Auctions | January 11, 2024

First Piece of Mail Sent Using Penny Black Stamp Comes to Auction with $2.5m Estimate


The Mulready letter-sheet combined with a Penny Black stamp

Sotheby’s will offer a one-of-a-kind item linked to the history of modern mass communication: the earliest posted envelope using a prepaid stamp. 

The unique piece of philatelic history – a Mulready letter-sheet combined with a Penny Black stamp – contains the first-ever methods of prepayment for post, introduced in May 1840. Providing a glimpse into the early days of modern communication, the rare object will be offered on February 2. Carrying an estimate of $1,500,000 - $2,500,000, it is one of the most valuable philatelic items ever offered at auction.

Introduced at the beginning of May, 1840, the Mulready, an ornate wrapper designed by William Mulready, and the Penny Black, the world's first adhesive postage stamp, aimed to streamline and revolutionize postage prepayment. Both methods were an important new step in communication, eliminating the need for mail carriers to handle money, reducing the risk of theft and forgery. This pre-paid envelope, the earliest known in existence, was successfully sent, firstly stamped with a Penny Black on May 2, then ingeniously repurposed, turned inside out, and remailed as a Mulready on May 4, the letter covered a combined journey of over 400 miles, all before the official start date for the stamp on May 6. 

While the 1 Penny Mulready letter-sheet has been well-preserved, the contents of the letter have since been lost to history and remain a mystery. However, the postal markings on the letter-sheet paint a clear picture of its journey, indicating that it was sent from London on the evening of Saturday, May 2, to a 35-year-old manager of an iron works, William Blenkinsop Jr., in Dalston, Cumbria (located 75 miles to the west of London). Although the original sender remains unknown, the markings on the envelope reveal a journey spanning over 300 miles.    

“There is something special about viewing the earliest, or first, example of anything. In this case, the May 2, 1840 cover connects us to the very beginnings of philately and the modern postal system," said Allen R. Kane, Former Director of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. "It speaks to us from a different time, when Queen Victoria was young and the Penny Black was the microchip that revolutionized worldwide communications.”  

The adoption of prepayment, championed by Birmingham School teacher Rowland Hill, was a result of the Postage Reform Act of 1839, which abolished free franking privileges and established uniform penny postage rates. The subsequent Treasury Competition, offering a prize for the best prepayment solution, garnered over 2,600 entries, leading to the creation of new stationery and stamps.

The progenitor of tens of thousands of other stamps from numerous countries around the globe, the Penny Black is known the world over. Its design is simple: a small and now iconic portrait of the young Queen Victoria’s head in profile with the words Postage One Penny and a pair of check letters on handmade watermarked paper with gum on the back. The first stamp became available for purchase May 1, 1840.


The Mulready letter-sheet combined with a Penny Black stamp

Mulready stationery, also introduced in 1840 as part of the British Post Office reforms, featured letter sheets and envelopes for sale from May 1. Named after artist William Mulready, the design showcased Britannia, a shield, a reclining lion, and representations of Asia and North America. Engraved by John Thompson, the illustration served as a pre-paid postage indication. The letter sheets followed traditional design, while the envelopes, folded into a diamond shape, were sealed at overlapping edges. Both were issued in sheets of twelve (Formes) with one-penny and two-penny values matching postage stamp colors. 

"This unassuming envelope marked a significant leap forward in the history of human communication," said Richard Austin, Sotheby’s Global Head of Books & Manuscripts. "Surviving over 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. At the dawn of the AI age, this remarkable object speaks to our innate human desire for connection and the ways in which it has evolved to new heights in the two centuries since."