Hobby of Kings

08 June 2011

Stamp collecting has been called ‘The King of hobbies and the hobby of Kings.’ And with very good reason!
Many kings, to say nothing of Princes, Maharajas and Presidents, have coveted those tiny bits of gummed paper with their elegant designs and elusive varieties.
Some have enjoyed forming a collection as a means of relaxation, an antidote to the affairs of state. Others have used it as a way of learning about their own empire, or abut the rest of the world with which they must deal.

Most will have appreciated the way stamps lionise monarchs by underlining their power, and keeping their portraits in the public eye. Many also came to understand the way that rare stamps are an excellent store of value, and an easily portable commodity in a time of crisis.

Of all the heads of state who have been great collectors, five stand out: three Kings, a Prince and a President. Their lifetimes (although not quite all their reigns) all overlapped in the 20th century, but their stories are quite different.

The most famous of all the royal philatelists was the sailor King George V, who established the magnificent collection Royal Philatelic Collection of British and British Empire material.

As Duke of York, he was elected Honorary Vice-President of the Philatelic Society London in 1893, and when he got married later that year its members presented him with an album of 1,500 stamps.

For the rest of his life he was to pursue the hobby with enormous interest and vigour, appointing eminent philatelists John Tilleard and later Sir Edward Bacon as curators of his collection.He purchased a number of fine one country collections, and a number of rarities. Most famously, he paid a world record £1,450 for an unused copy of the very rare 1847 Mauritius ‘Post Office’ 2d in 1904.

Legend has it that one of his courtiers enquired the name of “the darned fool” who paid such a handsome sum for ‘just a little piece of paper,’ to which Prince George replied, “I was that darned fool!”

As King and Emperor from 1910, he also made sure that he received corner blocks of four of all new British and Empire stamps, as well as original artwork, essays and proof material, creating a unique record of his own power and influence.

Another philatelic treasure that came to him by virtue of his privileged position was the unique 2d Tyrian plum on cover. This new stamp was prepared for issue in 1910, but stocks of the existing two-colour 2d yet to be exhausted, its issue was postponed. With Edward on his deathbed, George had one of the stamps posted to himself, arriving on the very day he became King; only a few copies of the 2d escaped onto the market, and no others were postally used.
The King would spend several afternoons each week poring over his treasures in the Stamp Room at Buckingham Palace. Under the terrible strain of World War I, this hobby would also provide him with much needed relaxation.

Since his death, his 328 ‘red albums’ have been augmented by many more from the reigns of his son George VI (the ‘blue albums’) and his granddaughter Elizabeth II (‘the green albums’), creating the greatest collection in private hands.
King George V was not the first member of the British Royal Family to take an interest in philately. In fact his inspiration and achievement owes something to his rather less well remembered uncle, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh.

Alfred is said to have been a collector from as early as the 1850s, at the very birth of the hobby. As a naval commander he acquired items on his voyages around the world, and he is likely to have been the recipient of the famous ‘Royal Reprints’ of the Penny Black which were ordered from the printers, Perkins Bacon, in 1864.
He was also a prominent member of the Philatelic Society in London long before it became the Royal Philatelic Society, being elected its President in 1890.
After becoming the Duke of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha in 1893, Alfred died in 1900. His collection was bought by his elder brother, the Prince of Wales (who was shortly to become King Edward VII), who duly passed it to his son George (who would later become King George V).

King Carol II of Romania perhaps demonstrates that philately can run in the (royal) blood, because he was a grandson of Prince Alfred, George V’s collecting uncle.
Although known as something of a playboy, after having an extra marital affair in the 1920s, which delayed his inheritance of the throne until 1930, he amassed a vast and very valuable stamp collection.

The key item was the unique 1855 Treskilling yellow error of colour from Sweden. He purchased this at auction in 1937 for $30,000, which at the time was the second highest price ever paid for a stamp.

When Carol was forced to abdicate the throne and flee Romania in 1940, he took with him a vast treasure, including paintings by Rembrandt, Titian and Rubens and, of course, his prized stamp collection.

However, living in exile in Mexico, Brazil and Portugal, he had to sell parts of his collection to raise money before his death in 1953.
The Treskilling Yellow has remained one of the world’s most wanted stamps, selling for over $2.3 million in 1996.

The last monarch of, King Farouk, had a life long ‘mania’ for collecting treasured objects of various kinds. Besides stamps, he collected rare coins, weapons and art, and when he effectively began to steal some of these objects from the nation, he was dubbed the ‘Thief of Cairo.’

After ascending the throne in 1937, he amassed a mesmerising collection of the early stamps of his country, including essays and proofs for many of the major issues. There were also perforation varieties in sheets and blocks, which appear to have been printed at his own request.
Among the great Egyptian rarities was a complete sheet of 200 of the 1874-5 piastres yellow-green, one of only two such sheets in existence. But he also acquired a number of overseas gems, including rare examples of the British Guiana 1850-1 ‘Cottonreels’ and the Austrian 1856 ‘Red Mercury’ newspaper stamp.

Unlike King Carol, however, Farouk was unable to take them with him into exile. After he was overthrown by a military coup in 1952, and forced to leave the country in a hurry, Egypt’s revolutionary government arranged to dispose of the so-called Palace Collections to boost its own coffers. The stamps were auctioned off in 1954 by H R Harmer, at the Koubbeh Palace in Cairo.
Rightly hailed as ‘the most valuable collection of Egypt ever to be made available’, it realised the phenomenal sum of $3 million. Scandalously, the military government then maximised its net profit by failing to pay its commission fee!

Prince Rainier III of Monaco inherited the philatelic collection of his great-grandfather in the Grimaldi dynasty, Prince Albert I. Started in 1917, it already comprised many rare items, including early covers to Monaco, Sardinian and French stamps used in the principality in the mid 19th century and essays and stamps of the first Monaco issue of 1885.
Rainier added much more after he came to the throne in 1949. He continued to build up the extensive collection of postal history, and acquired the most valuable items of Monagesque philately, such as the only two known strips of five of the 1885 Charles III 5f red on green. He also began to add various errors and varieties, which fascinated him.
Significantly, Rainier put all the other royal collectors to shame in the way he made provision for his private collection to be displayed to his nation and its visitors, setting up its Museum of Coins & Stamps in 1996.

In his view, stamps were ‘the best ambassador for a country’, vital in showing off its character and culture to the wider world. As absolute sovereign, he therefore played a key role in guiding its stamp programme, approving the subject and format of all new issues.
Although President Roosevelt can hardly be considered royalty, he is perhaps the most revered President of the United States, with an aura of power surpassing that of many monarchs. And even without the philatelic privileges that come with kingship, he made his mark on stamp collecting.

Roosevelt was caught by the philatelic bug at the tender age of eight, pestering relatives to send him mail from across the globe, and soon built up a vast collection.
He found solace in this when, in 1921, he was struck down by polio, which left him unable to walk. His son James vividly recalled his father sitting at his desk poring over his albums with “an expression of complete relaxation and enjoyment on his face.”

As early as 1928, Roosevelt became a life member of the American Philatelic Society. After his election in 1933, the White House released photographs of the President working on his collection, helping to popularise the hobby in America.

He possessed an array of die proofs of 20th century US stamps and received full sheets of all the stamps issued during his presidency, signed by postal service officials. He is said to have amassed over a million stamps, and delights in every item he could get hold of.
He bought from dealers and at auction, but he wasn’t renowned as a big-spending collector. One of his prized possessions was a used copy of Great Britain’s 1935 Silver Jubilee 2½d Prussian blue error of colour, sent to him by Robert Bingham, America’s ambassador to the UK.

However, his impact on contemporary American stamps was enormous. Not only did he have final approval on every issue but, in collaboration with the Postmaster General, James A Farley, he personally helped to design a number of them, in some cases by drawing preliminary sketches which can be seen today in his country’s National Postal Museum.

During World War II, Roosevelt’s stamp collection travelled with him in a trunk and he would spend time with it most nights to wind down from the stresses of the day. He astonished his aides with his mastery of world geography, something he himself attributed to his hobby.
His successor, Harry Truman, described the collection as “tangible evidence of the international consciousness of a great leader,” as it was sold in a series of four auctions by H R Harmer in 1946, following Roosevelt’s death in office in 1945.

The great auctioneer H. R. Harmer, who sold the collections of both President Roosevelt and King Farouk, once offered some wise words of advice to Kings and princes. Should they ever have to relinquish their thrones and rush swiftly into exile, he advised them to grab their stamp collections, rather than their crown jewels, to safeguard their future prosperity. Farouk failed to heed that advice, but King Carol II of Romania clearly took it on board!

Here is one for 'The Commentator'