One of the more intriguing ways of collecting federal waterfowl stamps is to acquire stamps signed by the artist who designed the original artwork. In this way, the miniature piece of art is signed like a larger painting or print. Some advanced collectors attempt to acquire the larger signed original sketches and paintings and a much greater number collect what are commonly known as signed limited edition prints. In any form, a piece bearing a signature done by the artist’s own hand has the ability to transcend the inanimate and provide an intimate connection for the collector.
Collecting Artist Signed Stamps
Most collectors attempt to acquire the artist signature directly on a single stamp itself. This appears to be a result of personal preference coupled with the fact that artist signed plate number singles and artist signed multiples such as plate blocks and sheets are significantly more difficult to acquire and more expensive. When collecting the signature of Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, there are several variations to consider. Perhaps the most frequently encountered is “J.N. Darling” (see Figure 1).
To his friends and those he worked with, Darling was better known by the nickname Ding. The nickname was self given and originates from when he worked as a cartoonist at the Des Moines Register newspaper in Iowa. At this time he began signing his cartoons Ding, which he made up from the first and last three letters of his last name. Later, when signing stamps for friends and those who requested it, he signed “Ding Darling” (see Figure 2) or simply “Ding” with a flourish and a heart on either side of Ding.
The most desirable and intimate form of Darling’s signature is known as the alias, which combines everything above. This is also the most difficult to acquire and was likely done only for those close to him or as a special favor. In this case, the signature is “J. N. Darling alias Ding” with a flourish and a heart surrounding the nickname Ding. On rare occasions, this signature was further personalized by adding “Yours Truly” (see Figure 3).
Collecting Original Art And Prints
Over the years a number of advanced collectors have attempted to collect original artwork pertaining to the federal waterfowl stamps. The original art ranges from pencil sketches to the actual piece submitted in the design contest. While of historic importance and possessing tremendous eye appeal, these treasures are complicated to collect and require tremendous patience and persistence. For those who are up for it, the reward in terms of accomplishment can be immense.
The basic problem is that it is often difficult to know when the piece was actually executed by the artist. Pencil sketches are a necessary part of the preliminary design process. However, after the design was selected to be on a stamp – the artist would often receive requests for a copy that was quick and relatively inexpensive. Unless specifically labeled, it is often difficult to distinguish between preliminary sketches and sketches that were done subsequent to the stamp being issued.
To a lesser extent, the same applies to the more finished original art, including pieces that were ostensibly the actual contest entry. Often the artist received requests for copies of the submitted entry and almost as often they would comply with the requests. I am familiar with some originals where there are up to four similar copies. In some instances a different medium was used for a copy and that is far less confusing. In many cases the best opinion is rendered by provenance – the paper trail of prior ownership.
I plan to discuss the collecting of both original art and prints in depth in future blog posts. Since there is no original art for the 1934-35 issue in collector’s hands, let’s move on and talk a little about prints. Prints are essentially copies of the original art that are produced by the artist (later print publishers) in a limited number for sale to collectors, conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts.
The collecting of federal waterfowl stamp prints was at one time a huge part of the hobby and if the results from the recent Siegel auction of the Bill Webster (founder of Wild Wings) collection are any indication, it may be poised for a comeback. A surprisingly large number of serious collectors aggressively competed for the earlier black and white prints and realizations were very strong for most pieces into the early 1970s.
Prior to the 1974-75 issue by David Maass, the number of prints produced and sold by the artists were truly limited. Seldom did the number of prints in any one edition for one year exceed 500 and ranges of 100 to 250 was the norm for decades. Starting with the Maass issue, print publishers became more involved and began actively promoting the prints. This led to much larger edition sizes and removed the element of challenge from the mix.
The medium chosen to create the 1934-35 prints was etching, whereby the design was etched into a copper plate. Ultimately, the finished plate is inked and pressed into a piece of high quality paper. The ink is transferred to the paper, creating the copied design. Outside the edges of the image the paper is left with a mark indicating the edge of the metal plate. This mark is a combination of a depression that transitions into a slight raised or embossed roll. Beyond the roll extends blank paper in all four directions that originally (when pulled) ranged from two to ten inches.
Over the years, many of the early prints have been reframed, often many times. This has usually resulted in the blank margin being repeatedly trimmed to rid the print of unsightly glue or tape residue. It is important to note that if the existing blank border is less than one inch at the top, either side or below the signature (not the bottom of the image), the print is considered to be defective and its value is significantly reduced.
In the early days of federal print production, there often was not a preset edition size. The artist would pull prints on demand – maybe five one day, twenty the next and then none for two weeks before twelve more were created. The result is that although some artists kept excellent records and the known edition sizes are fairly accurate – some of these generally accepted sizes are, in fact, only estimates that have been handed down from from generation to generation of wildlife art dealers. In my opinion, some of these estimates are too low and some are too high.
For example, large numbers of prints for the 1936-37 issue were made over a long period of time and there are a lot of them around. How many, is very difficult to say. If I had to guess, I would say between 750 and 1,000. On the other hand, the first edition size for the 1952-53 print is estimated to be 250. I would be surprised if it was even half of that figure. In my experience, the 1952-53 print is very difficult to acquire.
With regard to the 1934-35 issue, the figure tossed around is usually 300 or so. I believe that is on the low side. Regardless, the image has always been extremely popular and the demand has always exceeded the supply. I have noticed that there are two different versions of the 1934-35 print and I do not believe this is common knowledge. In fact, there may have been more than one plate created.
The most common version of the print has a quarter inch space all around between the edge of the image and the edge of the plate – indicated by the depression/roll. Further, on all such prints that I have examined (over fifty), Darling penciled the title and his signature between the lower (slanted) image edge and the plate mark (see Figures 4 and 5).
The second version of this print (much less common) has virtually no space between the image edges and the plate mark. This necessitated that Darling title and sign the prints below the plate mark (see Figure 6).
Because they they were usually pulled on many different days over a period of many years – even decades, there are many interesting varieties to be found on the early (black and white) federal prints. Over time I shall present and discuss these varieties and welcome input from other collectors who feel they may have something different or “odd”. This is a field that is ripe for study and discussion.
The First Fish and Game Stamp – Conclusion
As we have seen in this five part series of posts, there are practically limitless possibilities for collecting federal waterfowl stamps. There are proofs, singles, plate number singles, plate number blocks, errors and varieties, different types of usages including on license and Form 3333, artist signed, original art and limited edition prints. It is even possible to spend a lifetime collecting, researching and exhibiting a single issue such as the 1934-35 Darling. I know several collectors who have done just that.
Although I used the 1934-35 issue to to present an illustrious overview for the hobby, another federal waterfowl stamp is my personal favorite. Chances are many of you feel the same way as there are so many marvelous stamps to choose from. I will share with you my favorite federal in a future post.
I felt like it was important to pay respect to Darling’s stamp before posting on other fish and game stamps. For without the first fish and game stamp – we would have no hobby to enjoy. Now that we have finished this homage, we can move on to what I hope you will find to be a truly exciting experience…