The most rare philatelic covers ever
In late 2000 Stanley Gibbons agreed to sell the famous Kirkcudbright cover of May 6, 1840 featuring a block of 10 Penny Blacks, to the Royal Philatelic Collection for £250,000. Considering that’s the price which a single on first day cover would fetch on the open market The Queen got a bargain. The Mauritius cover of January 4, 1850, known as ‘the Thomas Jerrom cover’ – from the name of the addressee – featured two immense rarities. Jerrom had the happy accident of being on the receiving end of this cover. Its Twopenny rate from Mauritius to India was denoted by two examples of the ‘Post Office’ penny stamp. These stamps were printed one-at-a-time directly from the engraver’s die. Barely a dozen of the Penny stamp now exist out of about 500 printed. Of these two are unused, six are used off cover, three are used on cover and two appear side-by-side on the Jerrom cover. Gibbons quotes a price of £450,000 for the penny used off cover and suggests at least twice that for a stamp on cover.
So what is the Jerrom cover worth? The late Norman Williams chronicled the history of this cover in his Encyclopedia of Rare and Famous Stamps, from 1897 when Charles Howard paid £50 for the letter and some others in an Indian bazaar. Howard sold it to London dealer W.H. Peckitt a year later for £1,600 – Peckitt sold it for £1,800 in 1898, bought it back in 1905 for £2,000, and sold it again for £2,200. At a Harmer sale in 1968 it fetched £158,333. When it next turned up in the saleroom (November 1989) at Christie’s Robson Lowe in Zurich it was bought in at SFr 2,600,000. Thereafter it was bought and sold privately, passing from Dr C.C. Cheung to Guido Craveri, head of Harmer’s Auctions SA of Switzerland, who has exhibited it from time to time and even depicts it in his advertising with the justifiable caption of ‘The World’s Most Valuable Cover’.
The Ducau & Lurguie cover bearing examples of the Penny and Twopenny ‘Post Office’ Mauritius stamps, prepaying the 3d rate to Bordeaux in December 1848. It was discovered in 1902 by a schoolboy while going through the correspondence of the Bordeaux wine merchants. The 2d stamp is marginally scarcer than the 1d of which there are five unused, three used, a single on cover and another on a large piece of an envelope, plus the specimen on the Ducau cover.
The Ducau cover might not have been unique had Madame Borchard (the finder of most of the Bordeaux covers in 1864) not soaked a similar pair of stamps off another cover. In both covers the rectangular PAID handstamp was applied once across the two stamps without tying either of them to the envelope. Madame Borchard disposed of both stamps to Albert Couture in exchange for two Montevideo ‘Suns’. Gibbons quotes used 1d and 2d stamps at £450,000 and £550,000 respectively so theoretically this pair should be worth £1,000,000. The pair which has fortuitously remained on its original cover was sold by David Feldman at his Zurich saleroom in November 1993 for SFr. 5,750,000 (£2,640,000) – a world record for a single philatelic item.
The Hawaiian/US tie-up
By comparison with Mauritius ‘Post Office’ stamps, Hawaiian ‘Missionaries’ are plentiful and cheap in a relative sense. Of the 15 known examples of the 2c, 13 are used singles off paper. The other two are known on cover or part cover. The part cover only shows the San Francisco datestamp which was applied to the corner of one of the stamps on arrival in the US, bears a 2c and a 13c. Both stamps were heavily cancelled at Honolulu and bear marks of staining as well as major defects which detract from the value of the piece. When last at auction (November 1995) it was purchased by the US Postal Museum for $99,000.
The 2c on entire letter belongs truly in the super league. Although the stamp lacks a small chunk from the upper left-hand corner it’s otherwise of fine appearance. Alongside is a good example of the 5c, defective along the bottom but otherwise very attractive. Both stamps have barred obliterators but to the left is a clear impression of the Honolulu datestamp of October 4 (1852) inscribed ‘U.S. Postage Paid’. What lifts it into a super rarity is the pair of US 3c stamps affixed to the upper left-hand corner of the wrapper and cancelled at San Francisco on October 23 or 28 (1852). The Hawaiian 13c stamp was designed to consolidate both the Hawaiian external rate (7c) and the US trans-continental rate (6c) in a single stamp, but exceptionally the postage in this instance was denoted by the stamps of both countries.
British Guiana ‘Cottonreels’
The world’s most valuable covers wouldn’t be complete without a reference to the British Guiana ‘Cottonreels’ of 1851. They were so-called on account of their unusual appearance, having been typeset in a circle by the Royal Gazette of Georgetown, with BRITISH GUIANA round the circle and the value across the centre. The stamps were struck in black on various coloured papers. Most examples were cut round the circle, so that those cut square command a high premium. Of the four denominations (two, four, eight and 12 cents) the 2c is by far the rarest and is not known cut square. Of the 10 recorded examples, four are used singles but the others consist of three covers, each bearing a pair. Gibbons prices the 2c rose at £70,000 which bears no relation to the ‘Post Office’ Mauritius by comparison. Of the three covers, one is in the Royal Philatelic Collection.
A ‘Cottonreels’ cover addressed to Miss Rose of Blankenberg was sold in May 1990 for £161,000 the cover addressed to Edward Gordon fetched SFr 520,000 (£206,350) at a Christie’s Robson Lowe sale in Zurich a year earlier. The reason for the disparity is that the stamps on the Rose cover were partially cut round the circle so that a portion of the frame is missing, whereas the stamps on the Gordon cover are of better shape, even if not quite cut square.