Colonial Tax Stamps Deliver Solid Profits

By Peter Rexford

October 29, 2015 5 min read

Anniversaries are justifiably special. For people, they may be a time to celebrate. For countries, it's a remembrance oftentimes accompanied with a commemorative coin or stamp. And 250 years is a big one; especially when it recognizes an event that led to the founding of a country known as the flagship of democracy. The thing is, if any stamps were to be issued for this anniversary they would be spotlighting stamps themselves — stamps that resulted in the creation of the nation.

Those stamps were issued on Nov. 1, 1765 — 250 years ago. They were tax stamps created for the American colonies by Great Britain, allegedly to raise funds for building and defending the growing territory. Historians know better. People in the colonies were beginning to rebel against the British government and newspapers — broadsides and other documents were how they communicated discontent.

Britain couldn't control those papers, many of which were written and printed in secret, but it could control the supply of paper through taxation. This became known as The Stamp Act. In that, stamps were either printed onto or embossed into the paper shipped to the U.S. A tax was required to be paid by colonists if they wished to buy and use any of that paper. In addition, when the tax was paid it was possible for the British powers that be to learn who was buying the paper. You might consider that an early vestige of hacking.

Needless to say, this all went over like a lead balloon and was a major factor leading to the revolution. The Stamp Act proved to be so unpopular and created enough ill will that it was repealed a mere five months later in March 1766 — too late. The damage was done, and a mere nine years later a group of uppity colonial state representatives gathered in Philadelphia to draft and sign the Declaration of Independence.

Remember that the printed or embossed stamps were around for a very short period and were wildly unpopular. In fact, vicious and mocking reproductions of the stamps featuring a skull and crossbones image were plastered on posters and leaflets denouncing them. Not surprisingly, no one wanted to save or collect these tax stamps. But that was then. Because rarity combined with demand equals value, those hated stamps would eventually become sought after collectibles.

Fast-forward 250 years. Today, any variety of those stamps — with face values ranging from a lowly penny to multiple shillings — can bring anywhere from $500 to $5,000. Some extremely rare examples sell for much more at auction. Naturally, condition is the key; the more pristine the stamp, the higher the value.

I know a bit about the value of these because I wrote about the stamps in this column many years ago. I advised anyone who might own one not to send it to me for evaluation; instead, I asked them to contact a qualified local dealer. My plea didn't stick. One individual in New England sent an envelope containing over a dozen of the rare colonial stamps. The combined value was well over $30,000. It cost me almost $40 just to send them back registered and insured.

Because over the years these printed and embossed impressions became curiosities, some did choose to save them. Specimens that survive are sometimes found between the pages of old books, or tucked into long-forgotten stacks of letters or papers. Fortunately, because paper of that era was made with remarkably high cotton content, it is usually in very good condition and not brittle compared to paper produced in the 1800s.

There is much more information online or at a local library. A good source for images and current prices is the "Scott Specialized Catalog of US Stamps & Covers" under the "Embossed Revenue Stamp Paper" section.

So, are you sitting on a colonial goldmine? If you have any old letters or printed material it's worth a closer look to see if you have more than just paper profits!

Editor's Note: A JPEG visual of a printed 1765 tax stamp has been sent with this column.

To find out more about Peter Rexford visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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