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Rare British stamps: How they can fetch over half a million

Fancy making a bit of extra money? Could collecting and selling rare stamps make you a fortune? Take a look at some of the rarest and most valuable stamps across the UK and the rest of the world and what to do if you think you have a hidden gem.

Rare British stamps

Rare British stamps to look out for:

  • The Plate 77 Penny Red – 1863
  • Edward VII 6d Pale Dull Purple – 1904
  • Penny Black Die Proof – 1840
  • The Roses Error Stamp -1978
  • Edward VII 2d Tyrian Plum – 1910
  • £1 Brown Lilac Stamp -1884
  • Two Penny Blue Stamp -1840
  • Postal Union Congress £1 stamp – 1929

Your starter for 10… what is a stamp collector called? You’ve probably heard it 100’s of times, thought that you would remember it for next time and then forgotten it within 10 minutes.

A philatelist. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Anyhow, stamp collectors have had a lot of bad press over the years. If anyone thinks of something boring, it’s always compared to stamp collecting. However, train spotters don’t get a lot of plaudits either. But why is stamp collecting considered so dull? If you enjoy something, it’s always good fun.

And stamp collecting comes with a bit of an added bonus. Some stamps out there are worth a small fortune, which is partly why it attracts so much interest. Below, I’m going to go through some of the rarest and most valuable stamps in the UK and the rest of the world.

A brief history of the stamp

I am a history lover and love to amaze my kids with pointless facts.

Some of you may have seen my post on rare and valuable coins, which shows another example of items that can increase in value sharply. But unlike coins which have been around for 1000’s of years, the postage stamp is relatively new.

Postmarks (also known as a Bishop mark) were invented and used in 1661 at the London General Post Office by a man named Henry Bishop. Using a hand stamp or ink, they marked the day and month of when the letter was sent.

It wasn’t until 1837 that the first adhesive stamp was invented by Sir Rowland Hill, a schoolmaster who was later knighted for his efforts. This led to the creation of the first stamp – the Penny Black released on May 6th, 1840. The idea for the stamp was simple. You paid a certain amount of money depending on the weight of your item.

Of course, as computers and phones continue to develop, we use fewer stamps. But that has only seemed to help increase the value of collectable postage stamps.

What makes a stamp valuable?

Surprisingly, stamps that were printed in error tend to be the most valuable. Because they were a mistake, it makes them very rare. And if something is rare, it becomes more desirable.

The condition of a stamp can also increase its value. If it has never been used, it could be worth considerably more.

The rarest stamps in the world

Before we get to the UK stamps, I thought you might be interested to know the ones considered worth the most globally.

British Guiana 1c magenta – 1856

British Guiana 1c magenta most valuable stamp

Many philatelists consider this the world’s most famous and sought-after stamp. In 1856, the former British colony (now known as Guyana) desperately needed stamps as none had arrived from the UK. So, instead of waiting for the next delivery, the postmaster asked the owners of the Official Gazette newspaper in Georgetown to print some stamps for emergency use. They were printed in 1 and 4 cent denominations on what was considered low-quality paper.

So, how much would you think a stamp printed in an emergency would be worth? The only one to be found was sold in 2014 at Sotheby’s, New York for… $9.48 million. I bet the postmaster wished he had kept a couple.

Treskilling Yellow – 1855

Treskilling Yellow stamp

This stamp hails from Sweden and was created in 1855. The stamp was actually meant to be green, but a printing error turned it yellow. The Treskilling Yellow stayed hidden for 31 years until it was found by a young collector named Georg Wilhelm Backman – some reports say he found it in his grandma’s attic, whilst others say in her bin.

This rare stamp sold for around $2.3 million back in 1996. It was sold again in 2010, but the sale price was undisclosed.

The Sicilian Error of Colour – 1859

sicilian colour of error rare

The 1850s was a vintage decade, as The Sicilian Error of Colour completes this trio of rare and valuable stamps. This one was issued in 1859, and if you haven’t already guessed, the colouring was incorrect just like the Treskilling Yellow. The Sicilian was originally meant to be either orange or yellow (reports differ) but was printed in blue.

But unlike the other two stamps above, there is an absolute plethora of Sicilians available. Well, two.

In 2011, one of these sold for $2.6 million in Basel, Switzerland.

Rare British stamps

So, those are the most valuable stamps from around the world, but how does the value of British stamps compare?

The Plate 77 Penny Red – 1863

plate 77 red most valuable stamp

This was Britain’s second postage stamp and succeeded the Penny Black in 1841. The change from black to red was made as the cancellation marks were difficult to make out on dark print. Around 2 billion of these stamps were printed until it was replaced in 1879, with the design staying more-or-less the same throughout its print.

But the most valuable comes from plate 77, which was issued in 1863. But what was so special about plate 77? Well, the test sheets came out with imperfections and the perforations didn’t line up properly. Although millions were printed, most ended up being destroyed. However, some still managed to end up in circulation.

It has been confirmed that four mint condition Penny Reds and five stamps have been used – although some have not been seen for a long time.

Estimated value: £550,000

Edward VII 6d Pale Dull Purple – 1904

Edward VII 6d Pale Dull Purple rare

This was described in 2010 as ‘Britain’s rarest stamp’. The stamp was printed on March 4th, 1904, although an order was received for all official stamps to be withdrawn on the same day. It is thought that nineteen sheets had been produced and that they were all destroyed. However, some still made it into circulation.

The IR Official overprint had been used since 1882 by government departments and it was illegal for members of the public to use them. It is unclear how many are currently in circulation. One sold in 2010 for £400,000.

Estimated value: £400,000

Penny Black Die Proof – 1840

penny black first uk stamp

Finally, we get to the world’s original adhesive stamp, the Penny Black. Printing ran for less than a year, but over 68 million stamps were created. These stamps were hand-cut (instead of using perforations) and were of very good quality. This is great for collectors as there are still plenty of examples around today.

The stamp’s historical importance and lack of scarcity play against each other so that most Penny Blacks will cost around £40. But you can find some real gems. Some of the rarest Penny Blacks have a striking over-inked appearance, which adds to their value. Only three have been seen and one was sold for £166,000. The most expensive Penny Black was sold by Stanley Gibbons and features rare ‘T L’ lettering and a fragment of the sheet inscription

Estimated value: £40 – £250,000

The Roses Error Stamp -1978

The Roses Error Stamp

Another stamp that is worth far more due to a printing error. This time, the error was that the stamp’s face value had not been printed. The mistake had been spotted before the stamps were issued, so the majority were destroyed.

In fact, there are only three known examples, two of which belong to the king. Now, if there is one person in this world who doesn’t need stamps…

Estimated value: £130,000

Edward VII 2d Tyrian Plum – 1910

Edward VII 2d Tyrian Plum

There were 24 million copies of this 2-pence stamp produced back in 1910. But circulation was delayed so that old stamps could be used up. Before that happened, King Edward passed away. Because of this, nearly all the stamps were destroyed. There are only 12 known examples still around.

Estimated value: £102,000

£1 Brown Lilac Stamp -1884

£1 Brown Lilac Stamp

Looking like it came straight from Monopoly, this stamp’s face value would still be considered expensive today. At £1, it cost more than most people would earn in a week back in 1884. If the stamp has the original gum on the rear, it’s worth far more.

Estimated value: £25,000 – £98,000

Two Penny Blue Stamp -1840

Two Penny Blue Stamp

Released just two days after the Penny Black, this is the world’s 2nd official postage stamp. The stamp was only used for heavier items, making it ten times scarcer than the Black. If the stamp is a first edition, it will have no white lines above and below Queen Victoria’s profile.

Estimated value: £295 – £10,000

Postal Union Congress £1 stamp – 1929

1929 Postal Union Congress of the Universal Postal Union

This has been described as one of the most beautiful British stamps ever issued. Harold Nelson designed the stamp to mark the 1929 Postal Union Congress of the Universal Postal Union. It was only the second commemorative stamp to be released in the UK.

Estimated value: £1,000

Modern British stamps worth money

Obviously, modern technology reduces the risk of printing errors, so the chances of finding a rare stamp are slim. But it’s not impossible.

Take a look at this stamp that was released in 2002.

Bear pulling Potted Topiary Tree error

Hardly any of us would see anything odd. However, the queen’s head should be in the top right and not the top left. The correct stamp is worth just 70p, the wrong one… £250+. You can find plenty for sale, and you have to weigh whether it’s worth investing in the future.

Can you make money from buying and selling stamps?

It’s certainly possible, although you need to know your beans (well, stamps). There are many examples out there and there is a fine line between a stamp worth £1,000’s or a couple of pounds.

And the best profits are to be made long-term. Some of the stamps on this list tripled in value in just a few years, but it took them a long time to get there. It could be right for you if you’re a person with plenty of patience.

Where can I get stamps valued?

If you think you may have a stamp that’s worth a decent amount, then it’s certainly worth getting it valued.

Registered dealers are your best bet and you can find one local to you at Philatelic Traders’ Society. They should value your stamp for free. And if they feel it’s worth a good amount, it might be worth contacting an expert to get a full valuation.