World's Rarest Airmail Stamp
Only One Known to Exist!
This is your chance to own a truly unique piece of philatelic history – the 1925 Black Honduras Airmail stamp. There's only one known example of this stamp, so when you add the Black Honduras to your collection, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing there's no other one like it in the world.
The following article details the history surrounding this one-of-a-kind stamp and its major role in the development of Airmail service in Honduras. (Written by philatelic expert Ken Lawrence and used with his permission.)
The Black Honduras
The stamp known as the Black Honduras, believed to be unique, is the world's rarest airmail stamp. The Red Honduras, with no more than seven available to collectors, is the second rarest.
Both were issued in 1925 when Central America's first airline inaugurated service between the Honduran capital city Tegucigalpa, in the interior of the country, and Puerto Cortés on the Caribbean coast.
Considering their legendary names, it may seem odd that the Black Honduras is a dull blue stamp and the Red Honduras is a bright blue stamp. That's because they are defined by the ink colors of the overprints on them, which transformed the underlying common definitive stamps into airmail rarities – the 10¢ Ulua Bridge stamp surcharged AERO CORREO 25 in black ink (converting a 10¢ ordinary stamp into a 25¢ airmail stamp, Honduras Scott C12) and the 5¢ Bonilla Theater stamp overprinted AERO CORREO only in red ink (Scott C3).
First-issue airmail stamps of Honduras are important to philately in the same way that United States airmail stamps of 1918 are important, as historical artifacts of the service that created them. But airmail service was of greater relative significance to Honduras than the original US government airmail service.
Tegucigalpa was isolated from the outside world, with no rail transport and with roads so poor that mule trains took up to a week to carry mail to a port on the north coast for onward transmission to other countries.
The small aircraft flown by Compañia Aérea Hondureña (also advertised as Central American Airlines [CAA]) traveled the 200-kilometer distance in about an hour and a half.
Thomas Canfield Pounds, M.D.
On October 24, 1922, the postmaster general of Honduras contracted with an American physician named Thomas C. Pounds to establish airmail service between Tegucigalpa and the north coast.
The Honduran president, López Gutiérrez, approved the contract on December 16. A 10-lempira stamp issued by Honduras in 2000 pictures Pounds (Scott C1076).
He is said to have witnessed the pioneer airplane flight in Central America on April 19, 1921, when his friend, Colonel Ivan Lamb, flew his Bristol fighter biplane into Tegucigalpa from San Pedro Sula, which kindled his interest in the aviation business.
The Inauguration of Air Transport in Honduras
Sumner B. "Sonny" Morgan had been an aviator for a decade or more by the time he applied for the job as CAA's pilot. He had worked for Glenn H. Curtiss' Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in 1916, and had studied motor design at Columbia University.
After completing successful test flights in March and April, and carrying mail for the first tie on an April 20 flight, Morgan flew from Tegucigalpa to Puerto Cortés on April 28, 1925, and back the next day. According to Latin America specialist Brian Moorhouse, he carried letters on both of those flights.
The inaugural CAA flight took off from the Tonconín flood plain in Tegucigalpa on May 1 and flew to Puerto Cortés on the Caribbean coast.
The flight carried 29 letters, of which seven were franked with only ordinary postage, and 22 were franked with both ordinary and special airmail stamps.
By the end of June, 100 letters flown from Tegucigalpa and 773 letters flown on return flights from Puerto Cortés had been franked with the special stamps.
Thus, the special airmail stamps of Honduras achieved not only postal and philatelic legitimacy, but cherished status as icons of the airmail age.
Morgan probably carried this illustrated cover, postmarked April 28 at Puerto Cortés, on the first flight.
Special Airmail Stamps
Early adventures in powered flight and polar exploration were often promoted and funded by special issues of postage stamps and by the sale of souvenir cards and covers that were carried by the aviators and explorers on their trips. So it wasn't surprising or unusual that Pounds' contract allowed him to finance his enterprise in part with a special postal issue.
An April 29, 1925, announcement of the new air service from the Tegucigalpa post office listed the rates and explained the procedures to members of the public, including the use of the special stamps (as translated by John N. Myer in the August 1940 American Philatelist):
The correspondence which will be carried from this city to the North Coast by airplane will bear two stamps: the ordinary postage of the Government, according to the current tariff, and the postage of the special stamp of the enterpriser.
The special stamps will be sold by Dr. T.C. Pounds in this city, and by his Agents in the other places where correspondence is to be carried by air.
Myer quoted from Pounds' contract: "The Government will order printed for its account special postage stamps for franking the correspondence which is carried by airplanes and the entire product of the sale of these special stamps will be paid to the contractor monthly."
As things turned out, the government did not provide the stamps, so Pounds arranged for his business associate Karl J. Snow to add surcharges to stamps of a regular issue on a Kelsey-Excelsior manually operated press.
Snow had been using his press to print 3-inch-by-5-inch flyers for the Seventh Day Adventist church. That small format limited the number of stamps that could be overprinted at one time. The airmail surcharges were applied to blocks of 12, and to smaller leftover pieces from the original panes of 100.
Each position of the 12-subject overprint setting differed from the others in consistent traits, so every genuine stamp can be plated.
Some stamps on the original pane were inverted in relation to their neighbors, yielding scarce tête-bêche pairs (or, when separated, single stamps with inverted overprints).
Pounds, Morgan and their associates were aware of philatelic interest in their stamps, which quickly made their way to the hobby market. In the United States, the flamboyant dealer Albert C. Roessler of East Orange, New Jersey, promoted Honduran airmail stamps and covers. Covers that Roessler sold were probably favor-canceled but not flown. Before the end of 1925, the notorious forger Raoul Ch. de Thuin had produced quantities of forgeries (forged overprints on genuine stamps).
Discovery of the Black Honduras: The Ustariz Single
When stamp catalogs listed the first airmail stamps of Honduras in 1925, the Black Honduras was not among them. The June 1925 issue of Bulletin Mensuel de la Maison Théodore Champion reported that the Honduran postal administration had announced stamps issued April 28 to pay a surtax on letters carried by air between Tegucigalpa, the capital, and the north coast of Honduras, and published the list of airmail rates.
Champion listed stamps of the 1915 issue overprinted AERO CORREO as follows, noting the ink color if not black: 5¢ blue, issue of 500, exists with inverted surcharge; 10¢ blue (red), 500, exists with tête-bêche and inverted surcharge; 20¢ on 1¢ brown-violet, 500, exists with inverted surcharge; 50¢ rose, 200; 1 peso green, 100. But no 10¢ blue with a black overprint.
In March 1927, John Luff, a senior dealer at Scott Stamp and Coin Company and editor of the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, received a large batch of Honduran airmail stamps from Julio Ustariz, owner of the airfield at Puerto Cortés, which included one 10¢ blue overprinted 25¢ in black. Ustariz had obtained the stamps from his friend F.W. Budde, who had received them from Pounds in March 1926.
Luff plated the previously unreported stamp to ensure it was not a forgery, and satisfied himself that the overprint was genuine from the first printing. Not having known of its existence earlier, Luff suspected that it may have been a trial print, but his queries drew conflicting reports from his correspondents.
To avoid disclosing its seeming scarcity, Luff hinted to Ustariz that it was probably counterfeit after he had satisfied himself that it was genuine. Luff never returned the stamp to Ustariz, and never paid for it.
Thus, the first example of the Black Honduras is known as the Ustariz single.
Tragedy of Duran Memreño's Black Honduras Pair
Also in March 1927, Luff received a batch of 16 Honduran airmail stamps from Raúl Duran Membreño, a Tegucigalpa dentist who was later secretary general of the postal administration.
Duran was a stamp collector and dealer who had obtained his stamps from Pounds. (Duran was his surname, and Membreño was his mother's maiden name, in the Spanish rendering. But American stamp writers failed to recognize that distinction, so he is known to philately as Membreño.) He enclosed a pair of 10¢ stamps surcharged in black for Luff to examine and perhaps explain.
The second and third examples of the Black Honduras are known as the Membreño pair.
Luff returned 14 of the 16 stamps, but retained the pair, which he had determined to be genuine, for further study. While playing down its scarcity and potential value, he tried to persuade Duran to sell it, but Duran demanded the pair be returned to him for his own collection. Luff reluctantly complied.
In November 1927, Duran wrote to Luff that his collection had endured "an accident" and that "My two 25¢/10¢ blue airmails were lost." The Membreño pair has not been seen since, but the Philatelic Foundation has the photograph that Luff kept with his reference collection.
The Robinette Single, Last of the Original Four
Finally, in June 1930, Washington, D.C., stamp dealer H.A. Robinette sent Luff "a Honduras airmail surcharged '25 and 10' blue. This came to [Robinette] with a small collection of these stamps, which are undoubtedly genuine, and the original owner claims to have bought them all, right at the post office in Honduras."
The fourth example of the Black Honduras is known as the Robinette single.
Overprints on the four recorded examples of the Black Honduras have consecutive top-row positions of the original overprint setting, but the underlying stamps came from different, widely separated positions of their original pane, which is part of the reason specialists doubt that more than those four ever existed.
The four stamps had been grouped together for overprinting. Plating established that in the 12-subject setting, the Robinette single overprint was from position 1; the Ustariz single, position 2; the Membreño pair, positions 3 and 4. When images of all four were examined together, even the overprints on the partially separated Membreño pair aligned.
But they had not been an attached strip of four. The Robinette single was position 40 on the original pane of 100 stamps, and the Ustariz single was position 60, the last stamps in two different horizontal rows.
Had the overprint positions not been consecutive or had the original stamps been taken from a single block of 12, there would be reason to doubt that any more were made with the black surcharge on the 10¢ stamps.
The poor quality of the overprint and the original use of black ink later replaced by red suggest that this Black Honduras patched-together strip was a trial print of the setting, perhaps to check the placement of the black squares that obliterated the original denomination. Nevertheless, even if it had been a trial print, at least one of the stamps had been sold at a post office as a normal issue, according to Robinette's source.
Grand Award at the 1936 Third International Philatelic Exhibition
In the absence of contrary evidence, Robinette's report should have satisfied Luff's dithering about whether the Black Honduras had been an issued stamp – not simply a trial print – but Luff still did not list the stamp in the Scott Catalogue while he hoped to buy it cheaply from Robinette "as a trial stamp or an essay."
Robinette was no fool. he instead sold it to airmail dealer Nicolas Sanabria. Sanabria sold it to New York airmail dealer Fred W. Kessler, who then sold it to Philip G. Cole, a famous collector of Western art who had the finest airmail collection then in existence.
The stamp was finally placed on public view in 1936 as part of Cole's exhibit at the Third International Philatelic Exhibition (TIPEX) in New York City. By then, with only two known examples still likely to exist, it should have been recognized as the world's rarest airmail stamp, but that was not to be.
Instead, the Red Honduras, of which only seven were collectible, was highlighted. Amelia Earhart presented the TIPEX grand award in the airmail class to Cole as airmail collectors celebrated his achievement, but no report paid special attention to his Black Honduras.
Recognition for the Black Honduras
John Luff died August 23, 1938, and very quickly things began to change.
A September 24, NBC radio report announced the discovery of a second example of the Black Honduras in addition to the one that Cole had exhibited at TIPEX. The October 8, 1938, issue of Stamps magazine published an article titled "The World's Rarest Air Mail Stamp" by Prescott Holden Thorp that provided more information, though no details of when or by whom the discovery had been made.
Thorp's article pictured a May 1925 cover franked with both ordinary and airmail stamps of Honduras. One of the airmail stamps was the 10¢ blue surcharged 25 in black, a Black Honduras. Thorp submitted the cover as evidence to refute Luff's catalog note that the stamp "is not known to have been put in use."
The cover was actually in the possession of stamp dealer Bruechig – the man who had previously promoted the Red Honduras as the world's rarest airmail stamp. Bruechig showed the cover not only to Thorp but also to Hugh Clark, who had succeeded Luff as the Scott Catalogue editor. On that evidence, Clark listed the Black Honduras as a legitimate issued stamp. Several months later, after the stamp had been accorded official recognition, Bruechig's cover illustrated an article in the New York Herald-Tribune.
It later transpired that the stamp had not originated on the cover, but was the unused Ustariz single that Luff had failed to return in 1927. It may have been added fraudulently to the cover as a way of disguising its origin. Ustariz was not fooled, and was angry that Luff had led him to believe it was a forgery, but his complaint that Luff had "stolen" the stamp from him had no influence on events.
In 1953, Nicklin told writer Irving R. Green, "The story is this: The stamp on the cover, was sold; it was later cleaned [fake cancel removed] and regummed." Green believed that "Bruechig had sold it to his best customer, Dr. Lieb of New York City."
But when John A. Fox sold the Dr. Charles C. Lieb Collection of Airpost Stamps of the World in his February 25-27, 1957, estate sale, the Black Honduras was not included. Green pursued a rumor that "a wealthy Mid-Westerner had obtained it," but was unable to confirm it. At that point, the Ustariz single disappeared from view and dropped out of hobby lore.
Record Sale Prices for the Robinette Single
On October 27, 1939, Kessler sold at auction the Famous "Dr. Philip G. Cole" Collection of Rare Airmail Stamps & Covers. The Black Honduras realized $5,300, purchased by Sidney F. Barrett of Economist Stamp Company for Oscar R. Lichtenstein. Sanabria corrected his listing in the 1940 edition of his catalog, showing that only two examples of the Black Honduras were known (the Robinette and Ustariz singles), with an assigned value of $15,000.
Lichtenstein died in 1955. Harmer, Rooke sold his collection at auction in 1957. The next owner of the Robinette single was Thomas A. Matthews of Ohio, who built the finest airmail collection of all time. Matthews paid $11,500 for the Black Honduras at the Lichtenstein sale.
When Kessler sold the Matthews collection on February 27, 1961, Raymond H. Weill of New Orleans bought the Black Honduras for $24,500, which set a record for any stamp sold at auction in America. Only one stamp had previously sold for a higher price – the 1856 1¢ Magenta of British Guiana.
The underbidder who dropped out at $24,000, retired weekly newspaper publisher Max L. Simon, was missing only two stamps in his worldwide airmail collection. He had reckoned on just three competitors: "One of them is in London, one in Rome and another in Cairo." But after the sale, Weill told Simon the buyer was "a wealthy Texan" who had authorized him to bid as high as $30,000. To my knowledge, the identity of Weill's client has not become public.
From Josiah K. Lilly Jr. to Joseph Levy Jr.
The Robinette single made its next appearance in Robert A. Siegel's 1968 sale of the Josiah K. Lilly Jr. philatelic estate, where a consortium of New York stamp dealers purchased the Black Honduras for $29,000. The buyers displayed it anonymously at Anphilex 1971, the Collectors Club's 75th anniversary exhibition.
On February 6, 1976, Jared Johnson, proprietor of Chandler's Inc. school and office supply chain in Evanston, Illinois, purchased that Black Honduras from Andrew Levitt for a price in excess of $80,000 on behalf of Joseph Levy Jr., owner of the world's largest Buick and Chrysler dealerships, also located in Evanston.
Besides being a showpiece at Chandler's store, Levy's Black Honduras was anonymously displayed as a special exhibit at the Interphil '76 international stamp exhibition at Philadelphia.
Resurrection of the Ustariz Single
In the March 15, 1986, Stamp Collector, the headline over The World of Unique Stamps monthly column by Norman Williams read, "Four were printed; but one 'Black Honduras' only is known today."
Two months later he published a retraction. The May 17 headline was "Unique no longer: A second Black Honduras stamp has appeared."
After reading the first column, Raymond Weill wrote to inform Williams that his subject – the Robinette single – was not unique. In 1985 the Weill brothers had purchased a collection that included the Ustariz single, which had been certified as genuine by the Philatelic Foundation.
The Ustariz single sold for $116,670 at a May 26, 1989, Italphil auction in Rome. The stamp next appeared at the Harmer's of London February 23, 1994, sale of The Jack C. Boonshaft Collection of Airmails of the World (Part 2), where it realized £104,500, equivalent to $155,705.
The next owner exhibited the Ustariz single anonymously at Claridge's in London, July 6-8, 1995, and at the Collectors Club centennial exhibition Anphilex '96 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, November 28 to December 2, 1996.
That was its last public appearance before the January 23-24, 2002, Cherrystone sale where it was purchased by the rogue French stamp dealer Marc Rousso (also known as Armand Rousso). Less than a week later, The New York Times reported that a former Federal Bureau of Investigation operations manager and two former Paine Webber Inc. executives had pleaded guilty in federal court to having illegally helped Rousso and another Frenchman "who carried out huge stock frauds in the United States and Europe... both of whom were fugitives from French justice."
Rousso later told members of the stamp trade he had lost the stamp after the sale, having left it in a taxi or at a restaurant by mistake. Perhaps his mind was not on stamps that day. If Rousso told the truth about his loss, the Robinette single had finally truly become unique.
2012 Cherrystone Sale of Rare Honduras Airmails
At Cherrystone's January 11, 2012, "Santa Fe" sale, Mystic Stamp Company bought the rare Airmail stamps and covers, including the Black Honduras, which realized $120,000, and the Red Honduras, which realized $7,000.
I'm told that "Santa Fe" was a coy reference to Edward M. Gilbert, the one-time "Boy Wonder of Wall Street" who later served two terms in prison for financial crimes. According to the Encyclopedia of Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico, Gilbert moved to Santa Fe in 1991 and founded a firm that became the largest holder of commercial real estate in New Mexico.
Despite his checkered business career, Gilbert spared no expense when he assembled outstanding stamp collections. Former auctioneer Greg Manning claimed to have sold $25 million worth of Gilbert's collections in a series of name sales during the previous decade, so it does not surprise me to see his name on the Black Honduras provenance roster.
Mystic's president Donald J. Sundman proudly exhibited the Black Honduras at the Aerophilately 2014 international exhibition at Bellefont, Pennsylvania, in September. He next exhibited the rare first-issue airmail stamps of Honduras at the New York 2016 world stamp show.