or just to be a pleasant hobby? Are the stamps going to be chosen for their aesthetic qualities? Or based on historical or stamp collecting criteria? Until these questions have been answered, it is best to avoid making any major purchases, and instead just to become familiar with as many stamps as possible. This research both educates the new collector, and help shape their taste.


From 1840 until about 1855, line-engraved stamps used a small crown watermark. From 1854 onwards, a large crown watermark was used. Checking for the right watermark is a good basic test for authenticity, and can be carried out using special watermark revealing fluid. This fluid contains no water, and therefore does not damage even a mint-condition stamps.

Stamp Catalogues

For a serious collector, it pays to look up the proposed purchase in a stamp catalogue. This gives details of the watermark, plate number, and other characteristics of the stamp, and allows the buyer to check authenticity, as well as giving help in valuing the stamp.

Other Things to Look For

When buying postage stamps, it is not just rarity which counts. The condition of the stamps is crucial. The presence of a postmark can increase or decrease the value, depending on whether it is a clean, well-centred, and attractive mark, or not. A Maltese Cross, for example, is generally popular. A stamp attached to a letter or envelope with interesting details or a story attached, may be worth more than a stamp alone. A stamp with gum attached may be worth more than a stamp without gum. To be able to judge value takes time and experience, which is why it is important to view as many different stamps as possible before buying one.

The advantages of viewing as many stamps as possible are obvious, but the downside to this strategy is that it is time consuming and expensive to run around visiting stamp fairs or looking for dealers. For this reason, it is very common these days for collectors to search for and buy their stamps online. eBay is very popular with stamp collectors as eBay boasts a massive selection of line-engraved issues.

How to Search for Line-Engraved Issues on eBay

It is easy to find line-engraved stamps on eBay. You start by just typing 'line engraved issues' into the search bar on the eBay home page. This brings up thousands of listings of line-engraved stamps currently offered for sale. If you have not decided what you want you may simply browse these listings at your leisure. Alternatively, if you do have a good idea what Victoria stamps you want, you can narrow the listings down by specifying those characteristics which appeal to you. For example, if there is a particular denomination you want, say one penny (1d), you can specify that denomination. Or if you want a whole block of stamps, you can specify that, too. You can also sort the results based on colour, or the region of the United Kingdom where the stamp was originally issued and used.

Once you have a handful of listings that appeal to you, study the photos and read the descriptions carefully. If you have any questions, contact the seller. You may want to know about the plating details for the stamp, to check them in a catalogue, or to see a scan of the back of the stamp, to check whether it has gum. Ask the seller if the stamp has a watermark, and if so, ask what it is. Also check the seller's feedback. The sellers with the best feedback are called 'Top-rated Sellers', and they should be particularly able and willing to help you with any queries you may have.


Line-engraved stamps included the first ever postage stamps, such as the Penny Black and Two Penny Blue. They were printed using the high quality line-engravings printing technique, which only a few craftsmen at the time had the skill to produce. This meant that these stamps were very difficult to forge. Because line-engraved stamps were slow to print, they were replaced in time by other types of stamps, especially surface printed stamps, which were faster and cheaper to make. Nevertheless, some of the most sought-after and collectable stamps were produced using the line-engraved technique, and many are highly prized by collectors today.

When buying line-engraved stamps, it is important first to decide what is the purpose of the collection. This requires time spent looking at many different types of stamp, to crystallise the collector's tastes. It is important also to have access to as wide a range of stamps as possible. Rather than spending time and money visiting stamp fairs and looking for dealer shops, it is often better for a collector to view and buy stamps online. eBay has by far the largest selection of line-engraved stamps available anywhere.

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