Just Philately

CharadeWhen I was a physics undergrad, I was part of a clique of the best physics students—or so we thought. Along with Ken and Nancy, I looked down on students from all the other disciplines as well as all the other physics students—at least the ones who didn’t take all the upper division, heavily mathematical physics courses like statistical mechanics, digital signal processing, and of course, mathematical physics. In particular, we ignorantly referred to all other scientific disciplines as philately: stamp collecting. Apparently, we had not been exposed to genetics or geochronology or just about any other field of modern science.

As I learned many years later while researching one of my “dangerous” books, scientific philately is an enormously complex and beautiful part of science. Carl Linnaeus was one of the greatest scientists of all time—certainly on par with Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein—men I (rightly) considered heroes. Study of his classification of species is extremely rewarding and insightful. This is especially true as our knowledge of genetics increases and we see how accurate Linnaeus and his followers were in relating different species. But we were wrong on an even deeper level, because philately itself is anything but contemptible; it is a beautiful hobby that combines art, history, and economics—to name but a few—in a unique and rewarding manner.

I was reminded of this last night as I watched the 1963 film Charade starring the ultimate symbol of male perfection, Cary Grant and the ultimate symbol of revolting cuteness, Audrey Hepburn. This enjoyable little film is built on a foundation of our ignorance about the value of postage stamps. Three rare stamps serve as a kind of reverse MacGuffin[1]: everyone in Charade is looking for a quarter million dollars that is hidden in plain sight in the form of these stamps that have been known to everyone since the beginning of the film.

Here are the three stamps in Charade:

Charade Stamps

However, these stamps are not real according to the Internet Movie Database. But they represent real stamps:

The stamps depicted in the film are fictional counterparts of actual rare stamps, but have their values raised [lowered?] by one [order of magnitude?]. The stamps they represent are the Swedish orange[2] 3 skilling, the “Hawaiian Missionaries” 2 cent blue and the 81 para blue Romanian “cap de bour” on blue paper, in total worth about USA$3.6 Million in 2007.

It is unclear why director Stanley Donen and art director Jean D’Eaubonne chose to create similar stamps rather than using facsimiles. As you can see in this altered still, the stamps still look quite similar.

Charade Stampes: Real

Stamp Values

One apparent reason for using fictitious stamps is that the total value of the stamps is quite different. In the movie, they needed to be worth a quarter of a million dollars. Very rare stamps are worth quite a lot more than this.

The 1851 Hawaiian Missionaries Blue is worth $65,000 in Charade. In reality, it is currently worth slightly less than three-quarter of a million dollars. The next most valuable stamp, the 1855 Swedish Yellow 3 Skilling is worth only $85,000. I say “only” because this is a one-of-a-kind stamp. It sold for over $2 million back in 1996, and is estimated to be worth more than $3 million today. Strangely, the 1858 Romanian 81 Parale Blue that was worth the most in the film, is worth the least in reality. In the film, it is worth $100,000, but in reality is worth only $50,000.

The total real world value of the three stamps is thus $743,000 + $3,163,000 + $51,000; the total is $3,957,000, or roughly four million dollars! This is 16 times the film value of $250,000. However, Charade was released in 1963—almost fifty years ago—and the dollar ain’t worth what it used to be. Assuming a starting stamps value of $250,000 and the yearly U.S. inflation figures taken from InflationData.com, we get the following graph of the yearly inflation (the blue bars) and the value of the stamps at each year (the orange line), assuming they had increased in value only at the rate of inflation.

Stamps Value Over Time

Given these assumptions, the quarter million dollar starting value would produce a trio worth roughly $1.8 million. This is 45% of the real trio’s current value. However, there is no reason to think the samp values do appreciate at the rate of inflation (especially US inflation). Thus, it seems likely that the value of the stamps were not the reason why the filmmakers created their own stampls. It may just be aethetics.


There is much more to these stamps than their values, of course. The Hawaiian Missionaries will be of great interest to anyone who has read Sarah Vowell’s history of missionary conquest of the Hawaiian islands in the 19th century. These stamps were primarily used by these missionaries to write to their families back home. This is how the stamps got their moniker.

Even more interesting, a Paris gentleman, Gaston Leroux was murdered in 1892 because of his ownership of a 2 cent Hawaiian Missionaries (this is mentioned in the film). Nothing in his home had been stolen, so the police were stumped until one of the detectives—who happened to have an interest in stamps—noticed that the victim had a stamp collection with one stamp missing: a Hawaiian Missionaries Blue 2 Cent. The police soon discovered that Hector Giroux—a friend of Leroux—also happened to have this same very rare stamp. Giroux soon confessed and was hanged; the mystery was solved!

The 3 Skilling Yellow is notable because it is supposed to be blue. Apparently, the printing element that is used to make the 8 Skilling Yellowish-Orange broke and so the element for the 3 Skilling Bluish-Green was used. When they went back to print the 3 Skilling Blue, the yellow ink from the 8 Skilling changed the 3 Skilling (theoretically) Blue stamps into 3 Skilling (actually) Yellow stamps. Only one such stamp is know to exist. Also, I am making assumptions about this process. It is never well described and no one knows for sure anyway.

There is shockingly little information available about the Romanian stamp. The following is a description of a single stamp being auctioned in Switzerland at Corinphila:

81 parale blue Attest

In English, this reads:

81 parale blue on grey-blue wove paper, a superb mint example without gum, with huge margins all round, very fine appearance and without faults, an excellent crisp impression with minute spots as are characteristic of the nature of the delicate wove paper utilized and are not faults. A wonderful example of this classic rarity. Just 37 examples are recorded unused, one being cut round, 15 with more major faults and at least five housed in museum collections. Illustrated in Edition d’Or on page 49 and in Handbook I on page 365, pos. 2. Signed Heimbüchler and H. Köhler; cert. Heimbüchler (2010)

The starting bid is 40,000 CHF (Swiss Francs), which is equivalent to roughly $49,500.


In a sense, there is something very silly about assigning so much value on what are, in the end, tiny pictures of ink on paper. Then again, that is all that cash is, and people get very excited about that. Each stamp tells a story. Plus it works as a great basis for Charade. And for a story-junkie like me, that means a lot. I guess I’ve matured a bit since the time when I thought anything was “just philately.”

[1] A MacGuffin is a literary device used to give a story momentum. In general, it is an item that one or more characters are determined to acquire. It usually doesn’t matter what the MacGuffin is, and in many cases, the audience is never told what it is (e.g. the contents of the case in Ronin.). All that matters is that the character wants it and this motivates her actions.

[2] As can be seen by looking at any pictures of this stamp, or reading about it, it is yellow-orange, but primarily yellow.

10 thoughts on “Just Philately

  1. This was a very interesting article. I was going to mock you and your fellow grad students for being such geeks that you used "philately" rather than "stamp collecting", but the fact that it made me chuckle (once you explained what the word meant), made me realize that I am just an ignorant word geek.

    "Giroux soon confessed, was hanged, and the mystery was solved."

    [The mystery was OBVIOUSLY solved *after* Giroux confessed and *before* he was hanged.] *smug snicker*

    "…tiny pictures of ink on paper."
    [‘Lines of ink on tiny bits of paper’ would be more accurate. You’ve them sound like Rorshasch blots.(If it makes you feel any better, I had to look up the spelling of that stupid name.)]

    "Then again, that is all that cash is, and people get very exciting about that."

    [I think that, perhaps, what you meant to say was "excited"?]

  2. Oh crap. Now you have to edit my comment and fix the html tags that this stupid program isn’t recognizing and it just ruins the whole thing. Gaaah! I hate it when my superb snarkiness is thwarted!

  3. Thank you for the "exciting" error. And I’ve improved the "mystery solved" sentence, but in a way that works, unlike your suggestion. Otherwise: go philately yourself! And when pointing out someone’s errors, it is best not to write, "You’ve them sound[ing?] like Rorshasch blots"? Really?

  4. It *is* a very well written, and interesting, article. You must send it to SOMEONE. Try to get published more. You are a remarkable man.

  5. I happen to be a movie buff and a stamp collector. "Give me a word, any word and I will show you it came from a Greek word". From " My Big Fat Greek Wedding".

    All these came together in your article, Philately.

    I received a small stamp collection from my father. On the first page, he had written, "To Robert Misen" in his flourishing script. They wrote that way in those days. I knew he had given me the collection but as I was young, I did not realize the impact of his dedication until years later, long after he was gone.

    A stamp collection, represents hours of, travel, art, detective work, color appreciation, history, language and wonder.

    A torn or cut stamp brings a certain sorrow of a lost and injured friend.

    Duplicates and injured friends are hard to let go.

    Many Thanks for the research.


  6. Interesting article. I hate to break the news to anyone, but fictional caper movies aren’t real. The fact that the producers went out of their way at all to select 3 stamps that are indeed rare and valuable, to include the true story of murder surrounding one of these stamps, and to include albeit inaccurate facsimiles of said stamps is remarkable, and nice to know.

    In terms of investment value over time, some things are better investments that gain more value over time than would be expected due to inflation alone. This is most clear in the art market with world records constantly shattered for Picasso paintings, for example. Perhaps stamps of this caliber would be expected to rise in value faster than inflation over this period of time as well.

    Though I wonder with the general downturn in letter writing, how popular collecting stamps is currently. Like memorabilia from say Howdy Doody, or the Lone Ranger, stamps may be loosing their cultural relevance as the generations march on perhaps never needing to even buy a stamp due to email and on-line bill payment options available today. Lack of interest in stamps, like horse shoes may make their values decrease over time I suppose.

    Thank you for the article. I’ve always wondered about those stamps that they showed.
    Steve K.

    • I think it’s wonderful that they added this bit of reality to the plot. Who would have thought? I assume that was in the short story it was based on. It seems unlikely to have been added by the screenwriter, although Peter Stone did write the book for 1776 — but it was based on Sherman Edwards’ research (he was a history teacher).

      A long time ago, I had planned to publish this in a proper magazine but I couldn’t find old stamp values. I’m convinced that the stamps have increased in value more than inflation. I suspect that the decline in letter writing has, if anything, caused prices to go up — at least for the most expensive stamps.

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