Stamp collecting, or more properly philately (from the French word philatélie, derived from the Greek root phil “loving” and the Greek word ateliea “exemption from tax”; incidentally, a person who studies or collects stamps is called a philatelist, ) has been a popular hobby around the world for more than 150 years; it is often referred to as “the hobby of kings and the king of hobbies.” According to the Australia post office, there are about 22 million stamp collectors around the world. Founded in 1886, the American Philatelic Society boasts up to 34,000 members, representing more than 110 countries.
Each year post offices around the world issue more than 10,000 unique stamps (known as “new issues”) providing a vast array of inventory for neophytes and expert philatelists. Post offices generally issue new stamps to honor historical or significant events, people, animals, or places; from time to time they will print limited edition stamps specifically for the philatelic market. As far as hobbies go, stamp collecting is attractive on any number of levels: it is quite affordable (even free, when you consider that all you have to do is peel off stamps from letters that you receive), a collection doesn’t take up a lot of space, and you don’t have to master some vast, arcane body of knowledge.
In the privileged world of diehard philatelists who pursue the Holy Grails (only the rarest of stamps), affordability is the first thing tossed out the window. These philatelist literally drool (hopefully, not over their collection of adhesive stamps) when they learn that a post office made a mistake in the engraving or printing of a stamp that produces a misprint, unintentionally creating an exceptionally rare and very expensive stamp. The more rare the stamp, the higher the demand, and hence the higher the value — exceeding the pocketbook of most mortals. Indeed, the most expensive stamps in the world are worth millions because they are the direct result of rather egregious printing errors. Bookshelf presents a list of the rarest and most expensive stamps in the world.
British Guiana 1 Cent Magenta (1856)
Current value: $935,000 (it will be auctioned in June 2014 and is expected to fetch more than $10 million, perhaps as high as $20 million
Original price: 1 cent
The stamp features a sailing ship printed in black ink on magenta paper. Above and below the ship is the Latin motto of the British colony “Damus Petimus Que Vissum” (“We give and expect in return”). Besides its color, what makes this stamp so distinctive is its unusual octagonal shape — four of its corners have been cut. The one cent Magenta was one of three stamps issued by the post office in 1856; it was to be used by newspapers. A batch of stamps had to be printed at the eleventh hour by local printers, and to prevent forgery, the postmaster ordered a post office clerk to sign each stamp. The only surviving stamp that exists today was signed “E.D.W” by post office clerk E. D. Wright.
U.S. Franklin Z-Grill (1868)
Current value: $8.8 million
Original price: 1 cent
The stamps feature a profile of Benjamin Franklin printed in blue ink, embossed with a z-grille pattern that was supposed to allow for better penetration of the cancellation ink. This is the rarest U.S. stamps — only two exist today.
Penny Black (1840)
Current value: $5 million
Original price: 1 penny
Printed by the British Treasury for the country’s postal system, the Penny Black is notable for being the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. The stamp, printed in black ink, features an etching of Queen Victoria in profile surrounded by an ornate border. At the top is the word “POSTAGE’; at the bottom are the words “ONE PENNY.” Unlike the stamps of today, the Penny Black stamps were not perforated and had to be cut apart with scissors. During a nine month period, the Treasury printed 68.8 million Penny Black stamps. Today, philatelists collect single specimens as well as sheets of the Penny Black stamps.
Treskilling Yellow (1855)
Current value: $3 million
Original price: 3 Swedish shillings
These Swedish stamps were printed incorrectly using yellow rather than blue-green ink. The stamp features the Swedish coat of arms and is one of a set of five different values (3-24 Swedish shillings). It is not clear how many stamps were printed incorrectly; however, today only one copy exists. It shows a cancellation stamp from Nya Kopparberget (now Kopparberg), dated July 13, 1857.
Inverted Jenny (1918)
Current value: $977,00 for a single; $3 million for a block of four
Original price: 24 cents
The stamp was introduced to inaugurate air delivery in the U.S. The stamp features an ornate red border with an engraving of a Curtiss JN-4 biplane, known as a “Jenny” (derived from the initials “JN”), flying upside down. Presumably, the press man loaded the sheets the wrong way on the second color pass, creating this unique misprint. There are only 100 of these in existence today. The most valuable of the Inverted Jenny stamps was a block of four that also features an inverted blue plate number at the bottom of the sheet.
Mauritius “Post Office” (1847)
Current value: $1.67 million for single stamp; $4 million for both the one penny and two pence
Original price: one penny
Inspired by the Great Britain stamps of 1841, these stamps were printed using the intaglio method by the post office located in Mauritius, an early British colony in the Indian Ocean. The stamp features an etching of Queen Victoria, framed by the words: POSTAGE MAURITIUS POST OFFICE; there are two version: ONE PENNY (orange-red in color), and TWO PENCE (deep blue). Using a single plate, only five hundred of these stamps (250 of each denomination) were printed. What makes these stamps so valuable is that they are so rare; only 26 or 27 exist today.
While selling rare stamps remains incredibly lucrative, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) struggles each year to make a profit. 2013 marked the seventh consecutive year that the USPS has had a net loss; for 2013, the net loss was more than $5 billion on revenues of $67.3 billion. Certainly the USPS plays a vital role in the economy, employing almost half a million employees (the exact count is 489,7270, driving more than 211,654 vehicles, sorting and delivering more than 158.4 billion pieces of mail each year. The logistics of running a business of that size are staggering; however, business experts are quick to point out that the USPS has failed to introduce new technology and reduce costs fast enough. Perhaps the USPS might improve their bottom line if they “inadvertently” issue more misprints, like the Inverted Jenny, and sell them at their market value.
For further reading: The Complete Guide to Stamps and Stamp Collecting by James Mackay, Hermes House (2006)