The philatelic term tête-bêche (French for “head-to-tail” or, more literally, “head-to-head”) defines a pair of stamps in which one is upside-down in relation to the other. The first French example of this anomaly occurred with the 1849 20 centimes Cérès stamp when the plate-maker, punching the steel die of the stamp 150 times to make one half of the printing plate (for this issue two were used together for printing sheets of 300 stamps at a time) accidentally inverted the die in positions 92, 110 and 148 on one plate, position 93 on another (seen in illustration on double-page spread below), and position 115 on a third… I guess repetitive work can do things like that… perhaps more café et croissant breaks were necessary!
However, although I jest, these pairs of 20c Cérès tête-bêche stamps are quite rare and thus very valuable. This stamp was only in use officially for 18 months and had a print run of just over 41 million, of which 10 million were destroyed due to postal rate changes. Undoubtedly, more than 99% of all mail at the time was franked with a single stamp… so most of the original tête-bêche pairs would have been separated at the post office, rather than being recognised as oddities and collected. In fact, from the 139,000 sheets printed, there are only 27 known examples of a 20c Cérès tête-bêche pair on covers… which at a current catalogue value of around 20,000 euros seems rather low to me. I will probably never own any, even 'off-paper,' so for this article I have reproduced examples from the “Yvert & Tellier Spécialisé vol.1” handbook.
However, as a footnote, stamps with such an alignment have often been produced intentionally, since Edwardian times, for booklets where the blank borders of the cut-down sheets can be utilised as a selvage for sewing, stapling or glueing into individual booklets. So unlike the original Cérès mishaps which are rare, modern tête-bêche stamps are produced by the million, although not seen in that state at post office sales counters.
NB: I wrote this piece before I photographed a ‘reproduction’ pair of Cérès tête-bêche stamps I purchased recently as an album ‘space-filler’… but the quality at 1000 pixels wide was so poor I've deleted it!
Images / words © Ed Buziak 2016
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