It Could Be One of the Priciest Postal Items Ever Auctioned

May 1840 envelope was mailed twice before world's first known prepaid postage stamp was considered valid
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 12, 2024 7:52 AM CST
It Could Be One of the Priciest Postal Items Ever Auctioned
The envelope dated May 2, 1840, featuring a Penny Black stamp.   (Sotheby's)

Calling all deep-pocketed stamp collectors: The earliest known example of a posted envelope using a prepaid stamp is heading to auction, where it's expected to fetch between $1.5 million and $2.5 million, a great deal more than it originally cost to send. The envelope carries the Penny Black stamp, the first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system, which cost a British penny when it was released in the UK on May 1, 1840, per Barron's. Featuring a young Queen Victoria in profile, it wasn't considered valid until May 6 of that year. This envelope, sent from London to iron works manager William Blenkinsop Jr. in Bedlington, is dated May 2, 1840.

Before the Penny Black, postal rates were "expensive and unpredictable" and paid for by the recipient, per CNN. That created a headache for the postal service, "who could sometimes not recover the costs of delivering items if the person receiving them did not pay." The Mulready letter-sheet, an ornate, illustrated envelope folded into a diamond shape, which indicated postage had been prepaid, was released at the same time as the Penny Black. Auction house Sotheby's says the initial envelope sent to Blenkinsop was turned inside out and "remailed as a Mulready" on May 4, 1840. It was received by a Mr. Blenkinsop in the Cumbria village of Dalston, believed to be the sender's father.

Though the letters have been lost, the envelope bearing the two sending dates has survived for 180 years. "The ornate Mulready envelope sealed with a Penny Black revolutionized the way people from all walks of life correspond, exchange ideas, share news and express themselves," says Richard Austin, Sotheby's Global Head of Books & Manuscripts. To be offered at a New York auction next month, it could become one of the most valuable pieces of postal history ever sold at auction, according to Sotheby's. One of three Penny Black stamps to have survived from the very first sheet of printed stamps, dated from April 1840, was offered at a Sotheby's auction in 2021, with an estimate of up to $8.5 million, per Reuters, though it failed to sell. (More auction stories.)

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