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Persis Collection

A Gem Of A Collection
by Daisy Ridgway

[Extraordinary Highlights of the Persis Collection of Hawaiian Stamps are on Display this Summer at NPM]

Volume 3, Issue 3
July–September 1994

Gems of Hawaii: The Persis Collection of Hawaiian Stamps, an exhibit of rare 19th-century Hawaiian stamps and philatelic artifacts, opened July 29 in celebration of the museum's one-year anniversary. The exhibition, located in the rarities vault in the museum's Stamps and Stories gallery, continues through Oct. 16.

The stamps are part of the Persis Collection, regarded as the most renowned and valuable collection of Hawaiian stamps and stamp-related material in the world, reflecting the rich history of Hawaii prior to its annexation, U.S. territory status and statehood. The display of more than 20 album pages features hundreds of stamps and covers from the collection and includes a selection of the famous "missionaries"—stamps printed in Hawaii on presses brought over by American missionaries in the mid-1800s. 

The objects on display are on loan from The Persis Corporation, whose president and chief executive officer, Thurston Twigg-Smith, created the collection in 1971 with the late Alfred J. Ostheimer III. Funding for the exhibition was made possible by a donation from the Persis Corporation. 

"It is a pleasure for the National Postal Museum to exhibit portions of The Persis Collection. This is a rare and exciting opportunity for avid collectors and the general public alike," says James H. Bruns, director of the museum. "The Persis Collection is a stunning holding of philately, carefully formed over many years by Mr. Twigg-Smith. Not only is the collection among the nation's most significant, but it is also an important testament to the history and people of the Hawaiian Islands." 

Once known as the Honolulu Advertiser Collection, The Persis Collection contains thousands of philatelic rarities that reflect a century of political activity in the former kingdom of Hawaii. The collection progresses through several historical periods ranging from 1851, when the independent kingdom of Hawaii issued its first stamps; to the provisional government of 1893; to its time as the Republic of Hawaii; and to annexation by the United States in 1898. The end of the kingdom of Hawaii's independent postal system came in June 1900. 

Because stamps were not used in Hawaii until the mid-1800s, the collection contains a large portion of stampless covers. Hawaiian stamps that were printed in the latter half of the century are also part of the collection. The exhibition represents highlights from among the collection's 25 major categories. 

Stampless covers in the collection are divided into three categories: "Covers Before 1851," including the earliest examples; "The Forwarders Covers," chronicling the work of the forwarding agents; and "Stampless Covers after 1850," dealing with the period after postage stamps were issued, but were not used on this mail. 

After 1850, the collection is divided by the particular stamp issue under discussion, such as "The Missionaries;" "The Kamehemeha III Series;" "The Numerals;" "The Provisional Government Overprints;" and so on. Rare and exceptional pieces abound in every category. 

Among the artifacts on display at the museum: the earliest known Hawaiian letter, addressed to New York, written in 1819 by missionary wife Sybil Bingham; the only known unused two-cent missionary stamp; the only known cover franked with a two-cent missionary; a rare example of the King Kamehemeha III provisional stamp used on a cover addressed to Persia; an unlisted "Cheng Yueh" Chinese forwarding agent cover; the unique unused block of 25 of the five-cent Numeral Stamp of 1865; and key overprint pieces of the provisional government issue of 1893. 

"Our collection attempts to document how people in Hawaii during the 1800s set up systems to communicate with each other and with the outside world," says Twigg-Smith. "It is an absolutely fascinating and complex period. Every stamp has a story to tell, every cover has touched at least two lives. We hope that people viewing these pieces will find it as rewarding an experience as we always have." 

Twigg-Smith, a stamp collector since childhood, became well-known in the philatelic community for the formation and development of The Persis Collection. The name "Persis" has personal and historical ties for Twigg-Smith. He is a fifth generation descendant of Asa and Lucy Thurston, members of the Pioneer Company of American missionaries to Hawaii. Their first-born, Persis Goodale Thurston, was also the first infant born in the Mission House in Honolulu.

Hawaiian Odyssey
by Joseph Geraci

Volume 5, Issue 1
January–March 1996

It was my privilege to attend the fabulous public auction sale of the Honolulu Advertiser collection of stamps and postal history of Hawaii and bid for objects on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution. 

"The Honolulu Advertiser Collection of Stamps and Postal History of Hawaii," known as the Persis Collection of Hawaiian stamps, was originally formed by Thurston Twigg-Smith, owner of the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper. The famous Persis Collection was sold at a public auction sale in November 1995. Prior to this sale, the National Postal Museum did not have any examples of Hawaiian "Missionary" stamps. 

Earlier efforts to purchase the "most renowned and valuable collection of Hawaiian stamps" for the Smithsonian Institution had been unsuccessful. The museum recognized the public auction sale was the last chance to acquire objects from this rich collection. Determined not to let this opportunity pass, the museum appealed to the Smithsonian Collections Acquisitions Fund. After much discussion with the fund administrators and Smithsonian legal counsel, we were granted $500,000. This money, and a matching contribution from Mr. Twigg-Smith, gave the museum $1 million for purchasing objects at the impending auction. 

With Jim Bruns, our Director, using Siegel's auction sale catalogues, we developed a bid list of possible acquisitions and maximum amounts for each lot. It was also decided we would bid only on objects of the finest quality or unique pieces. In Hawaiian philately, perfection is a tall order. Most "Missionary" stamps printed on fragile, pelure paper, are damaged in one way or another. Undamaged stamps or stamps with few defects are the exception rather than the rule. 

Seven auction sessions were required to dispose of the extensive Honolulu Advertiser collection. The first session of the auction contained the "Missionaries." 

While there was $1 million to work with, no more than $500,000 could be spent on lots before Lot 11. As a condition of Mr. Twigg-Smith's pledge to the Smithsonian, the museum was committed to bid his $500,000 on Lot 11, the only known unused example of a two-cent Missionary. If the museum was not able to purchase Lot 11, that money would then be free to purchase other lots. In addition, the buyer also had to pay a 10 percent commission to the auction house on all purchases made, which only left a maximum of $900,000 for bidding. This requirement limited the museum's spending to not more than $400,000 before Lot 11. 

Lot 1, a five-cent Missionary on cover posted from Honolulu on January 18, 1853, and addressed to San Francisco, was one of the lots on our bid list. It was described as "one of the finest-quality five-cent Missionaries on cover." There are only 10 five-cent covers recorded. The catalogue estimate was $75,000 to $100,000; our limit was $175,000. Bidding slowed after $100,000, but I held on and obtained the lot for $125,000, well below our limit. 

We passed on lots two through five. Lot 6 was the only known cover bearing both a 13-cent blue Missionary "Hawaiian/Postage" and a 13-cent red King Kamehameha III stamp. While the 13-cent Missionary stamp is defective, the cover is unique. The estimate was $50,000 to $75,000. The museum obtained the lot for $100,000, well below our limit of $125,000. 

After underbidding on Lot 7, a lovely 13-cent Missionary on cover addressed to Ooromiah, Persia, the museum obtained Lot 8 — an equally nice 13-cent Missionary on a cover addressed to a slightly less exotic destination, Albany, New York — for $80,000. 

At this point $305,000 had been spent, leaving $95,000 to work with before Lot 11 came up. Lot 10, a very attractive unique combination five-cent Missionary and United States three-cent 1851 on a California Penny Post envelope sold for $200,000. 

Lot 11, the only known unused two-cent Missionary, was estimated to sell for $400,000-500,000. Bidding opened at $300,000 and quickly rose with stiff competition between bidders. I bid up to $500,000, but bidding continued strong, and I did not feel the museum could obtain the lot even for slightly over that level. It finally sold for $600,000. 

Lot 12 was described as the "finest known used 1851 two-cent blue" off cover. The auctioneer's estimate was $150,000 to $200,000, but due to exceptional quality of this lot, the museum was prepared to bid up to $300,000. The lot opened at $100,000 and many floor bidders joined in the action. As the lot approached $300,000, all but one other bidder dropped out. Sensing that my competitor could not continue his bidding much longer, I decided to exceed my limit a little. Bidding was in increments of $5,000, and my competitor was responding more and more slowly. He reached $320,000; I bid $325,000. Scott Trepel, the auctioneer, looked around, called for any additional bids, and then said, "Sold to bidder number 400!" A friend in the back of the room said out loud, "At-a-boy, Joe!" and everyone laughed. 

Earlier, the museum had decided to bid on only one five-cent Missionary, one 13-cent "Hawaiian Postage" Missionary and one 13-cent "H.I. & U.S. Postage" Missionary, lots 18, 20 and 24. They are all among the finest known examples and were obtained for $32,500, and $32,500 and $75,000, respectively. The Smithsonian Institution now had a complete set of Hawaiian Missionary stamps! 

With only $130,000 left, there was still one other Missionary cover that the museum wished to obtain. That was Lot 29, the only multiple of any Missionary stamp. It is a strip of three 13-cent stamps inscribed "Hawaiian Postage." While the cover has been badly damaged by fire, this multiple is unique. The auction estimate was $100,000 to $150,000. 

Bidding opened at $57,500. As usual, bidding quickly moved up, several bidders being interested in this lot. As bidding passed $100,000, there was only one other bidder left in the auction. I bid $105,000. He bid $110,000. I bid $115,000. He bid $120,000. The room was silent, holding its collective breath. I knew my spending limit was $125,000, but my opponent didn't. He only knew that I had strongly pursued and purchased several Missionary lots earlier. Slowly I raised my bidder's paddle. Scott Trepel, the auctioneer, said "125,000 in front." Looking around the room, he called it once, twice and then said "Sold to bidder 400 at $125,000!" I had reached my spending limit with this purchase. If my opponent had bid one more time, he would have acquired that unique lot! 

The Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum garnered eight of the 32 lots, or 25 percent of the Missionary lots on sale. It acquired a full set of top quality, off-cover Hawaiian Missionary stamps, top quality five-cents and 13-cents on separate covers, the only known combination cover with both a 13-cent Missionary and a 13-cent King Kamehameha stamp, and the only known multiple 13-cent Missionary on cover. 

As Jim Bruns, director of the museum said after the sale, "The remarkable items purchased at the auction in New York City will be held in trust for the American people as a legacy of the rich heritage of Hawaii."