Friday, November 30, 2012

The 1862 Shilling Deep Green

This week I reread Where is Susan? and my curiosity was aroused. Susan and Midge are chased around Venice by two people that they meet on the plane: a "beautiful Russian spy" who goes by the name of Miss Smith, and William, a young man who is taken ill during the flight. Susan suspects that something has been hidden in their luggage, perhaps secret information in the form of a micro dot. However, it turns out that all the fuss is about a rare stamp, an 1862 one-shilling Deep Green. William had been entrusted with it by his uncle and was bringing it to an avid philatelist called Count Foscarini. Miss Smith is working for an unscrupulous rival dealer and is after the stamp, claiming that she can sell it for double the price being paid by the count. William shocks Susan and the Carmichaels when he tells them that the stamp is worth £900. Miss Smith, apparently, can sell it for one thousand eight hundred. Last year, while rereading A Job for Susan, I became doubtful about the alleged value of some of the coins that Susan was on the look-out for and did a little research. You can read the results here. I was also in doubt as to the alleged value of this "rare" stamp and decided to check that out too. After all, in 1968, when the book was published, you could buy a house in Britain for the nine hundred pounds in question. I visited and found that an 1862 shilling Deep Green was on offer, reduced from £175 to £125, a far cry from the astronomical prices casually tossed around in Where is Susan? I also visited e-bay and found that someone had bid as high as £425. This price is vastly over-inflated, but again nowhere near the claims made in the story. It is estimated that £1,000 at the time of decimalization in the UK would be equivalent to £14,000 today. Conversely, the £125 price tag for the stamp today would be equivalent to around £8 at the time the story was set. So, we can conclude that, like the claims in A Job for Susan that a 1954 half crown was worth £12,000, the alleged value of £900 for this Victorian stamp is nonsense and the idea that someone would offer double is beyond belief. We can only speculate as to why these blunders occur. First of all, there are the exigencies of the plot. A larger valuable item could not be so discreetly slipped into Susan's hand luggage. A stamp is the ideal treasure for this situation. Moreover, a trip to Venice is very expensive. Miss Smith, for instance, flies out, checks into a swanky hotel and seems to throw a lot of money around. William also spends a lot of money at restaurants and treating the girls to lavish meals. No company would finance all this for a stamp that was only worth £8. Therefore, the stamp has to greatly increase in value for the plot to make sense. But part of the attraction of Jane Shaw's work is her sense of the ridiculous. If you stop to think about it, part of the premise of the plot is laughable. That these stamp dealers would invest so much money and employee hours on this one stamp is a joke. That the Russian spy would go to such lengths as drugging William on the plane in this normally respectable business of stamp dealing is also quite funny. I suspect it all comes down to the author's inimitable sense of humour.