Perth residents are always quick to point out that the Swan River Settlement was established in 1829, well before the larger centres of Melbourne and Adelaide. However, Western Australia’s population up until Federation in 1901 was always much smaller than those of the eastern colonies. It should therefore be no surprise that the postage stamps of Western Australia are, as a general rule, much scarcer than those of the other colonies.
WA stamps are especially notable for two things. Firstly, without exception, every pre-Federation issue featured the black swan. This was a remarkable statement of autonomy at a time when virtually every stamp of the entire British Empire featured a portrait of Queen Victoria.
Secondly, a careless slip by the government printer resulted in one of the most famous errors of the philatelic world: the extraordinary “Inverted Frame” of 1854. A mere 14 examples have been recorded, of which only seven remain in private hands. It is 12 years since the last “Inverted Frame” was sold at auction and it is expected that if one of the finer examples were to come onto the market today it would sell for more than a quarter of a million dollars.
This statement underlines the high level of demand for WA stamps. There are many Australian Colonies stamp varieties that are at least as rare as the “Inverted Frame” but none would come close to matching the WA error in the marketplace.
It is fair to say that collecting WA stamps is not for the faint-hearted. While a basic collection can be assembled for a modest outlay it will inevitably be lacking in the earlier material or else major concessions to quality will have been made.
The relatively high value of early WA stamps has resulted in a lot of “funny business” in the past. It is common to find classic issues that have had faults repaired, or margins added. Some stamps have been entirely rebacked! Caveat emptor!
While most such restorative work can be detected under ultra-violet light or by applying a few drops of lighter fluid, even the experts can be fooled.
The most celebrated case of fakery concerning WA stamps came to public notice relatively recently. In the mid-1980s, the venerable auction firm Christies proudly marketed the impressive “Isleham” collection of British Empire stamps. This outstanding collection included a WA “Inverted Frame”. The stamp sold for £31,000 but was later adjudged a fake, the entire inverted inscription having been hand-painted!
The fake, and no less than three of the genuine “Inverted Frames”, now reposes in the fabulous collection of Hong Kong physician Dr Arthur Woo. Recently the controversy surrounding the fake has been reignited by claims out of Perth that the stamp is, in fact, genuine. Dr Woo, among many others, is yet to be convinced though he told the author that he would be delighted if the latest claim proved to be true.
In common with all classic stamps, most WA examples available are of a very ordinary standard. To be collectable, the printed area of an imperforate stamp should be complete on all sides. Many WA issues were laid-down so close together on the printing stone or plate that it is extremely difficult to obtain stamps with full margins. When they do appear at auction, full-margined examples can be expected to sell for very handsome sums.
This situation is magnified in the case of the exceptional stamp that exhibits unusually large margins. Two examples of the 1860 2d orange, both featuring the “Plank on Head” variety, were recently sold at auction. The first brought a respectable $550, the second a staggering $3000! The difference between the two stamps was no more than a couple of millimetres of margin.
When it comes to the perforated stamps, the imperforate standard must be ignored. In the vast majority of cases the perforations will impinge on the design on at least one side. This is normal and acceptable to all but the most discerning of buyers who will pay large premiums for well-centred stamps from the period between 1861 and 1885. The perforating machines in use through this so-called “Middle Period” often had blunt or broken pins. This resulted in varying degrees of rough perforations that again are considered quite normal and acceptable.
As intimated above, there are a number of WA stamps that challenge the “Inverted Frame” in the rarities stakes. Examples of several of these were recently auctioned in Melbourne by Prestige Philately.
Perth physician and dedicated tri-athlete Dr Cecil Walkley.
His WA stamps were recently sold at auction for half a million dollars.
The collection on offer was formed by rehabilitation physician Dr Cecil Walkley, who migrated to Perth from East Africa in 1962. The collection has been acclaimed for the consistently high standard of the material, and it was awarded a Gold Medal when last exhibited.
Excepting only the “Inverted Frame”, most of the key WA stamps were included in the Walkley Collection.
One of the most striking of all Australian mis-prints: this 1865 4d was printed twice. It sold recently for $55,000.
At least one sheet each of the 1865 4d carmine and 6d violet were passed twice through the printing press. The 4d is a particularly striking variety with the doubling most pronounced in the tablets at the top and sides. No example had been auctioned for about 15 years, during which time the Gibbons catalogue value had languished around the £5000 mark. The final auction price of $55,000 was far more realistic.
Just as rare, though not as highly regarded, is the 1895 ‘Halfpenny’ on 3d with Double Overprint. The Walkley Collection included a single that fetched $2400 and a strip of 3 that, at $7200, was one of the bargains of the sale.
This overprint error is one of the few highlights from the 1885-1900 period when all WA stamps were produced by De La Rue in London. Their technical proficiency resulted in very few “mistakes”. However, several issues were overprinted in Perth where some interesting varieties were created.
With Federation, the stamp printing function for all States except New South Wales and Queensland was consolidated in Melbourne. However, because of the complicated book-keeping provisions in the new Constitution, specific issues for each State continued to be issued until 1912. [The well known “Kangaroo & Map” stamps were issued from January 1913.]
From both an historical and a legal perspective, all issues from 1st January 1901 onwards are, strictly speaking, Australian issues. However, not surprisingly, collectors of the Colonial period tend to carry through to 1912.
For WA, this State period is one of great technical interest. Reasonable quantities of at least the lower denominations are still available and students have made many discoveries of watermark and perforation varieties. In many such cases, stamps that have cost a pittance have turned out to worth significant sums.
Prior to Federation, the highest face value WA stamp was 1/-. In 1902 five new values from 2/- to £1 were introduced. Perversely, even though Queen Victoria had died in January 1901, these new stamps all featured her likeness, in each case adapted from designs used in Victoria but for values between 1d and 5d.
Excepting the rare varieties mentioned above, the stamps issued between 1902 and 1912 are readily available. However, blocks of most values are surprisingly scarce. The Walkley Collection included a block of 6 of the 5/- (sold for $2185), and blocks of 4 of the 10/- ($2185) and the £1. This latter item is the only block of the scarcer orange shade (rather than orange-brown) in private hands. It realised $20,700.
For those on a limited budget, there is still much in WA philately that is accessible. An eye for quality will, over time, allow the patient acquirer to assemble a selection of exceptional examples, at least of the less expensive items. Used blocks from the Commonwealth period are under-appreciated and are likely to increase dramatically in price over time. Stamps used for revenue purposes are still accessible to most collectors.
Early in his collecting days, the author was advised that if there was little challenge in a particular area it wasn’t worth the efforts of an intelligent person. A little harsh, perhaps, but certainly not a criticism that could be levelled at those who tackle the fascinating field that is the stamps of Western Australia.
[Gary Watson is the Director of Prestige Philately, Australia’s only world-class stamp auction firm. A one-time lawyer, he has also published “Stampwealth: New Directions in Philately”. Readers can request a free copy by phoning (03) 9754 7666]