Watch a rich person pay $85,000 for something a rat peed on

Take my moneyI love a good auction. Whether it’s watching my dream home being fought over by people who can actually afford to buy it, or watching Beryl make five pounds for her Edwardian comb on Bargain Hunt, it’s supply and demand at their purest. It’s especially fun when you’re the vendor. Which eBay seller doesn’t love it when a surprise bidding war breaks out over a stash of old Nancy Drew novels?

There’s a doozie of an auction at Mossgreen Auctions in Melbourne this Friday, and while I’m not the vendor, at least no one has to pretend to be excited about Beryl’s comb.

Australia lost one of its greatest philatelists this year when Arthur Gray passed away in May. From the accounts of those who knew him, it seems that when Arthur decided to collect something, he had both the foresight to choose the best pieces – often before their rarity was recognised – and pockets deep enough to make sure he got them.

Arthur’s magnificent collection of ‘Kangaroo and Map’ stamps (the first issued under the new ‘Australia’ brand after Federation) was auctioned in New York in 2007. It made $5,584,000 US (over 7 million AUD). But don’t let me stop you pasting cloth samples into your scrapbook, I’m sure YOUR hobby will pay off someday too.

In recent years, Kangaroo prices bounded out of range for many collectors (downturn? What downturn?), so Australia’s second stamp issue, the ‘King George V’ (KGV) series, already a collector favourite, became even more popular. But Arthur had been quietly forming an amazing collection of KGVs long before they came into fashion. His KGV collection goes under the hammer on Friday, and lots of people will be very excited.

Australia KGV 4d halfpenny Die II violet
This is Lot 324, technically a 4½ penny Die II violet, estimated at $7,500, but I’m showing it because pretty. Image courtesy of Mossgreen Auctions (Melbourne)

As far as obsequious monarchism goes, Australia’s KGV stamps are quite attractive. Take Lot 324, illustrated nearby. There he is, the Queen’s great-grandad, flanked by some sprigs of wattle, guarded by a kangaroo and an emu. Probably the closest he ever came to a kangaroo and an emu in his life.

What makes KGVs so collectible is that over the many years of their release, from 1914 to 1936, this design appeared in numerous denominations (ie face values), each a different colour. Some values appeared in more than one colour. For every colour there are multiple shades. Various papers, watermarks and other markings exist. And then, there are the varieties (minor differences in appearance, due to variations in the printing plate) and the flaws (caused by printing errors or the wear and tear of the printing plates).

KGV collectors are particularly obsessed with varieties and flaws. As with other stamps earning this much devotion, entire books are written about just one denomination with all of its variations. The one-penny (1d) red is said to be the most collected stamp in the world. Its almost endless list of shades reads like a paint catalogue, with exotic names like ‘salmon eosin,’ ‘scarlet vermillion’ and ‘terracotta’. KGV collectors spend hours in dark rooms examining their stamps under UV lamps, hoping to find that rare shade worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars. As a bonus, KGV collectors’ loungerooms have a historically low rate of heroin overdoses.

And yet, addiction is rife. KGV collecting is like smack for rich white men (they are mostly white and men). No sooner is one craving satisfied than the next begins. And that’s why this week’s auction will be riveting. High-end philatelic auctions are a spectator sport. It’s old-school collecting at its jaw-dropping best, as well-heeled businesspeople and rich retirees flop out their chequebooks and aim them at each other, while thousands of children die of preventable diseases in the third world.

Ouch! Look at me being all righteous and cynical. But the fact is, I totally get it. I want to be them. If I really cared that much about third-world poverty, I wouldn’t have spent what I spent last weekend on a pair of skinny-strap Valentino gladiator sandals.

Australia 1d red comb perforation smooth paper rusted clichés
The Rusted Clichés. Image courtesy of Mossgreen Auctions (Melbourne)

Of all the classic KGV sideface issues in this auction, the acknowledged highlight is the ‘rusted cliché.’ (‘Cliché’ is used here in its less-common printing context, not in the “let’s-wear-black-to-the-film-festival” context.) One particular printing plate suffered what has historically been called ‘rust’ during storage. But these days, there’s a strong belief that the damage was caused when the plate was pissed on by a rat.

That’s right. Pissed on by a rat.

You can see the results in the image. It’s the speckled effect around the wattles between the two left units of the bottom row.

This is the only known block of stamps in private hands showing both of the two worst-affected units. If you collect KGV 1d reds, this is perhaps the most awesome item you can get your hands on, short of burglarising a palace or an institute. With a catalogue value of $125,000, bidding opens at $75,000 as I write this, with an estimate of $85,000. It could well go for more. 

It’s worth considering for a moment that this block once cost someone sixpence at the post office – 5 cents at decimal conversion rates.

And it was pissed on by a rat.

(Nerd note: OK, technically, it wasn’t pissed on by a rat. But if I have my printing mechanics right, the thing that the rat pissed on was pressed against this piece of paper. So, you know, ewww.)

Australia KGV sideface selectionI don’t go out of my way to collect KGVs myself. I do stash them away if they cross my desk, but not before running them under my UV lamp (shut up) and checking their worth in my Australian Commonwealth Specialists’ Catalogue to see if a rich collector would be prepared to subsidise my next pair of gladiator sandals.

But you don’t have to be rich to appreciate KGVs, nor even care about their monetary value. A page of cheap, common KGVs can look simply spectacular – one image resplendent in multiple colours. A Warholian rainbow of philately.

So while it’s delightfully batty, I applaud the cult of the KGV. It’s a celebration of the engraver’s art, and the technology of a bygone era. And also a memorial to a rat who couldn’t wait.

If I’ve whet your appetite, the auction is on Friday 30 October at Mossgreen’s Melbourne auction rooms, and the whole catalogue can be seen at mossgreen.com.au. Gentlemen, start your chequebooks!

My thanks to Gary Watson at Mossgreen for their permission to use their images.

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