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A post feminist.

HE stamp world is all of a flutter.

TWhat auctioneers Sotheby''s claim is one of the finest great British postage stamp collections to appear on the market in the last 25 years will be dispersed in a pounds 2.6m sale in London later this month. The astonishing thing is that such is its magnitude, selling its 2.000 plus lots will take three days.

And though it sounds sexist to say so, the collection was formed by a woman - unusual in a world generally dominated by male professionals such as accountants, surgeons, bank managers ... and, of course, schoolboys.

Not just any woman, though. Lady Mairi Bury, daughter of the seventh Marquess of Londonderry, piloted her first aeroplane at the tender age of 11 and her last aged 85.

She met Hitler when she was a teenager - "I thought he was a nondescript person ... no aura of evil", she said later - was a qualified mechanic after learning about engines and machinery driving lorries in the London Docks while serving with the Women's Legion during World War II, was a friend of politicians such as Harold Macmillan and often greeted guests at the door of her ancestral home, the magnificent Mount Stuart, in County Down, Northern Ireland, with a "naked" cockatoo on her shoulder (it was afflicted with the urge to pull out its own feathers).

She died last year, aged 88, and only then did it become common knowledge that she had amassed a vast collection of tens of thousands of stamps.

The collection includes the very finest examples of the penny black and two pence blue, printed envelopes and letters relating to another of her private passions: Victorian sensations and scandals.

A Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society and regarded by fellow members as its doyenne, she won numerous Gold and Vermeil medals at British and international stamp exhibitions and was awarded a posthumous Large Vermeil from the great British stamp exhibition held once a decade in London. She began collecting when she was aged eight.

She was a totally remarkable lady, said Sotheby''s philatelic consultant Richard Ashton. She was eccentric, for sure, but in the nicest possible way. . Everything about her was different and people were absolutely devoted to her.

Although there would have been very little that was outside her financial reach, she was more interested in buying something that added to the interest of her collection. Something for pounds 50 gave her as much pleasure as something that was pounds 5,000."

The penny black, the world's first stamp, was printed from 12 different plates, each of which appears in Lady Mairi's collection. Rarest of all is a penny black from Plate 1A used on the first day of official use, May 6 1840, which is estimated at pounds 60,000-70,000.

Proof sheets of each plate were referred to as the imprimatur sheets, and placed in official archives. They have become great rarities because of limited private ownership. A Plate 1A Penny black imprimatur from the First Registration Sheet is estimated at pounds 15,000-18,000 There are examples of early trials, including the famous Rainbow series in deep blue, which is estimated at pounds 10,000-12,000, while Lady Mairi acquired many of the May first month of use dates, including the rare First Sunday (pounds 20,000-25,000) and the Second Sunday, on a letter arriving from Calcutta (pounds 10,000-12,000).

Multiples of the penny black used to pay increased postage rates for letters above one half ounce covered by the penny postage include horizontal strips of six from Plate 1B (pounds 1,000-1,500) and Plate 2 (pounds 5,000-6,000) and a block of four from Plate 4 (pounds 7,000-8,000) while an extremely rare unused pair from Plate 5 are estimated at pounds 20,000-25,000). A block of four from Plate 6 with rare purple-maroon Maltese Cross cancellations is estimated at pounds 12,000-18,000).

The two pence blue stamp was issued at the same time as the penny black but is significantly scarcer, with 6.4 million being printed, compared to the 68 million penny blacks. The sale will include a superb selection, from a Plate 1 unused example (estimate pounds 8,000-10,000), to a used block of four (pounds 8,000-9,000) Contemporary with the first stamps in the world was the issue of penny and two pence printed postal stationery envelopes and letter sheets, designed by William Mulready. These were lampooned by the public, resulting in the production of comic envelopes and letter sheets that had no postal validity, and therefore required a prepayment or the addition of a penny black or penny red postage stamp.

Now extraordinarily rare, Lady Mairi acquired several examples, including one decorated with an elephant in a kilt, which is estimated at pounds 12,000-14,000, while one of the great rarities of the entire pictorial series - and the finer of the two known - the Robert Burns envelope, with a black Maltese Cross cancellation, is estimated at pounds 8,000-10,000.

And it appears Parliamentary expense scandals are nothing new. Prior to the introduction of the penny black, members of the Houses of Parliament could send and receive a certain number of letters without charge, as long as they autographed the lower left hand corner. Specially printed envelopes were made for use by members, but the privilege was abused and soon withdrawn. An example sent by Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel is estimated at pounds 10,000-12,000.

Lady Mairi's collection also helps to cast greater light on a number of infamous historic events, including the attempted murder of Queen Victoria, the illicit love affair of poisoner Madeleine Smith, a letter from the last victim of the Rugeley poisoner, Dr William Palmer, and the heroic role of the iron paddle steamer Nemesis in the First Opium War.

The latter used printed envelope is a unique rarity - the only other recorded example is in unused mint condition in the Royal Collection, owned by the Queen. It depicts the Nemesis, custom-built by the East India Company to sail to China and fight in the shallow coastal waters, estuaries and rivers where no sailing ships dared go.

Her successful Boys Own exploits gained her celebrity status and led to the ceding of Hong Kong to the British in 1842. The envelope is estimated at pounds 15,000-20,000.

The sale will take place at Sotheby's from November 24 to 26.

Queen Elizabeth II stamps with errors from 1965. Estimated at pounds 3,000-3,500

CAPTION(S):

Elephant in a Killt" envelope, estimated at pounds 12,000-14,000 A penny black from Plate 1A, estimated at pounds 15,000-18,000 The unique used Nemesis envelope, estimated at pounds 15,000-20,000 An 1840 Mulready two pence envelope, uprated with a two pence blue stamp, estimated at pounds 10,000-12,000 Lady Mairi Bury (right) learned to fly her first plane at age 11
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 13, 2010
Words:1162
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