Rare Stamps: The famous Mauritius “Post Office” issues of 1847

Mauritius is a small island in the Indian Ocean and, amongst other things, it has a special place in the world of philately.  The two stamps known as the Mauritius “Post Office” issues are famous for three reasons :-

  • They were the first British Empire stamps to be produced outside Great Britain
  • To date, only 12 x 2d blue and 14 x 1d vermillion examples are known
    • but they have been forged (so be careful)
  • They are amongst the most valuable stamps in the world
    • A single stamp sold for over Stg £1 million in 2011 (Spinks, London)
    • A pair of these stamps on cover (envelope) sold over Swiss Fr 4 million in 1993 (Feldman, Zurich)

The 1847 envelope is franked with the 1d and 2d Post Office Mauritius stamps, and mailed to Bordeaux France - ordering 30 barrels of wineTheir name comes from the wording on the stamps reading “Post Office”, which was soon changed in the next issue to “Post Paid.”  The “Post Paid” stamps aren’t exactly easy to get either but the former is extremely rare – one example of the 2d blue is owned by Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain. Her grandfather, King George V, bought the stamp in 1904 for the sum of £1,450 for an unused Two Pence “Post Office” at an auction in 1904 – a world record price at the time.  It was reported that one of his secretaries commented that “some damned fool” had paid a huge amount of money for one postage stamp and His Royal Highness replied “I am that damned fool”.


King George V, bought the stamp in 1904 for the sum of £1,450 for an unused Two Pence “Post Office” at an auction in 1904 – a world record price at the time

As previously stated, they were the first “empire stamps” stamps produced outside Britain and the story starts with a young man of 22 years (Joseph Osmond Barnard) who left England and stowed away on the ship Acasta which was bound for Sydney, Australia.  Barnard was very lucky – he was allowed to disembark at Mauritius – the usual penalty for stowing away was the punitive and often abusive ritual of ‘working their passage out’ all the way to their destination.

Postage stamps were still very new at the time and only a very few countries had issued them and were using them.  The establishment and merchant classes of Mauritius, being British subjects living in a British colony, would have seen the first British stamps – the Penny Black and Twopenny Blue.  However, there was a technical problem with the Penny Black insofar as some people were re-using the stamp because the black postmarks were difficult to see on a black stamp, so the British Post Office changed the colour of the penny stamp to red-brown in 1841.

  • 1840, May 6 – Great Britain
  • 1842, February 1 – City Dispatch Post (U.S.)
  • 1843, March 1 – Brazil
  • 1843, March 1Canton of Zurich (Switzerland)
  • 1843,  September 30Canton of Geneva (Switzerland)
  • 1845, July 1 – Canton of Basel (Switzerland)
  • 1847, July 1 – United States
  • 1847, September 21 – Mauritius
  • 1849, January 1 – France
  • 1849, July 1 – Belgium
  • 1849, November 1 – Bavaria

Barnard specialized as an engraver and painter.  It was he that designed the stamps for Mauritius – based on the Great Britain stamps at the time that showed the profile of Queen Victoria.  He printed the stamps in two colours – mimicing the contemporary 1d red and 2d blue of Great Britain.  They are not exact copies and are characterized by their primitive design.  It is thought that Barnard made five hundred stamps of each value, printed in September of 1847.  The wife of the Governor of Mauritius used many of them on invitations for a ball.

These stamps had the words “Post Office” printed on the left side. On the next printing, however, “Post Paid” replaced the phrase, making the stamps with “Post Office” instant rarities.  One particular myth implies that using “Post Office” on the stamps had originally been a mistake. In the book Les Timbres-Poste de L’Ile Maurice Barnard is portrayed as “a half-blind watchmaker and a forgetful old man” who forgot what he was supposed to print on the stamps.

This cannot be true since this can’t be true, since

  • Barnard designed the stamps at 31 years old
  • several “rubber” postmarks used in Mauritius on letters prior to these stamps also used the words “Post Office”

The Mauritius “Post Office” stamps were unknown to the philatelic world until 1864 when Mme. Borchard, the wife of a Bordeaux merchant, found some old envelopes with the 1d and 2d stamps in her husband’s correspondence.  She traded them to another collector and, via a series of subsequent sales, the stamps ultimately were acquired by the famous collector Count Philip Ferrari de La Renotière.  Ferrari (b.1850 – d.1917) was a noted stamp collector, assembling probably the most complete worldwide collection that ever existed, or is likely to exist.  Amongst his extremely rare stamps were

  • the unique 1856 one-cent “Black on Magenta” of British Guiana
  • the unique 1857 Treskilling Yellow of Sweden
  • the only unused copy of the 1851 2c Hawaii Missionary stamp
  • the Buenos Aires “Barquitos” (Steamships) horizontal tete-beche pair
  • one of only three known examples of the 1851 Baden Nine Kreuzer error in greenish-grey

Wishing to make his unequalled collection accessible to the public, Farrary willed it to the Postmuseum in Berlin but as an adopted citizen of Austria living in France, World War I put him at risk.  Leaving his several hundred albums in the Austrian embassy, he fled to Switzerland in 1917 but he died soon afterwards.  The French government confiscated Ferrary’s collection, claiming it as a war reparation and his huge collection was auctioned off between 1921 and 1926 – the entire collection eventually selling for approx. FFr. – a huge sum in those days.

These sales (known as the “Nobleman Sales”) enabled several famous collectors at the time to acquire the rarest philatelic items known, which, arguably, contributed to the development of the hobby in the first part of the 20th century.  Many of the buyers were, themselves, philatelic legends in ther own right.

  • The British Guiana 1c magenta was bought by American collector Arthur Hind, who outbid King George V of the United Kingdom
  • The Treskilling Yellow error of Sweden, after changing hands a few times, was acquired in 1937 by King Carol II of Romania.
  • The “Bordeaux cover” of Mauritius “Post Office” stamps was acquired, at different time by collectors such as
    • Sir Ernest de Silva
    • Arthur Hind
    • Alfred F. Lichtenstein
    • Alfred H. Caspary

The greatest of all Mauritius collections assembled, that of Hiroyuki Kanai, included unused copies of both the 1d and 2d “Post Office” stamps, the “Bordeaux” cover with both the 1d and 2d stamps which has been called “la pièce de résistance de toute la philatélie” or “the greatest item in all philately”.  Kanai also reconstructed several sheets of the subsequent issues.  His collection was broken up and sold by the auctioneer David Feldman in 1993 – the Bordeaux cover alone sold for 4 million Swiss Francs.

The 1847 envelope is franked with the 1d and 2d Post Office Mauritius stamps, and mailed to Bordeaux France

The 1847 envelope is franked with the 1d and 2d Post Office Mauritius stamps, and mailed to Bordeaux France

Following the “Post Office” stamps, Mauritius released several similar stamps issues also bearing an image of Queen Victoria’s profile.  These were locally designed and, like Barnard’s work, rather primitive in appearance.

In 1848, Mauritius issued the first denomination (two pence) of the “Post Paid” issue, one and two pence stamps closely similar to the “Post Office” issue also engraved by Barnard.

1848 Mauritius 2d deep blue earliest impression

1848 Mauritius 2d deep blue

The one penny orange was issued in 1854.

1854 1d dull vermilion

1854 Mauritius 1d dull vermilion

In 1859, Mauritius released a third design, a two pence stamp very crudely engraved by Jules Lapirot, and known as the “Lapirot” issue.  The stamp was described as “the greatest libel upon Her late Majesty Queen Victoria that has been ever been perpetrated” and it was nicknamed in France as the tête de singe (monkey head) issue.

1859 2d blue 1

1859, Mauritius 2d blue, known as the “Lapirot” issue (nicknamed in France as the tête de singe, or “monkey head” issue)

In 1859, the two pence blue was re-engraved by Robert Sherwin.

1859 Sherwin 2d deep blue 2

1859 Sherwin 2d deep blue

The final local product was a one penny red and two pence blue lithographed by L. A. Dardenne in 1859

1859 1d deep red Dardenne

1859 Mauritius 1d deep red, by Dardenne

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One thought on “Rare Stamps: The famous Mauritius “Post Office” issues of 1847

  1. Pingback: Are stamps still a good investment ??? | The Collectors' Shop, Blackrock

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