Friday, November 26th, 2010
Half of a postage stamp sold at an auction in Bietigheim-Bissingen, south Germany, for $347,500 yesterday. The stamp was issued by the Lower Saxony town of Syke in 1872, just a year after German unification. It’s not in mint condition or printed upside down or designed by Lawrence of Arabia. It’s actually on an envelope and postmarked. The reason it is so valuable is that it was split in two.
A spokesman for Gaertner Auction House explains:
“Stamps were in short supply in Syke between 1872 and 1874 so it was decided that they should be cut in half as a makeshift solution,” she said. “But because this was only done for a short period, very few letters actually bear these halved stamps.”
When they were created, bisects were worth half the face value of the whole stamp. Postmasters would divide less popular larger denomination stamps into fractions when stocks of the more popular cheaper denominations ran out. Sometimes it wasn’t just halves, but also quarters and eighths, as during Mexico’s classic period (1856 – 1874). People also split stamps informally and used them for the fraction of their face value and postal officials tacitly accepted them even when they were officially verboten.
Bisects and splits only have philatelic value if they are still attached to the envelope or postcard complete with postmark. If the stamp is on its own, there’s no way to tell that it wasn’t just cut up after it was used. Unlike many of the most famous rarities, for instance the Inverted Jenny, there is no such thing as a mint condition sheet of bisections.
The Syke bisect is both official and extremely rare. Only 3 of them are known to exist today, and this particular one is famous in its own right because it was on the cover of the definitive book on Syke bisects written by the felicitously named Rolf Rohlfs in 1982. Two bidders, one from north Germany, one from the south, went head to head for this special half stamp. The north German collector won.