It was less than one square inch and cost just a penny but it launched a revolution in communications. Now the first “penny black”, the postal stamp bearing an image of Queen Victoria’s profile, is expected to fetch up to £6m when it is sold at auction.
The stamp was a runaway success when it went on sale in 1840, allowing people to send a letter weighing up to half an ounce to any destination in the country for a flat rate of one penny. Eventually more than 68m stamps were sold.
The stamp to be sold by Sotheby’s in December is a pristine impression from plate 1a – the first printed sheet – and is lettered A-1. It has been authenticated by the Royal Philatelic Society and the British Philatelic Association.
It is “unequivocally the most important piece of philatelic history to exist”, said Henry House, the head of Sotheby’s treasures sale. It is “bursting with history” and represents “the very dawn of social communication … allowing people to communicate from all levels of society and business to flourish.”
Until the penny black became valid on 6 May 1840, communications were complex and expensive, with the recipient usually required to pay. Sir Rowland Hill proposed a simple pre-paid postage system using a stamp.
The chosen design used an image of Queen Victoria based on a sketch of her aged 15. The same image remained on stamps for more than 60 years until her death in 1901.
The first penny back is attached to the Wallace document, dated 10 April 1840 and named after Robert Wallace, an MP who led a commission on postal reform.
It includes a proof of the Mulready stationery, pre-stamped letter sheets and envelopes that were offered as an alternative to adhesive stamps. The design, showing images of empire, was lampooned by the public and quickly withdrawn.
The Wallace document was acquired 10 years ago by Alan Holyoake, a British businessman and renowned philatelist. “Isn’t the stamp beautiful?” he said. “The design is a world icon, a design that our current Queen still uses.
“Prior to the introduction of cheap postage, it cost a fortune to send a letter – so unless you were privileged or wealthy, communication wasn’t really possible. Suddenly, the postage stamp just took off. It was the door to mass communication.”
Holyoake said he would be sad to see the penny black sold but was planning to use the proceeds to build another collection.