A Rare Class of Canadian Stamps: The Pence Issue 1851

A Rare Class of Canadian Stamps: The Pence Issue 1851

With so many people looking for different ways to invest their money these days, stamp collecting is proving to be a lucrative option.

Once thought to be the pastime of nerds and introverts, philately is attracting a new generation of stamp collectors. Just recently at an auction in Ottawa, Canada, a 12 Penny Black stamp sold for close to $300,000 (CAD).

History of the 12 Penny Black Stamp

The 12 Penny Black stamp, officially known as the Black Empress of Canada, was issued in 1851. It features the likeness of Queen Victoria from the 1837 royal portrait by the artist Alfred Edward Chalon and became known as the Chalon Head.

It was printed in New York on laid paper, which has a ridged, grid-like texture. It is the third in a line of Canadian stamps produced in the same year, known as the Pence Issue. The other two stamps in the series are the three-penny Canadian Beaver stamp (the first stamp to feature the image of an animal) and the Prince Albert six-penny stamp. As was customary at the time, these stamps had smooth edges and no perforations.

According to The Unitrade Specialized Catalogue of Canadian Stamps, the remainder of the 12 Penny Black stamps were destroyed. They estimate that there are around 150 Black Empress stamps in existence today and only five unused specimens like the one recently sold at auction. These other fine specimens can be found in the Canadian Postal Archives and the Tapling Collection.

The 12 Penny Black Sold For $292,500 on January 21, 2023

The Black Empress that came to auction in Ottawa is a rare and highly sought-after stamp, not only because it’s a legendary Canadian classic but also because it is in immaculate condition.

A Rare Piece of Canadiana

To preserve such a delicate item for 170 years without any rips, tears or glue marks is remarkable and only adds to its beauty and value.

This particular 12 Penny Black stamp maintains the same fresh, intense colour as if it had just come off the printing press. It is framed with generous, well-balanced margins and the detailing of the Queen’s image is crisp and sharp, the paper in pristine condition. It is a mint-condition example of an iconic rarity and believed to be one of a pair.

A Rare Gem From Front to Back

If a stamp is to hold its value, the back must be as equally impressive as the front and this example does not disappoint. From corner to corner, the original gum is intact with no bends, breaks or blemishes. On top of that, this stamp has never been hinged, meaning it was never mounted for display but kept in its original condition.

The general manager of Sparks Auction in Ottawa, Peter MacDonald, described this 12 Penny Black as "a rare piece of Canadiana, a rare gem" and "one of only two of its kind in such a state… Philatelically speaking, it's a big deal."

Remarkably, the hammer price for the Black Empress didn’t break any world records. But the anonymous buyer is believed to be in possession of the neighbouring stamp that would have been printed side-by-side and shared the same tear sheet.

The name of the buyer was not released, but they are believed to be the same buyer who bought an identical stamp for $327,000 in 2017. After the sale, the buyer was reported to say, "The sisters are united."

The 12 Penny Black was not the only stamp from this period to be sold. A three-penny beaver sold at the same auction at Sparks for $13,500, together with many other rare stamps.

The First Canadian Beaver Stamp 1851

The year 1851 was the moment in history when the British Empire gave Canada the authority to manage its own postal system. Upon receiving the directive from the Government of Canada, James Morris from the Legislative Assembly was appointed as Canada's first Postmaster General. He called his friend Sandford Fleming, an engineer and inventor, who had been instrumental in building Canada’s railroad system, to design Canada’s first postage stamps.

History says they met in Toronto, on February 24, 1851, to discuss the new designs for Canada’s three-penny, six-penny and 12-penny stamps.

The 3 Penny Beaver stamp was Fleming’s idea, but it went against all convention at the time. Stamps usually recognized the sovereign heads of state, not some buck-toothed rodent in the woods. But Fleming was insistent. He liked the idea of the beaver because it was an industrious animal, a symbol of hard work and trade between the Amerindians and the New French settlers, who were building their future and developing new communities across Canada.

The beaver stamp was approved and became the official three pence postage stamp for domestic mail in Canada on April 23, 1851. Not only was it Canada’s first postage stamp, but also the world’s first stamp to feature the image of an animal. It became the official emblematic animal of Canada on March 24, 1975.

The design is quite intricate and full of symbols and emblems. A busy beaver sits at the centre of the image, building a dam close to a waterfall and a patch of trilliums. The image is crowned with the regal crown resting on a bed of flowers, including the English rose, the Scottish thistle and the Irish shamrock.

Accurately estimating the value of a stamp is incredibly difficult. But a good starting point is to consult the latest edition of The Unitrade Specialized Catalogue of Canadian Stamps and the Scott Catalogue. The value of a stamp will also depend on the quality, condition, rarity, market trends and current demand. An unmarked, unhinged stamp, intact with the original glue will also have a higher value.

Canadian Stamps 1851 Pence Issue: An Investment

As more and more auctions come to light, the postage stamps from the 1851 Pence Issue will continue to increase in value.

In November 2009 at their Important British North America Auction, Spink of New York sold an original gum, premium quality, mint condition 12 Penny Black postage stamp from the collection of William H. Gross for $299,100 (USD). It was not a perfect specimen as there marks from it being hinged to an album or picture frame, but it still managed to fetch a hefty sum.

A later example of a premium quality Black Empress came to auction at Spink in March 2016 and sold for $425,000 (USD). Spink Auction House were quoted saying:

"There is no question that this stamp is the finest mint example in existence. Its overall freshness, along with its extravagantly large margins, combined with the fact that it boasts full original gum that has never been hinged – places it in a category unlike any other world-class philatelic rarity in existence."

The higher sales price is owing to its provenance and certification from the Philatelic Foundation NYC, which gave it a grade of "Superb 98." It was also accompanied by a letter dated August 10, 1965 from J.N. Sissions, one of the most highly respected Canadian auctioneers of the 20th Century, who described the stamp as:

"Genuine and flawless, brilliant original gum, never hinged and immaculate in all respects. I believe it to be the finest existing copy."

If you compare the two 12 Penny stamps, you can see right away the superior quality of the 2016 specimen. This estimate is entirely in keeping with the The Unitrade Specialized Catalogue of Canadian Stamps, which lists an example of a Black Empress with a very fine unused (no gum) at $150,000.00, and a stamp with original gum (og) at $300,000.00.

Experts believe that the higher the price you pay for a stamp, the faster it will appreciate in value. But don’t let these high price tags put you off. There are plenty of investment grade stamps to be found in the $100 to $1,000 range. Collectible stamps can be either in mint condition or franked and used. Like most antiques and collectibles, a stamp with a story and provenance is the best investment and most valuable of all.

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