Perfect Imperfections

inverted-jenny-stamp

This is the Inverted Jenny. Printed in May 1918, it feaures a Curtiss JN-4 which is performing a quite unintended aerobatic manoeuvre. Buying one would cost at least half a million pounds today. It owes its extraordinary value to two factors: the obvious printing error and the fact that only one hundred exist. The location of all but two had been known for many years but in May 2016, one of the missing ones turned up. It sold at auction for $1.5m. The final one (known simply as ‘number 66’) is still out there somewhere.

In fact it’s worth keeping an eye out for mistakes on any postage stamp though – even modern ones – just in case you have a rarity on your hands. A recent article catalogued 32 different errors including colours, watermarks, perforations (or the lack thereof), paper, offsets and unprinted areas where a foreign object becomes embedded on the stamp. And in case you thought modern technology would make such mistakes even rarer, you might be surprised to learn that our current Queen’s reign is something of a Golden Age for stamp errors….

A 13p ‘Sweet Briar’ stamp issued to celebrate the Royal National Rose Society in 1976. A small number were printed without the price and all but three were destroyed before they reached the point of sale. One was sold in 2010 for £85,000.

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.

Objet d’Art?

France’s most beautiful stamp? Some people think so. The intricate engraving of an Aéropostale plane above central Paris was printed on paper of a quality normally reserved for bank-notes. Its high face value was significant enough to see it secured with a red burelage overprint (the wavy lines) to deter forgery.

The plane is a Caudron Simon, a version of which Saint-Exupéry was flying when he crashed in the desert in 1935, the year before the stamp was printed. Few stamps reward such close inspection as this one and it is a credit to the artist, Achille Ouvré, that so many iconic buildings are identifiable in what amounts to a miniscule work of art.

A British Cultural Icon and a Design Classic

The world’s first adhesive postage stamp is probably also the most recognised anywhere in the world. Featuring a profile of queen Victoria in 1840 when she was just 20, this image remained the same until her death aged 81. Edges often appear lopsided as they were printed in a sheet and cut up by hand and the red franking mark proved easy to rub off so was soon replaced. Ultimately, almost 70 million Penny Blacks were printed but their considerable age means only limited number survive. To answer the obvious question, mint ones go for upwards of £3,000 but you can usually add a used one to your collection for about £100. And, yes, you can usually source one at Charing Cross Collectors Market every Saturday.

Rocketmail!

Bird? No.

Plane? No.

Original franked letter strapped to a gunpowder rocket and fired over a mountain range in the Eastern Himalayas in 1935? Oh yes.

This remarkable relic of postage history was the brainchild of one Stephen Hector Taylor-Smith, an Indian aerospace engineer who was officially authorised by the king of Sikkim to pioneer mail delivery by rocket. Although the experiment worked, this was a short-lived method (as a few of the rockets exploded, incinerating the ‘rocketgrams’) so examples like this are much sought after. The only ordinary thing about this is where you might find it…. Charing Cross Market – the usual place for discerning collectors. Every Saturday 7am – 3pm.

Operation Cornflakes

One of our stallholders has a terrific bit of philatelic history for sale. Everyone’s familiar with the Hitlerian profile stamps of the Third Reich but few have seen the British secret service’s attempt to undermine German morale with the forgeries on the right. Operation Cornflakes saw these death’s head “FUTSCHES REICH” (Destroyed Empire) stamps used on fake mail created in its thousands and dropped on bombed mail trains. The plan was for this to be confused as the real thing and later delivered to addresses around the empire, thereby lowering morale. Although largely ineffective, it’s another stamp with a story to tell. You’ll find many more this Saturday at Charing Cross Collectors Market. See you there.