Black on white, imperforate and bearing the likeness of Queen Victoria – collectors will know immediately what this is: the Penny Black – the world’s first ever stamp, which was issued in Great Britain on 1 May 1840. As Peter Such, Head of Philately at Auktionshaus Felzmann, explains: “This stamp, which cost a penny in its day, is not the rarest or most expensive of stamps but is nonetheless very popular among collectors.” It can be acquired for as little as €100 or €200. Peter Such: “Needless to say, a letter with a cancel dated 6 May 1840, the very first day on which it was valid, is a rarity and worth several thousand euros”. What is unique about this stamp is that, unlike other postage stamps, the country that issued it is not indicated.
As it was often difficult to make out cancels on the Penny Black, it was replaced by the Penny Red a year later, thus preventing stamps from being used more than once.
However, who came up with the idea of stamps that can be stuck onto letters? It was Rowland Hill, an English schoolteacher and later Postmaster General, who invented the square postage stamp. In 1837, he initiated a postal reform, aiming to simplify the postage process and making it accessible to less wealthy people as well – at the time, not everyone could afford to send letters by post. Before the introduction of stamps, every letter had to be brought to the post office and handed in individually. The option of popping a letter in the nearest pillar box during one’s morning walk did not yet exist at the time. Needless to say, no reserves of post office cancels were available. As well as this, before stamps were introduced, it was the recipient rather than the sender who was required to pay the cost of postage. Some letters could not be accepted because the recipient did not have the necessary funds. The reform, which introduced the idea of charging postage costs based on weight, made it possible for less well-off people to send letters too. In this way, Hill made a significant contribution to postal history.
In addition to the Penny Black featuring the likeness of Queen Victoria, a twopenny stamp (Two Pence Blue) was issued. Several thousand designs were submitted for the motif, but Hill was still not satisfied. In the end, he opted for a picture of Queen Victoria that was also used on a commemorative coin. These two stamps formed the standard letter postage. A few years later, quite a few countries followed Great Britain’s lead and reformed their postage systems. However, the Penny Black was replaced by the Penny Red after just one year because it was hard to recognise post cancels on the black stamp, prompting unscrupulous people to use the stamp several times.
This return envelope was never sent, which is why the letter does not bear a cancel. You can find this specimen in the auction catalogue under Lot 4716.
However, stamp collecting as a hobby only emerged as the use of postage stamps became widespread. To begin with, the adhesive paper squares were only used for everyday postage – it was only much later that the investment potential of stamps became apparent. At the time around 1900, letters were the most important form of communication and the passion for collecting stamps had reached its highest point.
No fewer than eight specimens of the Penny Black will be going under the hammer at Auktionshaus Felzmann’s Anniversary Auction from 2 to 6 July 2019. As Peter Such explains: “Lot 4716 (starting bid: €1,000) stands out in particular – this stamp is affixed to a reply envelope that was to be sent back to the Irish Railway Committee in Dublin, but which remained unused.” The letter was written by the committee to seek the support of the influential Price Blackwood, 4th Baron Dufferin and Claneboye (father of the later Governor General of Canada and Viceroy of India). The letter was dated 28 December 1840 and the wide margins are even and have been maintained in first-class condition. This is confirmed by the comprehensive accompanying certificate from German philatelic expert association BPP.
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Further specimens can be found in the picture gallery:
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