The Mauritius Blue
The best investment you missed out on14th Apr 2021
There are some great investment opportunities in Mauritius, but you have missed the very best of them all. Unless, that is, your great grandmother was in regular correspondence with Elizabeth Gomm, wife of the governor of Mauritius – or anyone else who lived there in 1847. And – and this is a big and – she kept all her letters in a nice, dry, tin trunk that has been passed down to you over the generations, unopened.
Mauritius’s first stamps
In 1847, when William Gomm was the governor of Mauritius, postage stamps were a new and exciting invention. It was only seven years since the world’s very first stamp, Britain’s Penny Black, was printed. So, being a forward-looking politician, he decided that, rather than using stamps printed in England – the Penny Black, Penny Red and Tuppence Blue – the colony should print its own. He commissioned a local engraver, Joseph Osmond Barnard, to produce 500 orange one-penny stamps and 500 blue two-penny stamps, both of which featured Queen Victoria’s profile, and were modelled on, respectively, the Penny Red and the Tuppence Blue.
It’s worth trawling through the attic
It is believed that there are only 12 of the blue and 14 or 15 of the orange anywhere in the world – mostly in museums. The last time a Penny Blue – as the blue two-penny stamp is called (don’t ask why) – went on sale was in 2011, when it sold for just over £1 million. Imagine something that weighs less than a gram being worth about R20 million. In 1993 a cover featuring a blue and an orange sold for $4 million. It is sooooo worth trawling through great-granny’s goodies.
Mauritius blues – the good, the great and the ugly
Here’s a crazy thing. The one- and two-penny stamps were printed from 1847 to 1859, and they are all valuable and may fetch enough on auction to buy – depending on condition, etc. – a very large pizza or a small plaza. But it is only the 1847 ones that will bring in the really big bucks. Now you may hear that that is all because of a mistake, but the big mistake is that there was no mistake. It’s a myth – but, like many myths, it’s a delightful one that it is oft repeated, so here it is.
Barnard was clearly delighted to get the commission to design the stamps, and he was keen to get them finished in time for Lady Elizabeth to use them to send out invitations to a fancy dress ball. (That bit is true.) He was unsure of what to write on the left side of the stamp so, as he had a deadline, he rushed to the post office to ask the postmaster but, on the way, he saw the sign ‘post office’ and had one of those ah-haa moments, and rushed back to finish the engraving. The mistake was noticed but – as Lady Gomm could not delay sending out the invitations – they left it as it was, and corrected it the following year. It’s a cute story, and it explains why there were only ever 500 of each denomination, but it’s not true. The wording was intentional, and was changed the following year on a whim. So the lucky fancy dress ball invitees, unknowingly, carelessly discarded the envelopes in which their invites arrived, thereby depriving their heirs of untold riches.
So, if the original ‘post office’ Mauritian blue is the great, the ones printed any time over the next decade are still good. Instead of ‘post office’, the writing down the side was ‘post paid’, which is more accurate, I guess, but everything else was the same, including Victoria’s profile. Anyhow – they printed lots so, while these are still sought after by philatelists, and may fetch a tidy little sum if sold, they’re not superstars.
And the ugly? Well, in 1859, for reasons that remain unknown, the powers that be commissioned Jules Lapirot to engrave a new design. Granted, Good Queen Vic was 11 years older than she’d been when Barnard immortalised her profile on the post office blue, but Lapirot may have had a secret disliking of the monarch because – not to put too fine a point on it – his depiction of her can only be described as fugly. It was known as the Monkey Head issue, and the queen was ‘not amused’. That year saw two supposedly improved versions, neither of which was particularly flattering to the queen, and she was still ‘not amused’. But they are still of interest to collectors.
The spirit lives on
Of course, first prize would be to find one lurking in great-granddad’s papers while you’re kon-mariing his house but, failing that, you can pop in to the Blue Penny Museum in Port Louis and see both the blue and orange stamps. And, hardly surprisingly, as the stamp is such an icon on the island, it’s become a popular name for many other attractions.
The Blue Penny Cellar at the Constance Belle Mare Plage offers a ‘one-of-a-kind’ wine and food pairing that is as unique as the stamp it’s named after. And Penny Blue. It’s an artisanal estate rum created in small batches, and its many awards attest to its quality, so – like the stamp it’s named after – it’s rapidly becoming a Mauritian icon.