Part I: First Color Error Met With Incredulity

By J. C. Kuhn

When I walked into the village post office in Roundstone, Ireland, I expected to buy an airmail stamp for a letter to Toronto. I never dreamed of buying a sheet of 100 new stamps–that many stamps suited neither my needs nor my pocketbook.

But when I saw the sheet of 15p Bicentennial commemorative stamps that had just arrived–on their day of issue–a whole new experience lay on the post office counter before me.

There for my inspection rested an unbroken sheet of rose pink stamps with a picture of Benjamin Franklin in blue–and little else–for the silver inscription containing denomination and EIRE was missing.

I saw it but I didn’t know what to do. A 100 stamps at 15p would cost 15 pounds, and, for all I knew, every post office in Ireland might have the identical error.

I hadn’t collected stamps for more than 20 years, having left a boyhood mostly-unsorted collection at home when I left. Nothing in those boxes, envelopes, or my abandoned Minkus album would have been of the slightest help to me standing in the Roundstone post office.

Sophisticated knowledge was required here, and I had only a boy’s knowledge, with a smattering of appreciation of first-day-of-issue and first-day covers. I had never sent off for a first-day cover, and I had never bought a catalogue. But as partial compensation I had a quick wit and enough of the gambler in me to enter the water.

I bought 10 then and there, lest imagined hordes of collectors rise out of the Connemara stones to storm the post office and buy all these questionable rarities. A corner pane of 10 stamps was, for me, affordable and manageable.

Then I went to the newsagent’s to get the morning papers, where something might have appeared if this was fast-breaking news. Mrs. Barlow, [continued on p. B12] the newsagent, told me that the papers hadn’t come in that day. (Roundstone was a long way from Dublin, and, if papers were short, our village was not high on the priority list.)

Add to that the fact that the Irish national radio and TV network, RTE, was on strike. Frustration.

Mrs. Barlow also sold envelopes, however, so for one pence each, I bought three envelopes, stuffed them with quickly-conceived letters, and returned to the post office.

Things were exactly as I had left them. So I bought eight more stamps, three for my first-day envelopes and five more “on the chance that . . .” I saw my letters into the day’s post and mounted my bicycle for the two-mile ride home, where the day was consumed with fretful anxiety over the 82 stamps remaining.

Basic Philatelic Instinct

An incoherent sense of philately had now made me buy 18 stamps I didn’t need and mail three letters to myself in Toronto, when I would remain in Ireland for four more months. Philately would make me do yet stranger things before it was all over.

At that moment, around 10 a.m., May 17, 1976, the score between England and Ireland for rare stamp colour errors was: England approximately 100, Ireland 1. And mine was the Irish 1, which was unknown to me and in fact to anyone.

Information of that sort, of relative rarity of stamp errors in the two neighboring countries, was what might expect from a stamp professional. But it was many months before I learned the full extent of my find, back in Toronto, poring over my Stanley Gibbons and Scott’s catalogues.

My neglected stamp education was remedied long afterwards by self-education. Of particular interest as well was that Ireland’s first colour error appeared on its U.S. Bicentennial commemorative, which American event is supposed to be the all-time philatelic great event.

The next morning I returned to the post office, determined to buy what was left, and I felt both exhilarated and depressed to find that there were 79 stamps left on the sheet. When I bought them, I then owned 97 out of the 100.

Whether this was luck or perspicacious reticence on the part of the hot-blooded stamp collectors of Roundstone was still a mystery to me.

Mass Incredulity

The mist began to dissipate nine days later when I stood in Dublin Castle, showing my sheet to Mr. James Sheehy, Director of the Stamping Branch of the Revenue Commissioners, the man in charge of all this.

Mr. Sheehy and his control officer, Mr. Byrne, looked over my stamps with incredulity. I told the story of the discovery to them and they listened quietly, all the time staring at the stamps on the desk.

The postal clerk from whom I had bought the stamps had done some calculations in the margins of the sheet, which I explained to the government officials. My wife observed afterward how those hand-written numbers in the margin held their attention more than the stamps themselves did.

By then, no one was touching the stamps–they had become and were being treated as distinguished objects.

After some examination and discussion, Mr. Sheehy said: “I can’t see any reason to reclaim these. I can honestly say that this got by us, and I feel like the farmer who went to the zoo and saw a giraffe–I see it but I still don’t believe it.”

We laughed politely, and he acknowledged that these had somehow got by their numerous checkpoints, at the printer, in Dublin Castle and in Galway. Mr. Byrne got out a large post office envelope which would give the stamps adequate protection without folding the sheet. We thanked him and left.

After this, for months to come, the Roundstone stamp discovery provided numerous occasions for my heart to pound and my eyes to bulge–on learning of my stamps in Philadelphia at Interphil from various sources, on reading of them in the philatelic press during the summer after Interphil, on seeing in Linn’s for Aug. 30 an advertisement for a single copy at $1,200 and, finally, on sitting in the Biltmore Hotel in New York on Oct. 23 and watching a block of four of my former stamps auctioned off for $3,100.

Five months before they lay on the post office counter, on sale for 15p (27 cents) each, or 100 for $27. Now American dealers had copies for sale in the range of 1,000 each, or very conservatively for the whole sheet, if sold piece by piece, 40 to 50 thousand dollars.

The Whole Story

In the rest of this and four subsequent installments, I will recount my firsthand version–the only completely accurate one–of the discovery and authentication of Ireland’s first colour error.

For reasons that will be explained, this did not immediately turn into a personal news event, but slowly developed into a story which I am telling for the first time. The most specific notice that has been taken so far was on the front page of a Dublin newspaper a few days after I brought my stamps to Dublin. In that story I was known and referred to only as “an alert Canadian professor.”

Numerous people, especially in Dublin, have commended me on my powers of observation–in seeing the error. I readily acquiesce in being called alert or observant, but when all is said and done, finders are not always keepers.

Successful Sabbatical

I am a University of Toronto professor who had a sabbatical leave in 1975-76. My wife and I decided that instead of renting a small flat in London, we would take the opportunity of the space of more than a year to live in Ireland in a house beside the sea.

The academic work which justified the sabbatical was of a sort which mostly required thinking and writing, with no dependence on a large library, so it was a natural and pleasant thing to do.

Just before we left Toronto in July 1975, as our plans were shaping up, Maura my wife read an exciting novel by Robert Graves, Antigua, Penny, Puce, which I recommend to stamp collectors. The name of the novel is derived from a (fictitious) rare stamp, and part of the story involves two absorbing stamp auctions, contested legal claim to the rare stamp, and the daring theft of the stamp at the second auction.

This sounded like the stuff of fiction only. I didn’t take time to read it at the time, so I didn’t know even through fiction the blood-stirring, pulse-pounding effects that rare stamps can induce. Fact has a way of catching up with fiction, as we were to learn in less than a year.

We found a charming house overlooking the sea, two miles west of the village of Roundstone in County Galway, and there we settled in for a long stay. Winter–and the ways of heating a large stone house–called for some adjustment, but it was a blissful time and very productive for my work.

A Rustic Retreat

The village of Roundstone is largely self-sufficient. If scheduled deliveries from Galway, 50 miles to the east, are made to the shops, a villager need not stir very far. The post office is a typical rural institution.
Living just outside the village, but dependent for daily needs on the shops in Roundstone, we soon became well known to most of its people. They were unfailingly kind and helpful, with the loan of spare pieces of furniture and gifts of homeknit apparel.

If anyone had paid attention to this sort of thing, I was probably the champion correspondent in Roundstone during the winter of 1975-76.

My relationship to stamps was then entirely practical. Transatlantic correspondence as well as English and continental letters came and went. I became adept in weighing large letters and manuscript parcels to various destinations and in calculating the correct postage.

The transatlantic airmail rate for a half-ounce was 15 pence. This was high and I managed to keep most letters under the half-ounce.

Occasionally, when I was impatient for a letter from Toronto, I would arrive at the post office not long after 9 a.m., for it was then that the mail truck arrived. Driving west from Galway, Walter (whose last name I never learned) brought the day’s mail (and supplies of stamps); returning east to Galway, he picked up newly posted mail.

An anomaly of the system was that if you wrote a letter to your next-door neighbor, it had to travel 100 miles–50 miles to Galway with Walter to be sorted, and 50 miles back to be delivered.

When Walter passed our house, I knew he had just left Roundstone, so it was safe to go in and inquire if anything had come. If we waited for the local deliveryman, mail rarely came before 12:30 p.m.

Even though we exulted in the remoteness of Connemara, letters meant a lot, with the result that Paddy–his actual name–was like a daily potential Santa Claus. We muttered when he passed the gate without stopping.

Nobody expected what Walter would bring to Roundstone on the morning of May 17.

Contintue to Part 2