Kiwi col­lec­tor solves rare stamp rid­dle

The Hastings Mail - - FRONT PAGE - AN­DRE CHUMKO

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.’’

AN­DRE CHUMKO/STUFF

Robin Gwynn with the 19th-cen­tury stamp al­bum he bought four years ago for $3300. The Ti­flis stamp from it sold for $318,000.

AN­DRE CHUMKO/STUFF

De­tail of the Ti­flis stamp from 1857. Its ac­tual size is 2.2 by 2.4 cen­time­tres.

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