A few GB stamps from the reign of Queen Victoria were rare from the outset – these are known to collectors as ‘the Abnormals’ because they were printed from certain plates which were never put into regular use. These stamps were produced by De La Rue between 1862 and 1880 and they arose from the practice of De La Rue submitting to the Board of Inland Revenue the first six sheets of stamps produced from each plate. These stamps were imperforate, but gummed and watermarked. The Board retained one sheet as the Imprimatur (Latin for ‘let it be printed’) and the other five sheets were either destroyed or returned to De La Rue who then perforated them and put them into circulation in the usual manner.
Normally these five sheets would be exactly the same as all the others produced from the same plate, but sometimes plates were modified or scrapped, or a change was made in the colour used for the normal printing. The resultant stamps from the five sheets were therefore classified as ‘Abnormals’. Only a dozen types of Abrnormal have so far been recorded.
Bear in mind that five sheets amounts to 1,200 stamps, but that would be a maximum figure, depending on how many sheets were actually put into circulation. Most of the Abnormals are expensive in used condition, though they regularly turn up at auction and fetch sums in the low thousands – mint examples are definitely rare. Some of these stamps have acquired epithets, like the 3d ‘with dots’ (£17,000) or the 9d bistre ‘hair-lines’ (£7,000). Incidentally, the 9d was once a highly favoured stamp, but in the past half century it has tended to slip down the league table compared with some of the others, which points to the existence of rather more mint examples than was originally thought.
Other high fliers in this group include the 1s deep green (SG 91) quoted at £12,000, the 1s green Plate 14 (SG 150) at £14,000 (only five used examples recorded), the 4d vermilion Plate 16 (SG 152) at £14,000 (only 11 used examples known), and the 10d pale red-brown on Rose watermark, Plate 2 (SG 113) at £15,000. The latter stamp, from Plate 1, gives rise to an error rather than an abnormal, for this stamp, printed on paper with the Emblems watermark by mistake is one of the truly great rarities. No example of this stamp has been recorded so far in unused condition, and of the 13 used specimens, no fewer than eight bear the ‘C’ obliterator – indicating that a part sheet at least had been despatched to the British post office in Constantinople. This rare British stamp is currently catalogued at £15,000 in used condition only.
The Tyrian Plum
To the Abnormals may be added the celebrated 2d Tyrian Plum of May 1910. This stamp arose because of a desire to economise on stamp production, as a result of which denominations which had hitherto been printed in two colours were re-issued in monochrome. A new 2d stamp, printed in this distinctive purple shade instead of green and red, was in production at the time of King Edward VII’s death and although a few sheets had been printed by De La Rue it was decided not to proceed with it. A solitary example is known on cover, addressed to the new monarch, George V (a noted philatelist) on the very day of his accession, which just happened to be the 70th anniversary of the Penny Black, and this is still in the Royal Collection. A handful of mint specimens subsequently leaked out and appear in the saleroom from time to time, justifying their current catalogue price of £14,000.