Looking small and rather faded underneath the transparent protective covering, the stamp appears pretty unremarkable. A dull pink in colour, with the profile of the Queen Victoria’s head standing in the center, it even lacks the perforations which we are so used to seeing in stamps. However, there is nothing ordinary about this little piece of paper at all: it is nearly 159 years old, costs thousands of pounds, and is the sixth stamp to be issued in Ceylon.
Known among philatelists as the “Dull Rose”, this is the rarest and most expensive stamp to be issued in Sri Lanka. “This one cost me £4000,” says Dulshan Ellawela, as he sits amidst his extensive collection of stamp albums. “A mint copy would cost thousands of pounds more.”
Dulshan Ellawela has been an avid philatelist for over two decades. “I am not an expert,” he laughs, but he acknowledges that twenty years of collecting stamps has kept him well informed about philately. In fact, he is even currently pursuing a Phd related to the subject, and has published a stamp catalogue showcasing Ceylonese stamps issued during its pre-independence period.
“This is Ceylon’s first stamp,” points out Ellawela, gesturing towards a nondescript purple-brown stamp. Issued in 1857, just 17 years after the world’s first postage stamp was out, it was valued at 6 pence and was used to send a half ounce letter from Ceylon to England. Since Sri Lanka was a British colony at the time, the stamp was printed, designed and issued in Britain by a company called Perkins, Bacon & Co. a notable printer of books, postage stamps and banknotes.
It lies in the album with several other stamps from the Queen Victoria period, and apart from very slight variances in colouration, it appears hardly discernible from the others. So how would an interested laymen identify it? By simply turning the stamp over, it turns out.
Philately may seem like an extravagant indulgence and one of those ‘uncool’ hobbies which people scoff at, but in truth, a country’s stamps can tell a hundred stories about its history, culture, landscape and society, making philately doubly fascinating. Besides, stamp collecting is for everyone. Of course, you will probably never be able to get your hands on that mint copy of a Dull Rose, but there are probably thousands of stamps you can get hold of without burning a hole in your wallet.
Cover image shows some of Ellawela’s Ceylonese stamps from the Queen Victoria collection. From 1857 to 1870, the stamps issued were in pence and shillings. The stamps issued after 1872 were in rupees and cents, even though they continued to be printed in the UK. The stamp with the white edge around it is called a printer’s proof. “Before printing the actual stamp, printers used to make a ‘proof’ to check if the stamp is coming out correctly,” explains Ellawela. Credits: Thiva Arunagirinathan