Trench Art Matchbox Covers

It may seem incredible to us now but only a hundred years ago smoking was widely regarded as benificial to health. Governments praised its effects on morale whilst also pointing to the soothing effects of lighting up after periods of action or enduring intense bombardments. There is no doubt that it encouraged mateyness – sharing a fag being an easy way to strike up friendships and official estimates of December 1914 state that over 96% of British soldiers were smokers. At a time before automatic lighters, that meant looking after your matches as much as your smokes – no easy job in a muddy trench for weeks at a time.

Many soldiers stored their matchboxes in brass or copper covers like those pictured so they wouldn’t be crushed in a pocket. Often, having lots of time on their hands, they would personalise or decorate them in some way. The most valuable show the chap’s name and service number as their war record can then be confirmed with the national archives.

The aluminium(?) cover in the photo is unusual in that it shows a German prisoner of war pushing a loaded wheelbarrow below the words “comm on Fritz”. It belonged to “R J Elliott of 322 Q Coy” – Q Company being the poison gas unit of the Royal Engineers. Typical examples sell for £15 – £20 but this one is more likely to fetch three times that.

A footnote to this item is the popular superstition that it is bad luck to light three cigarettes from one match. This is supposed to have originated during the Great War when an enemy sniper would be alerted to a target’s location as the first cigarette is lit, ready his rifle and adjust range for the second before taking aim and firing at the third. It’s a neat story and would seem to make a lot of sense. Yet no references to the bad luck associated with “three on a match” have been found before 1919 so there goes another myth!

Lone Star State Visitors

Cementing Texas’ reputation as ‘the friendly state’, Paige Henderson and Karen Preece paid us a visit last Saturday. Old hands at sightseeing in the UK and veteran antique market enthusiasts, they were delighted to find Charing Cross Collectors Market in the heart of London. Both left with special souvenirs of their visit: Paige, on the left, found a Victorian silver spoon while Karen picked up its Georgian vintage counterpart. “We’ll definitely be coming back and we’ll bring our husbands next time – they’ll love it!”

WWII ‘blood chit’

WWII blood chit

Today’s new phrase comes courtesy of this RAF ‘blood chit’. Issued to airmen during the Burma campaign, this 29 x 45 cm piece of silk could be the difference between life and death if you were brought down over enemy-held territory. In seventeen different languages, it states “Dear Friend, I am an Allied fighter. I did not come here to do any harm to you who are my friends. I only want to do harm to the Japanese and chase them away from this country as quickly as possible. If you assist me, my Government will sufficiently reward you when the Japanese are driven away.”

Blood chits were first issued systematically by the British during the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1842 but have since become standard issue for certain personnel deemed to be at risk of becoming isolated in hostile territory. They were widely used by US aircrew during the Korean and Vietnam conflict and are still issued today. However, because there were cases of hostile governments torturing and killing anyone – and even their families – involved in offering such assistance, successful examples of their use are now classified.

Hidden Treasure

Originally covered in bitumen, this large alloy plaque has been cleaned up and restored to show U421 on active service. Such plaques were originally made or bought for someone in the Kriegsmarine and many have a piece of iron wire on the reverse for hanging. U421 was part of the 9th flotilla known as the Laughing Swordfish which included U96, featured in TV series Das Boot.

It was commissioned on 13th January 1943 under Leutnant zur See Hans Kolbus and took part in six group attacks on convoys in Dec of that year. The freighter with its back broken on the horizon may refer to one of these events. U421 ended its days in the French port of Toulon on 29 April 1944 when it was sunk during a USAF air raid.

A Gloriously Flamboyant Breach of Protocol

UK collectors will be familiar with this 1999 stamp issued as part of the Royal Mail’s Milennium series featuring Great Britons form all walks of life but not everyone remembers the controversy it caused. Convention dictates that the only living people who may be depicted on British stamps are members of the Royal Family (although Sir Francis Chichester is shown as a tiny silhouette on his yacht in 1967).  Freddie had died in 1991 so this wasn’t a problem.  His drummer Roger Taylor was and is very much alive though and he can be dimly made out in the background.  In its defence, the Royal Mail cited the Queen’s personal approval of every stamp before it is issued so presumably Her Majesty appreciated the nice parallel with the band’s name.

Less well known still is the fact that the Queen frontman was himself a keen stamp collector in his childhood. Born in what was then Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania), he specialised in stamps of his homeland as well as issues from Britain, Aden and Monaco.  Following his death, the collection was bought by the UK Postal Museum where it remains today.  

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.

Postcard image courtesy of
https://www.worldwar1postcards.com/3-the-flechette.php

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.

Defiance in defeat

Made by Italian fascist prisoners of war for the Communist May Day celebration of 1947, few of these pressed tin badges survive. The front shows a torch above symbols of agriculture and industry but the silhouette of the reverse is very clearly a nod at the former dictator whose title of choice was “His Excellency Benito Mussolini, Head of Government, Leader of Fascism and Founder of the Empire”. The badges were freely sold until the authorities were told of the deception. They collected up as many as they could and destroyed them so this is quite a rare find – just another example of the market’s status as a go-to destination for collectables and antiques of all kinds.