The famous Cyril Harmer Newfoundland airmails

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The late Cyril Harmer followed in his father’s footsteps at the helm of the auction house (Harmers) that still bears his name. He joined the business in 1921, and was its Chairman and Managing Director from 1967 to 1976. Also, he assembled what was without doubt the finest collection of the Airmails of Newfoundland. This collection was sold, on February 26, 2002, by Harmers in West London for a total of £803,000.

Just before the outbreak of World War I, the owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Northcliffe, had put up a £10,000 prize for the first non-stop flight between the United Kingdom and North America. Hostilities curtailed any attempts, but four teams planned attempts in the summer of 1919. Newfoundland Postmaster Dr. J. Alex Robinson put forward a suggestion to what looked like would be the first team to be ready to make an attempt. He asked the Sopwith team, with pilot Harry Hawker, if it would carry mail – 10 official covers – taking greetings across the Atlantic, but permission was given for a further 100 covers.

Robinson arranged for a quantity of the 3c stamps issued earlier in the year to be overprinted in black with the inscription ‘FIRST/TRANS-/ATLANTIC/AIR POST/April, 1919’ in five lines. Although agreement to carry covers on the flight wasn’t reached until April 10, the stamps were ready by April 12. In the Cyril Harmer collection there is a trial setting of the overprint – this shows the lines of the overprint slightly further apart compared with the final setting.

Controversial future
Just 200 of the stamps were overprinted, of which it is believed that 18 were found to be defective and destroyed, 11 were presented as complimentary copies, and 95 were used on mail. The balance of 76 had a slightly controversial future. Generally, when the stamps were sold, the Postmaster put his initials, J.A.R., on the gummed side. It is known that one failed to receive his initials; some were alternatively signed by the Secretary to the GPO, William Campbell, who added his own initials, ‘W.C.’

The balance of 76 was bought by the Postmaster at 3c each. He then sold them for $25 each, the money raised being given to the Mariners Disaster Fund. The outcome is that multiples are extremely rare. In the Harmer collection there is a marginal pair which went for £28,230 at the 2002 auction.

Close on the heels of the Sopwith team was that flying a Martinsyde, piloted by Major Raynham. Mail was again onboard, and this time the ‘overprint’ was hand-written, it is thought by William Campbell. The inscription reads ‘Aerial/Atlantic/Mail’ in three lines, and underneath the Postmaster again added ‘J.A.R.’. These stamps were not put on general sale, but only affixed to covers intended for the flight: it is believed between 25 and 30 were sold, and currently appear in catalogues at £20,000. However, two unused copies exist. One is believed to be a trial by Campbell at writing the inscription on a stamp, while the second is from a cover which Raynham carried in his pocket and as a consequence the stamp wasn’t cancelled.

Both the Sopwith and Martinsyde attempts failed, so with the prospect of further attempts, the Postmaster decided to produce a more widely available overprinted stamp. The overprint, and surcharge, reading ‘Trans-Atlantic/AIR POST,/1919./ONE DOLLAR.’ was applied to 15c stamps of 1897. Of the $1 charge, 50c was donated to the Mariners Disaster Fund, this time without criticism. A total of 10,000 stamps were overprinted, in panes of 25 – a complete pane is in the Harmer collection.

The stamp was available from June 9, 1919, just in time to be used on the mail which was carried by Alcock and Brown on their attempt. Leaving Newfoundland on June 14, they landed, rather ignominiously in a bog, in Ireland 16 hours and 12 minutes later, thereby being the first to cross the Atlantic non-stop and winning the prize.

More overprints
Over the years there were more Newfoundland flight overprinted stamps. The first was in 1921 as pressure was being brought to bear to see if mail could be carried faster by air. A scheme was devised of taking mail by rail from St. John’s to Botwood, and thence to Halifax in Nova Scotia by air. The scheme failed: the ‘air’ part of the journey never materialised, and the mail completed the entire trip by train and steamer.

However, special stamps had been prepared, using the 35c red of 1897, the overprint reading ‘AIR MAIL/to Halifax, N.S./1921.’. The stamps were overprinted in panes of 25, and several varieties exist, including varying spacing between the words AIR and MAIL, and some stamps having the stop after 1921 omitted. In other cases, not only is the stop omitted, but the entire date is moved to the right.

The stamp was initially issued on November 16, with 5,000 being produced with a black overprint. However, demand for the overprinted stamp was such that a further 9,000 were produced, the balance having the overprint in grey-black. Four panes of 25 (100 stamps) were found with the overprint inverted – these also have the varieties already mentioned.

The Italian aviator, Marchese Francesco de Pinedo, arrived in Newfoundland in 1927, and agreed to carry mail on his return flight to Italy. The 60c black stamp, again first issued in 1897, was overprinted with ‘Air Mail/DE PINEDO/1927’ in red. Just three sheets, a total of 300 stamps, were overprinted. A proof of the overprint alone was taken – this later helped successfully prosecute the perpetrators of a forgery of this stamp. The overprinting, undertaken by Robinson and Co. Ltd., owned by the former Postmaster, Dr. J.A. Robinson, was well-executed, and only one minor variety, a short ‘7’, was found on each sheet. However, the job sheet for the overprinting reveals that it did not come cheap – $5.05 for the 300 stamps.
The Harmer collection contains the proof of the overprint, the job sheet, and also the only surviving block of four of the stamp – this reached £129,387 under the hammer in 2002.

World’s largest aircraft
A 1932 flight caught public attention because it involved the Dornier DO-X Flying Boat – at the time the world’s largest aircraft. This was to fly from Newfoundland via the Azores, Spain and England, before returning to Germany. The $1.00 air stamp of 1931 was overprinted ‘TRANS-ATLANTIC/WEST TO EAST/Per Dornier DO-X/May, 1932/One Dollar and Fifty Cents’. Naturally the public also wanted the stamp, and 8,000 were produced, of which probably 40 are known with the overprint inverted. Each inverted overprint stamp is catalogued at £10,000 – the Cyril Harmer collection included a block of four.

The last of the specially overprinted stamps came in 1933 for the return to Italy of General Italo Balbo’s armada of flying boats. The 75c air mail stamp of that year was overprinted ‘1933/GEN. BALBO/FLIGHT./$4.50’ – the original denomination being obliterated by solid rectangles. Yet again the overprint was applied in blocks of four, with the overprint slightly varying on each stamp, to a total of 2,010 blocks. However, 40 of the stamps were found to be defective and were destroyed. Great care was taken to ensure all the stamps were perfect. A few copies were found to have the overprint inverted, and these were cut into pieces. However, many of the pieces were later joined together again as repaired stamps. However, a genuine, unrepaired, invert does exist, and Cyril Harmer owned it.

Source: Coney Stamps