1892–1922: Ferrary and France

Philipp La Rénotière von Ferrary, from The Philatelic Record, vol. 11, 1889. Courtesy of the Collectors Club, New York City

Philipp La Rénotière von Ferrary was an Austrian of noble birth living in France. He devoted his life to philately and amassed the greatest and most comprehensive collection of stamps ever assembled. He had a particular fondness for legendary rarities and counted among his acquisitions seven 1847 “Post Office” Mauritius stamps, an unused 1851 two-cent Hawaiian Missionary, and the 1855 Swedish Treskilling yellow error.

Ferrary’s acquisition of the One-Cent Black on Magenta greatly enhanced the reputation and recognizability of the stamp, but in the three decades following the publication of Bacon’s work on the stamps of British Guiana little new was published on it. By 1893 the stamp—now accurately described and, in L. N. Williams’s phrase, “almost a legend”—began appearing in catalogues. C. H. Mekeels listed the stamp at $500 used and, amusingly, $750 unused. In the same publication the 2-cent cottonreel on rose paper was valued at $1,010.

In 1899 Harmsworth’s Monthly Pictorial Magazine printed an article, “Postage Stamps Worth Fortunes,” that included an interview with Charles J. Phillips, owner of Stanley Gibbons, Ltd., of London. This article speciously described the One-Cent as an “error,” an inaccuracy that would periodically be revived:

Most people imagine the Mauritius to be the rarest and most valuable of stamps. In this they are wrong. Mr. Phillips credits the 1856 British Guiana, black on magenta, with this honour.

By an error, which was quickly rectified, certain of these stamps were lettered “one” instead of “four.” If you can obtain a copy in which this error is apparent it will readily bring £1,000 ($5,000).

At present only one copy is known to be in existence and that is in Paris. It holds an honoured place in the magnificent collection belonging to Mons. Ferrary, son of the late Duchess Galliera.

February 1900 would see the publication of Bacon’s article on the discovery of the 2-cent cottonreels of 1851 in The London Philatelist. This is perhaps the last great work on the early years of the One-Cent as it includes the story of the original sale of the McKinnon collection as recounted by Thomas Ridpath himself. Bacon spoke to him just in time: Ridpath died on 28 October, at age forty-nine. Save for Andrew Hunter, who originally received the stamp in the mail, he would be the first owner of the stamp to die.

In Stamp Collecting as a Pastime by Edward Nankivell, published by Stanley Gibbons in 1902, a short well-researched biography of the stamp appeared. Nankivell was unequivocal about the status of the One-Cent: “This stamp may safely be placed at the head of great rarities. Of its value it is impossible to form any opinion. If a dealer had the disposal of the copy in question, he would probably want between £1,000 and £2,000 for it, with a decided preference for the larger sum.”

The reclusive Ferrary never exhibited his stamps and it was long believed the stamp never left his rooms at the Hôtel Matignon; however, a story purportedly from 1905 and published in the San Francisco Sunday Call in 1906 disagrees:

Ferrary was inspecting an art collection on one occasion when a large and handsome canvas that occupied a great portion of wall space was pointed out to him as the most valuable picture in the salon. “It is worth all of £1,800,” said his Informant. “Then it is not the most valuable picture here,” replied Ferrary, and he produced from the depths of a pocket, a card case, inside was a tiny piece of paper, which he carefully held up for his friend. “This,” he continued, “is far more costly than your beautiful painting.” “And pray, what is its value?” exclaimed his incredulous auditor. “I prize it so highly,” answered Ferrary, “that if you were this instant to offer me £3000 for it, I would not take it.” And the bit of paper that the speaker delicately poised on his finger was merely a postage stamp, not one of the elaborately engraved and beautifully colored contrivances with which the patrons of the mails are familiar, but a crude affair whose typographical appearance would not be endorsed by the humblest printer in all Christendom. The stamp that Ferrary valued so highly is the most precious of all the gems in the realm of philately. It is a British Guiana 1 cent Issue of 1856, and only one genuine specimen of this stamp is known to exist.

During the One-Cent’s golden jubilee year of 1906 the British Guiana Philatelic Society held a stamp exhibition in Georgetown. One display of the stamps of the colony in the Class II general collections category contained a 12-cent cottonreel and an 1856 4-cent black on magenta. This was deemed “without a doubt the finest mounted general collection in the Exhibition,” but, it was reported, “the collection arrived after the judging had been finished, and thus failed to secure a medal, which it richly deserved.” The exhibitor was a Mr. L. V. Vaughan. Two years later, the London Philatelist published an article by the President of the British Guiana Philatelic Society, Mr. Arthur D. Ferguson. The piece recounted the story of the find of the One-Cent and subsequent sale to Neil McKinnon as told to the author by Vaughan. This appears to be the first published account given by the finder and is the basis of all subsequent narratives of the discovery of the stamp.

L. Vernon Vaughan, no longer a twelve-year-old schoolboy. Reproduced from a souvenir of the Daily Chronicle Exhibition, 1940. Courtesy of Peter Lazar, Philatelic Collector Inc.

British Guiana Philatelic Journal 1906 - Collectors Club

And yet, at the time, the philatelic world might have been possessed of more facts about Vernon Vaughan than about the enigmatic Philipp von Ferrary. As a boy, Ferrary had been encouraged to collect by his mother, supposedly to provide a diversion from his obsession with the Franco-Austrian War. Ferrary’s parents were both fantastically wealthy, but he refused to accept either his father’s inheritance or his title, Duke of Galliera. When his mother left Paris, she gave the magnificent Hôtel Matignon to be used as the Austro-Hungarian embassy, with the proviso that her son could keep an extensive apartment there for the remainder of his life. (The Hôtel Matignon is now the official residence of the Prime Minister of France.)

On 2 February 1913, Ferrary’s stamp curator, Pierre Marie Mahé, died. Mahé had been in the stamp business since the earliest days of the hobby and had been one of the first to open a shop in Paris in the 1860s. It is said that he charged a small commission on purchases made on behalf of Ferrary as a dowry for his daughter, and in the course of many years, this dowry must have reached a very considerable total. Mahé was eighty years of age when he died. A little over two weeks later, 17 February, the world lost E. Stanley Gibbons, founder of the eponymous, and still very active, stamp business.

But Ferrary was soon to face more serious changes than those. When the Great War broke out in July 1914, Ferrary was in Holland. As an Austrian citizen he was technically an enemy of France and so, unable to return to France, he took up residence in Lausanne, Switzerland. In January 1915 he rewrote his will, leaving his entire collection to the Berlin Postal Museum. Records show he may well have been able to return to Paris during 1916, and if this is true, it would have marked the last time he saw his collection.

Philipp de la Rénotière von Ferrary died at age 67 on 20 May 1917 in Switzerland. He suffered a fatal heart attack in a taxicab, reportedly returning from a visit with a local stamp dealer. He had been in ill health for some time. Ferrary’s will was made public late in 1917. In it he stated his desire that “The philatelic legacy, to which I have dedicated my whole life with the utmost commitment, I leave with pride and joy to my German fatherland.” But with Ferrary’s stamps secure in Paris, France had no intention of releasing the collection.

Initially the French sequestered the collection, demanding five million francs in inheritance tax plus a further million in related charges from the cash-strapped Berlin Postal Museum. They then seized the collection as enemy property under provisions of the Treaty of Versailles that came into effect in January 1920. The French government then announced that the collection would be sold at auction, with the proceeds from the sale being deducted from the war reparations owed by Germany to France. At some point following this announcement two bids were rumored to have been received for the collection as a whole. One from an unknown American collector, possibly Arthur Hind or Alfred Lichtenstein, for approximately 11.5 million francs, and one from Stanley Gibbons, Ltd., for 14 million. Both were declined.

After nearly forty years, the One-Cent Black on Magenta was about to leave the Ferrary collection. The stamp was to be offered as lot 295 at the third sale on 6 April 1922 and was expected to sell for an unprecedented sum for a single used stamp.

1922: The Ferrary Sale

Front cover of Gibbons Stamp Monthly, March 1965, with Mr. and Mrs. Finbar Kenny. Courtesy of Peter Lazar, Philatelic Collector Inc.

 Fourteen auctions, under the supervision of Monsieur Gerard Gilbert and spanning from 23 June 1921 to 26 November 1925 were needed to disperse the confiscated stamps from the estate of Philipp von Ferrary.  The greatest stamp collection the world has ever known was divided up into over 8,000 lots, some of which contained more than 10,000 stamps. Descriptions were meager, no guarantees as to authenticity or condition were offered, viewing was limited, and complaints were ignored. Still, nearly 200,000 stamps went under the hammer at the famous Hôtel Drouot, including almost every rarity then known, achieving a total of over 27 million French francs.

The 1856 One-Cent Black on Magenta appeared as lot 295 in the second session of the third sale on the afternoon of Thursday, 6 April 1922. Private viewing of the sale had been available at the offices of Monsieur Gilbert at 51 Rue Le Pelletier on the previous Monday. The stamp’s first ever public viewing took place on the afternoon of Tuesday, 4 April, exactly sixty-six years after its cancellation in British Guiana.

Lot description, no. 26, of the British Guiana in the 1922 Ferrary catalogue. Courtesy of the Collectors Club, New York City

Speculation was rife as to the possible selling price of the stamp. A general consensus appeared to be between 165,000 and 220,000 francs ($15,000–20,000). The previous two Ferrary sales had already set records; however, the franc had strengthened considerably against the dollar in the intervening months, thereby diminishing the spending power of the Americans. On the afternoon of the sale, room seven of the Hôtel Drouot was packed. The world’s greatest collectors, mostly represented by agents, mixed with major dealers, the press, and the simply curious to witness the sale of “the world’s rarest stamp.”

Photo plate 7 from the catalogue of the third part of the Ferrary sale, including the first published photograph of The British Guiana. Courtesy of the Collectors Club, New York.

The Alsatian tobacco magnate and collector Maurice Burrus attended in person. Hugo Griebert, a German-born London dealer, represented the industrialist Arthur Hind; Theodore Champion, the great French dealer, was bidding on behalf of Alfred Lichtenstein; and both Alfred H. Caspary and Henry G. Lapham entrusted their bids to Warren H. Colson of Boston. The two most notable European collectors, King George V of England and King Carol II of Romania, also had agents at the sale. (The British Guiana One-Cent remains the only British Colonial stamp lacking from the otherwise complete collection of George’s granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II.) Security was handled by the gendarmerie and even the Prefect of the Paris Police, Robert Leullier, attended.

Lot 295 was described simply in French. “GUYANE ANGLAISE. 1856. 1 c. noir sur carmin, catalogué chez Yvert et Tellier sous le no. 12 et sous le no. 23 dans le catalogue de Stanley Gibbons. C’est le seul exemplaire connu, obl.”

Gilbert, although the expert in charge of the sale, was not the auctioneer. As this was a government auction a French official stood at the podium and called the bids. He opened the lot at 50,000 francs. At first progress was slow as various hands raised the bidding to 100,000. Three contenders, Griebert, Burrus, and Champion, continued to 200,000 in 5,000 franc increments, after which it was left to Griebert and Burrus to battle it out. At 295,000 francs the bid was with Griebert, Burrus advanced a further thousand before Griebert signaled a bid of 300,000 francs. The auctioneer raised his gavel and then paused, confusion in the room had arisen as to who had made the final bid and all eyes fell on Burrus. With a wave of his hand he conceded the lot, the gavel fell, and the room erupted into applause. The following day newspapers around the world carried the news. With the 17½ % French sales tax, the total came to 352,500 francs, £7,343, or $32,500—the world record for a postage stamp and the single most expensive lot in the Ferrary sale.

Arthur Hind had never intended to even bid on the British Guiana. He recounted later that he went for an early morning walk with Hugo Griebert to discuss the sale and during their conversation Griebert talked glowingly about the One-Cent. Such was his enthusiasm that the walk ended with Hind leaving him a bid of $60,000. 

 

Arthur Hind, from the cover of an H. R. Harmer catalogue of 1935. Courtesy of the Collectors Club, New York City

Hugo Griebert, from The Philatelic Magazine, no. 173, 1922. Courtesy of the Collectors Club, New York City

 

Maurice Burrus also claimed that he had no interest in the stamp. In an odd story, he professed to have overheard a conversation between Hugo Griebert and an associate in a café just prior to the auction. Griebert mentioned that he had received a virtual “buy” bid from an American, and armed with this information, Burrus decided to run Griebert up during the sale. This is a little implausible for several reasons. Firstly, Griebert would have known Burrus very well and would have been unlikely to miss the rather large gentleman in a café. Secondly, Burrus was one of the biggest buyers in the first two Ferrary sales, paying $19,000 for a British Guiana 1851 2-cent cottonreel pair on cover, so the One-Cent was bound to appeal to him. Finally, when an experienced auction agent has a bid of three times the world record for a single item, it is unlikely that he would discuss it in public. T NO. 64 HERE

Following Hind’s death in 1933, Burrus, perhaps inspired by Judge Philbrick’s contention in 1882, privately asserted that he thought that the One-Cent was an altered 4-cent. In 1935 the Royal Philatelic Society, London, conclusively disproved this with detailed photography, and issued the stamp a “genuine” certificate. Nearly twenty years later he made a final public attack, in Balasse Magazine, on the authenticity of the stamp that he claimed to have “no interest” in. Burrus’s article was refuted by Sir John Wilson in The London Philatelist, 1952. Maurice Burrus died in 1959.