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Culture

Rare English stamps worth millions on show in Berlin

For well over a century, the small number of extremely rare Mauritius Blue stamps have remained under lock and key in collections across the globe. A new exhibition in Berlin brings together 18 examples of the stamps.

The famous Mauritius Blue depicting Queen Victoria of England

The famous stamp depicts Queen Victoria of England

If you thought that stamp collecting was boring, you probably haven't heard about the Mauritius Blue. For well over a century, the extremely rare stamps have remained under lock and key in prized collections across the globe. Now a new exhibition in Berlin is displaying 18 examples of the stamps, the largest number ever to be brought together in one place.

"Hasn't the blue color held fantastically well?" Two collectors smile gleefully as they admire the Mauritius Blue stamp shimmering in the soft light of the museum display cabinet. The surprisingly small piece of paper is printed with a portrait of England's Queen Victoria. Given that 160 years have passed since printing, she appears to be in exceptionally good condition. The stamp which once sold for two pence is now worth millions.

A total of 18 of the 27 known surviving Mauritius Blues, on loan from the Queen of England, are on display for three weeks at the Museum of Communication in Berlin.

“It's like a family gathering!” exclaimed a stamp expert from England in the gloomy light of the museum's treasure chamber. "These are historical treasures of the British Empire," his colleague added. "Whoever observes these stamps is able to undertake a fascinating journey into the past."

Each one is unique

A rare Red Mauritius stamp on a letter from 1847 which contains an invitation to a ball

A rare Red Mauritius on a letter from 1847 containing an invitation to a ball

The almost fairytale-like history of the now priceless stamps began on the small island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean in 1847. The then British Crown Colony published a total 500 blue and red postage stamps carrying the rare inscription "Post Office Mauritius." The red one-penny stamps were designated for letters to remain on the island. The blue two-penny stamps indicated letters to be sent overseas.

Later editions of the stamps all carried the customary "Post Paid" inscription and as such are of much less interest to collectors on the hunt for stamps carrying the extremely rare imprint "Post Office Mauritius." Each stamp was uniquely hand-made and has its own individual history.

Twelve blue and 15 red examples of the stamps are known to still be in existence, although the possibility of further discoveries has not been ruled out. On rare occasions, "Post Office Mauritius" stamps change hands between collectors, although in the style of many a great crime thriller, those in the know lay in wait for the latest twist in the tale of these priceless pieces of paper.

Specialists in the field are hoping that the original printing plate used in 1847 in the production of the stamps will eventually surface somewhere after the exhibition in Berlin. According to experts, the plate would unquestionably be "the most expensive piece of copper in the world."

Stamp with the most powerful aura

The Museum of Communication in Berlin

The Museum of Communication in Berlin welcomes tens of thousands of vistors each year

That the exhibition entitled "A Meeting of Queens" should take place in Berlin is no great surprise. The legendary status of the Mauritius Blue is nowhere so great than in Germany. To date the stamps have provided inspiration for a number of German writers and filmmakers who in their own ways have all contributed to the mythos. In 1904, the former Post Museum of the British Empire had already secured the purchase of a Mauritius Blue.

The international renown of the blue and red stamps outside of Germany remains limited to rather specialized circles.

The most valuable rarity on show in the exhibition is an envelope franked with both the blue and red Mauritius stamps. The letter, containing an order for wine, lay for weeks on end aboard a sailing ship traveling from Mauritius to the French region of Bordeaux in 1847. The so-called "Bordeaux Letter" is the crown jewel of philately - that is, the study of stamps and postal history.

"I offered the owner of the letter 10 million euros," explained one auctioneer, "but he turned the offer down." No surprise then, that the exhibition in Berlin is insured for whopping 50 million euros (nearly $71 million).

Author: Nina Werkhäuser / hw

Editor: Kate Bowen

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