Variations on a Theme by Mail

Anyone starting out as a collector of stamps is often advised to specialise in a particular theme. Because the field is so vast, it is easy to flounder and lose one’s way. Choosing a theme for one’s collection is a much more certain way to master your field and even gain a degree of authority.

While some philatelists focus on the postal output of a particular country, properly speaking, this isn’t thematic or topical collecting. Often a collector will look to his or her existing interests to decide on a specialism. Cats, dogs, ships, spaceships, stamps on stamps, windmills, plants, chess, elephants, poets, war…the scope is enormous. And, in fact, such is the popularity of certain themes as subjects for stamps (birds, for example) that it’s probably a good idea to narrow the field further – flightless or aquatic birds perhaps. More offbeat ideas include crash mail (salvaged from airplane crashes), rocket mail (exactly what it says on the tin!) and stamps issued by an occupying power.

In the end, no matter how niche your choice, it is unlikely that you will be the only interested philatelist in this, the world’s most popular hobby. However, the chances are good that no-one else in the Dog and Duck this Friday will be in a position to argue with your contention that the 1930 USPS Zeppelin airmail issue remains the gold standard for stamps featuring airships.

The Museum of Culture in Your Stamp Album

While the average age of philatelists continues to rise, there is good reason not to exaggerate reports of its death. It remains the world’s number one collecting hobby for good reason. Certainly a generation is growing up who may one day be called on to reminisce about the time when they actually bought and used stamps at a post office. Yet while technology may indeed kill off the postage stamp for good, that passing will only increase its appeal as a link to our shared history.

Few tokens of a nation’s past are as revealing as its stamps and they can almost be viewed as miniature exhibits of a unique museum of culture. A stamp’s provenance, usage, iconography and even its price give us clues to, among other things, a country’s values, art, politics, geography, natural history and economy.

Indeed, as a recent Guardian article noted, many see them as works of art in their own right, uniquely placed to appeal to the Instagram generation. Suzanne Rae actually creates art which celebrate stamps as a medium on her site Art Stamped while John Simper, in his Twitter account @Philatelovely, has been posting fine examples daily in his Stamp of the Day feature for well over a year now.

Accompanying this post are a beautifully engraved US postage stamp ‘Western Cattle in Storm’, an optimistic $2-60 Zeppelin stamp from 1930 and a finely detailed UK issue celebrating the Postal Union Congress of 1929.

StampEx Goes Ahead – Online

The biannual major stamp fair that is StampEx will be held online this Autumn. It’s a great way to take part in Britain’s biggest philately event without the expense or inconvenience of having to travel and you can drop in on any of the ten virtual talks which take place over the festival’s three days of events (1st to 3rd October). As their website puts it, “This is Stampex but not as you know it. Grab a cup of tea and get comfy as you connect with friends and enjoy a ‘day out’ from the comfort of your own home.”

Some of the world’s best philatelic collections will be displayed courtesy of The Museum of Philately and Karl Louis will be involved, asking you to send in stamps for him to review and advise on their provenance. Younger collectors are catered for in the Stamp Active section with lots of engaging activities for them to get involved with. There’s genuinely something for everyone so head over to https://stampex.vfairs.com/ to register. It’s free. You just sign up with your email address then login to attend.

Attendance (online this year) might be higher than ever.

Of course, our traders will be on hand as ever this Saturday and every Saturday at Charing Cross Collectors Market to advise and show off their finds so you can still get the excitement of face-to-face stamp collecting along with all the online action from Stampex over the following few days.

41 cents face value, cost to USPS: $3.5m

statue liberty stamp

Errors in the printing of postage stamps have cropped up in this blog before, not least because they are usually spotted early doors and so their rarity adds extra value. This is most certainly not the case here.

When the United States Postal Service began looking for the subject of a new ‘Forever’ stamp in 2010, it was hard to get away from the face of New York’s most iconic monument. They sourced an image from a library in Texas but ,unfortunately, it wasn’t the Liberty.

The image was of a much smaller statue in Las Vegas outside New York, New York (where else!) and designed by Robert Davidson. In 2013 he sued for infringement of copyright stating that his version was “more feminine” and some people even found her more “sultry” and even “sexier” than her original inspiration. The court found in his favour and he was awarded $3.5m.

USPS made light of the error, celebrating the heightened interest in stamps which the case had caused but they have every right to see it as a landmark. It is, by some way, the biggest postage stamp error in history with almost 5 billion imprints.

Image credits: left, Wikipedia – right, Flickr

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.