A Year of Yemen Provisionals: Stamp Shortage Made POD "Scrape Bottom of Barrel"

Bruce Conde

Copyright 3 March 1958
Linn's Stamp News, Sidney, Ohio USA 45365
Reprinted with permission from the March 3, 1958 issue of Linn's Stamp News

Eleven provisional stamps appeared during the fiscal year October 1956-October 1957 to fill the postal needs of South Arabia's little mountain kingdom of Yemen. They were issued to fill the gaps caused by delays in approving, printing or issuing new sets long scheduled, including the "prepared but not issued" Arab Postal Union trio, the 10th Anniversary of the U.N. commemoratives and the King Saudi Visit stamps.

The worst gap, of course, is the need for at least 6,000 of the 4 bogash stamps per day for first-class inland mail. Next comes the 6bgs. foreign surface letter value, the 10bgs. the inland post and registry, and a 12bgs. for airmail to the Arab states.

There is no dearth of 20bgs. and one ahmadi stamps for European and American air letters, nor is there a shortage of 1 bogshah values for newspapers. On the other hand, 8bgs. adhesives for foreign registry had to be provided toward the end of the year.

In addition to troublesome surcharge varieties, Scott and Gibbons are faced with the issue of two previously issued 5bgs. adhesives for use as 4bgs. values without overprint. Then there was the release of three official stamps for regular postal use, two of them also used for a different value than that expressed on the stamps!

In order to attempt to bring order out of chaos and to give an idea of the relative scarcity of certain of these issues, they are presented here in chart form, divided into the following four categories: a), surcharges; b), 5bgs. values issued as 4bgs. stamps; c), official stamps issued for ordinary use; and d), emergency issue of other values from sets not approved for general use.

Although most of these provisionals have already been written up in detail in this paper at the time of their appearance or discovery, they will be described briefly below for the benefit of readers who may not have access to the earlier issues of Linn's. Also, the term "common" used above, requires some explanation, and should not be taken to mean that the stamps in question are obtainable on the same basis as common American or other issues.

4bgs. on 1bg. Type "c" surcharge: This is the largest of the provisional surcharges and measures 15 x 18mm in size. Unlike the previous type "a" and "b" (illustrated by Scott), it does not have the Arabic numeral "4" in the center, but a pair of brackets whose points are 2½mm apart at top and bottom and whose curved center portions are 4mm apart.

The Arabic inscription "Barid al-Yemen" ("Yemen Post") is well down from the top frame line, but the English "Yemen", at the bottom, is quite close (about 1mm). The "Y" of "Yemen" is 3mm away from the left frame line, and all the frame lines are very thin and fully joined, all the way round.

The reason for this stamp's scarcity is that it seems to have been an experimental type which did not please the Postmaster-General. It may have been confined to a single sheet of 50 stamps or even less. No mint specimens are known to have survived the experiment. I have seen or heard of less than a half-dozen used copies, one of which, on an ordinary commercial cover from Sana'a to Hodeidah, was illustrated on page 14 of the January 1957 issue of Linn's.

4bgs. on 1bg. Type "d" surcharge: Most of Scott's No. 68, on a few copies of which the rare "c" surcharge appears, were used in very large quantities for the Scott-listed Type "b" surcharge. In sorting through bundles of 100 of the common "b" variety for clear strikes (which bring up to 100% more on the market than the ordinary, illegible strikes) I ran into what at first appeared to be Scott's Type "a" surcharge, discarded in 1949.

Clearer examination showed that while the true "a" surcharge measures 11 x 16mm, these were 12 x 16mm. Also, where the "Y" of the English word "Yemen" at the bottom touches the left frame line on Type "a", it it invariably at least 2mm away in the case of Type "d". Again, no unused copies of this surcharge are known to have survived, and used copies occur in a ratio of about 1 to 100 or less, compared to Type "b". The workmanship is poor and I have yet to see a completely clear and legible strike of the "d" surcharge.

4bgs. on 2bgs. Type "e" surcharge: 12 x 15mm is the measurement of Yemen's latest and most illegible provisional 4bgs. surcharge, on No. 52, the 2bgs. ultramarine mokha coffee tree stamp, which had already received "a" and "b" surcharges in 1949. This monstrosity has only one recognizable feature—the letters "Ye" in the lower left corner when held right side up. Then a blank, then two blurs which we suppose represent "en". The Arabic inscription at the top and figure of value in the center, if any, are totally illegible. The whole center of the stamp, from frame line to frame line seems to be filled with vertical slugs, only part of which appear in most of the ordinary copies I have examined.

This surcharge is normally applied on its side, i.e. with the "Ye" reading downward parallel to the left edge of the stamp, and is thus the first horizontally-applied surcharge of Yemen. A few sheets, however, about in the 1 to 100 ratio of "d" surcharges, have the surcharge inverted, with the "Ye" upside down across the top, and the surcharge arranged vertically.

This is not an individual error of inverted surcharge which occurs in the case of "a", "b", and "d" in the ratio of less than 1 to 1,000. Rather, it is mass production sheet errors by a clerk, who being unable to read anything at all on the surcharge, simply followed the vertical format of the quarter past century, but happened to get the "Yemen" at the top.

It is relatively scarcer than the "normal" variety but by no means rare. Errors of the other types of surcharges are rare indeed.

4bgs. (5bgs.) Flag stamp: This handsome bicolor, No. 71, belongs to the postage, air, and official series of 1951, all of which were disapproved by His Majesty the Imam because, 1), the designer, in Italy's Printing Bureau, in Rome, had inadvertently placed French inscriptions on top of the Arabic ones on all values; 2), the most needed 4bgs. value had been omitted and useless 5bgs. stamps printed instead.

Although His Majesty authorized the sale of complete sets to philatelists, and also allowed them to be canceled, he gave strict orders that they were not to be released to the public, and had a new and acceptable set prepared and issued in the winter of 1953-54 to replace them (Nos. 83-85 and 14-16). (C14-16, ed.)

During acute stamp shortages, however, the Post Office Department prevailed on the Imam to allow, 1), 4bgs. surcharges to be applied to the 1, 2, and 3bgs. values; 2), the 1bg. to be used unoverprinted as a newspaper stamp, and 3), occasional higher values to be released without overprint for emergency use.

In 1956 the Imam also authorized the Department to use up the entire supply of the useless 5bgs. value as a 4bgs. provisional, without overprint. It was in this way that the handsome flag stamp finally came into its own. But by that same token, it will soon be impossible to fill philatelic orders for complete mint sets of the 1951 series since the 5bgs. has now been used up for regular first-class postage and most, if not all, of the 1, 2, and 3bgs. values have been surcharged.

4bgs. (5bgs.) Waterlow print: In like manner, exhaustion of all the previous provisionals by September 1957, resulted in a second royal order for an unnecessary 5bgs. regular stamp to be issued unoverprinted as a 4bgs. value. This time they really scraped the barrel and resurrected a stock of the 1940 Waterlow-printed bicolors.

This stamp, 'way back in 1945, had already received an "a" surcharge, but its provisional use had been discontinued due to the arrival of the 1947 French-printed regular series with ample 4bgs. values. Its use as a 5bgs. stamp, except in rare combinations, was extremely limited.

The late Prof. A. F. Gamber, of Florida, a great Yemen specialist, used to complain to the writer that he been unable to locate a single used copy of the unoverprinted stamp. By the time I have secured one for him from Yemen, and sent it along, he had passed away. I cannot look at the masses of commercial covers now coming through franked with this stamp without remembering Professor Gamber's long quest.

1, 5, and 10bgs. officials: A few sheets of the hitherto unknown 1bg. stamp slipped out to a Beirut dealer in 1956 in place of the same number of sheets of the regular No. 68 of the 1951 Rome print, and were written up in this paper at the time. Later in 1956, when the writer arrived in Hodeida, Yemen, he found two or three commercial covers, mailed from Sana'a in October, with unoverprinted copies of this stamp as 4bgs. provisionals.

This usage was apparently disapproved immediately, and it was not until mid-1957 that the stamp cropped up again, also unoverprinted, as a 1bg. newspaper stamp. In all, I have not seen even a half-dozen covers with it, although there was doubtless quite a number of newspapers mailed bearing this stamp.

As the recipients of the papers are not likely to be collectors, possibly only a handful of the 1bg. reached philatelic circles through that route. It is probable also that considerable stocks of the mint item remain in the Post Office vaults.

The 5bgs. value, in the same Bab al-Yemen (principal gate of Sana'a) design, was released as an unoverprinted 4bgs. provisional in 1957 and apparently used up as such by summer.

In late summer the 10bgs. blue made its appearance as a regular adhesive to prepay local postage (4bgs.) and registry (6bgs.). It was in stock for less than a month in the Taiz Post Office; large stocks probably remain on hand in the Sana'a Post Office. These official stamps suffer from the same objectionable features as the rest of the 1951 stamps and are used with reticence.

6 and 8bgs. airmails and 8bgs. postage of 1951 series: 1957 has also seen the grudging release of 6 and 8bgs. airmails and of the handsome 8bgs. bicolored mokha coffee tree postage stamp of the ill-fated 1951 series. This came about during shortages of 6bgs. stamps for inland and 8bgs. for foreign, registry.

The 8 is also needed with an additional 4 to make up the 12bgs. airmail rate to the Arab states, as the local post offices are loath to use pairs of the scarce 6's which they need more for inland registry. This means that C3-4 and regular 73, along with the 1 and 5bgs. of the 1951 issue are going to see a lot of normal postal use, unoverprinted. Furthermore, either used or unused complete sets of that series are going to be difficult to come by in the future.

Year Value On Scott
Basic No.
Color Scarcity
Mint Used
a) 1956 4 bogash. on 1 bogshah
Type "c" surcharge
68 dark brown rare rare
    1956 4bgs. on 1bg.
Type "d" overprint
68 dark brown rare scarce
    1957 4bgs. on 2bgs.
Type "e" overprint
52 ultramarine scarce common
b) 1956 4bgs. (5bgs)
71 blue and red scarce common
    1957 4bgs. (5bgs) 36 gray and brown common common
c) 1956 4bgs. (1bg.) *
official stamp
brown common rare
    1957 4bgs. (5bgs.).
official stamp
blue green scarce common
    1957 10bgs. official
blue common common
d) 1957 6bgs. airmail C3 blue common common
    1957 8bgs. airmail C4 brown common common
    1957 8bgs. postage 73 blue and green common common
*Note: The 1bg. Official, in addition to its use as a 4bgs. unsurcharged ordinary stamp, also saw limited as stamp for franking newspapers.

We come now to the problem of scarcity. The items listed as "rare" in the chart above are either non-existant, as, for example, the Type "c" surcharge mint, or found in less than a half-dozen known used copies. One sheet or less may have been prepared.

"Scarce" items may also become "rare", if, indeed, as in the case of the Type "e" surcharge and the flag and Bab al-Yemen (official) provisionals, mint stocks were entirely exhausted before the Department turned to a new surcharge of "5-cum-4 definitive". When the present use of the 5bgs. Waterlow stamp slackens off, indicating exhaustion of that once large stock, that provisional, too, will become scarce if not rare in mint condition.

"Common", as used for the purpose of this study, means that many thousand copies are at present available, such as large used stocks of items which are obsolete in mint form. Or it may mean that mint stocks are still going strong for the time being.

In the case of the 6bgs. airmail these stocks may dwindle soon but the 8 and 10bgs. items will probably last many years. Such was the case of the values of the Waterlow set above 6bgs. which can still be found after 17 years of constant use.

"Common", then, means relatively speaking, Yemenite provisionals so listed above exist in large quantities in comparison to scarce and rare items. It does not mean that the stamps are inexpensive and easy to come be, except in the case of recent varieties used for first-class (4bgs.) inland mail.

The 10bgs. Bab al-Yemen official, for instance, costs 20c face and has been available in the Taiz Post Office only a short time, although readily obtainable in Sana'a. As postal clerks habitually use 4 and 6bgs. stamps to make up inland post and registry, the 10 has had a limited use. Technically speaking, however, it exists in large quantities mint and may have very extensive use eventually.

As there is only one wholesale dealer (in Beirut) who deals extensively in Yemen stamps, and since such stamps are not normally sold over the counter in Yemen, it takes a lot of trouble and expense to acquire philatelic stocks of them. Even the "common" ones are hard to obtain. They represent relatively elusive material from a little known country. Just try to stock up on them at your local dealer's!