In 1841, when stamp collecting began as a hobby, there were only three issues to collect – the Penny Black, Twopenny Blue and Penny Red, all British.
One day in that year, The Times newspaper published a letter asking readers to send postage stamps to a young girl who was making a collection of them. Her name is unknown, but whoever she was, she was probably the first philatelist, as stamp collectors are officially known.
The First Collections Were not into Albums
However, these first collections were not put into stamp albums. The first albums did not appear until 1862 and they were virtually works of art in their own right. Some were made of fine leather inlaid with gold leaf decorations. Today, they are themselves collectors’ items, particularly if they are in fine condition.
Until 1862, though, postage stamps were stuck on any surface that could hold them: chairs, tables, walls, cupboards and even ceilings.
One of the early collectors made a map of England and Wales using 2,139 stamps. Somewhat later, after they were first issued in France (1849) and India (1854), another collector covered a large screen with stamps of these two countries. One London dealer covered his office walls with seventy thousand stamps.
This included a wreath of leaves carrying the message “composed entirely of small portions of Emperor Napoleon III French stamps”.
Albert Schafer’s Stamp Room
One of the most astonishing collections of this kind belonged to a circus performer and acrobat called Albert Schafer (1876-1959) who decorated an entire room and its contents from hundreds of thousands of stamps. He worked on his Stamp Room at his home in Chiswick, London, while he recovered from falling off the high wire at the circus.
The room, which took Schafer some sixty years to construct, contained a plate decorated in the popular Chinese willow pattern, an entire tea service, a guitar, piano, fireplace, mantlepiece and ship. The fireplace alone required three thousand stamps before it was finished. There was even a portrait of Schafer made entirely out of stamps, most of which were British Penny Reds issued between 1841 and 1879.
Rare Stamps and Millionaire Collectors
In time, though, stamp collecting became a much more serious business. The first dealer, Jean-Baptiste Moens began selling stamps in 1852 from his book shop in Brussels, Belgium. Belgium, like France had started to issue stamps in 1849, two years after the United States, in 1847. Austria joined in in 1850, and so did two of the Australian states, Victoria and Tasmania which at the time, belonged to the British Empire.
Collectors began to take better care of their stamps and once it was discovered that some of them were rare and valuable, wealthy collectors started to take a keen interest.. A particular focus for these collectors, many of whom were multi millionaires, was the one cent magenta of British Guiana (Guyana) which was first issued in 1852
The Adventures of the One Cent Magenta
Today, this issue is still regarded as the world’s most valuable stamp, for there is only one known genuine copy of it. The one cent magenta first came to light as a philatelic treasure in 1873, when Vernon Vaughan, a 12-year old Scots schoolboy living British Guiana, found it on a letter belonging to his uncle. The stamp was not listed in the boy’s catalogue, indicating that it was unusual.
Shortly afterwards, Vernon sold the stamp for a modest sum to a Guianese dealer called McKinnon.The stamp’s rarity soon became famous and it was bought and sold by several collectors at a steadily increasing price until it was purchased in the 1880s by the Austrian philatelist Philippe von Ferrary for US $750.
Von Ferrary was probably the world’s richest man in the late 19th century and he was, in addition, rather eccentric. He would appear at stamp auctions all over Europe in a torn suit and greasy beret, looking every shabby inch a down-at-heel tramp.
Beware of von Ferrary
Other bidders at auction soon learned to be wary of him, though, for von Ferrary spent most of his enormous fortune on stamps and was able to bid far above what other collectors’ finances could permit. The one cent magenta, in fact, was not the only unique rarity von Ferrary owned. Another was an error, the treskilling yellow of Sweden issued in 1855, which he purchased in 1894.
Burning the World’s Rarest Stamp
Ferrary died in 1917 and when his massive collection was auctioned five years later, the one cent magenta it was acquired by another multi-millionaire,the American Alfred Hind. Some time later, though, Hind discovered another copy of the stamp in Paris.
This, of course, damaged the stamp’s reputation as the only one of its kind in the world. There was only one thing Hing could do. He bought the second copy for a huge sum of money and burned it so that his first, Ferrary, copy would remain unique.
Harlow, Alvin F. Paper Chase: The Amenities of Stamp Collecting (Classic Reprint): Los Angeles, California: Forgotten Books, 2010) ISBN-10: 144004385X/ISBN-13: 978-1440043857
Mackay, James A.: The World Encyclopedia of Stamps and Stamp Collecting (London, UK: Lorenz Books, 2005) ISBN-10: 0754815307/ISBN-13: 978-0754815303