Demystifying CTO (Cancelled To Order) stamps

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One of the requested topics for the blog entries has been CTO (Cancelled-to-order) stamps. As the recent post about East German definitive stamps showed several CTO-examples, I think this is an excellent time to demystify CTO.

Eastern Europe countries produced a great number of CTO stamps.

Eastern Europe countries produced a great number of CTO stamps.

So what does CTO mean?

The short definition of CTO is very simple: a stamp that the issuing postal service has canceled/postmarked in large number before selling them directly to stamp collectors or dealers (with or without discount compared to stamps postal rate).

The history of CTO-cancels begins in the late 1800’s, experienced the hottest peak (so far) in the 1950’s and 60’s, and started to decline in the 1990’s. Very likely most stamp issuing countries have produced CTO-cancelled stamps in some scale, and will do so in one way or another in future as well.

A very common reason for making CTO-cancelled issues was (and is) collector demand – like with the DDR stamps. Building a collection of all the different stamps with relatively light and unobtrusive cancellations is a very hard job – even on single country level. By producing “collector quality” copies en masse, the postal services have managed to achieve several goals with one move. The collectors became happy as they received the stamps with light and unobtrusive cancel without any damages caused by real postage. The postal office services were happy as they didn’t have to do manual cancelling and hear collector complaints of poor job. And above all, the postal ministry managed to create new income channel…If the above sounds familiar, then take a look of the “new issue” services of any country. These are the spawns of CTO.

Several western europe countries, like Switzerland and Liechtenstein, have produced CTO for their "new issues" service subscribers.

Several western europe countries, like Switzerland and Liechtenstein, have produced CTO for their new issues service subscribers.

Another common reason for creating CTO-cancelled copies is to exclude stamps issued only for the collector market being used on real postage. A good example of this can be found once again from the East German 5 year plan definitive stamps article. The 20/24pfg stamps 1957 re-issue was never indented outside western collector markets. Thus it exists only in CTO-used condition.

Are CTO-cancelled stamps collectible?

IMHO, yes. CTO is a condition (or state) of used stamp in similar fashion as we collectors categorize unused stamps to mint never hinged and mint hinged (and lots of other subclasses).

But that said, most collectors avoid CTO-cancelled stamps more than plague (or stamps with mildew). And due to this, they have a notably lower catalog value (and demand) than postally used copies.

Personally I accept CTO-used stamps into my collection. However, if I can choose between a real used and CTO-used, then I always prefer real used.

How do I identify a CTO stamp?

CTO’s have many faces, but with couple of simple guidelines anyone can identify them easily.

The most common characteristics of CTO-cancelled stamp are very easy: a neat, usually quarter (single corner) cancels with repeating town/date part. As the cancels are usually printed (on press) directly to stamps, they are very clear and appear on same location. And the gum on the back is still present… Using this rule anyone can recognize at least 50% of worldwide CTO’s.

Many topical stamps from far-away places are usually CTO-cancelled.

Many topical stamps from far-away places are usually CTO-cancelled.

However, not all CTO-cancels are applied on print. Especially older CTO’s are created by hand-cancelling stamp sheets. The results are real-looking cancellations with specific places and dates; and usually with full gum.

But as anyone can wash out (soak) the gum off – not to mention CTO’s issued without gum – the only permanent characteristics of CTO is the cancel. Therefore learning to identify various CTO-cancellations is very important. Specialized stamp catalogs and other philatelic literature play a major role with this.

Wurttemberg hand-cancelled CTO's.

Wurttemberg hand-cancelled CTO's.

It’s important to note, that CTO and favour-cancelled stamps are in some cases very easy to mix. The difference between these two is that favour-cancelled stamps are usually cancelled on small scale (by single or few collectors/dealers) on local post offices, while CTO-cancelled stamps come with prints in six or seven figures. A good example of these are Finnish stamps cancelled around the 1963 currency reformation – a lot of collectors and dealers did favour-cancel huge numbers of complete sheets to get future “trading material”.

What countries should I beware?

Before giving this list, I must warn that this is heavy generalization – most of these areas do provide loads of real used stamps, but they are just a bit (or sometimes a LOT) harder to come by.

Communist states like Cuba, Kampuchea, Mongolia, North Korea, Soviet Union and Soviet satellite states, Vietnam etc. have produced loads of CTO. However, as many of these are nations with huge population, also real used stamps exist.

Some Caribbean, South- and Middle American countries, like Nicaragua, Paraguay, Guyana and many smaller Caribbean islands, have produced large scales of CTO at some point of their of postal history. The same can be said of many (French) African states like Chad, Niger or Mauritania.

One of the best known examples of CTO producers are Dune-states (Ajman, Fujeira etc) in the 1960/70’s. Many of these are very hard or impossible to come with real postal usage.

You might also be interested of related posts about .

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