Since 1960, the French government has printed between 8 and 28 artist's proofs of most engraved stamps of France and French territories. The proofs are printed by the official government printer on thick art paper directly from the die prepared by the engraver. (This die is later used to make the printing plate or cylinder used to print the issued stamps.) The printer then embosses the proofs with official government seals and sends them to the engraver, who signs them and is free to sell them to collectors or dealers.
Artist's proofs of engraved stamps form part of the artistic tradition of fine art engravings, for which artist's proofs are also made. They are produced for collectors rather than as by-products of the stamp production process. For this reason, all aspects of their design and production - choice of ink color and paper, die impression, embossed seals, and the artist's signature - contribute to producing a miniature piece of philatelic art that showcases the engraver's work.
Beginning in 1960, when the French government printer took over printing of artist's proofs and introduced an embossed seal as a security measure, the quantity of each artist's proof was limited to 18-28 proofs depending on the country (18 for Andorra; 23 for France; 26 for FSAT, St. Pierre & Miquelon, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis & Futuna; and 28 for African countries). The quantity printed was further reduced to 8 in 1999. Prior to 1960, artist's proofs were printed by the engravers and no restriction was placed on the number printed.
From 1961-86, artist's proofs were usually printed in six different colors (typically black, blue, green, violet, brown, and red). The shade chosen for each color often varied among proofs of different stamps. For example, blue might be greenish blue (aqua), violet might be bluish violet or reddish violet, and brown might be dark brown or olive brown. Other colors, such as gray, pink, yellow, and orange, were occasionally used.
From 1986-98, the number of colors for FSAT and St. Pierre artist's proofs seem to have been reduced to five (black, blue, green, brown, and reddish brown, but no violet). However, we see various shades of brown, including light brown, dark brown and violet brown, in addition to reddish brown, so it is difficult to determine the exact number of colors. In 1999, the number of colors was further reduced to three (black, blue, and brown).
We occasionally find more than six different colors of an artist's proof. This usually occurs for proofs from the period 1960-67, before the proof production process was completely standardized, or where there are different shades of brown.
More artist's proofs were printed in black than in any other color. There may have been 10-11 black and 3-4 of each other color (26 total) for FSAT, St. Pierre & Miquelon, New Caledonia, and Wallis & Futuna artist's proofs during the period 1960-99. Further information on the quantities of different colors that were printed can be found on Giorgio Leccese's website.
Artist's proofs are usually printed on thick 130mm x 160mm (5.1 by 6.3 inches) white art paper, but the size can vary by 1-2mm depending on the paper manufacturer. Smaller sheets were sometimes used for proofs before about 1970.
Larger sheets of paper - 160mm by 180mm or 190mm by 210mm - were used to print the larger dies (which can be up to 140 x 140mm) used for souvenir sheets, long stamps and stamps printed together, such as the St. Pierre & Miquelon natural heritage tryptichs.
The paper used for artist's proofs during the period 1966-98 was made by one of the three leading manufacturers of fine art paper: BFK Rives (1966-72), Arches (1973-86), and Johannot (1987-99).
The BFK Rives paper is relatively thin - about 0.2mm thick or roughly twice the thickness of standard copy paper. The thickness of the paper used for artist's proofs increased after 1972 and the paper was almost twice as thick (about 0.4mm) after 1986. The difference in thickness is noticeable - the BFK Rives paper bends if held by only one of the short edges, whereas the other papers do not. The BFK Rives is also noticeably lighter - about 180 gsm (grams per square meter, about double the weight of copy paper) compared to about 250-300 gsm for the other papers.
All artist's proofs are printed on white paper. The Arches paper used from 1973-81 is noticeably less white than the other papers, and the Johannot paper is a brighter white.
Most of the papers used for artist's proofs have a slight surface texture compared to the paper used for the issued stamps. The Arches paper is noticeably rougher.
The paper produced by all three manufacturers is watermarked with the manufacturer's name or the paper type: BFK Rives, Arches, J. Perrigot Arches Special MBM (France), and Johannot. BFK are the intials of Blanchet frères et Kléber. Rives, in southeastern France near Grenoble, is the location of the paper manufacturing facilities. Arches is a town in northeastern France where papermaking facilities are located. Jules Perrigot worked for Arches and developed a paper-making machine. MBM are the initials of Morel-Bercioux-Masure, the mill owners in the 1860s.
Most artist's proofs are unwatermarked because they are cut from a larger sheet that only has one watermark on a portion of the sheet. When a watermark appears on a proof, it is outside the die impression and neatly arranged parallel to one of the long edges of the proof. The J. Perrigot Arches Special MBM (France) watermark is too long to fit on the proof and is usually cut off at the sides and also at the top or bottom.
Most artist's proofs have four straight edges. However, some earlier artist's proofs have one or more deckle (rough) edges formed by the paper pulp overflowing the paper-making frame. The use of deckle edges is not consistent - the same proof can sometimes be found both with and without deckle edges. Some proofs have scalloped edges, edges with indentations like the indentations on a serrated knife. These appear to have been made after official distribution of the proofs, possibly in an effort to make them look more attractive, and usually result in a slight reduction in the size of the proof.
Artist's proofs printed from 1960 on have an embossed seal in the lower left corner. The seal design was changed in 1962 to depict a hand printing press, and two additional seals were added after 1981. The seal was originally intended as a security measure but the use of multiple elaborate seals is also an important part of the design and artistic look of the proof.
In 1960, the French government printers took over printing of artist's proofs, which had previously been done by the engravers. The government printers embossed a circular seal measuring 28mm in diameter on the bottom left corner of the proof overlapping the die impression. The seal reads "IMPRIMERIE DES TIMBRES-POSTE" (stamp printing works) around the outside of the seal and "CONTRÔLE" (as verification of authenticity and control in the sense that the printing of the proofs was now controlled by the government printers) in the center of the seal.
In 1962, the seal was changed to give it a more artistic look. The word "CONTROLE" (without the circumflex accent (^) above the "O") was moved from the center of the seal and placed along the outside with the wording "IMPRIMERIE DES TIMBRES-POSTE" and a picture of a hand press was placed in the center of the seal. The outside of the seal was made irregular to resemble a wax seal.
Around 1982, two additional seals were added: (1) a 110mm linear seal reading "IMPRIMERIE DES TIMBRES POSTE FRANCE" in ornate script along the longer edge (at the bottom of the proof, or on the right side for proofs of stamps printed vertically) and (2) a 19mm image of a Cérès head in a circle near the top right corner of the proof.
The stamp's engraver usually signs an artist's proof in pencil inside, or just below, the lower right hand corner of the die impression. Engravers typically sign either their first initial and last name, or only their last name, though some engravers sign both their first and last name.
An artist's proof sometimes has a second signature in the bottom left corner for the designer (when the stamp is not also designed by the engraver) or for a second engraver (when two different engravers have worked on a die, as was the case with the 1990 St. Pierre natural heritage tryptich).
Unsigned proofs with seals occasionally exist for special issues such as the proofs distributed to visitors of the 1975 "Arphila" exhibit in Paris, or where the engraver forgot to sign the proof.
Beginning in about 1973, the French government printer began printing some engraved proofs with up to six separate colors using the T.D. (taille douce or engraving) 6 process. The ordinary T.D. 3 process prints up to 3 colors from a single die. The T.D. 6 process uses 2 dies, each to print up to 3 colors, and the process requires that the engraver prepare two separate dies, a normal die and a second die, printed in mirror image or reverse compared to the first die, for the portion of the stamp using the second group of three colors. Artist's proofs were made for each of the two dies and these provide a fascinating insight into the stamp production process that is not readily apparent from the issued stamp.
Since 1984, the French post office (La Poste) has produced an official philatelic document (document philatelique officiel) or information sheet for most French postage stamps. The documents are printed on high-quality A4 art paper like the paper used for artist's proofs. They contain background information relating to the subject of the stamp, a copy of the stamp pasted on the page, one or more original engravings relating to the stamp, and a proof of the stamp printed in a single color. If the issued stamp was printed by heliogravure or offset, the proof is an engraved version of the stamp specially produced for the official document. Artist's proofs of both the original engravings and special engraved version of the stamp were produced. The quantities printed for these is believed to be the same as for artist's proofs of stamps, and they are printed on the same paper and have the same embossed seal. Most artist's proofs of the original engravings are printed on the larger 160mm by 180mm or 190mm by 210mm paper to accommodate the larger size of the engravings.
Because artist's proofs are scarce and are not listed in standard catalogs, establishing a price can be difficult. The same proof can sell for considerably different prices depending on the circumstances of the sale, as is frequently the case with normal stamps. However, a few pricing guidelines based on my own experience buying artist's proofs may be helpful.
Prices of artist's proofs range from about $15 to several hundred dollars depending on the topic, country, and circumstances of the sale. Prices in the range of $50-$120 are common for artist's proofs other than proofs from African countries that do not have a topical interest (such as local scenes or people and abstract designs), although retail prices from some dealers may be higher.
Artist's proofs of stamps having particularly popular topics such as table tennis, chess, dogs and Concorde may sell for more. I saw several table tennis artist's proofs sell for over $600 on eBay. Popular topics from the more popular territories, such as FSAT and St. Pierre, also often sell for higher prices and are difficult to find. In general, there is robust demand for the most popular topics and countries, and proofs of stamps with attractive designs are also popular.
I have found that the best way to build a large collection of artist's proofs is to purchase collections or dealer stocks. The prices are usually much cheaper and it is possible to acquire material that could otherwise require a decade or more of hard work to acquire. Unfortunately, there are very few large collections or dealer stocks available for sale. The last major sale of a dealer stock was the sale of the Souren Serebrakian stock at auction in 2007, and the last major sale of a large collection was the sale of the "Versailles" collection at auction in 2008. Every few years one may find a smaller specialized collection of artist's proofs for sale.
I have been collecting proofs for more than 30 years, so I thought it might be useful to share a few of the things I learned during that time.
Building a collection of French-area artist's proofs requires hard work over a substantial period of time because of the limited numbers available. You may need to look through dozens of dealer and auction house offerings for years before you find what you want. The easiest and cheapest (and in some cases the only) way to form a large collection is to purchase a collection or parts of a collection, since someone else has already done the work for you. Unfortunately, there are few major collections and they rarely come up for sale. There is, however, a positive aspect to the difficulty of forming a collection of artist's proofs (or proofs in general): if you do, you will have a collection that is unlike most other stamp collections.
The cost of building a collection of artist's proof is comparable to the cost of building a specialized collection in many other areas of philately. However, you will not run into the very high prices for stamps in exceptionally good condition or issued in limited quantities of under 1,000 or 100, even though artist's proofs printed since 1960 were issued in quantities of only 8-28, with the printing for colors other than black often only 2-4.
If you are a topical collector who collects a topic that is popular but fairly limited in the number of proofs available, you will probably need to be fairly aggressive about what you will pay to obtain the proofs you want. If you pass up an opportunity, you may not see the proof again. I would like to enlarge my collection of Concorde artist's proofs but have not come across any new material for more than 7 years. I was able to add about 20 new artist's proofs to my collection of French Europa artist's proofs over the past few years, but have otherwise seen nothing of interest since I purchased a collection of French Europa artist's proofs more than 7 years ago.
If you are a country collector who wants to obtain hundreds of proofs from a particular country to complete your collection, you may want to be very disciplined about how much you pay because the cost of the collection will add up. However, keep in mind that you may need to pay significantly more for the better topical proofs from your country, if you can find them.
The environmental conditions in which you store artist's proofs are very important. Above all, avoid high humidity, particularly if you store the proofs in an enclosed space such as a cabinet. In that case, consider using a desiccant such as silica gel to reduce the humidity and dry the desiccant out when the indicator shows it has become saturated with moisture. Overexposure to light, especially sunlight, can cause ink colors to fade or change and paper to tone, but it is generally not a practical concern if you store the proofs in an album or cabinet. Exposure to pollution can also be a problem. Unless you live in a very polluted area, the main problem occurs when different portions of the proof are exposed to different levels of pollution, as when a proof is stored in a mount that is too small for the proof and leaves part of the proof exposed. This can lead to a band of toning on the exposed edge of the proof.
If you already collect proofs or are planning to begin, I wish you success and hope that you will find the experience immensely satisfying, as I have. If you have questions about artist's proofs, I am always happy to share my thoughts. I also buy, and occasionally sell or trade, proofs.