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The Glen Stephens (monthly)
By Glen Stephens.
is the world's most valuable stamp item?
I bet you are way WRONG!
I doubt more than a handful of readers of this column know the current 'correct' answer.
Right now, based on the last supposed auction price, the unique 1857 'Tre Skilling Banco' Swedish stamp illustrated nearby gets the prize for the most valuable item on earth for its weight and size.
It was last auctioned at a David Feldman Zurich auction November 1996 to a dealer in Sweden for an apparent sum of Swiss Francs 2.87 million. (approx $US2.3 million)
This realisation is listed in the "Guinness Book Of Records".
However it is under HALF the highest price paid for a philatelic item - which will surprise many readers I am sure. More on that later.
I spent over 20 hours on detailed research for this article, in libraries and on the internet. It is surprising how much mis-information, half information and just plain wrong information there is out there on this subject. And none of it is in the one place, so hope you enjoy this summary!
Value $US86 BILLION a kilo!
The one rather curious similarity about the two most valuable single stamps is they are both very obviously defective.
The mass, volume and density of the Swedish 'Tre Skilling Banco' classic have recently been measured for the first time by The Swedish National Testing and Research Institute in Borås, Sweden.
The weight has been measured to 0.02675 grams (0.0009 ounces), which gives the stamp the staggering price of $US85.98 billion per kilogram. (I had a client who is a Math Professor in Illinois check my figure, and he agrees it is correct!) This makes the stamp the most valuable thing in the world per weight or volume - as far as I am aware.
Advanced measurement equipment was used to perform the unusual task, and a sophisticated optical microscope was used in order to calculate the exact surface area, a difficult task considering the perforations on the stamp.
"It would have been too risky to use the original. Instead we used another stamp, an 'Eight Skilling Banco' from the same printing series, which has the same physical properties as the rarity. This other stamp is relatively inexpensive, worth around $US1,500, which made us all a bit less nervous" claimed Mats Lidbeck, measurement expert at The Swedish National Testing and Research Institute.
The story behind the finding of this VERY controversial stamp and its long history is well worth re-telling.
Discovered in 1885
In late 1885, fourteen year-old schoolboy Georg Wilhelm Backman read that a Stockholm stamp dealer named Heinrich Lichtenstein was buying copies of Sweden's first stamp issue, the 'Skilling Banco' issue. For the uncommon values - the 3 and 24 Skilling Bancos, he paid 7 Swedish kronor each. At this time, this was a good deal of money, even for adults.
When young Georg was visiting his grandmother during his Christmas holiday, he asked her whether she might have some old letters filed away. She did. George was allowed to go through them and remove the stamps from the envelopes. His grandmother wanted to retain the actual letters.
During the period when the Skilling Banco stamps were used (1855-58), the letter rate postage in Sweden was 4 Skilling Banco. The schoolboy therefore found many of these, and they had little value. However he found at least one 3 Skilling Banco, which he took to dealer Lichtenstein as soon as he had returned to Stockholm.
When Backman showed his 3 Skilling Banco stamp to Lichtenstein, the dealer was very surprised. The boy heard the dealer mumble: "but it is yellow?" over and over again. Bachman became uneasy and thought that he would not get the promised 7 kronor.
The boy asked Lichtenstein if he was going to receive the money for his stamp. Lichtenstein replied: "I will pay the 7 kronor despite the fact that it is yellow."
Backman later confirmed in a court affidavit all the above, and that the stamp originally came from a letter sent by his brother, a travelling botanist in his spare time. This would explain the cancellation which indicated the letter had been posted at Nya Kopparberget on July 13, 1857.
This stamp certainly has got a lot of major press coverage in Sweden in recent decades, and there is even a well known beer sold there called 'Tre Skilling Banco' - depicting the stamp on the can!
Can't own the stamp? Buy the beer!
By 1922, Ferrary had fallen on hard times and his collection was confiscated by the Germany government and ordered to be sold to pay some of the country’s reparations (war debts) from World War I. In a world-famous auction held in that year, Swedish Baron Eric Leijonhufyud purchased the stamp for 35,250 French Francs - then about £700, outbidding a consortium of Swedish collectors who had raised funds to hopefully buy it for the Stockholm Postal Museum.
Four years later in 1926, Claes A. Tamm a Stockholm Engineer and renowned collector who was devoted to assembling a complete collection of Sweden, convinced the Baron to sell it to him privately for about £1,500 - then about $US10,000. The acquisition made his collection complete. Two years later the Baron sold the stamp to a Swedish lawyer Johan Ramberg for £2,000. (Then about $US15,000).
Ramberg traced down the original finder Backman, then a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, who gave a detailed sworn affidavit to a Borås Magistrates court in September 9 1931 outlining his discovery and sale of the stamp in 1885, forty years earlier.
Why this was done is very unclear, but lawyer Ramberg annexed a copy of the stamp to the court affidavit, and produced the original stamp in court. Ramberg appears to have had the stamp re-perforated along the top during his ownership. Possibly before the court affidavit, so that the annexed copy exactly resembles the stamp today.
King Carol Of Romania
In 1937, the stamp changed hands again and the fame of the error really began to blossom. It was sold by the London auction firm of H.R. Harmer to King Carol II of Romania ('The Playboy King') for 5,000 pounds - or then better than $US30,000. The made it the second highest price paid for a stamp - eclipsed only by the 1856 1¢ British Guiana.
King Carol left Romania soon after in 1940 for exile - in a train laden with Royal treasure. The train contained paintings by Old Masters such as Titian, Rubens, and Rembrandt. Reportedly hundreds of canvases, jewels, and even the armour that had decorated the walls of the royal palaces of Pelişor and Peleş. And of course his prized stamp collection - at the time one of the most famous and most valuable in the world.
A death squad of the Romanian fascist party Iron Guard legionnaires (partly financed by the Nazis) fired on the Royal train near the Yugoslavian border, but failed to stop it. The King and his mistress lay on the floor and escaped injury from the bullets.
The later sale in Portugal of much of this treasure gave him enormous wealth, which he spent lavishly, living a life of wasteful luxury. King Carol spent his last years in exile in Spain, Mexico and Brazil before buying a villa at Estoril in Portugal. He died of a heart attack in 1953, aged 59.
The 'Tre Skilling Banco' changed hands again around 1950 when it was privately sold on behalf of the King to Rene Berlingen of Germany for an unknown figure. Berlingen had a passion for owning rare philatelic gems.
The stamp was exhibited by Stanley Gibbons at their stand at 'Anphilex 71' in New York - who tried to sell it for Berlingen, but no-one would pay the steep price he wanted.
Current dealer identity Steven Kander was to be sent the stamp to sell. A pretty young woman asked for him at the famous Gibbons 399 Strand shop, and he ushered her into a client room. Kander claims: 'she lifted up her dress and underneath there was an old-fashioned petticoat into which was sewn on the inside, a special pocket." From this she produced the 'Tre Skilling Banco' .
In 1974 it was exhibited at the stand of Frimarkshuset A.B. the well known Swedish dealers in "Stockholmia 74".
The stamp was then offered to the Swedish Postal Museum for $US1,000,000. The curator Gilbert Svensson had always suspected it to be a forgery, and arranged for it to be handed over to a group of nine Swedish stamp experts to examine.
The experts concluded it was a fake - possibly a fake of the original stamp that some of them also thought was a fake anyway! They stated that one third of the stamp was of a different paper type than the rest. And if differed in exterior appearance from early photographs. One of the experts Friedrich Schaffer pointed the finger at original dealer owner Lichtenstein as the forger/creator of this 'fake'. The experts publicly claimed the story of the Backman sale in 1885 was a lie.
Why an Army Lieutenant Colonel would 'lie' about it 40 years later under sworn court oath is a question I asked myself. Curator Svensonn when asked on TV by a reporter as to its true worth said it was: "only worth the modest 7 Crowns that Lichtenstein was supposed to have paid for it - with interest added".
In "Stamp Collecting" May 1975 it was stated that photomicrographic tests had shown that the forger bleached a genuine lightly used 8 Skilling Banco to rid it of colour, and then printed a fake 3 Skilling stamp image on top. (i.e. the technique always used cleverly by Sperati.)
After all these damning reports, owner Berlingen and Frimarkshuset A.B. then paid for a very detailed scientific and X-Ray report in 1975, by a Professor of Medial Biophysics, on the paper and ink etc, which pointed they claim, to the stamp being a genuine colour error.
Berlingen never got any money from the later sale - he incurred financial problems, and the stamp became part of a bank guarantee.
The price rise begins
In October 1978 it was auctioned by Edgar Mohrmann in Hamburg Germany for a price of 1,150,000 DM including buyer commission. They recently confirmed this for me by email. (Feldman claims in his 1996 Sale Catalogue it was "withdrawn" at 1,000,000 Dm in that sale.)
Later the Swiss auction house David Feldman sold it in 1984 in Zurich for 977,500 Swiss Francs, then nearly $US500,000, to an elderly collector of Scandinavia. A Swiss bank was now the vendor - as Berlingen owed them money.
The same auctioneer later sold it to Swedish businessman Sven-Olof Karlsson in 1990 for SFr 1,897,500 - a figure then over $US1 million. (Then a world record for a stamp off cover). The vendor was the son of the buyer from 1984, who had since passed away.
Incredibly the 1990 catalogue in a full page description did NOT mention in any way the stamp was re-perforated along the top, that a child can spot, and has a visible un-closed slit at the side of the stamp! If I were selling a $50 classic single stamp I'd be obliged to mention BOTH obvious faults, but the full page description on this million dollar item mentions neither. Amazing.
The stamp was not offered with a Expert Certificate of any kind in the 1990 or 1996 Auctions - indeed I do not believe any Expertising Committee at any time has ever given it a Certificate as being a genuine error of colour.
However, Karlsson failed to complete the purchase (and was made bankrupt due to this it seems) and so the item was again sold by Feldman (for the third time) on November 8, 1996. The re-perforating and un-sealed slit at side are now mentioned. The auction was solely for this one stamp, backed by a hard-backed catalogue outlining the provenance and history.
The 'Tre Skilling Banco' allegedly sold for a world record Swiss Francs 2.87 million ($US2.3 million) to Hans Lernestål , a Swedish dealer. Lernestål tried to assemble a syndicate of public investors to buy shares in it at about $US3,292 a share under the umbrella name of "The Box Economie Sverige". By June 30, 1997 Lernestål had not sold all the shares, and he defaulted on the purchase.
Lightning certainly DOES strike twice! The stamp no-one could afford to pay for.
The 'Tre Skilling Banco' then appears to have been sold again privately in late 1998, with Copenhagen dealer Thomas Hoiland being press spokesman for the new owners, who appear to still own that stamp. It appears this group paid Feldman less than the price at which is was allegedly auctioned. Understandably the facts here are very murky, and this is all I could glean.
The present owners do have a fancy website devoted to this single stamp and claim (of course!) that the stamp is 'NOT FOR SALE'." However they conveniently tell all visitors how unique and valuable it is, and what they have it insured for, and do not mention much of it's murky history.
The name from the unpaid 1996 purchase - Hans Lernestål - appears to be the main man behind the new website as 'CEO Stamp Collection AG' and is given as the 'Press Contact'.
It is not an especially pretty stamp, and debate has raged for 119 years as to whether it is genuine or not. The matter has never been completely settled - some experts consider it simply a colour "changeling" , many have branded it an outright fake, but a body of evidence points to it being genuine.
Even the Swedish king, Carl Gustav XVI said: “Doesn’t it look rather shabby?” when he saw it at the International stamp fair in Stockholm during 1986.
How did the error occur if indeed it is an error? It is generally proposed that when the printing of the yellow 8 Skilling Banco was underway, one of the printing clichés was damaged and had to be replaced in the forme. In error, a 3 Skilling Banco printing cliché was possibly inserted.
Possibly only one, or at best a few sheets may have been printed with the wrong denomination in the yellow colour before the printers discovered their mistake and changed the printing cliché back to the correct 8 Skilling Banco.
1856 1¢ British Guiana
The obvious rival for the "World's Most Valuable Stamp" title is the also unique (and also defective!) 1856 1¢ magenta from British Guiana, purchased in 1980 at a Robert. A. Siegel auction by Mr John E. duPont for $US935,000.
This stamp is of course the best known of the two. Despite what most dealers and collectors think neither of these 2 stamps are the most VALUABLE stamp items. Not by a LONG way.
That distinction belongs to the November 1993 Feldman "Kanai" auction of the 1847 envelope franked with the 1d and 2d Mauritius stamps and mailed to Bordeaux France - ordering 30 barrels of wine! The "Bordeaux Letter" sold for 5,750,000 Swiss Francs (today worth about $A6.5 million) to a Singapore collector.
How many readers were aware of this record price?
The Bordeaux cover was purchased by European collector-dealer Guido Craveri, who also paid over $US2 million for a 1851 Hawaii cover in a Siegel Auction in New York in 1995.
And close behind in price to the Mauritius is the GB 1840 1d Black on May 3 cover that sold by Harmers Lugarno Switzerland for at that time 3,400,000 Swiss francs (or $US2,415,000) in March 1991. Both these sales FAR eclipse in $US what either the Swedish or British Guiana stamps have so far obtained.
And that would surprise most in the stamp trade I imagine - and certainly nearly all collectors..
The British Guiana served as the centrepiece for John duPont's British Guiana exhibit that won the Grand Prix International at "Ameripex 1986" in Chicago.
It is a rather ugly stamp, and is also in defective condition, but it has the recognition by most as "the rarest". Which of course is quite untrue - many other unique stamps also exist. And sometimes sell for just a few $100s or $1000s each if from unpopular countries. However the 'British Guiana' has been the undoubted "glamour" item over the years.
Mr duPont, the eccentric multi-millionaire connected to the US chemical fortune was sentenced in 1997 to 40 years incarceration for murder (but whilst deemed to be mentally ill, thus sparing him a life sentence) for the 1996 slaying of Olympic wrestler David Schultz.
District Attorney Patrick Meehan described duPont as: "the wealthiest murder defendant in the history of the United States."
DuPont was less wealthy in 1999 when a wrongful death suit was settled with Shultz's wife for $US35 million. The exact present whereabouts of the 1¢ magenta is unknown - but is believed to be in a bank vault in Philadelphia.
When this stamp next comes on the market it is anyone's guess as to its realisation. Mr duPont is now 65 years old and is still incarcerated.
Worth $US374 BILLION a kilo?
My guess would be that a $US5 -10 million price is VERY possible if sold now. This would make its value, assuming it is of similar weight as the Swedish stamp, around $US187-374 BILLION a kilogram, depending on how high the stamp was bid to! (Out of interest the Swedish stamp is presently insured for $US15 million.)
It is my opinion that if there were an auction where BOTH these stamps were offered side by side, and both were at that time still unique, and both really sold and were actually paid for, the British Guiana would sell for about twice that of the Swedish error.
An unsubstantiated rumour developed in the 1920s that a second copy of the British Guiana stamp had been discovered, and that the then owner of the stamp, wealthy industrialist Arthur Hind, quietly purchased this second copy for a very large sum and destroyed it by lighting it with his cigar. "I still own the World's Rarest Stamp" was his smiling response - or so the legend goes.
Arthur Hind died in 1933 and left his stamp-collection as a part of his estate. His widow, however, claimed that the 1¢ British Guiana stamp had been given to her by her husband. A court upheld her claim and in 1939 the stamp was sold to Frederick Small, an Australian living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for a price stated variously to have been between US$40,000 to US$75,000.
This was a sale that was to remain confidential for over 30 years. During that period, almost no one in philately had any idea who owned the great rarity, although it was loaned for major exhibits.
Small owned and sought many of the great "classic" rarities including several of the legendary Western Australian 1854 4d blue "Inverted Swans".
In 1969 Small decided to sell the stamp and consigned it to auction at the firm of Robert A. Siegel in New York City. The stamp's ownership thus became widely known. At this time, USA based rare stamp dealer Irwin Weinberg formed a syndicate with the goal of purchasing the stamp at the Siegel auction in January, 1970.
The night of the auction was a glittering event held at New York's Plaza Hotel with Siegel's vice president, Andrew Levitt the auctioneer. With live television cameras pointed at the podium, Levitt knocked down the 1¢ Magenta to Weinberg's syndicate for $US280,000. The sale created such media interest that Levitt was featured in a special article in "Life Magazine".
Weinberg, who told the tale of his syndicate's ownership of the stamp on a special program on cable television's History Channel, got a lot of mileage out of his ownership of the rarity. He literally toured the world with it and placed it on display at major exhibitions around the world. Obviously, this venture was geared to drive up the value of the stamp. The results were spectacular!
The sale to duPont for $US935,000 gave Weinberg a VERY nice return for only 10 years of ownership ... and a LOT of publicity!
A second 1¢ Guiana emerges?
At one point, controversy broke when it was suggested that the 1¢ stamp was a "doctored" copy of the magenta 4¢ stamp of the 1856 series, which was VERY similar to the 1¢ stamp in appearance. These claims were disproven.
In late 1998 a German opera singer by the name of Peter Winter claimed to have a second 1¢ magenta. Winter’s tale was that he had met a Romanian dancer, called Mia Corojeanu, whose grandfather had worked as a valet for Grand Duke Alexei Michailovich.
Corojeanu told Winter that the Grand Duke – a keen philatelist who was a member of the Royal Philatelic Society, London – had given the stamp to her relative and it had stayed in the family. As she needed money Mia sold it to Winter for just under 10,000 Deutschmarks.
Doubts were raised because Winter had been known in
Germany for producing a large number of copies or forgeries of stamps and
philatelic material. He also had the second British Guiana 1¢ magenta repaired
as it had a tear down the left hand side.
Contrary to this, experts in Germany and Switzerland – Herr Rolf Roeder and the philatelic auctioneer David Feldman respectively – have stated that they believe Winter’s 1¢ magenta to be genuine. Whether it is or not remains to be seen, but if it is it will become one of the great modern philatelic finds. Current owner is Peter Winter’s son who received it as a gift on his 21st birthday in 1992.
As they say .. the last word in NEVER written in Philately! After near 150 years neither stamp is free of controversy and speculation. Watch this space.
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