A rare stamp discovered by Napier philatelist Robin Gwynn sold for more than $300,000, after an expert once dismissed the tiny piece of nearly 160-year-old embossed paper as a fake.

The stamp had been hidden anonymously in an album Gwynn bought in Auckland on August 14, 2014, for $3300, his interest piqued by the fact that, dated 1876, it was the oldest album he'd ever come across in New Zealand.

Returning home to Hawke's Bay and discovering a stamp had been removed between his inspection of the album and the auction, he chose against returning it when he realised there were more than a dozen stamps or stationery cut-outs he'd never heard of.

In an international journey of discovery one turned out to be the first Russian stamp, the Tiflis — a discovery of moderate interest for, he said, he had no interest in Russian stamps.

Advertisement

A US expert initially certified it as fake, but it became a philatelic wonder after an out-of-the-blue offer of £5000 led to him learning it was the genuine article, the first worldwide to surface in more than 80 years.

Three were in the Faberge collection which was dispersed on the eve of WWII, one was in the Berlin Museum and one was in the Smithsonian in America, but the new find was none of those.

On October 26 last year it sold for £165,000 (currently about $318,000) at a Spink and Son auction in London.

Gwynn has told the story in a five-page scholarly article in The New Zealand Stamp Collector, official journal of the Royal Philatelic Society of New Zealand, of which he is an internationally-decorated member and former president.

But to this day has no idea who bought the stamp three months ago, nor how the Oppen's Postage Stamp Album with such a rare appendage happened to be auctioned in New Zealand.

The lot description at Spink described it as "a superb and wonderful recently discovered World Rarity which had remained unrecognised in an old Oppen's album in New Zealand for the last 100 years or so" and estimated its worth pre-auction at £70,000-£100,000.

Gwynn recalls listening online as the first bid passed reserve, and interest accelerated from initial raises of £1000 to bids of £5000 — the single raises equal to the surprise "sight unseen" offer he once received and which was up to three times what he'd paid for the entire album.

It was that which initiated his research, learning the stamp was designed to carry mail between Tiflis, the former name of Georgia capital Tbilisi, and the summer residence of the Tsar's residence at Kodzhory.

A well-known philatelist, J.B.Moens, had listed the stamp in a catalogue in the late 1800s, but the first example, now in the Berlin Museum, was not identified until 1913.

Gwynn says the Tiflis is "by far" the rarest "classic issue" ever discovered in New Zealand, and the most expensive.

"For such a thing to turn up in 2014 in New Zealand, of all places," he said, "borders on the bizarre."