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Michael’s stamp of authority over royal collection

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Collecting stamps might sound like a sedate occupation to some people but for Londoner Michael Sefi it has kept him busy trotting back and forth across the globe. Mr Sefi, the official Keeper of the Queen’s stamps, was recently in Bermuda to oversee some of the Queen’s most valuable stamps that were briefly on display in a special exhibition at the Masterworks Museum in the Botanical Gardens. The stamps were part of an existing exhibition at Masterworks commemorating the 200th anniversary of Bermuda’s Post Office that ended on Saturday.

The Royal Gazette recently caught up with Mr Sefi to learn more about his work. In today’s world of flashy technology, few children have the patience for stamp collecting, but when Mr Sefi was a boy, stamp collecting was all the rage. It was the height of excitement to pour over the little slips of paper depicting the faraway countries they came from. “Most people at my age collected stamps as children but not so much these days,” said Mr Sefi. “When I got to be about 12 or 13 years old, with examinations and other distractions, I put my stamps away completely.” It wasn’t until the 1970s that he gave his stamp collection another thought. One of his children received a starter pack of stamps for Christmas and he went up into his loft to pull down his old collection. “I went into the loft and pulled out the suitcase of stamps,” he said. “That got me back into collecting. I started to take it very seriously and started to build one or two collections. My children, of course, weren’t the least bit interested.” Mr Sefi worked in the finance industry for many years, before taking early retirement. He eventually became President of the Great Britain Philatelic Society and was on the council of the Royal Philatelic Society. He also helped with several stamp exhibitions organised in London. Meanwhile, Charles Goodwin, who was then Keeper of the Queen’s stamps, asked him if he wanted to help with the Queen’s collection, and he agreed. Then Mr Goodwin fell ill unexpectedly and had to retire and Mr Sefi stepped in. “I hadn’t expected that I ever would be keeper, but suddenly I found myself doing the job,” said Mr Sefi. “I have been Keeper of the Queen’s collection since the beginning of 2003.” The Queen is admittedly not an enthused stamp collector but she takes her duty to preserve one of the world’s best stamp collections very seriously. Much of the collection was inherited from her grandfather, George V. Her collection, known as the Royal Philatelic Collection, consists of 328 red albums of about 50 pages each of stamps from George V’s time, which means there are over 16,000 pages in the collection, which may have as many as 20 or 30 stamps on them. “The focus of the collection is now on the postal stamps of Great Britain and all the colonies and now a lot of the Commonwealth countries,” said Mr Sefi. Mr Sefi’s job involves administering the collection, logging and filing new acquisitions, conservation work and also dealing with researchers. He has also accompanied parts of the collection to various parts of the world to oversee exhibitions. “There was a big exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC in 2004 and then in 2009 we had a big exhibition in Ottawa in the Museum of Civilisation,” he said. “With the Smithsonian exhibition I had to visit Washington DC at least five times before the exhibition opened.” He said he enjoys doing exhibitions, but they can be hard work. The 2009 exhibition involved 80 cases of material. “There was a lot of preparation,” he said. “Being able to present our material the best way we can is an important part of my job. There was obviously a lot less material brought to Bermuda, so it wasn’t as involved as all that.” The collection is currently housed in St James Palace. “We were in Buckingham Palace until over 13 years ago,” said Mr Sefi. “When they were doing some reorganisation of space they found somewhere better. We had a very small vault in Buckingham Palace and they found us somewhere with a lot more space. They created a strong room for us.” The collection is privately owned by the Queen and is not open to the general public, which is why the exhibition at Masterworks was such a rare opportunity. “To bring the collection here I had to get the Queen’s agreement that we could do it,” said Mr Sefi. “There was never any hesitancy about sending it to Bermuda, although various conditions had to be met. After an exhibition I have to make a report back to say how the exhibition went and how the arrangements went. I do periodic reports as well. Any purchases or significant disposals, I have to get cleared. She takes her responsibility as what she calls ‘an heirloom’ very seriously.” Some highlights of the exhibition included Bermuda Perot stamps belonging to both the Queen and former Premier David Saul, and the Kirkcudbright Cover, bearing a block of ten 1d penny blacks, the first stamps issued in the world and posted on the first day of use on May 6, 1840, as well as a number of other early stamps of Great Britain provided from the Queen’s private collection. Perot stamps are named after William Bennett Perot, who served as Bermuda’s first postmaster general from 1818 to 1862. Perot Post Office on Queen Street bears his name. He produced the stamps between 1848 and 1865 to foil mail cheats who were not leaving money in a dropbox for postage. “Stamps only first happened in Great Britain in 1840 and we are talking 1848, in terms of the Perots,” said Mr Sefi. “They were used for the internal mail within Bermuda, which is why the collecting fraternity never found about them until 1897.” Only 11 Perot stamps are thought to exist in the world and they have commanded as much as $100,000 at auction. The Queen has three and Dr Saul has two. Back in 1848, Mr Perot’s stamps were worth a penny. One of Dr Saul’s Perots and one of the Queen’s were originally joined but were torn apart by an auctioneer in the 1930s. “One was sold to the Queen and one was put on the market,” said Mr Sefi. “That is something that happens. Dealers have something joined and think they will get more for an individual than for the pair. For someone who is a serious collector or curator, separating two stamps joined together, particularly stamps so rare, is regarded with total horror.” He described the Kirkcudbright cover as “the cover to end all first-day covers”. The cover contains penny black stamps, the world’s first postage stamps. Unfortunately, Mauritius beat Bermuda by a year by producing the first stamps in a British colony in 1847. “I am very pleased to be part of Bermudian history and its commemoration of the Post Office,” said Mr Sefi. “I am very interested to be here.”

Useful websites: www.gbps.org.uk, www.rpsl.org.uk and www.bpo.bm.

Michael Sefi, Keeper of the Queen's stamps ( Photo by Glenn Tucker )
Perot stamps in the exhibition. ( Photo by Glenn Tucker )
The Kirkcudbright First Day Cover. (Photo by Glenn Tucker )
Michael Sefi, Keeper of the Queen's stamps ( Photo by Glenn Tucker )