The stamp dealer was a large man and the day was very hot for an English summer. His office on the third floor, at the top of the building, was stifling. His work table was edged against the window overlooking the Strand. It gave him a good north light, ideal for examining the five stamps arrayed before him. He had bought them in a mixed lot a month before for a ridiculously low price and had arranged for them to be auctioned by Ventom, Bull & Cooper. At that auction house, they were sure to fetch good prices and result in a handsome profit for him.
They were printed in black and bore the pleasing portrait of Queen Victoria engraved from a copy of a painting of the young queen in her robes of state. The portrait had been painted in 1837 by the world-famous Royal Academician, Alfred Chalon, and had been presented by the queen to her mother, the Duchess of Kent, as a memento to her first visit to the House of Lords on July 17, 1837.
A drop of perspiration plopped on to the table top; he had to open the window.
All five were the highest value of the first issue of the Province of Canada (later Ontario and Quebec) – the Twelve Pence Black issued in 1851. With his magnifying glass close to his eye, he concentrated his attention so intensely that the sound of footsteps ascending the uncarpeted stairs did not penetrate his consciousness.
The office door opened suddenly. There was an immediate, sharp gust of air which swept the stamps out through the open window. It was his assistant. Dashing round the table the dealer stood as close as he could get to the window. No scrap of paper met his darting eyes.
With his assistant he rushed down to the street and they searched frantically but unavailingly. The dealer had made an agonizing loss of profit which had been virtually within his grasp. The philatelic world was the poorer by five examples of one of the rarest issues of adhesive postage stamps.
Lachlan Gibb’s collection of Canada was world renowned and very valuable indeed. He had no fewer than twenty-four examples of the Twelve Pence Black when he sold the collection some years before his death in 1922. Twelve of the stamps, five of them used on covers and seven used singles, were acquired by one firm of dealers. There were two partners in the firm. The stamps and covers were put in a rather tatty envelope which was kept in a drawer of the office safe. The drawer, as usual, was crammed full of other papers and the safe was kept locked when not in immediate use. It could he opened only by using two keys. Each partner had one key. Some months later, the partners went to show the Canadian black stamps to a customer. At first they were annoyed at not being able to lay their hands immediately on the envelope. Then, with increasing concern and eventual consternation they turned the drawers contents out and went through them one by one. No Canadian envelope was there.
Asking the customer to call again another day, the dealers searched through the contents of the entire safe, then – meticulously – throughout the office. The Canadian envelope could not be found.
At a long and earnest discussion between the partners, they came to the conclusion that the only possible way to account for the envelope being missing was that, on one of their daily forays into the safe for other papers, the Canadian envelope had fallen out and into the wastepaper basket from which it had been collected with the rubbish and destroyed. There was nothing for it but to face up to the loss.
The salvaging of a Twelve Pence Black stamp many years after it had been placed there by an old man is mostly a legend in the rich tapestry of Canadian philatelic history.
The old man lived in a log cabin on the bank of the St. Lawrence River. He had a valuable deed which he intended to send by post to a banking firm in New York for safe keeping. He ascertained that a packet containing the deed would make it a double-weight letter and postage on it would cost twelve whole pence sterling; he bought one of the new stamps to put on the package.
That evening, early in July 1851, he was seated at the table in his cabin lit by an oil lamp. Painfully, for his hands had become used to laboring toil rather than to writing, he addressed the packet and put the stamp on it. He put the stamped packet in a metal cash box with a close-fitting lid and a curious form of locking device. He intended to take the letter to the post office, several miles downstream, the following day.
Scarcely had he closed the box than his nephew – ‘a good for nothing scoundrel’, as he had been described – entered the cabin and attempted to snatch the box. The old man grasped it and there was a fierce struggle.
The table was overturned. Momentarily the old man gained the advantage and, using all his strength, hurled the cashbox through the window opening into the river beyond.
The oil from the lamp had spilt on the floor and the cabin had become a seething mass of flame. The nephew, realizing that he had been foiled in his attempt to rob the old man, dashed out into the night, leaving his uncle to the mercy of the flames.
The old man struggled to his feet and tottered out of the cabin. Some neighbors passing on their way to their own cabin farther along the river bank were attracted to the scene by the fire. Into their arms the old man collapsed. He lived only a few minutes longer but was able to tell them what had happened. A few days later the nephew was brought to justice.
In 1892 part of the St. Lawrence River by the now derelict cabin, was being dredged. The dredger brought the cashbox to the surface. The box had been remarkably well made for the contents were virtually unharmed by their long immersion. The address on the envelope was almost as legible as when it had been written on that far distant evening.
The rightful owner was traced through the bank and the box and contents were delivered to him. The Twelve Pence Black was a fine example and was sold subsequently for £70.
Responsibility for operation of the post office was transferred from Great Britain on April 6, 1851 to the Province of Canada, which had been created in 1840 when Parliament passed the Union Act joining Upper Canada and Lower Canada. A 3d. Red stamp, designed by Sir Sandford Fleming of Toronto for James Morris, the Postmaster-General, was issued on April 23rd that year and a 6d. Stamp in slate-violet was distributed to post offices on May 15th.
It was on June 14, 1851 that the Twelve Pence Black was issued. Like the other values, it was engraved by Alfred Jones under the direction of James Parsons Major, a script engraver and designer and head of the engraving department of Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson of New York who printed the stamps in sheets of 200, in two panes of 10 rows of 10.
The highest denomination was inscribed TWELVE PENCE instead of one shilling because the term shilling in colonial currency in those days had a different significance in different parts of North America. In New England, for example, shilling meant sixteen and two-thirds cents, which was equivalent to ten pence. In New York, shilling meant twelve and a half cents, equaling seven pence-half penny. ‘Twelve pence’ admitted of no misunderstanding about the actual value of the stamp.
Only 255 sheets of the Twelve Pence Black were printed. The stamps were distributed throughout the province. They remained available for use until December 4, 1854. Only 1,450 of the 51,000 printed were sold in the three and a half years of their currency. After remainders had been returned, the stock on hand was destroyed on May 1, 1857.
It has been estimated that about 130 of them exist today. Two used pairs are known, so are five mint pairs. Perhaps five covers from the Gibb collection are all that exist. There is something like 50 mint, and slightly more used, singles. In Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue, Part 4. Vol. 19, 1992/93, a mint example is priced at £60,000 and the most expensive used single is listed at £40,000. However, in Greg Manning’s Auction held in London’s Gloucester Hotel on May 10, 1980, a superb mint example with sheet margin at right and with full original gum realized £55,000 plus 10%, thus totaling £60,500. The mint example was once in the renowned Dale-Lichtenstein collection. At David Feldman’s September 1979 auction in Zurich a superb used 12 pence with sheet margin attached realized SF132, 000 (about £48,000). These results are far and away world-wide records for the stamp.
The Twelve Pence Black is known on two different types of paper. The first is laid paper, that is, it has a pattern of alternate light and dark, parallel and closely spaced lines visible when the stamp is held to the light and looked through. Stamps on this type of paper are known both unused and used. The second is wove paper which reveals no particular pattern when held to the light and looked through. Stamps on wove paper are known only used. At one time a substantial difference in pricing existed between stamps on the different types of paper. That difference no longer remains.
Existence of the plate from which the Twelve Pence Black was printed was demonstrated dramatically after repeated statements had been published in leading textbooks and articles that it had been destroyed together with other items used in the production of Canada’s early issues. In 1963, the Royal Philatelic Society of Canada held its annual convention and an exhibition in Windsor, Ontario. Post Office officials attended the banquet which was the social highlight of the proceedings. They brought with them a sealed box. During the dinner, the box was ceremoniously opened. Among its contents was the defaced printing plate of the Twelve Pence Black. It had been sent to Canada on March 26, 1857. It is now displayed in Canadian Postal Archives which is part of National Archives of Canada at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa.
As far as mere rarity is concerned, the allegedly unique envelope stamp of R.W. Kelly, the postmaster of New Carlisle, Gaspe, is Canada’s leading issue, but Canada’s best known classic rarity is the Twelve Pence Black.
Canada became a Dominion on July 1, 1867 and a Post Office Act of 1867 put all the Dominion’s postal affairs under Ottawa’s Post Office Department, with a Postmaster-General responsible for the department’s operations.