Four Annas litho, mint!


4asspecimen 4

Here is one of the gems of Indian philately, the Four Annas of 1854, lithographed in the Office of Captain Thullier and printed in two operations, in two colours. Discovered in an old collection in a local stamp fair. This surely is too good to be true! 

Well, so it is. Firstly, although the paper is clearly old with the texture of a close weave when held to the light, there is no trace of the watermark that sheets of this stamp must carry. And as I turn the stamp over,  the word ‘SPECIMEN’ on the back tells me swiftly that this cannot be the real thing.
And yet… careful study of the head and frame show that this stamp is a totally faithful printing of the third die of the head, and second die of the frame. Every dot is right. It is a light, clear vermilion and pale blue print. 

But the underprint, as this overprint on the back is known, is also faithfully and precisely recorded, in the classic ‘Stamps of India’ by Jal Cooper, where he deals with the known underprints to these issues of 1854-5. So we have a stamp that appears to have been printed from the original stones, and an underprint, which was presumably intended to distinguish it from the original issue, that is also recorded, and has thus been known since Jal Cooper wrote his book in the 1940s. 
So what is the story of this item? 
In another important source for information on Indian stamps, the Robson Lowe Encyclopaedia, we have a listing, starting on p153, of the Essays Proofs and Reprints of the First Issue. Here we find that the issue was reprinted at various times between 1853 and 1916, when final impressions were made from the dies and presented to King George, the British Museum, the Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata, and the Royal Philatelic Society in London. The reprints with this particular underprint were made apparently in 1889. 

Thomas K. Tapling

Thomas Keay Tapling, 1855-1891

And here is where it gets very interesting. My friend David Padgham reminds me of the famous philatelist, banker, cricketer and politician Thomas Tapling. Tapling was one of the greatest philatelists of the day, and his collection forms the unbeatable reference resource at the British Museum. He was included in the first ever cricket tour of India in 1889, which was led by George Vernon. He didn’t actually make the journey, that’s another story. But ... the same date as this reprint … his known love of the Four Annas [he owned the only pair of inverted heads known on cover] … his VIP status as an MP in London, all this suggests that this stamp was part of a presentation that was prepared for his visit.