The importance of the British Guiana “Cotton Reels” to the philately of the British Empire, and indeed to the world of rarities, can not be overestimated. These Primitive stamps were produced in four values – 2c, 4c, 8c and 12c – during 1850 to 1851 and their design, if such a glamorous adjective can be expressed when assessing their basic composition, is a frame in Roman serif capitals; “BRITISH GUIANA” within a circle, and the figure of value in the centre with italic “Cents”. So called, the ‘Cotton Reels’, due to their resemblance to the top of a cotton reel.  

This exclusive group of adhesives are all rare, the 2c being the most scant and a member of the world’s greatest philatelic rarities – there being just ten examples known: three pairs and four singles. In our upcoming auction of ‘The Imperium Collection’ of British Guiana, there is one example available of the 2 cents black on pale rose, Lot 30017 – one of two examples off cover in private hands, and its Provenance reads like a who’s who of top-flight philately – Ferrari, Avery, King Farouk, and du Pont, to name a few. However, there is another sub-set of these elite classics, which possess a quality even more allusive and that is the availability of ‘unused’ examples.

Only four “Cotton Reels” in unused condition are recorded, of which three represent the 12 cents denomination, and there exists one recorded copy for the 8 cents value, which is also available in this auction, Lot 30021, known imaginatively as; ‘The Unique Unused 8 Cents Cotton Reel’. It could equally be donned ‘the rarest unused stamp of the British Empire’, and as such be ranked alongside other iconic world rarities such as the unused Missionary 2 cents of Hawaii, which sold in 2018 for $525’000 plus buyer’s premium. The auction estimate for this sole survivor is £100-150’000.


But what of the other three unused examples? Well, if appearance were ever a principal factor, which with this issue is perhaps a contradiction in terms, then Lot 30028 is a frontrunner of this select quartet being one of three representing the 12 cents value, and a very fine and attractive representative. It was part of the collection of Philipp von Ferrary (Lot 195, Sale II, October 1921) and made a cameo appearance in the auction realm during the John E. du Pont sale in June 2014 (Lot 60009). Back then it realised 130’000 Euros as a result of competitive bidding to acquire this handsome single. When it enters the auction room on October 14th 2021 the estimate will be £40-60’000.

Parking the purity of the unused for a moment, it is worth highlighting Lot 30050, which is a 4 cents black on pale yellow, pelure paper, that has the allure of appearing unused and has full margins all round – an equally remarkable feature, and in the last census of the 4c there were sixteen recorded examples in private hands (two on cover, Lot 30052 and Lot 30053), of which six are cut square. One of the used singles is also available, Lot 30051, a stamp John E. du Pont purchased at the Frederick T. Small auction sales in March 1970 (Lot 13 Robson Lowe).


So, whilst the British Guiana Cotton Reels are often singled out for being crudely conceived and certainly never win any beauty contests, they are one of the most important set of Classic stamps among the World’s greatest philatelic rarities. And those carrying the additional quality of being ‘Unused’, are without argument the eminently important among the Cotton Reels.