The World of Stamps & Stamp Collecting - Chapter Eight

8. Rarities

Rarities attract the most attention in the stamp world. They are really no more interesting than common stamps, but they receive more press. Dollar values are something that everyone can understand. Philatelic speakers who go before nonphilatelic groups to talk about philately and stamp investing usually find themselves ignored until dollar amounts are put on the items. Then the speaker finds an active interest: “$10,000 for that, wow!”

Probably the foremost popular rarities of philately are the 1918 United States Airmail Invert, the 1852 British Guiana One Cent Magenta, the two-cent Hawaiian Missionaries, and the Mauritius “Post Office.”

The Airmail Invert

Few people get the kind of shock William Robey did one day in 1918 when he walked up to the stamp counter at the Washington Post Office and asked for the best centered sheet of the new twenty-four-cent Airmail stamp that they had. Robey was a stamp collector, though as a twenty-six-year-old stockbroker's clerk he had little money for his hobby. But he had made arrangements with friends to send them covers franked with the new stamp, along with some mint copies from the sheet he was going to buy. They never got them.

The sheet that the postal clerk handed to Robey had the center inverted. Robey saw it right away; the clerk did not. United States law is very clear on this matter. Anything that you buy from the post office is yours to keep, but if the postal clerk discovers the error before you have paid for the item, he is required to take it off sale and return it to the postal inspectors. Robey's hands shook as he paid for the sheet. After removing it from the counter, he asked the clerk if he had any more items like this one, with the airplane upside down. The clerk asked him for the sheet back, now discovering the error. When Robey refused, the clerk called his superior. Soon post offices from New York to Washington were closed while clerks shuffled through stacks of stamps attempting to find additional error sheets to that they could be destroyed before issuing to the public.

The 1918 Airmail invert was not the first inverted-center stamp that the government ever unintentionally produced. Three values of the 1869 issue and three values of the 1901 Pan American Exposition issue are known inverted, and most of the previous inverts are scarcer, in some cases far scarcer, than the 1918 Airmail invert. But there is something spectacular about this invert. It has an immediate appeal. And remember, most people in 1918 did not trust airplanes anyway.

Robey immediately announced his discovery, and was inundated with offers to buy the sheet. He wasn't shy about soliciting them, either. He took a trip from Washington to New York, stopping at stamp dealers along the way, and receiving offers for the sheet. Robey finally sold the sheet for $15,000, a fabulous sum in that day for an error of a stamp still in production. The buyer was Eugene Klein, the famous Philadelphia stamp dealer.

When a stamp is in production, as the 1918 Airmail invert was, there is no way of determining how many of the errors might turn up. As Klein laid out his $15,000 for the sheet of 100, or $150 per stamp, at a time when only a few of the world's greatest rarities sold for more, he was betting that no more sheets of the error would be found. Klein had more faith in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing quality control than we have today. And Robey? After he got his $15,000 for the sheet for which he paid $24, he became a philatelic celebrity of sorts, speaking at stamp clubs, telling his story over and over again.

No one really knows what Klein had in mind in buying the sheet. He promptly took out an advertisement in a tamp magazine offering the error for sale as singles, indicating a desire to break up the sheet. The price was $250 for a single and $ 175 for a straight-edged single. But the price at which they were offered would have netted him only a small margin of return considering the amount of work involved in making 100 sales. Perhaps Klein wanted the publicity. Or perhaps he wanted to attract the one buyer of stamps who had the resources and inclination to purchase the sheet. Colonel Ned Green was the son of Hetty Green, the famous financier. (Hetty Green was a noted miser: when Ned Green was young, he had a leg infection and Hetty refused to take him to a competent specialist as she did not wish to spend the money. Green lost his leg!) Green was an avid collector of everything from yachts to women. One of his more inexpensive hobbies was stamps. He heard of the sheet, and after the advertisement offering the stamp for sale as singles had appeared, but before the sheet had been broken up, a private sale was arranged. Green bought the sheet for $20,000.

Klein was a reliable, decent sort of man, perhaps the best dealer of his day. He convinced Green to break the sheet, and to slowly offer some of the stamps for sale, a move not naturally in Green's hoarding disposition. Klein's reasoning was twofold: he wanted collectors to have the opportunity to own this rarity; and secondly, without any activity in buying and selling fo the stamp, Klein told Green that he risked losing out on his investment as the error would soon fall from public view and desirability. This second argument impressed Green (who was after all Hetty Green's son) and the sheet was broken up into a variety of blacks and singles. Green numbered each stamp lightly in pencil on the back, corresponding to its position, moving across the top row from left to right, then continuing in the same way down the sheet. Only about 85 of the 100 stamps can now be accounted for. No doubt some of the remaining items are owned by philatelists who view anonymity as the best protection against theft. A block of four was stolen in 1955 while it was on display. But some of the stamps-- and we don't know how many-- have been lost. Some say they sunk on one of Green's yachts; and others report that Green's collecting room resembled a barn, where perhaps a few were simply thrown away by some over-diligent maid.

Errors are made by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing every year. The most common of these are perforation errors, either adding an extra row of perfs where they shouldn't be (not an important error), or omitting a row where there should be one (an important error). Coil stamps, that is, stamps issued in rolls, are the stamps that are most often found with missing perforations. This is because their being wound in rolls makes it difficult for the quality inspectors to see whether they have been perforated. Imperforate coils sell for between $15 and $250 a pair, depending on the scarcity of the item. A collector must have a pair to prove that the coil is imperforate. This is insisted upon because a single stamp could just be clipped down to resemble an imperf. Color errors and inverts are far more scarce, but even modern color errors that are scarcer than the Airmail invert have trouble selling for more than about $1,000 per stamp. The Airmail invert has a history of desirability that these other items do not.

Stamp dealers are constantly besieged with calls from collectors and noncollectors alike who have bought something funny from the post office. Most of the items are minor perforation or color shifts. A perforation shift is a stamp where the perforations are not where they should be. A color shift is a misregistration of the colors so that the design appears to be fuzzy. Unless a shift creates a bizarre effect, such items do not find favor with philatelists. But suppose you find a real error, a missing color, or even an invert. Prudent stamp dealers advise clients who do discover such things to exercise extreme patience and care in disposing of them. The reason for this is that there are few Eugene Kleins around any more. Until dealers know how many of a given error will surface, they will be reluctant to pay a great deal for it. In modern times, some errors have come out in huge quantities. Most buyers assumed an error will be common until the cumulative data of a few years proves otherwise.

When speaking about errors, collectors must keep in mind the difference between errors of execution, which are rare, and errors of design, which are not. Sometimes a designer improperly researches his subject and a person is shown in a setting that is historically incorrect. Such historical anacronisms abound on stamps, as do wrong names for places and pictures. But unless the stamp-issuing authority ceases production once the issue is discovered, and corrects it, the error of design in and of itself does not cause the stamp to be rare.

The Airmail invert is an error of execution, not of design. Its price, as America's most popular stamp, has been meteoric. By 1939, a copy had realized $4,100. During the war years, the stamp market was relatively quiescent as the country had more on its mind than hobbies, no matter how fascinating. By 1969, the stamp was selling in the $30,000 range. Five years later saw it in the high $40,000s. In 1978, the first copy sold for $100,000, and in 1980, a block of four that had sold four years before at $170,000 was traded for half a million dollars. Prices of Airmail inverts, like all stamps, are dependent on the quality of the specimen. Defective or straight-edged copies bring about half the price of perfect ones.

Paying the price of a nice house for a tiny piece of paper strikes many people as odd. In 1918, when Green bought the entire sheet of 100 for $20,000, the New York Times stated editorially what most noncollectors have thought more than once: "At this time there are several better uses for $20,000 than the purchase of a set of stamps which, except for a printer's error, would be worth just $24 in the open market." Still, there is something exciting about owning something of which fewer than sixty can be bought (there are the "lost" inverts, and about twenty-five in institutions). And the Airmail invert, expensive as it is, cannot even lay claim to being the most expensive stamp in the world. That honor belongs to our next specimen.

The British Guiana One Cent Magenta

In April of 1980 the unique One Cent Magenta sold at auction for $935,000 ($850,000 plus 10 percent buyer's commission). The first price that it traded for between philatelists was 6 shillings or about 50 cents. And the man who bought the stamp for that price only did so because the seller was a young boy and he wished to further the youngster's interest in philately. Neither of the two, the discoverer or the first buyer, knew its rarity or its story.

British Guiana, a small country that is now part of Guyana on the northeast coast of South America, had since 1853 ordered its stamps from the Waterlow printing firm in London. In early 1856, the colony apparently ran out of stamps. This simple occurrence is all that we know with certainty, and we know it because the one-cent and the four-cent stamps that Waterlow supplied are not found cancelled from February until October 1856, no doubt the period during which the regular issue was out of stock and on reorder. Beyond this, all information on the world's rarest stamp has been pieced together from what seems likely.

When the post office ran out of stamps, it turned to the only printer of any status in the colony, the firm of Baum & Dallas who printed the Official Gazzette, the newspaper of Demerara (now Georgetown), capital of British Guiana. Even by printing standards of the 1850s, Baum & Dallas were backwater printers. They had no engraving capacity and had a hand press. Stamps were ordered with newspaper type letters. The picture of the sailing ship on the stamp is a stock cut that Baum & Dallas pilfered from the "Shipping News" page of their newspaper. The stamps present a level of crudity in their execution that is almost unrivaled in philately. The one cent and four cent are textbook examples of ugly stamps, poorly designed and executed. But they are rare. The one cent to date is unique and the four cent has but a few specimens.

The one cent was found by a child named Vaughn, who in later years remembered it as being on a small letter from which he had soaked it off. This is the only part of the British Guiana rarity saga that is probably wrong. The one cent paid the newspaper rate, so the likelihood is that Vaughn found it on a wrapper of some kind, not an envelope. The use of the one cent on newspapers or newspaper wrappers accounts for its rarity-- even if as many one-cent stamps were sold as were four-cent stamps, wrappers were rarely saved and stamps so used in the pre-1870 period are generally quite scarce. Vaughn did not even find the stamp until 1872, sixteen years after it was issued. He was unimpressed with the specimen; it was clipped diagonally and faded.

The man to whom Vaughn sold the stamp was the most prominent collector of British Guiana, a Mr. N. R. McKinnon. McKinnon kept the stamp for about five years, gradually becoming aware of its scarcity until his research led him to believe that it might well be unique. He sold the collection, including the One Cent Magenta, to an English dealer for 120 pounds. The dealer, Thomas Ridpath of Liverpool, sold the British Guiana One Cent Magenta to the one collector with the means and desire for the stamp-- Baron Philipp La Renotiere Von Ferrary-- for a sum believed to be in the neighborhood for 150 pounds.

The British Guiana One Cent Magenta's fame rests on its distinction of having realized the greatest sum at the Ferrary sales held after World War I. Ferrary's collection was an achievement; virtually every rarity of any stature was included, often in blocks and on cover as well. There were hundreds of volumes. Numerous other stamps elicted interest during the Ferrary sales, but the most attention was paid to the British Guiana. Including a bidder's tax, the stamp realized over $30,000, which when you compare it to the $3,000 realized for the Sweden 3-skilling banco error of color (also unique), shows the awe in which this stamp was held.

At this time, there were several major collectors in the world with the means and the interest to purchase this stamp. But foremost among them were Arthur Hind and Maurice Burrus. Hind was a New York State industrialist; Burrus controlled tobacco in Belgium. When the lot opened up on the floor, the bidding was quite hesitant. Then the war began between Burrus and Hind's agent: $8,000-- $10,000-- $15,0000-- $30,000; and there it stopped. The auctioneer looked once at both the buyers, and twice, sold! Both bidders claimed victory as theroom hushed. It was unclear, even to the auctioneer, who had given the last bid. He was about to reopen the lot, which might well have gone to even dizzier heights, had not Burrus then bowed out and allowed Hind's agent to buy the stamp.

In 1951, nearly thirty years after Burrus had attempted to claim the stamp for $30,000, the famous collector publicly made a charge that the British Guiana One Cent Magenta was in reality a fake, made up of a four-cent magent which had had the "FOUR" and the "S" at the end of "CENTS" chemically removed and a "ONE" inserted. Mr. Burrus had made these charges privately prior to the 1937 resale of the stamp when it was submitted for expertization to the Royal Philatelic Society. The stamp was examined in every way possible. The opinion of the greatest collegium of experts was that the work of the sort that Burrus suggested could not have been done on this stamp, and that the stamp was and is unquestionably genuine. It seems odd that Burrus would have bid on a stamp that he believed to be a forgery, or that the feisty Belgian would have waited fifteen years after he lost the stamp to first make his claim. To these charges he replied that he bid on the stamp because before the auction he had overheard Hind's agent talking about what a high bid he had on the stamp and, as a tease, he decided to run it up. Then, he said, out of deference to its owner, he decided to make no claim about the stamp's stature until Mr. Hind was dead.

After Hind's death, the British Guiana remained unsold for a period of time. In about 1939 the stamp was sold to Frederick Small, for a sum rumored to be around $50,000. Small was not known to be the owner of the stamp until he sold it in 1970. The British Guiana One Cent Magenta was then purchased for $240,000 by a group of Pennsylvania investors who, like Small, had little interest in philately. They sold it in 1980 for $935,000 (850,000 plus a 10 percent buyer's premium) and currently the new owner is unknown.

The Mauritius “Post Office”

In 1847, Mauritius was the fifth country in the world to issue stamps. The British had taken over the island only thirty-seven years before, in 1810, largely as a result of the fact that the French had used the island as a base to interrupt British shipments to and from India during wartime. The population of the colony was French, Creole, and Indian; English, though spoken by government officials, was not the language of the people.

The government order that called for stamps fixed the postage rates at 2 pence for internal letters and1 penny for intra-city letters. The stamps were crudely engraved, as the only person in the colony with any experience in engraving was a partially blind watchmaker who had never been a professional engraver. Five hundred of each value were ordered and, after some delay, delivered. In the left-hand panel, the engraver put the words "POST OFFICE" rather than "POST PAID" as the stamps were ordered. When the stamps were reordered, the wording was changed to "POST PAID" and it accounts for their extreme rarity. However, the "POST OFFICE" stamps were needed quickly, because the Governor's wife, Lady Gomm, was holding a fancy-dress bal at Goverment House adnthe stamps were wanted to send out the invitations.

Those that Lady Gomm did not use were place don public sale, and due to the popularity of the innovation, the stamps sold out very quickly. Most were used locally, a few on letters to France and at least one to India. Of the approximately thirty specimens of the Post Office Mauritius, slightly more than half are the One Penny Red, and the remainder are the Two Penny Blue. Oddly, the stamps were not discovered until 1864, by a French collector who traded them away because her albums did not have a space for them. In 1865 the items ended up, as did so many items at the middle of the last century, in the stock of the Belgian dealer Moens. Moens bought the original One Penny and Two Penny for about $35-- a fabulous sum in 1865 for postage stamps-- and sold them a few months later for about $100, as the world gasped at what lengths stamp collectors would go to satisfy their mania. Today, the stamps would sell together for $500,000.

In stamp collecting there are a number of rarities that sell for comparatively small sums. In certain specialized areas of philately, the collectors do not bid up to high levels on even the greatest rarities. Some town cancellations on early United States stamps and some perforation varieties are virtually unique, yet they sell for extremely modest sums. A rare item is an expensive item only if it is desired by a wide group of collectors and only if it has a history of high prices. Rarity alone does not make high price.

Indeed, even within the narrow confines of the high-priced rarities themselves (the megabuck wonders, as they may well be called), there is great inequity in price. The Airmail invert, for which there are eighty-five or so known examples extant, sells for about the same as one of the two Mauritius stamps, of each of which only about fifteen are known. And indeed, the very rare Z grills of the United States-- major stamps from a major collecting country-- sell for about the same as the Airmail invert, despite the fact that they are each at least about twenty times as rare.

Obviously, supply and demand affect prices, but that says so much that it says nearly nothing. Those contemplating the purchase of a high-price rarity would be wise to research the price trends and history of the specific stamp. For philately has its fashions, too, and what one generation desires another may well eschew.

The Hawaiian Missionaries

Christian missionaries probably had more success in Hawaii than anywhere else in the world. The first missionaries came to the islands in 1820, and by 1825, the Hawaiian king recognized the ten commandments as the basis of his legal system. Soon the Hawaiian language was formulated as a written discipline by the missionaries, and as further testimony to their zeal, in 1835 the islands outlawed public drunkenness.

The islanders were essentially an agricultural people, whose polytheistic religon was filled with idols and taboos. The early Hawaiian concept of an afterlife was peculiarly unpleasant: most Hawaiians believed that evil spirits slowly ate them after death. The missionaries, besides offering education and law, gave the Hawaiians a religion that would at least provide a pleasant afterlife for people who had been good. The new religion was embraced, and within thirty years, only vestiges of the previous religion remained.

An agrarian society has little need for government mail service, and a society that has not learned to write has even less. This was the situation in Hawaii before the missionaries came. But the missionaries did require a post, both to communicate with each other from island to island and to communicate with family, friends, and coworkers back home. The first stamps were produced under a postal reform act of 1851 and were issued in October of that year. Three stamps were produced: a two cent, five cent, and thirteen cent. The two-cent and five-cent tamps, when used to the United States, had to have additional United States stamps applied to them or else they would arrive postage due. The thirteen-cent stamp would pay the postage through, though money would later be exchanged between the United States and Hawaiian postal services, and the stamp would be cancelled "US Hawaiian Postage Paid." All three of these stamps are called the Hawaiian Missionaries, because they are found exclusively on missionary correspondence.

The three stamps were printed on an extremely thin, hard paper called pelure by philatelists; pelure paper resembles an onion skin as much as it does paper, and it is extremely brittle. Although the missionary stamps were issued in 1851, they were unknown to the community of philatelists until 1864. Even then, many philatelists considered their status to be questionable, until information on their issuance was ferreted out of Hawaii some years later. The jury was out on the two-cent Hawaii, by far the rarest of the three, until the mid-1890s.

One of philately's most fascinating stories relates to the two-cent missionary. (And it does not stem from the fertile brain of Agath Christie, either!) In June of 1892, a French collector, Mr. Gaston Leroux, was discovered murdered. There was no sign of a break-in at his Paris apartment, and though the drawers of his desk appeared to be rifled through, there was no evidence that any of Leroux's considerable possessions had been taken. The apartment was searched and researched for clues until finally the motive for the crime was discovered-- Leroux's two-cent Hawaiian was missing from his collection.

Even in 1892, a two-cent Hawaiian was worth about $2,000. Police fanned out through the city, checking dealers' shops and notable collectors to see if anyone had been offered teh stamp. Suspicion (the reasons are not clear) fell on another prominent collector, one Hector Giroux. A detective of the police force pretended he was a collector, joined the Paris Society, learned about stamps, and eventually befriend Giroux. After some months, the detective feigned an especial interest in the rare Hawaiian Missionaries, particularly the precious two cent. Soon the pride of the collector Giroux overcame his prudence and he showed the policeman the two-cent Missionary. He was arrested and eventually confessed to the crime. Giroux had the money to buy the stamp, he said, but Leroux would not sell.

Philatelists have long wondered whether Giroux should have been made to stand trial. Among a jury of collectors, "temporary philatelic insanity" would have been a reasonable defense for the crime. As stamps from a United States possession, the Hawaiian Missionaries have great popularity, and of the fourteen specimens that are known of the two cent, only about half now exist outside philatelic museums and so can be bought by a collector. In November of 1980, two examples of the two cent were sold from the collection of Royohei Ishakawa, who in recent years has created perhaps the finest United States and United States-related stamp collections. Both copies realized over $200,000 when they were sold, which represents an increase of 100 times the 1900 price.