Prussian Blue - prized rarity or printer's waste?
A very quick bit of background. In 1935 George V celebrated his Silver Jubilee (25 years in the throne).
Part of the celebration saw a total of 250 stamps issued in Britain and the Commonwealth.
Whereas most of the Commonwealth used a design which became the first so-called Omnibus Issue (right) with just the country name and value changed, a few countries, Britain included, issued their own stamps, in Britain’s case this uninspiring foursome (below). The one stamp
which interests us is the highest value, the 2½d blue. The colour should be ultramarine, but some stamps are known in a shade called Prussian Blue (below, right) by collectors but was known as turquoise to the print firm, Harrison and Sons.
How did this come about? Well, the firm did print the trials in what we’ll call Prussian Blue, but the
trial stamps were not exactly the same size as the issued stamps so we know they are not from trials.
What did happen was that the king was shown trials in Prussian Blue and Ultramarine and preferred the latter. However, the story goes, Harrisons printed several sheets in Prussian Blue
and then, realising their error, ordered the sheets to be destroyed and printed again in ultramarine and some of those sheets, three in total, somehow got into circulation. The stamps, in the right colour, were issued on 7 May 1935, but now our story moves on to the 2nd July of that year to Edmonton, North London.
A Mr A F Stavridi, a businessman and more significantly a stamp collector, either went into the Post Office in Edmonton, London, OR his secretary did. As we’ll find out there are a number of inconsistencies in the story which makes me suspicious. Anyway, Stavridi noticed the stamp or
stamps, again there is an inconsistency about the number of stamps purchased and according to James Mackay’s book on GB issues 'Under The Gum' which is said to be pretty authoritative, Stavridi had a friend with him who also bought some.
Now, again the story has another variation. In one of them Stavridi rang Stanley Gibbons to tell them that he had some stamps of a different colour to normal, in another version he went to Gibbons shop the next day.
Anyway, he was told to go back to the post office to buy up whatever stamps they still had of the wrong colour. This amounted to 60 stamps, which was half a sheet.
Stavridi then had a conversation with the sub-postmaster Mr Lewis, who told him he had had three sheets in the wrong colour in his order which was delivered to him on 24 June. Stavridi sent the 60 stamps by post to Gibbons which they received on 5 July. This is another oddity; why post what may have been very valuable items when it would take less than half an hour to drive from Edmonton to The Strand or less than an hour by train and underground?
Anyway, Gibbons had the stamps in early July but it was not until 13 September (over two months later) that Reg Phillips of Stanley Gibbons, called the Publicity Department of the Post Office and made enquiries about the stamps. Now, there was plenty of articles at the time
suggesting that the Prussian Blue stamps were colour trials which somehow got into the general stock and circulated.
This gives us an indication of how awful philatelic journalism was at the time, and the nonsense they came up with then just keeps getting repeated even though we know it can’t be right.
As we know, the Prussian Blue stamps can’t be trials because the trial stamps were not the same size as the issued stamps – an elementary check would have told anyone that at the time.
Now, we do know that Harrisons did print a lot of sheets in the wrong colour and what they are asking us to believe is that very few of those sheets somehow got added to the ‘proper’ stock over a month later.
Harrisons did have an internal enquiry and that was basically the line they came up with. You need to remember that they were supposed to be security printers so the last thing they are going to say is that some stamps leaked out. Remember, stamps were money and it was that sort of thing which lead to Perkins Bacon losing their contract to print stamps.
However, there is a serious problem with what we can call the Harrison defence, and something that several writers just fail to mention because it cannot be explained away.
The sheets were printed with two panes each of 120 stamps (20 columns of six) side by side which would have been guillotined at the print works. But one of the blocks of stamps Stavridi sold (above) had the control number on the wrong side (the right instead of the left) so the sheets sold in the post office had not been guillotined as they should have done.
Now, if the story about the wrong stamps just happening to be sent out in error is to be believed you now have to explain how one of the three sheets sent to Edmonton was twice the size it should have been but nobody noticed.
The kindly sub-post master, our friend Mr Lewis, then suddenly remembered he had to separate two of the panes down the first row of vertical perforations of the right-hand pane, resulting in the left pane bearing control and cylinder numbers in both the left and right margins. This lack of guillotining seems only to have affected the Prussian blues. Why was this the case?
Frankly, I do not believe a word of anything Stavridi or Lewis said.
There is a much simpler explanation. Mr Stavridi knew someone at the print works who got him several of the stamps produced in the wrong colour.
However, Stavridi had a problem. He was a collector and knew that for them to be catalogued they needed to have been sold over a post office counter. So he had a word with kindly Mr Lewis and probably a few quid changed hands.
There is another reason to suspect Mr Lewis was in on the act. The used examples you see are all fine used, with neat Circular date stamps or fine wavy lines, and usually on pieces rather than entire covers with the complete addresses.
Gibbons described the Prussian Blue find as “one of the rarities of Great Britain” so they had a vested in interest in the story being true, and Harrisons did as well as they did not want to admit the stamps had been stolen. Everyone wins.
I suggest that is a much more plausible explanation than a few sheets being put on the wrong pile at the print works, no one noticed they were twice the size of the others, they just happened to be bought by someone who was a collector, or his secretary depending on who you believe, and perhaps a mate of his. Stavridi then ran the risk of posting them to Gibbons when he could have taken then in himself, Gibbons wait for two months before doing anything about them and then declare them to be a great find. Believe that and you will believe anything.