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My Greatest Stamp Find

I have been involved with stamps nearly my entire life. My first collection was as a ten-year old boy collecting with my neighborhood buddies. By the time I was done with it, I had more than 3,000 stamps in my collection and sold it for the princely sum of 7.50 in 1958. I don't remember what I did with the money. I think I treated my family to supper at the neighborhood burger joint.

I gave up on the hobby for about seven years and took it up again as an adult. Where before I collected anything I found, I started to look for stamps in better condition and in sets. The first such set I bought was from Vatican City for the 1962 Christmas celebration and paid all of 50c for it.

Though a mere trifle, it was the first knowledgable purchase and only the beginning of a career that would involve the expenditure of many thousands of dollars. Over the years I have bought many individual stamps and collections. The best buy I ever made turned a hundred and fifty dollars expenditure into a sixty-five hundred dollar sale.

My first serious interest in stamps was as a general collector of British Colonies. Especially the stamps of Malta. This interest led to a lifelong interest in the island and the writing of The Cellini Masterpiece under the pen name of Raymond John. Another of my interests was Papua New Guinea. Papua is an enormous island in the south Pacific and the site of many battles during World War II. In 1901 the British issued stamps for the territory of British New Guinea.

These eight stamps showed a native ship known as a Lakatoi and were printed on a variety of papers with a watermark called a rosette which resembles a four-leafed flower. Early printers didn't pay much attention to how the paper was seeded into the printing presses, so the watermark, which has longer petals on one side, could appear in two positions. They also used thick and thin paper. Most of the stamps were printed on watermark horizontal paper with the short petals pointing up. They ranged from one-half pence to pay the postage for letters sent within the colony to half a crown for heavy parcels sent to Australia, Britain and the rest of the world. One stamp, the 2/6 on thick paper and with the watermark vertical is quite scarce and an expensive stamp.

In 1906 the British separated Papua from the rest of New Guinea and overprinted the remaining stamps in stock with the word "Papua" in large serifed type. Most of the thin paper stamps apparently had been used up, leaving the vertical and horizontal watermarks. The 2/6 with horizontal watermark and vertical thin paper are common and sell for around a hundred dollars each. The watermark vertical, on the other hand, is a major rarity and catalogs for 6,000 British pounds in the Stanley Gibbons catalog. It is the scarcest stamp of Papua and missing from most collections. It is also a popular stamp and when offered it brings tremendous prices.

In 1995 I was still a full-time dealer and made regular buying trips through the midwest and the east. I happened to stop at a stamp auction house in the midwest and went through the lots which were arranged for viewing in small binders. I was pleased to see the Papua overprints and I eagerly inspected the set. It was in pristine, lightly hinged condition and as such, in top collectible condition. I eagerly went to the 2/6 and held it up to the light with my tongs. It was the thick paper.

A good start.

I couldn't tell if the watermark was vertical or horizontal and I asked to borrow a dipping tray and watermark fluid. The tray is black and when fluid is poured over the stamp, the stamp paper becomes transparent and the watermark will appear.

I could hardly believe my eyes. I had to take another stamp from the set to compare it, but there it was. Watermark vertical!

I looked up to find the woman who was showing the lots giving me an inquisitive look. Would she get a copy of the Gibbons catalog and examine the stamp, too. If so, my discovery would come out and someone else might decide to bid on it.

I carefully replaced the stamps in their mount and handed the book back to her. The sale was nearly three weeks away and I couldn't wait around until then. I could either go back home and make another trip or contact an agent to bid for me.

I decided on the agent. I gave him a bid of fifteen hundred dollars on the lot to beat out anyone who wanted the stamps but didn't know about the variety. My biggest concern is that one of the biggest Papua collectors in the world was a local and if he got a look at the stamp, I would never be able to buy it. All I could hope was that he didn't get a copy of the catalog, or if he did, that he wouldn't show up to view the lot.

The next twenty days were the longest of my life. The night of the sale I called the agent. He said the starting bid was 75.00. I didn't sleep that night and called him again early the next morning. I had won the bid at 150 plus 10%. A collector of British Oceania stamps had run up the price on me. The auction house would be shipping my stamps the next day.

The parcel arrived certified mail three days later. I contacted the Papua specialist, but he already had a copy and didn't want another one. A day later I sent it off to the British Philatelic Association for a certificate. From there it would be included in a Christie's rarity sale. Four months later it sold for 3,800 pounds or approximaterly 6,500 US.

Now you may ask why the auction house wasn't aware of the value of the stamp. For one thing, the house catalogued the stamp using the Scotts catalog. Scotts is the standard American catalog and usually only lists a value for the most common variety. The watermark variety is listed in Gibbons, which is British, which includes many other color and watermark varieties than the Scott catalogue. Another reason the stamp may have been overlooked is that auction describers must look at thousands of stamps every day. Even if he (here the gender denoter is correct, I know of only one female describer) has a Gibbons catalog, most will not take the time to look for possible varieties. In short, it is one of the things that makes the hobby so fascinating. Anyone who has found a valuable antique knows the feeling.

Happy hunting!

John Anderson is a retired dealer in stamps and collectibles. He is now a full-time writer. His novel, The Cellini Masterpiece, was published under the pen name of Raymond John by iUniverse in October of 2004 and is available in select bookstores and on the web. He will happily answer questions sent to


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