The Penny Black, how to determine its value Leave a comment

By Daniel Arpin

1840 Penny Black

As most stamp collector already know the Penny Black is the world’s first adhesive postage stamp and was issued by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on May 1st 1840. Due to its significance this stamps is very popular and following my past article What are the most famous rare and valuable stamps?, I have been receiving a lot of questions about its value. Well let’s try to understand a bit more about this famous stamp and what affects its value.

Rarity

The Penny Black is not that rare a stamp, as there were 68,808,000 issued, yes 68 million! A substantial number of these have survived, largely because envelopes were not commonly used yet, letters being written, folded and sealed with wax, with the stamp and the address on the obverse. This meant that whenever a letter was filed in a lawyer’s office, bank, etc., the whole thing would be kept.

Small crown watermark

Printing plates

The stamps were printed in sheets of 240, from engraved steel plates, on gummed paper with a single small crown watermark on each stamp. They were imperforated and had to be cut out with scissors. Over time, due to excessive wear, eleven different printing plates were used (plate 1 is usually differentiated into plate 1a and plate 1b), and it is possible in almost every case to work out which plate any individual stamp was printed from by little characteristics. Things like the positioning of the corner letters within their squares, the presence of the “O flaw”, which rays of the stars in the upper corners are broken at what points, and so on, can point to a correct plate identification, but specialized literature is required in order to do this. Some plates are scarcer than others, plate 11 being the rarest, intended originally solely for the new red stamps, only 16800 stamps were printed from this plate. These are now very rare.

Penny Black Printing Plates

Plate numberRegisteredNumber issued
1a, 1b15 Apr 184010,052,400
222 Apr 18407,659,120
39 May 18404,786,800
419 May 18406,701,760
51 June 18408,616,480
617 June 18409,095,040
78 July 18408,137,680
831 July 18407,180,320
99 Nov 18403,840,000
109 Dec 18401,920,000
1127 Jan 1841168,000


Cancellation

A special postmark was also introduced to cancel the stamps. Popularly known as the Maltese Cross. It was to begin with, in black. But since it was difficult to see a black postmark on a black stamp the color was changed to red. Many used examples of the period have killer cancellations, so that it could not be used again. The postal authorities were clearly worried that people might ‘clean’ the stamp so that it could be used again. The colour of the Penny Black was later changed to red for this very reason. Used examples with a light cancellation command a much higher premium on the market than heavily obliterated ones.

Penny Black with red cross
Penny Red with black cross

Corner letters

The stamps were printed in sheets of 240 (20×12) and the stamps had corner letters (bottom left and right of the stamp) corresponding to its position on the plate. Starting with AA, AB, AC…to AL for the top row, the second row goes from BA to BL and the twentieth row from TA to TL. Four different alphabets were used in the course of time to form the corner letters. A penny black with the corner letters «JF» is shown below, as well as its position on the sheet.

Corner letters
AAABACADAEAFAGAHAIAJAKAL
BABL
CACL
DADL
EAEL
FAFL
GAGL
HAHL
IAIL
JAJFJL
etcetc
..
..
SASL
TATBTCTDTETFTGTHTITJTKTL

Main factors affecting Value

1- The condition grading and centering. An unused or mint stamp is generally worth much more than a used one. The number, size, and regularity of the margins make a big difference to value. The stamps were not perforated, and had to be separated using scissors. As there is only about 1mm between one stamp and another, it is very easy to wander off just a little and cut into the printed design of the stamp. A stamp with two full margins and perhaps a couple of other part margins is about average. Collectors will pay higher prices for examples with four good, wide, and even margins.
2- The plate the stamp was printed from.
3- The overall appearance of the stamp. Any fault such as a thin, tear, crease, or stain will lower the value

Conclusion

The Penny Black is readily available on the collectors’ market today. However, because of its significance, this stamp in fine condition is in demand by collectors and therefore not cheap. It can be dangerously misleading to suggest values, as some readers of this will be naturally optimistic, others being natural pessimists (or realists!). In 2009, a used Penny Black in poor condition can cost as little as $20 and up to $300 for one in very nice condition, an unused or mint example would average around $1000 to $7000, depending if it has the original gum or not and if the margins around the stamp are close or wide. The retail price on these is steadily rising. By contrast, a used Penny Red is only $20 and a mint $450 in nice condition.

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