Rare Postage Stamps

It is natural that the recent sale of the very rarest stamp in the world, which fetched some 350,000 francs (which must be counted, with commission, as nearly seven thousand pounds), should have attracted considerable attention, and have directed the minds of many persons to that curious and interesting branch of collecting known as philately.

Many years ago, when quite a young man, I was intimately acquainted with an old lady, several of whose relations had gone out to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land in the earliest days of the settlement. She explained to me that she had kept all their letters. Each letter was in its original envelope, and there was a large box full of them. In proof thereof she showed me one envelope on which I recognized two of the very rarest of the large square New South Wales stamps. This, she told me, was by no means the earliest of the letters she had. I did my best to explain to her that she had a fortune in that box, but she was indignant at the idea of persons collecting such rubbish, or that she should make money out of a foible so absurd, and by the sale of envelopes which, despite my best endeavors, she said were of no importance. The next time I alluded to the matter she told me that, to avoid any further trouble, she had burned all the envelopes and retained the letters which, in her opinion, were the only things of interest. So ended her chance of a fortune.

On the other hand, to refer for a moment to the Ferrari sale, it ought to be noted that a stamp issued in British Guiana in 1850 was bought by Monsieur Ferrari twenty-six years ago for £1,450. It sold for £5,250; and another, a very rare stamp, of which Ferrari had the finest copy known, was sold to him in 1909 for £250 and fetched last year £1,112. Another example, although perhaps not quite so startling, is that of a triangular stamp of the Cape of Good Hope, which was bought for £I25 and sold for over £300; but an even more startling case is that in which a pair of Rumanian stamps were bought in 1904 and sold for £150. They then passed into Sir William Avery’s collection, from thence they came to Mr. Peckitt, and in 1921 they sold, in the Ferrari sale, for £I,222. Some of the choicest prices that were realized in 1921 were, for example, an 1856 British Guiana for 4 cents, which sold for £822; an 1851 stamp of the Hawaiian Islands for £2,000; a Post-office Mauritius for £2,177, and another Mauritius stamp for £888, while the finest known copy of the 1851 stamp of Hawaii fetched £3,900, and a superb one of Mauritius fetched £1,500. In the 1922 sale there were still more startling prices. The largest has already been mentioned, but another stamp fetched £2,190, issued by a postmaster in the States; one of something the same kind, £1,250; and a blue United States stamp, £1,626. These figures are, of course, exciting, but it must be borne in mind that they were for the very finest examples possible, in the very finest possible condition, and that they represented the very rarest stamps that are known to stamp collectors. In some cases I imagine that these prices will be even exceeded, because certain stamps that I saw some few years ago in Mr. Henry Duveen’s collection are even finer than the same examples that existed in the Ferrari collection ; and even poor stamps from an important collection fetch more money than the same would do if they were placed in an ordinary collection. There are always chances to be obtained, but I am afraid that few of them are likely to come to collectors in England, and to those that occur abroad there are disappointments equally in store with delights.

Mr. Phillips tells us a story of two keen stamp collectors who searched a small town that had done business with Mauritius, and hoped to find amongst old correspondence some good stamps. They did find two quite fine ones. To protect them they put them inside the back of their watch. Next morning the watch was stolen and, on being questioned, it seemed that the thief had thrown away the dirty pieces of paper into the fire, so that, although the watch was regained, the stamp collectors had lost their great find.

The story of one of the British Guiana stamps is very well known because it belonged to an old lady in the Colony who, promising her clergyman anything she could for rebuilding the church, found amongst her old correspondence the two stamps which made her by far the largest donor.

Like the collecting of butterflies, stamp collecting has been sneered at as a schoolboy’s hobby, but there are no schoolboys that I have ever heard of who are in a position to pay thousands of pounds for fine stamps, and, moreover, from the point of view of education, few collections can rival that of stamps. I know, when I was collecting years ago, I was taught a great deal about various remote places that I knew little of, and about various persons that I knew even less of, by reason of the portraits that appear on certain stamps, that I learned about currency and its varieties, about changes of dynasty, about delicate shades of color, about the existence of small republics and states of which I knew very little, and about rulers and colonies and postmasters and founders, of whom my ignorance was sublime. Ornithologists and students of natural history can find a pleasure in stamps from the animals and birds finely drawn upon them, the artist can often appreciate their beauty, the historian gains facts from them as to the foundation and the life of youthful colonies, the orientalist finds strange inscriptions to decipher, and that which was at one time thought to be more or less a harmless craze, should now be considered as a serious scientific study, with a great many advantages to recommend it.

Those of my readers who live in remote parts of the world may still have the opportunity of picking up quite choice treasures. Others who are wise enough to preserve the ephemeral productions, the stamps of new States and the stamps issued by various provincial authorities, in such countries as Russia, may yet live to reap a harvest of financial importance as well as considerable delight in forming a collection that has so many claims for recognition at the present day. They will also live in exceedingly good company, because the King is an enthusiastic collector and has a superb series of albums, many of which he has lent from time to time to meetings of philatelists.

The Prince of Wales follows his father’s example and is, no doubt, collecting stamps in his world tours, while one of his rivals is the newly-established King of Egypt. The two finest collections that I ever saw belong to Americans; one was at one time in the possession of the Earl of Crawford, who was President of the Philatelic Society, and whose albums were of wonderful interest; the other was the collection already referred to belonging to Mr. Henry Duveen.

There is a certain romance belonging to the Ferrari collection because it was bequeathed to the Berlin Museum, but it happened to be in France at the moment and was immediately placed under sequestration by the French Republic. An offer was at once made of fifteen million francs for the entire collection, but the first two portions fetched nearly six millions, and to all that has to be added the Government tax of 17 1⁄2 per cent. There is still a large portion of the collection to come into the market, and it is stated that there will be two or three more batches of it to be sold before it is exhausted.

The man who first gave me the idea of collecting was Mr. F. A. Philbrick, who was for some years the leader of British collectors and, as a man of substantial means, was able to bring together quite a good series. Philately is now so complete a science that it is useless for any person, unless possessed of very substantial means, to go in for it as a whole, but there are separate sections that are well worth studying, and persons of quite small means can appreciate the delight of making a collection, say, of Spanish stamps (a very strange series), of Australians, of Colonials, or of the various kinds of British stamps.

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