Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine
Inflation, by gum
Penny for ’em... John Vincent looks at the history of the world’s most famous stamp – and one that might fetch £6m at auction next month.
Perhaps it’s because fewer youngsters even use stamps now; perhaps it’s because they spend all their spare time “messaging” people or with their heads buried in a smartphone. Whatever the reason, stamp collecting doesn’t seem as popular as it was when I was a lad.
In those days, children treasured their fathers’ old albums while lovingly accumulating specimens from countries with exotic long-vanished names such as Basutoland, Siam, Abyssinia, Persia, Tanganyika and Bohemia.
One boy was able to boast a Penny Black, then, as now, the world’s most famous stamp. He assumed it was worth a fortune and kept it locked away in his tuck box. He may eventually have been disappointed about its worth as, with more than 68 million produced during a one-year print run, it was not exactly rare.
Much depends on the condition, whether it is used or unused, and on such arcane details as cancellations, size and regularity of white margins, guideline flaws and the individually punched corner letters. Even now, 180 years after its introduction, specimens in poor condition can be picked up for as little as £30. But unused or mint Penny Blacks and those posted with a May 1840 date (particularly the first official day of issue, May 6) are worth the most.
Now Sotheby’s is about to offer the earliest securely dated example of the Penny Black – a pristine, unused specimen from the first printed sheet, lettered A1. The little stamp, bearing an image of a very young Queen Victoria in profile, is estimated to fetch £4m to £6m in London on December 7 as part of a unique document from the archive of postal reformer and MP Robert Wallace (1773-1855).
It is seen as the most important piece of philatelic history in existence. The world’s first adhesive postage stamp, indicating prepayment, was the brainchild of Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879) and made sending letters affordable, unified the price of sending mail and encouraged people to read and write.
A few more details about the stamp that changed the world... Some 287,000 sheets were printed and about 1.3 million have survived. Despite its fame, the Penny Black was considered a relative failure because thrifty and ingenious Victorians quickly came up with ways to reuse the stamps by washing off the cancellation (red ink was easy to remove so the Treasury changed to black when the Penny Red was introduced in 1841).
Victoria’s image was based on a sketch of her aged 15 – but it remained on stamps until she died in January
1901. Because Penny Blacks were not perforated, and needed separating using scissors or a knife, irregular margins were not uncommon and collectors pay higher prices for examples with four regular, wide and even margins.
Although May 6, 1840 was the official launch date, there are a few covers postmarked May 2, due to postmasters selling the stamps early. A single example is known on a prepaid Mulready envelope dated May 1.