Month: June 2019
Too hot to handle
Although the naked human body had appeared relatively often in postage stamps of many different countries before the 1950s, this had mostly taken the idealised form of classical sculpture. Goya’s 1800 realistic painting of an actual woman (albeit one whose identity is still the subject of debate) was regarded as wholly profane and would be confiscated by the Spanish authorities in 1813.
In a parallel which says much about how slowly attitudes changed before the digital age, the image would once again be the subject of a ban over a century later. This time, though, the protector of public decency was the US Mail.
An engraving of the naked maja had been printed on three Spanish postage stamps in June 1930. It is believed that about 240,000 of the three different denominations were printed. They were only valid for postage for three days so a cancelled example is quite uncommon. Even more uncommon was the response of the then US Mail which, later that year, decided to return any post bearing the stamp to its sender. More rare still to the point of non-existence is any such example of a letter returned on these grounds. So there’s certainly something to keep an eye out for.
Certainly not the most valuable object by weight in the known universe
It’s second. Antimatter is first at well over £20 billion per gram. Yet at just 0.02675g, the Swedish Treskilling Yellow is well ahead of its nearest rival, the isotope Californium 252. Last sold (for an undisclosed amount but believed to be well over £3 million) in 2013, this stamp derives its exceptional value from the fact that there is only one known example in existence. It was recently on display at Stampex in Sweden where one of our dealers, Gabriel Cohen, saw it.
A brief printing error sometime in 1857 saw what should have been a blue-green three skilling stamp produced in yellow-orange. It was thought that all the misprinted stamps were destroyed but thirty years later a young collector found one on the cover of a letter in his grandmother’s attic. He sold it to a fellow collector for the equivalent of what would be a couple of pounds today. Its auction history ever since then has set several records.
Although the title for the most expensive stamp ever sold still belongs to the British Guiana 1c Magenta (sold for £7.5m in 2014), its greater weight gives the Swedish contender the edge for now. However, the fact that just one copy of either stamp exists makes this a needless comparison. In that sense, they are both quite priceless – unless you happen to have any bags of antimatter lying around of course.
Although the Treskilling Yellow certainly won’t be on sale at the Market tomorrow, who knows what else you might discover.
Three Point Turn
The postage stamp as a concept was just 13 years old when this innovative design emerged in 1853. Now commonly known as the Cape Triangular, this was the first adhesive stamp in Africa and the first three sided stamp anywhere in the world. This daring design was a source of pride for the colony’s governor but it arose out of a more mundane consideration. Some postal workers in rural areas were illiterate so this was an easy way to distinguish domestic mail from international post.
Today variations of these early triangular stamps are some of the most sought after and valuable in the world. A single ‘woodblock’ misprinted Cape Triangular would be worth well over £30,000. They certainly made a huge difference to the fortunes of one early collector who snapped a number of them up at a bargain price. His name was Stanley Gibbons.
Death from Above
Somebody once said that you can tell humanity is making progress because every new war that comes along they find a new way of killing you. The fléchette (Fr. ‘dart’) was one of the more original methods adopted by nascent air forces of all the main combatants in World War I.
Bucket loads of pointed steel darts were emptied over enemy troop concentrations to cause maximum death and injury. First used by the French, they were soon copied by the Germans who enjoyed inscribing them with the phrase “Copied from France, made in Germany”. It was estimated that the tip of a single dart dropped from sufficient altitude would generate a force of 200kg. Small wonder that the stoutest metal helmets were no match for a direct hit, often piercing some poor unfortunate from head to foot.
The greater accuracy and power of conventional air-dropped explosives meant that they were soon obsolete but these were a much-feared weapon on account of their silent arrival giving soldiers no warning. An interesting footnote to their use can be seen in the postcard (below) of 1914 showing the devastation wrought by some fléchettes on the Germans. This may have bolstered contemporary stories about the Angel of Mons.
The legend, described by Arthur Machen in a newspaper story entitled ‘The Bowmen’ was supposedly based on accounts he’d heard from retreating British soldiers. One desperate Tommy is said to have called on the spirit of Saint George to help. An army of phantom bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt then appeared and protected their rearguard with volleys of arrows fired at the enemy. Of course, it’s all very fanciful propagandist nonsense but no less charming for all that.