Edit: This post was written as an auction preview. It has been retained in that form, with the results added after each item.
This is Part 2 of my coverage of philatelic bloodsport in June 2020. Part 1 covered Phoenix Auctions’ sale of a top collection of Australia’s ‘Kangaroo and Map’ series. Click here to read the preview and find out what happened!
Q: Why read about auction items that sell for much more than you’ll ever be able to afford?
A: Good question, me. Here’s your answer.
The items I’m featuring here are top-shelf philatelic rarities. They’re hard to get, but they’re necessary to own if one is trying to build a best-of-kind collection in certain areas of classical philately. Once you own all the best stuff, you put it into a competitive exhibit, and people give you awards.
As the rarity of these items becomes recognized, their value increases, and they attract a few other kinds of collectors. There are those who get a thrill from owning a rare stamp, even if they have no intention to exhibit. And there are those who are simply attracted by the value alone: the investors. They see valuable stamps as security, or ideally, as an opportunity for profit.
The end result is that these stamps fetch the kind of prices that could never be paid by 99.99% of readers of this article, and 100% of its writer.
On top of that, this material is usually very esoteric. It’s high-end specialist gear. You never see million-dollar prices for material like ‘Eloise’s collection of cats on stamps’.
So, why read this article? For the stories. And, through the stories: the learning. And, through the learning: the chance that you might, one day, find that magical item for which someone is prepared to pay a zillion dollars.
There are the stories about the history and development of postal services. Could you name the first colony in the then British Empire to issue postage stamps after the mother country? You’d expect it to be a heavy hitter like India, Canada, or Australia. But no, it was the humble Indian Ocean island colony of Mauritius. British Commonwealth is a hugely popular collecting field – especially among a certain demographic *cough rich old white men cough* – and Mauritius punches well above its weight. Its earliest stamps number among the rarest and most collectible in the world, and if you don’t believe me, wait until you see the prices.
There are the stories of the individual items themselves. Stamps and covers are archaeological artifacts, witnesses to the history that unfolded around them. Previous owners were entwined in wars, revolutions, scandals, booms and busts. Each rare stamp has its own provenance, the collected fingerprints of the monarchs, presidents, con artists and murderers who might once have own it. Hopefully those fingerprints are only metaphorical.
And then there’s your story… if you dare. At any level, auctions offer a guide to what’s good. Knowing what the money is chasing means that you’re a step ahead when it comes to spotting a desirable rarity hiding unnoticed somewhere. It doesn’t increase the chances that you’ll come across one, but it sure increases the chances that you’ll know if you do. Those chances can be improved if you learn about material that’s not the ‘home base’ interest of the collectors around you.
So let’s take a look at the stories behind some current auction lots, and figure out what they can teach us. As with Part 1 of this article, know that these are not the ONLY lots in these auctions. There are hundreds of others, plenty of them at lower price points. But I’ve picked a few rolled-gold examples.
(I’m not receiving any consideration for these previews, though naturally, in the event of me sending a buyer their way, I would be delighted to accept a percentage in the form of cash or fine single-malt. I might count as a younger collector, but I drink in fluent old man.)
The two auctions we’re heading to are David Feldman’s Commonwealth Specialised Auction (held in Geneva, 30 June – 2 July, 2020), and Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries’ Sale 1224, 2020 Rarities of the World (held in New York, 30 June – 1 July, 2020). Feldman’s auction kicked off first, because of how time works, so let’s start there.
David Feldman International Auctioneers
Commonwealth Specialised Auction
30 June – 2nd July, 2020
This series of auctions has three sections: Great Britain and Commonwealth, plus one auction each dedicated to the colonies of Mauritius and St Vincent. The latter two are part of the Tatiana Collection. I don’t know much about the Tatiana Collection, but I DO know that if your collection has a name, it’s a handy collection. Feldman auctioned the British Guinea section of the Tatiana Collection back in 2015, so whoever Tatiana was, she was mad for a bit of ye olde empire. Let’s take a look.
Post-auction update: The auction house was very happy with the results, especially under the circumstances wrought by COVID-19. The official press release reported strong bidding across the multiple platforms offered, with “phenomenal returns”. The headline stats on the Tatiana Collection auctions looked pretty good: 95% of the Mauritius lots sold at a total 128% of estimates; 88% of the St Vincent lots sold at 114% of the estimates.
Auction estimate: GBP 40,000 – 60,000
The story: The Penny Black, the first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system to pre-pay postage, isn’t hard to find. More than a million survived. You can work out each stamp’s position in the printing plates by looking at the letters at the bottom (rows A to T on the left, columns A to I on the right). But experts can also use tiny details in the stamps’ designs, and wear on the printing plate, to work out exactly which of 12 printing plates produced an individual stamp. In a labour of love that must have taken YEARS, each of the 240 stamps in this lot have been hunted down and dispatched to their exact position on Plate 1b. (This image shows just a quarter of the full plate.) Can you even begin to imagine how excited this collector was when they found the final piece in the jigsaw? The plate includes several multiples, which are extra juicy. Classic classical philately.
The lesson: Get to know your Penny Blacks. Some plates and positions are scarcer than others. You might hold that one elusive final piece of someone else’s jigsaw… but you’ll probably need an expert to tell you.
Auction result: The only lot featured in this article that didn’t sell! Probably still up for grabs if you want it.
More: Auction firm Warwick & Warwick have a great primer on Penny Blacks.
Auction estimate: GBP 65,000 – 80,000
The story: This stamp comes from a set commemorating the first anniversary of India’s independence, honouring the man who led the campaign to end British rule. Gandhi had been assassinated just months prior to this issue. A hundred top-value 10-rupee stamps were overprinted ‘SERVICE’ for official use by the Governor-General. Fifty were handed off to the national postal museum, four were slung to the King, and of the remainder, the whereabouts are known of less than 20. Luckily, you can find HEAPS online! Which is why this stamp comes with an expertising certificate. Overprints are very easy to fake. (I only just read that in 1866, India became the first country to overprint stamps for official use. Learning!)
The lesson: European and American stamps hog the limelight in the Anglophone stamp world, so broaden your horizons. But your great discovery will amount to nothing if it’s not legit.
Auction result: Sold at the lower end of estimate – £65,000 (plus 20% buyer’s premium = £78,000). Sounds like there wasn’t much violence over this lot. Gandhi would be proud.
More: Pradip Jain’s three-part article on this issue appeared in Gibbons Stamp Monthly in 2014-15, and you can read it here.
Auction estimate: GBP 80,000 – 100,000
The story: Mauritius’s early stamps have a characteristic homely look, like a student attempt at a linocut, but using a potato. Its first two stamps are million-pound-plus rarities. They’re the first two entries in the authoritative Stanley Gibbons catalogue, making them “SG1” and “SG2”. The “SG3” in the title of this lot hints at how early we’re talking here. Said to be an ‘Earliest Impression’ (stamp nerd term) from Mauritius’s second issue, it’s a gorgeous block of 6, the largest known multiple among these so-called ‘Post Paid’ stamps. How deliciously rich is that colour? Incredibly bright for the era. Throw in a rare postmark and a slew of certification paperwork, and Commonwealth collectors would be mad to pass up the chance to have this beauty in their exhibit.
The lesson: Early Mauritius: look beyond the fugly.
Auction result: Another one heading out the door at the bottom of the estimate: £80,000 (£96,000). Given its beauty, rarity and £100k+ catalogue value, I’m a little surprised it didn’t see more love. Still, as the vendor, you’d have to be happy with £80,000, wouldn’t you?
More: Check out Isabelle’s simplified and reader-friendly guide to the stamps of Mauritius.
Auction estimate: GBP 60,000 – 80,000 GBP
The story: I love this story. By 1858, Mauritius was desperate for new stamps, and a local chancer called Jules Lapirot stepped up to the engraving plate. The resulting stamps were so reviled for the ugliness of the royal noggin that they were nicknamed in French variously as “tête de chien” or “tête de singe” (‘head of a dog’ or ‘head of a monkey’), and a Royal Philatelic Society notable subsequently declared them “the greatest libel upon her late majesty Queen Victoria that has ever been perpetrated”. The reviews are a bit rough, if you ask me. I’m sure I’ve seen worse. You’re doing well if you find any Lapirots – most are worth a few thousand pounds. But when the worn plate was re-engraved, a couple of typos were made, including the one you can make out on the right of this pair: “MAURITUIS” instead of “MAURITIUS”. (This is the only example known, and luckily for us all, the postmark missed the error.) These errors catalogue £130,000.
The lesson: Subtle differences on old stamps can be easily missed by uninformed collectors or sloppy sellers. Also, if you’re re-engraving a printing plate, spell the country name correctly.
Auction result: Came in slightly under estimate at £50,000 (£61,000), less than half of its current Stanley Gibbons catalogue value. For a one-of-a-kind? Bargain!
More: Read on.
Auction estimate: GBP 60,000 – 80,000
The story: It’s the same story as the stamp above, but in this case the left-hand stamp in this pair misspells the nation as “MAURITUS”. Here’s an amazing fact I didn’t tell you in the last lot: these two spelling errors weren’t noticed for over 130 years! This is the only known example of the MAURITUS error, and it’s on a cover sent to France, which brings me to my next point…
The lesson: You might not think you need to know much about stamps from the other side of the world, but that’s just the kind of scarce material that could show up at your doorstep and be your ticket to the big time. Lot 20136 in this auction, estimated at £50,000-70,000, is a slightly later issue on cover from Mauritius to Nova Scotia!
Auction result: Just a shade under estimate here too, at £55,000 (£66,000). A beautiful piece to own, well bought. Though the estimate was close to bang-on, there are some big gaps between result and catalogue value going on here. Catalogue value is a retail guide, and auction results can be expected to come in cheaper, but still… does Mr Gibbons perhaps need to think about pricing down some of his stock? Or were some potential buyers just missing in action this time?
More: I struggled to find a comprehensive online reference to these errors. My stories are cobbled together from a few sources. The current auction listings offer a good start, as does the description when these two lots were sold together as Lot 1226 in Shreves’ Sale 49 in 2002.
OK, now that we’ve hoovered up some sweet plums in Geneva, let’s continue our international shopping spree in New York.
Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries
Sale 1224: 2020 Rarities of the World
New York, USA
30 June – 1 July, 2020
Post-auction update: at a quick calculation I’m seeing just over 90% of lots sold. I don’t have the wherewithall to know how returns went, compared to expectations, but selling 90% of lots in the current environment makes for a good start!
Auction estimate Catalogue value: USD 80,000
Note: At the time of publishing this article, I missed a subtlety in this auction catalogue. Sometimes the quoted figures were auction estimates, but sometimes they were catalogue values. The distinction should be noted, because even healthy auction returns can fall well short of catalogue values.
The story: The ‘Washington-Franklins’ series ran from 1908 to 1922, with billions of stamps offering endless varieties. One variety of paper was made with pulp mixed with rag stock, which came out “bluish” (‘greyish’ might have been more accurate). The 4c bluish stamps are believed never to have been issued. They came onto the market later via trades by government institutions that held them. Oh, and that time that Acting Third Assistant Postmaster-General Arthur Travers took a $1500 bribe from collector Joseph Steinmetz to swap a sheet of bluish paper stamps with a sheet of regular stamps at a DC post office just as Steinmetz happened to waltz in and ask for a sheet. Convenient! Over 80 copies should exist, but they hardly ever show up.
The lesson: This $80,000 rarity looks very similar to a common 10-cent stamp, if you don’t know what to look for. Would you spot it?
Auction result: $19,500 (plus 18% buyer’s premium = $23,010). Compared to auction prices for this stamp in recent years, that’s pretty good for a copy so off-centre. Being never-hinged, and a marginal copy, sure would have helped.
More: The Swedish Tiger blog has a very attractive rundown of the Bluish Papers.
Auction estimate Catalogue value: USD 450,000
See note above on this amendment
The story: The most famous stamp in the USA, perhaps the world? Definitely the only stamp on this list to have been the subject of a throwaway reference on The Simpsons. The full story of the inverted Curtiss ‘Jenny’ biplane stamps is worth saving for another time, though the auction page does an excellent job. A sheet of a hundred was discovered the day it went on sale in 1918. Bought over the counter for $24, it was sold days later for $15,000. Those stamps have gone on to become the most highly desired in America. Inverted Jennies aren’t the rarest of stamps, but they’re famous, and that in itself attracts buyers. They vary hugely in condition. An early owner numbered every stamp on the back, so each stamp is tracked in great detail. Some have fallen off the radar. (This stamp was once owned by Joseph Steinmetz, the bloke who paid the bribe in the last story!) If you think YOU’VE scored an Inverted Jenny recently, read about the next lot before you jump to conclusions.
The lesson: Keep your eyes peeled! Major rarities happen less frequently these days, but plenty of them began life being bought for face value at the post office. And if you come across an Inverted Jenny in a 5-cent box, don’t be Homer Simpson. (You might want to scroll to 1:34.)
Auction result: $215,000 ($253,700). The vendor bought it for $36,000 back in 1977! He said he might have liked more, but he was happy enough. It’s true that this is around the lower end of recent Inverted Jenny sales, but this stamp is off-centre and has some minor flaws. If you want to come anywhere near the record price of $1.175 million (obtained by Siegel in 2016), your Inverted Jenny needs to be PERFECT! Apart from the upside-down plane, of course.
More: invertedjenny.com is one of the greatest sites on the internet.
Auction estimate Catalogue value: USD 70,000
See note above on this amendment
The story: There’s a sequel to the story of the Inverted Jenny. In a philatelic promotional effort in 2013, the US Postal Service issued a sheetlet of six stamps depicting an Inverted Jenny – deliberately, this time. They’re denominated at two dollars, and if that’s the face value of your Inverted Jenny stamp, I have bad news. They printed over two million sheets, and over 13 million stamps. But as the sheets were distributed, the USPS was sitting on a surprise. It had randomly seeded a hundred sheets depicting the plane the right way up. A cardboard insert informed lucky buyers of these sheetlets of their good fortune. The USPS got in trouble for this. The Inspector General found in 2015 that the distribution of the ‘right way up’ sheetlets had not been legally approved, and had “created and improperly distributed a philatelic rarity” in contravention of USPS rules. I’m normally cynical of post offices contriving scarcity among new releases, but it’s hard to resist the pedigree of this prank. The crazy part is that at the time of writing, only 32 of these sheetlets have been discovered. If you can get your hands on a genuinely unopened sheetlet pack, you still have a chance to find your golden ticket. (It’s a bit harder than it sounds. The Inspector General also found that 23 sheetlets were never distributed.)
The lesson: 45 OF THESE BABIES ARE STILL OUT THERE WAITING FOR YOU!!!
Auction result: $42,500 ($50,100). It’s interesting to watch these sheets go to auction because they’re still quite new to the market. The going rate seems to have settled at about $40-50k. This sheet – the first non-inverted Jenny sheet ever sold – made $45,000 ($51,750) in 2014. So, a slight loss to the vendor, but given that more examples have hit the market since then, it could have been worse!
Auction estimate: USD 75,000 – 100,000
The story: In 1851-2, long before it became a US state, the Kingdom of Hawaii issued four crude stamps. They’re known as ‘Missionaries’ after their heaviest human users. Few have survived. There are ten known 5c Missionary covers, but Siegel’s auction listing gives a great insight into how those numbers can be whittled down to come to the conclusion that this one is the best available:
Ten 5c Missionary covers are recorded in our census and the Gregory census. Included in this total are the Dawson 2c/5c cover and the 5c cover acquired by the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in the Honolulu Advertiser sale, leaving eight 5c covers for collectors. Upon further analysis, however, only five of those have a 5c Missionary used without any other stamps, and of those five, one is a front [PP: not a full envelope] and all but this cover have stamps with minor faults. For the collector who wishes to have a sound 5c Missionary stamp tied on cover, this is the sole cover meeting that criteria.
The Dawson Cover is the only known usage on cover of the 2c Missionary stamp. It was sold by Siegel in 2013 for $US 2,242,500, including buyer’s premium. Aloha!
The lesson: Are you from a religious family in the US? Don’t be too quick to throw out those old boxes in Grandma’s attic when she dies.
Auction result: A good result at $80,000 ($94,400) – within the estimate band and not far shy of the $90,000 catalogue value. Looks like Missionaries are well-positioned.
More: There’s a neat summary of the Missionaries at Hawaiian Stamps.
Auction estimate: USD 75,000 – 100,000
The story: Buenos dias to Argentina’s first appearance on Punk Philatelist! Known as Escuditos (Spanish for ‘shields’), these stamps were part of the first issue after Argentina became a republic. The quality is pretty rough – the sort of thing it would be easy to pass over in a circuit book. The printing plates for the 15-centavos stamps included one inverted cliché. Huh? That means one of the stamps appears upside-down (“tête-bêche”) compared to those around it. (Possibly obvious tip: tête-bêche errors must be collected in multiples. It’s a bit hard to prove they’re upside-down when they’re on their own.) There are only three known such pairs of this stamp, and apparently this is the finest, because it sat untouched in an album for over ninety years.
The lesson: It’s really just a continuation of the tips above, isn’t it? Broaden your knowledge, keep your eyes open, be really rich if you want to buy one.
Auction result: Snapped up at the lower end of estimate at $75,000 ($88,500).
More: Not a lot out there in English, I’m afraid. But Siegel’s auction listings are top quality.
Auction estimate: USD 100,000 – 150,000
The story: Let’s translate that title into normal people speak. The Swiss canton of Geneva was quick to issue stamps in the early days. The ‘Double Geneva’ came in pairs, with a shared inscription across the top. Five centimes (ie one half of the pair) got your letter across the city of Geneva; ten centimes (ie the full ‘Double Geneva’) took it beyond the city, but anywhere within the canton. There aren’t many Double Genevas out there to start with, but this one is an extra-rare ‘inverted’ because, as you can see, this double has been cut across two different stamps. The right half of the double is on the left, and vice versa. Confused? Don’t worry, you can’t afford it.
The lesson: I’m going to be honest, at this point I’m really just enjoying nerding out.
Auction result: $105,000 ($123,900) – the lower end of the estimate band, but still a six-figure price befitting an aristocrat of philately!
More: The auction link is good!
Bonus Charity Auction!
Auction estimate: USD 100 – 150
The story: Not an acknowledged rarity, yet, which probably explains the underwhelming estimate, but… US TV pundit John Oliver recently covered the dire straits in which the USPS finds itself thanks to ridiculous legal constraints and an unsympathetic toddler president. There’s been an online push for people to buy stamps to help prop up the service until adult heads prevail. Oliver got behind the effort, and released a personalized ‘PhotoStamps’ sheet featuring a bunch of touches familiar to viewers of Last Week Tonight. I’m planning to write up more about this story, but in the meantime, Siegel is holding a side-auction this week of a Last Week Tonight sheetlet to raise money for the Guidance Center of Westchester, which works with people challenged by mental illness, substance abuse, poverty, and homelessness. A worthy cause, a great product! I approve, and I hope it goes well beyond not only its estimate, but its sensible market value.
Auction result: $2,200 with premium. A fantastic gesture from the most generous bidder left standing! Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries added 18% of the hammer price to the final donation as its contribution.
So that’s my rundown of this week’s auction highlights from the Feldman and Siegel auctions. Good luck to you if you’re flush enough to grab a paddle. I’ll be grabbing a seat and a notepad, hoping to pick up a few more clues to help unearth buried treasure. If you’ve had the perseverance to read all the way to the end of this article, you have what it takes to join my merry band of hearties on the Search for the Undiscovered Rarity!
My thanks to both auction houses for permission to use their images.
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