The exquisite first issue of Ceylon is universally admired, but strangely elusive. In fact, one opportunistic collector saw it vanish before his very eyes!
Towards the end of the 19th century, a merchant who had once done business in Ceylon consigned some of his household effects for auction in Bombay.
During the viewing period two Chinese antiques dealers, carefully scrutinising a vase of eastern origin, discovered that its base could be unscrewed. Doing so revealed a number of old documents, presumably been placed there for purposes of security.
They examined them briefly, before stuffing them back into the base and continuing on their way. They were interested in the vase, but not its contents.
However, their discovery had been observed by someone else, a collector of oriental stamps who had wandered into the room to while away some time. And the eagle-eyed philatelist's attention had been drawn by two stamps he had seen attached to the hidden documents.
Waiting until the coast was clear, he once more unscrewed the base of the vase, and to his amazement confirmed that the stamps in question were fine copies of the 4d dull-rose and the 8d brown from the classic first issue of Ceylon, engraved by the celebrated William Humphrys and printed from Perkins Bacon plates in 1859.
Knowing their great value (used examples have a combined catalogue price of £6,000 today), he quickly replaced them within the base, trusting that nobody else would repeat his observation. Then he haunted the viewing room until the day of the sale arrived, satisfying himself that nobody else had discovered the removable base.
At last the moment arrived for 'Lot 158, an oriental vase' to come under the hammer. There was a brisk exchange of bids between the two Chinese gentlemen and a Japanese collector before the philatelist joined in and, much to the annoyance of his rivals, secured the vase for what was then the substantial price of 400 rupees.
Hastily settling his invoice, he hurried outside to unscrew the base. To his horror, it was empty!
It emerged that the auction house had received an urgent call the day before from the vendors of the vase. They had remembered that the title deeds to their property in Ceylon were still concealed within it, and asked for them to be rescued and returned at once.
The auctioneer had carried out their instructions with efficiency, leaving two Chinese antiques dealers puzzled about an unexpectedly inflationary market, and one philatelist with a rather nice vase of oriental origin, and a sense of what might have been!
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