Kiwi collector solves rare stamp riddle
It sounds like something from The Da Vinci Code, but Robin Gwynn’s real-life detective work is just as impressive as anything dreamed up for Robert Langdon.
Back in 2014, Gwynn, 75, from Hawke’s Bay, bought an album of 19th-century stamps for $3300 at an auction in Auckland.
It was the earliest album he had seen in New Zealand. Over the following six months, he unbound the book and soaked stamps off page after page, finding about a dozen he could not identify.
Eventually he was left with just two puzzles he could not solve, both apparently from Russia.
Still curious, he took the items to London on a research trip in 2015. While there, he visited the London Stampex, the United Kingdom’s largest philatelic show.
At the show, he handed over the stamps to Dominic Savastano, of collectables company Spink & Son. ‘‘ You can tell from body language if someone gets excited,’’ Gwynn said.
He overheard the word ‘‘Tiflis’’ being thrown around in mutterings behind the counter, though at the time the word meant nothing to him.
As he now knows, Tiflis was the pre-1936 name of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. The first Russian stamp was officially issued there in 1857, to carry local mail between the city and the summer residency of the tsar’s representative at nearby Kodzhory.
Only five known copies were in existence before Gwynn’s turned up. Three had been in the Faberge collection dispersed on the eve of World War II, one was in the Smithsonian, and one was in the Berlin Museum.
Gwynn’s stamp was sent to New York for verification, and a reply came back ruling it was a forgery.
Then, in 2016, he received an unexpected offer of £5000 for the stamp from somebody who knew of the forgery ruling.
Gwynn smelled a rat, and began researching his collection further, discovering there was not a single other forgery in the entire album.
In July 2016 he went back to London, to the Royal Philatelic Society, armed with the stamp, the page it came from, the fraud opinion and his own counterevidence.
The stamp was subjected to comparisons under magnification with photographic records of the five known examples, and in New York the Smithsonian agreed to remove its example from its page so the stamps could be examined together.
Eventually, the experts agreed Gwynn’s stamp matched the known genuine examples in both design and paper, and was genuine ‘‘in every respect’’.
It was offered for sale at Spink & Son last October, selling for £165,000 – about NZ$318,000 – at auction.
The stamp is believed to be the rarest and most expensive one yet discovered in New Zealand, and four months on from the sale, Gwynn says: ‘‘I still actually can’t believe it.’’
Robin Gwynn with the 19th-century stamp album he bought four years ago for $3300. The Tiflis stamp from it sold for $318,000.
Detail of the Tiflis stamp from 1857. Its actual size is 2.2 by 2.4 centimetres.