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Sotheby's to Sell The Great Britain Philatelic Collections of the Late Lady Mairi Bury, FRPSL
The penny black, the world’s first stamp, was printed from 12 different plates, each of which is featured in Lady Mairi’s collection. Est. £10,000‐12,000. Photo: Sotheby's.
LONDON.- A private passion for stamps has long been the preserve of many an individual since the introduction of the first Penny Black in 1840. One of the most extraordinary figures to emerge in this field in the twentieth century was Lady Mairi Bury. This winter, Sothebyʹs London will bring to the market The Great Britain Philatelic Collections of Lady Mairi Bury, FRPSL, in a sale spanning three days from 24 to 26 November 2010. It is one of the finest Great British postage stamp collections to appear on the market in the last quarter of a century, both rare in content and in impeccable condition. The sale will afford serious collectors the opportunity to acquire sought‐after stamps from a renowned collection, several sections of which are of Gold Medal status. Complementing the stamps in the collection are early examples of printed envelopes and letters that chronicle some of the most extraordinary – and sensational – events of the Victorian period. Comprising 2185 lots, the auction is estimated to bring in excess of £2.6m.

Richard Ashton, Sotheby’s Worldwide Philatelic Consultant, comments: “This collection of Great Britain postage stamps and postal history created by Lady Mairi Bury is one of the finest to have been formed in recent years. Lady Mairi not only acquired items of considerable worth because of their rarity, but also a whole host of more humble stamps and covers that are in immaculate condition”.

Lady Mairi was associated throughout her life with Mount Stewart, her ancestral home in Country Down, Northern Ireland. Built by her Stewart ancestors in the late eighteenth century – and a jewel in the crown of the National Trust since 1955, on account of the gardens planted by Lady Mairi’s mother Edith, wife of the seventh Marquess of Londonderry – it was the location where Lady Mairi pursued her lifelong passion for stamp collecting. This passion can be effortlessly discerned in a collection that is highly revered and esteemed for the intelligence and originality with which it was formed. Lady Mairi was the pre‐eminent Gold Medal winner among the women in her field. This feat is extraordinarily unusual, and it led to her being regarded – with admiration among her peers – as the doyenne of female collectors in the Royal Philatelic Society. She won numerous Gold and Vermeil medals at British and international stamp exhibitions, and was awarded a posthumous Large Vermeil from the Great British stamp exhibition held once a decade in London. Lady Mairi passed away at the end of last year, at the age of 88.

The 1840 Penny Black and Two Pence Blue
The penny black, the world’s first stamp, was printed from 12 different plates, each of which is featured in Lady Mairi’s collection. Proof sheets of each plate were referred to as the imprimatur sheets, and placed in official archives. They have become great rarities because of limited private ownership. There are examples of early trials, including the famous Rainbow series (lot 81, Rainbow Trial 1d. in deep blue, est. £10,000‐12,000). Of particular note in the collection is a penny black from Plate 1A used on the ‘First Day’ of official use, ‘6 May 1840’, from London to Bedale (lot 130, est. £60,000‐70,000). Lady Mairi acquired many of the ‘May’ first month of use dates, including the rare ‘First Sunday’ (lot 136, est. £20,000‐25,000) and the ‘Second Sunday’, being a letter arriving from Calcutta (lot 137, Plate 1A 1d. intense black, used Sunday 17 May 1840, est. £10,000‐12,000). Multiples of the penny black reflected increasing postage rates above one half‐ounce – which the penny stamp paid – and of outstanding rarity and condition are horizontal strips of six from Plate 1B (lot 145, est. £1,000‐1,500) and Plate 2 (lot 229, est. £5,000‐6,000); a block of four from Plate 4 (lot 272, est. £7,000‐8,000); an extremely rare unused pair from Plate 5 (lot 295, est. £20,000‐25,000); a Plate 6 block of four with rare purple‐maroon Maltese Cross cancellations (lot 336, est. £12,000‐18,000); and a Plate 1A 1d. black Imprimatur from the First Registration Sheet (lot 98, est. £15,000‐18,000). An issue of the penny black for official use by Government departments replaced the ‘stars’ with the letters V & R in the upper corners. Lady Mairi was able to obtain an example of the Imprimatur proof (lot 469, 1840 ‘VR’ 1d. black from the Second Registration sheet, est. £15,000‐20,000).

Cancellations in all their varieties were of added interest to Lady Mairi, particularly the incorrect ink applications on the Maltese Cross colour cancelling device. The Maltese Cross was originally specified to be applied in red; though for a short period Glasgow used a shade of magenta (lot 125, Plate 1A 1d. on a wrapper from Glasgow with magenta Maltese Cross, est. £5,000‐6,000).

The two pence blue was issued at the same time as the penny black and is significantly scarcer, with 6.4 million being printed, as opposed to the 68 million penny blacks. The sale will include a superb selection, from a Plate 1 unused example (lot 472, est. £8,000‐10,000), to a used block of four (lot 536, est. £8,000‐9,000).

Line‐engraved issues and Surface‐printed issues
The section of the sale comprised of later line‐engraved issues is of equal importance to any collection formed in at least the past 50 years. These issues date from 1841 to 1870, with the penny and two pence stamps issued in 1841 replacing the famous 1840 first issue. Important examples include a rare Postal Notice sent to all postmasters with samples of the new stamps and postal stationery (lot 868, est. £3,000‐4,000); a magnificent and exceedingly rare mint block of the ‘abnormal’ Plate 23 1d. red‐brown issue (lot 1058, est. £10,000‐12,000); the Small Trial Plate of 12 impressions of the two pence stamp (lot 861, est. £12,000‐15,000); a 2d. blue Imprimatur (lot 869, est. £6,000‐7,000); and a Plate 4 2d. violet‐blue unused (lot 952, est. £10,000‐12,000, one of the rarest unused regularly-issued stamps of Great Britain, almost unobtainable in this exceptional condition). Later line‐engraved stamps include the iconic, unissued 1½d (lot 1326, 1860 Three Halfpence, The Unissued Plate 1 rosy mauve Imprimatur, est. £3,000‐4,000).

The surface‐printed issues form a further highly distinguished section in the sale. A formidable array of the 2s. value stamp, first printed in 1867 in blue and later in brown, includes – among the blue series – rare Die proofs, Specimen stamps and Imprimaturs. The 2s. brown is represented with a block of 8 overprinted ‘Specimen’, the largest known multiple with a specimen overprint (lot 1563, Plate 1, est. £15,000‐16,000); a mint pair (lot 1564, est. £30,000‐35,000); and a single stamp used on a cover to India (very few survive on cover, lot 1565, est. £15,000‐18,000). The 1881 1d. lilac includes an Imperforate strip of four (lot 1622, est. £4,000‐5,000).

The ‘Jubilee’ series
Towards the close of the nineteenth century, a majestic series of stamps issued between 1887 and 1900 was named the ‘Jubilee’ series, since the first stamps were issued in the same year that Queen Victoria celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Accession. Lady Mairi’s study of this issue is the finest ever formed, including extremely rare Imprimaturs; the ½d. vermilion Doubly printed (lot 1697, est. £8,000‐9,000, a major rarity of Great British philately); the 2½d. Imperforate (lot 1743, est. £3,000‐3,500) and 3d. Imperforate (lot 1746, est. £2,000‐2,500); and exquisite hand‐painted essays of several values (lot 1711, 1887‐1900 Jubilee Issue 1½d. Hand‐painted Essay, est. £2,500‐3,000).

King Edward VII
The issues of King Edward VII are comprised of an award‐winning collection for which Lady Mairi was famous. Outstanding in its completeness, these issues include hand‐painted essays, preparatory proofs and colour trials; and a Die Proof of a proposed £5 value which was never issued (lot 2035, est. £6,000‐8,000). Rare shades and some exceptional varieties are notable highlights among the issued stamps.

King George V to Queen Elizabeth II
From the period between King George V to Queen Elizabeth II, many fine examples will be on offer. These include a rarely seen 1929 Postal Union Congress £1 stamp in a half sheet of ten (lot 2097, est. £4,000‐5,000); a 1935 Silver Jubilee 2½d. Prussian blue (lot 2102, est. £5,000‐6,000); the 1941‐41 2½d. in an Imperforate block of four (lot 2117, est. £4,000‐5,000); and the many Queen Elizabeth II colour omissions (the 1963 Paris Conference 6d. green printing omitted (lot 2126, est. £2,000‐2,500) and the 1965 Post Office Tower 3d. with the ‘tower omitted’ (lot 2128, est. £3,000‐3,500).

Postal stationery
Contemporary with the first stamps in the world was the issue of penny and two pence printed postal stationery envelopes and letter sheets. The postal stationery would be addressed and sent without the need for postage stamps (though these could be added if the weight exceeded that allowed for within the purchase price of the envelope or letter sheet). William Mulready, a famous and popular artist at the time, was the designer of the stationery. Lady Mairi collected a wonderful range of his work, examples of the penny envelope and letter sheet, each uprated with the addition of a penny black adhesive. One of the finest examples of an uprated two pence Mulready using an 1840 two pence adhesive is lot 540, 1840 Mulready 2d. envelope uprated with an 1840 2d. blue Plate 1, est. £10,000‐12,000. Mulready’s work was, sadly, much ridiculed and lampooned by the public, resulting in the production of caricature envelopes and letter sheets that had no postal validity, and therefore if being sent required a prepayment in cash, in which case a manuscript endorsement was added, often in the form of a figure ‘1’ sometimes prefixed by the word ‘paid’, or the addition of a penny black or penny red postage stamp. Many of the cariacture productions are extraordinarily rare, and Lady Mairi acquired several examples, including Hume’s Comic Envelope Number 2 the ‘Balloon Mail’ (lot 68, est. £8,000‐9,000) and Number 3 the ‘Elephant in a Kilt’ (lot 69, est. £12,000‐14,000).

One of the great rarities of the entire pictorial series – and the finer of the two known – is Hume’s Musical Envelope Number 1 the ‘Robert Burns’ Envelope, with a black Maltese Cross cancellation (lot 71, est. £8,000‐10,000).

Prior to the introduction of the penny black post, members of the Houses of Parliament could send and receive a certain number of letters without charge. The privilege would soon be withdrawn. Specially printed envelopes were made for use by members, and a standout item in the sale is a ‘Houses of Parliament’ penny envelope sent by Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (lot 1, 1d. envelope printed in black, S.G.PE1, est. £10,000‐12,000).

Infamous historic events
Lady Mairi’s collection casts a light on a number of infamous historic events, including the attempted murder of Queen Victoria, the trial of Madeleine Smith, the Dr William Palmer poison case, and the iron‐paddle steamer Nemesis’ role in the First Opium War.

The attempted murder of Queen Victoria
The year 1840 saw not only the inception of postage stamps but also the attempted murder of Queen Victoria. Lady Bury’s collection includes an envelope with Penny Black (lot 110, GD Plate 1A 1d. grey‐black, S.G. AS2, est. £300‐400), whose original letter of enclosure refers to the attack made on Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at 6 o’clock on 10 June 1840 as they rode up Constitution Hill in a low, open carriage. Edward Oxford, who was nineteen years of age, drew a pistol and fired at the queen, and in quick succession drew another pistol and fired again. The public was quick to react, and immediately overpowered and disarmed him amid shouts of “Kill him! Kill him”. Oxford was committed for High Treason, but sent to an asylum and released 27 years later. Estimated at £300‐400, and sent within London on 13 June 1840, the letter was written on 12 June by Mary Hallam to her friend, Anna Deacon, just two days after the attack.

Rallying sympathy and support for Queen Victoria – who was four months pregnant with her first child – was a welcome outcome of the attack. Parliament was duly reminded that without offspring, Her Majesty’s uncle, Ernst August, King of Hanover, would inherit the throne. Formerly the Duke of Cumberland, the scandals of his former years were still vivid in their minds. A Bill was hastily introduced into Parliament, appointing Prince Albert “Regent” in the event of the Queen being survived by their child. Mary Hallam intuitively anticipated that mercy would be shown towards Oxford and she was convinced that the Queen’s life would thereafter be at risk: “It is really quite shocking to think of the late attack upon the Queen; this is one of the consequences of their misplaced mercy in remitting the first punishment due to rebels & murderers; if this man is not lieing (sic.) the Queen will be murdered ere long.” At the trial, Oxford elicited a degree of compassion because of his tender age and doubts as to whether the pistols he used were in fact loaded. Flourishing under captivity, and dispelling any notions of insanity, he was released in 1868 with the proviso that he emigrated. It has been alleged that he changed his name to Cambridge.

Hume’s ‘Nemesis’ Envelope
Printed envelopes were held in high regard by Lady Mairi, and Sotheby’s sale will present a major rarity of its kind. Hume’s ‘Nemesis’ Envelope is the unique used example, with only one other recorded mint condition unused example in the Royal Collection. The present envelope (lot 70, est. £15,000‐20,000) was used from Edinburgh to Bothkenna on 23 August 1844, postage paid by an 1841 1d. red‐brown stamp. The illustration depicts the Nemesis, an iron‐paddle steamer custom‐built by the East India Company to fight in the shallow coastal waters, estuaries and rivers of China. It became the star of the First Opium War, prized for its unique ability to venture where no sailing ships dared go.

The Nemesis was long, sleek and narrow in design, and able to move freely backwards and forwards. Well‐armed and with an extraordinary shallow draft of only six feet even when fully loaded, she was built in 1840 specifically for the conditions anticipated in the First Opium War, which had just started. Her successful exploits at the time led to the terms of the Chenupi Convention, and the ceding of Hong Kong to the British in 1842. The challenges to be overcome in her design included the conundrum of how to get a compass to function reliably in an iron‐ship – masterfully solved by the Astronomer‐Royal, Professor George Airy, in 1839 – and the unique specifications of building an iron ship large enough to sail to China round the Cape of Good Hope. The Nemesis gained celebrity status – prompting the production of these illustrated envelopes. What gave the story its potential to capture the public’s imagination, is that she was an experimental vessel at the cutting‐edge of technical innovation at the height of the Industrial Revolution, neither commissioned under the articles of war, nor classed as part of the Navy of the East India Company.

The Madeleine Smith Cancellations
Lady Mairi’s collection includes a matched set of Madeleine Smith cancellations from 1857, estimated at £1,000‐1,500 (lot 1207). Madeleine Smith went before a trial in June 1857 for the poisoning of her lover. The case provoked a media frenzy and it documented an illicit affair recorded in over 100 letters written by Madeleine, the 22‐year‐old daughter of a very successful Glasgow architect. The letters were often not dated and the ‘Madeleine Smith postmarks’, as they came to be known, were instrumental in unlocking the chronology of the affair. The prosecution placed considerable reliance on the letters, but the defense challenged their ploy by raising doubts about the original order of the letters, questioning every half‐rubbed postmark. The judge even made pointed remarks in his summing up as to the desirability of legible postmarks from this time forward. The verdict of “Not Proven”, an inconclusive judgment unique to Scotland, allowed Madeleine to walk free from the court, and yet she was unable to escape from speculation over her culpability for the remainder of her life. It is the postmarks on these letters that have continued to fuel the enduring legacy of the trial.

“Lady Mairi’s Eccentricities”
What is perhaps unique about the collection is that Lady Bury’s endeavour not only encompassed seminal examples of the finest extant stamps, but fascinating “eccentricities”, a description that lends itself to the final instalment of the sale, “Lady Mairi’s Eccentricities”. These items were rarely, if ever, placed on view; they remained her ‘private’ holdings which she alone enjoyed. Among the items are a rare 1910 Queen Alexandra unstamped mourning envelope (lot 2152, est. £300‐400), The Wonderland Postage‐Stamp Case Invented by Lewis Carroll (lot 2174, est. £100‐150) and an interesting range of German stamps and covers issued primarily between the two World Wars, (lot 2181, est. £400‐600).

Dr William Palmer, The Rugeley Poisoner
The theme of sensational Victorian crimes continues with the inclusion in the sale of a letter of 26 September 1855 from J. Parsons‐Cook, the last victim of Dr William Palmer, the Rugeley Poisoner, together with the original envelope, franked with the 1854 1d. red‐brown (lot 2145). Estimated at £1,000‐1,500, this letter was sent just seven weeks before the young Parsons was murdered by Dr Palmer. The 12‐day trial in 1856 was one of the most notorious of the Victorian age and was avidly followed by the population in daily newspaper coverage. Dr Palmer (pictured right) had been a respected member of the medical profession before giving up his practice to become a racehorse owner and serious gambler. Running up debts worth £25,400, or £2.5m in today’s money, he attempted to defraud his race‐going friend John Parsons‐ Cook, and when this failed, he poisoned him. Dr Palmer was publicly hanged the following year outside Stafford Jail, an occasion which attracted a crowd of some 20,000 to 30,000 spectators. Conan Doyle clearly followed the trial as he mentions Dr Palmer in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Speckled Band”, a mystery involving snake poison.

*Pre‐sale estimates do not include buyer’s premium

Sotheby's | Lady Mairi Bury | Richard Ashton |


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