If auctions are about anything, they are about history: making it, celebrating it, retelling stories.
As I have written many times before, objects that raise huge sums at auction often have little intrinsic value in themselves; a masterpiece by Francis Bacon is still no more than a collection of materials – oil paints, canvas and wooden frame – but the creative process, the resulting ‘art’, the proximity to genius and the historic associations that it has make it worth more than its weight in gold.
Ounce for ounce, nothing outside of digital art carries more value than rare stamps. Now one of the rarest – and arguably the most important ever printed – is up for sale.
The first Penny Black went on sale in 1840, revolutionising people’s ability to communicate with each other. Suddenly, anyone could send a letter from one end of the country to the other without the recipient having to pay for a bespoke mail service that excluded all but the wealthy.
The stamp on offer here is attached to what is known as the Wallace document, named after Robert Wallace, who headed up the commission on postal reform. The document is dated April 10, 1840 and the Penny Black became valid postal tender almost four weeks later on May 6.
A simple and inexpensive process coupled with the iconic design of the Queen’s head, Rowland Hill’s ground-breaking concept became a worldwide phenomenon adopted by every country.
Developing the system and service to support that idea was rather more complex, but it is still in place today.