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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, November 15, 2002

Missionary stamps turn clock back to 1850

By Walter Wright
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hau'ula Postmaster Kandi Heleloa displays Hawaiian Missionary stamps, which were originally printed in 1850.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

The U.S. Postal Service's commemorative sheet of four rare "Hawaiian Missionaries" stamps is loaded with local history.

Printed in 1850 with a value of as little as 2 cents, the originals are worth millions of dollars today.

The Postal Service is offering commemorative copies for the cost of normal postage: $1.48 for a four-stamp sheet.

"That's easier to buy than the normal commemorative sheet of 20 stamps," said Annie Ontai, clerk in charge of the post office at Ala Moana Shopping Center.

And it's a lot cheaper than the $1.9 million a Swiss collector paid for the famed "Dawson Cover," the only surviving envelope in the world to bear a 2-cent Hawaiian Missionary stamp.

Mailed to an Eliza Dawson in New York from Hawai'i, the envelope was found around 1905 in a bundle of papers stuffed into a blazing furnace.

Signs of slight charring from the flames are visible on the left edge of the envelope.

The Dawson envelope was part of a larger collection belonging to Persis Corp., headed by former Advertiser Publisher Thurston Twigg-Smith.

Persis sold the lot at a New York auction in 1995 for $9.8 million.

The collection included the notorious "Parisian murder" stamp. That's the 2-cent Missionary stamp that a French collector tried to buy in the 1890s from a friend in Paris; when the friend refused to sell, the collector murdered him and stole the stamp.

Twigg-Smith became interested in collecting the stamps partly because some of the other early Hawaiian stamps had been printed on the presses of The Advertiser in 1856.

Before the collection was sold, it was kept in a little-known vault on the third floor of The Advertiser building.

The stamps are called "Missionaries" because almost all of them were used by early Christian missionaries in Hawai'i to pay the Hawai'i share of the cost of mailing letters to the Mainland.

The 2-cent stamp was normally used for newspapers or printed circulars; the 5-cent stamp usually paid the Hawai'i share of postage on a letter.

And the 13-cent stamp was created to prepay all the postage for a letter from Hawai'i to the East Coast of the United States by way of San Francisco.

The price of the 13-center included 5 cents for the Hawaiian letter charge, 6 cents for any U.S. letter sent more than 3,000 miles, and 2 cents for the captain of the ship carrying the letter.

In addition to choosing them as a special Hawaiiana souvenir gift item to share with friends and family at Christmas, Ontai said, "people are buying them to collect.

"Some are even planning to use them to mail letters and cards."

The Postal Service printed the four-stamp sets on a special souvenir sheet, with an early etching of Diamond Head looming behind grass huts and shacks, a scene that Bishop Museum archivists say came from a book published in 1862.

Even with all the local historic interest, the Missionaries issue isn't causing the stampede that occurred in Hawai'i post offices when the Duke Kahanamoku stamp came out, Ontai said.

The Postal Service sent Hawai'i 240,000 four-stamp sheets of the Missionaries issue, the normal shipment for commemoratives, and Ontai said her station still has "a healthy supply."

Reach Walter Wright at wwright@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8054.