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Glen Stephens The Biggest Stamp Dealer in the Southern Hemisphere

Linn's Front page June. 8, 1998



New Zealand Post buys invert for record $66,500

By Glen Stephens

The greatest stamp rarity from the British Pacific region has just been sold for a record price. The stamp is New Zealand's 1904 4-penny bicolored Lake Taupo stamp with an inverted blue center. It is the only known example of this error.

This stamp is canceled "Picton 21 MR : 04" and has a tear on the left-hand side. The cancel largely covers the central vignette, making the invert barely noticeable.

This stamp is cataloged as No. 113b in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue but is unpriced. The Stanley Gibbons catalog lists it as No. 322b and prices it at £50,000 (U.S.$81,000.)

In mid-May, this error stamp was sold to New Zealand Post for its archival collection for NZ$125,000 ($66,500). The sale was handled by Otaki stamp dealer John Mowbray. The vendor was not disclosed.

This is a record price paid in Australasia for a single 20th-century stamp from any country. The only other stamp of any era or country to have sold for a higher figure are two extra-fine examples of the Western Australia 1854, 4-penny Blue Inverted Swan, of which 14 genuine copies exist.


New Zealand Post has purchased the only known example of the Lake Taupo invert.                                              

Coincidentally, at the same time New Zealand Post purchased the Lake Taupo error, it also issued on May 20, a set of 14 stamps reproducing the original 1898 Pictorial issue designs of 1898, of which this Lake Taupo stamp was one. The Lake Taupo design is depicted as one of the eight 40˘ values in the new set of 14. (The stamp was shown in color in the May 18 Linn's, page 28.)

The new set is popular, but a 2,000-run limited edition of the 14 stamps each in a numbered sheet of 25 with a face value of NZ$257.50 has not garnered a warm reception from New Zealanders.

"Ouch!" was the one-word comment about these sheets from the New Zealand columnist for the Australasian Stamps magazine in its current edition.

The 1898 set has long been regarded as one of the most attractive Pictorial sets issued anywhere in the 19th century, and sales of the new 1998 set of 14 have been described as the best for any new issue in years.

In late May, I spoke with Donald White, manager of the largest mail-order stamp retailer in New Zealand, Dunedin Stamp Centre.

"Our sales have been many times a normal new issue. The engraved beauty and simplicity of these stamps has really appealed to the collector," he told me.

The Lake Taupo inverted-center error was not discovered until 1930.

(A brief history of the stamp appears on page 81 of Philatelic Gems 5 edited by Donna O'Keefe and published by Linn's in 1991. The discovery date is erroneously recorded therein as 1931.)

The stamp was discovered by Jack Dennett, a farmer in England, while looking through his childhood album, searching for stamps he could sell for cash during the Great Depression.

Dennett was surprised to discover one stamp had an inverted center, and he sent the stamp to a leading dealer for an opinion.

The dealer wrote back inquiring what Dennett was asking for this error. It was then sent for expertization.

Dennett later received a Royal Philatelic Society of London certificate signed by notables such as John Wilson and Edward Bacon.

Dennett consigned the error to Plumridge & Co. for auction in London March 27, 1931, and the legendary French dealer Theodore Champion purchased it via Tom Allen for £161, a large sum in the Depression era.

Dennett later recalled: "So, my schoolboy collection was not 'junk' after all. The interesting thing is that no other copy of this variety has ever come to light, and as every reader of this magazine knows, it is impossible for one stamp to be printed centered inverted and the rest of the sheet to be normal.

"Thus is does seem most probable that somewhere among odd lots or schoolboy collections there might be several more copies."

Fortunately, Dennett was wrong -- to date no other copy has surfaced.

The Lake Taupo invert was then sold to the Marquis De Rosny, and the stamp disappeared for nearly half a century.

An article in The New Zealand Stamp Collector in 1971 was headed "Has anyone seen our stamp?"

This complete absence off the world market for 50 years may explain why this unique error did not attract the international reputation and envy enjoyed by many gem stamps existing in greater numbers, such as the early Mauritius, Hawaii, Bermuda, or German States classics.

The Lake Taupo invert's next sale recorded was in October 21, 1980. It was offered in a private treaty sale by the French dealers J. Robinson et Cie and sold for 110,500 francs, then worth about $18,000.

The buyer was Robert W. Lyman of Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., who is understood to have purchased the stamp on behalf of a syndicate of investors.

In 1980, the stamp also obtained a Friedl committee expert certificate. The stamp was later exhibited at the Palmpex stamp show in New Zealand in May 1982.

The ownership history of the error after this 1980 sale is murky. In 1990, another expert certificate was obtained, this time from the British Philatelic Association.

I attended the international stamp show held in Auckland, New Zealand, in late 1990. Leading British error dealer J.M.A. Gregson Ltd. had a huge photo blowup of the Lake Taupo error at his stand, offering the stamp for private-treaty sale.

The same stamp was later offered for sale in worldwide advertisements in April 1992 by famous British dealers Bridger & Kay Ltd., listed as "price on request." This inverted center later appeared in a Dec. 11, 1993, auction by Stanley Gibbons/New Zealand, with a fixed reserve of $NZ160,000. It still did not manage to attract a buyer.

The 4d Lake Taupo invert was then offered by British auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb Ltd., May 14, 1997, with an estimate of £40,000-50,000 but also failed to sell.

That company now trades under the name of Grosvenor Philatelic Auctions.

It is my understanding that rather amazingly, accompanied by no less than three expert certificates, this one-of-a-kind error did not sell through any of this enormous international exposure.

While attending the Pacific 97 international show in San Francisco last year, George Holschauer, president of Colonial Stamp Co. in Los Angeles, offered me the Lake Taupo invert stamp for sale, and he was happy for me to write internationally during July 1997 that he had the item available for purchase.

Holschauer was out of town when this story went to press, and was not available for comment, so it is not known if he was involved in the sale to New Zealand Post via Mowbray.

I contacted Grosvenor Auctions about the subsequent movement and history of this famous stamp.

James M. Grist, a director, told me today: "We have been involved in the subsequent offering of this stamp privately, and its consequent sale, but are not at liberty to provide further details I am afraid."

Mowbray spoke to me from Wellington, "This sale is a positive sign for philately in New Zealand, with the purchaser New Zealand Post wanting to show the stamp publicly for promotional purposes, so its impact on attracting collectors into the hobby will be huge."

I wonder how many times such well-intentioned purchases by, or bequests to, large institutions or museums have meant exactly the opposite?

All over the globe, countless thousands of superb philatelic gems lay undisturbed for decades in some dusty manila folder or envelope inside some museum or post office archive.

In the end, the 4d Lake Taupo invert is one of the classic stamps of the British Commonwealth. It is certainly the draft pick of this century.

It is now forever off the collector market, and New Zealand specialists have only themselves to blame. They have been offered numerous opportunities in the past decade to secure this item and save it from falling into the hands of an institutional collection.

I hope New Zealand Post makes good its promise to exhibit it regularly.

Glen Stephens is a stamp dealer and philatelic journalist in Sydney, Australia.

This is an edited version of a Linn's article that appeared in the June 8, 1998, issue of Linn's Stamp News. For the complete story, subscribe to Linn's Stamp News.


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