World Stamps

May 2, 1840, Penny Black cover featured in Sotheby’s Feb. 2 ‘The One’ auction

Feb 21, 2024, 1 PM
This British Mulready 1-penny letter sheet franked with a British Penny Black postage stamp and postmarked May 2, 1840, is one of 16 items offered in Sotheby’s Feb. 2 auction named “The One.” The cover has an estimate of $1.5 million to $2.5 million.

By Jay Bigalke

Sotheby’s will auction a May 2, 1840, Penny Black cover, which it calls “the earliest posted envelope using a prepaid stamp,” on Feb. 2. It is the only philatelic item in the auction house’s “The One” sale, which starts at 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time Feb. 2.

This Penny Black on a Mulready letter sheet has an auction estimate of $1.5 million to $2.5 million.

“The One is a unique, cross-category sale concept that tells an extraordinary story of excellence in craft, artistry, and endeavor from the great civilizations of antiquity to the sports and entertainment worlds of today,” Sotheby’s said in a Jan. 11 press release.

Other items in the 16-lot sale include sneakers worn by basketball star Michael Jordan in six championship games, a cup from a 1622 shipwreck, a 14th-century bronze Buddha statue, and more.

The British Mulready 1-penny letter sheet franked with a Penny Black stamp and postmarked May 2, 1840, was exhibited for the first time in the United States May 3-11, 2014, at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.

The National Postal Museum’s press release announcing the display said it is “the only known item carrying both the Penny Black and Mulready One Penny letter sheet.”

“The May 2, 1840, cover connects us to the very beginnings of philately and the modern postal system,” Allen Kane, director of the museum, said.

Mulready envelopes and letter sheets and the Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, were issued on May 1, 1840, but not valid for use until May 6.

Sotheby’s said: “This pre-paid envelope, the earliest known in existence, was successfully sent, firstly stamped with a Penny Black on May 2nd, then ingeniously repurposed, turned inside out, and remailed as a Mulready on May 4th, the letter covered a combined journey of over 400 miles, all before the official start date for the stamp on 6 May.”

The May 2, 1840, cover is addressed to “Wm Blenkinsop Esquire” in Bedlington, almost 300 miles north of London. Sotheby’s further identifies him as William Blenkinsop Jr., the 35-year-old manager of the Bedlington Iron Works.

The Penny Black stamp is tied by what Sotheby’s describes as a “red double line (evening) May 2 1840 ‘A’ London tombstone date stamp.”

The May 4 turned and resent cover is addressed to “Mr. Blenkinsop, Dalston, Carlisle.” Sotheby’s suggests that he likely was the father of the original recipient.

“Surviving over 180 years, the ornate Mulready envelope sealed with a Penny Black revolutionized the way people from all walks of life correspond, exchange ideas, share news and express themselves,” said Richard Austin, Sotheby’s global head of books and manuscripts. “At the dawn of the AI age, this remarkable object speaks to our innate human desire for connection and the ways in which it has evolved to new heights in the two centuries since.”

The provenance for the cover includes four transactions, starting with a Robson Lowe sale in London on April 27, 1960. The item was lot No. 32, with no value provided for an estimate. Prices realized indicate that it sold for only £140, according to Anna Tisi of Sotheby’s.

On Nov. 3, 1988, Phillips Son and Neale of London auctioned the item as lot No. 224. This time it was offered with an estimate of £20,000 to £30,000, and realized £65,000 (approximately US$125,000).

Three years later, on March 23, 1991, Harmer Auctions SA in Lugano, Switzerland, sold the cover as lot No. 1, with an estimate of “Valuation given upon request.” According to Tisi, it sold for 3.4 million Swiss francs (approximately $2.4 million). 

In the auction catalog, Sotheby’s notes that the item has been in a “Private Collection” since 2006.

For more information, visit the Sotheby’s website or contact Sotheby’s, 1334 York Ave., New York, NY 10021.

This story was updated Feb. 21, 2024.

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