The Stamp Room, along with the Quaker Room, is the newest exhibit at the Old Government House Museum in Road Town. Up until 1996 the colonial manor, which offers breathtaking views of Road Harbour, was the Governor's residence and has been used to entertain visiting dignitaries and royals. Now the recently refurbished building houses a public museum, preserving the historical site and providing a must-see tourist attraction for those interested in learning about the fascinating history of the islands. Old Government House itself is perched on the hillside just a few minutes walk west down Old Main Street.
You don't need to be a collector to enjoy the stamp exhibit. Stamps provide an excellent way of learning, and the B.V.I. stamp exhibit will take you on a magnificent journey through the geography and natural history of the islands as well as the evolution of the territory itself. While the exhibit is geared towards adults, with a little imagination and explanation, children can venture back to a time when pirates ruled the waters surrounding the B.V.I. or delve into the deep and learn about the territory's aquatic environment, all through stamps.
I was lucky enough to be offered the chance to take a tour of the museum's new permanent exhibit with B.V.I. stamp experts Giorgio Migliavacca and Roger Downing. A journalist by profession, Giorgio is a gifted and internationally acclaimed scholar in postal history and has written for most major stamp publications worldwide. He, along with Roger, a local architect, and veteran B.V.I. stamp collector, are the founding members of the B.V.I. Philatelic Society and are responsible for helping the Stamp Room become a reality.The Stamp Room opened in November 2006 and houses a virtually complete collection of B.V.I. stamps. "In all likelihood, it is the only collection in any museum in the Caribbean that contains an entire collection of the host country," Giorgio proudly comments. The collection also includes a number of rare and valuable stamps.
The significant collection is owned by the B.V.I. Philatelic Society, but is on permanent loan to the Old Government House Museum. The Stamp Room itself was made possible thanks to a fundraising project by the Philatelic Society. Due to some very generous donations from members of the public and the B.V.I. Government, enough money was raised to refurbish and make alterations to the room, including the installation of air-conditioning and dehumidifiers to help maintain the optimum environment to protect the collection. To further safeguard the stamps, all of the archiving is done using acid-free paper and the stamps are mounted using inert materials. Giorgio stresses the importance of using the correct technique. "Using plastic mounts made from PVC is out of the question. PVC absorbs the ink from the stamps and for a valuable stamp this can be potentially devastating."
Walking into the exhibit, the first stand I saw was a display of the earliest examples of Virgin Islands stamps. While these are not as immediately attractive as modern, full-colour stamps, these early designs give a fascinating insight into postal history.
"The first postage stamp, the Penny Black, was issued by Great Britain in 1840," explains Giorgio. While a number of UK stamps depicting Queen Victoria were issued to the B.V.I. Post Office, it was not until 1866 that the B.V.I. was issued its very own adhesive stamps. Today, some of these early examples can sell for thousands of dollars.
"The B.V.I. was one of very few colonies in the British Empire to issue stamps without the image of the Monarch," enlightens Giorgio. Instead, the stamps depicted an image thought to be that of St. Ursula. Columbus named the untouched archipelago after the legendary St. Ursula and the 11,000 martyred virgins.
In 1880 a picture of the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, replaced the image of St. Ursula, but St. Ursula reappeared on B.V.I. stamps in 1922 alongside the image of King George V. Known as the "King collector," King George V assembled what still remains the grandest and most valuable collection of British Empire stamps, including a large selection of B.V.I. stamps. These now form part of the Royal collection. Giorgio and Roger had the privilege of viewing the collection in 1999 while researching information for the Specialised Stamp Catalogue of the British Virgin Islands. "We had the opportunity to use King George V's magnifier and sit at George V's desk at St. James Palace," enthuses Roger.
King George is not the only royal to have been a keen philatelist. The booklet commemorating the B.V.I.'s tenth Annual Stamp Exhibition, which took place in 2002 has a photo of the Queen viewing a selection of B.V.I. stamps from the Royal Philatelic Collection at Buckingham Palace.
The B.V.I. Philatelic Society was allowed to feature a selection of Caribbean rarities from the Queen's collection at the 2002 show, which was held at Barclays bank (now FirstCaribbean) in Road Town. The exhibit included the famed "Missing Virgin." The stamp, issued in 1867, was the earliest bi-coloured B.V.I. stamp and got its name due to the omission of St. Ursula in its centre. Exceptionally rare, the whereabouts of only four of the one shilling stamps, including this example, is currently known. Another is in the private collection of a British millionaire and two have recently come on to the market. The stamps are estimated to be worth as much as $150,000.00. It is possible a fifth specimen exists. Although you won't find the prized Missing Virgin in the Stamp Room at Old Government House, an enlarged reproduction is on display. Take a good look before you leave; you never know, the fifth Missing Virgin could already be in your collection or in your local stamp shop!
From the 1960s stamps were designed with world appeal to help increase sales, and this is reflected in the vast majority of the exhibit. Vibrant stamps on display reflect the islands' ties to the British Commonwealth, with commemorative sets of stamps celebrating royal birthdays, weddings, coronations and kings and queens through the ages. Recurring local themes include indigenous birds, flowers and marine life, including game fish and coral. One very popular series depicting scenes from Treasure Island was released in 1969 to mark the 75th anniversary of the death of Robert Louis Stevenson. The book, which captured the imagination of readers throughout the world with its tales of buccaneers and buried gold, was inspired by Norman Island.
Topics of international appeal such as the Olympics, World Cup Football and Apollo 11's first lunar landing in 1969 as well as Sir Francis Drake's historical circumnavigation around the world have also all graced B.V.I. stamps. This particularly striking series of 12 stamps which was released to mark the 420th anniversary of Drake's Voyage, is particularly relevant to the B.V.I. as the famous explorer and his fleet visited the British Virgin Islands on several occasions and the channel that runs between the islands was named in his honour.
Walking around the exhibit, I was impressed by the incredibly diverse selection of topics that have found their way onto B.V.I. postage stamps, and asked Giorgio who chooses the designs? "The Stamp Advisory Committee comes up with ideas which reflect local topics such as the 200th Anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade," explains Giorgio. "These ideas are put forward to the Ministry of Finance and go to the Executive Council for approval," he adds. But, that's not the end of the process. The request is then submitted to the Foreign and Commonwealth office and ultimately to Her Majesty the Queen to approve. "Former B.V.I. Governor Penfold used to have this duty in the UK, and he assured us that all designs are carried to Buckingham Palace for approval," Roger confirms.
As well as having some of the most exquisite designs, which reflect the natural beauty, and rich cultural history of the islands, B.V.I. stamps have steadily appreciated in value. "This has been due to very conservative issuing policies," clarifies Roger. No more than six sets are issued per year. Another unique factor, which increases collectors' intrigue, is the fact that B.V.I. stamps are the only ones in the British Commonwealth marked in US currency, which is legal tender in the islands.
The Stamp Room also includes a small but diverse philatelic library, including a copy of the Specialised Stamp Catalogue of the British Virgin Island 1787-2001. The 312 page hard-bound book was edited by Giorgio and Roger and is by far the most complete guide to B.V.I. stamps, and includes in-depth postal history of the B.V.I. as well as stamp values. Hundreds of other stamp publications from around the world can also be found in the library.
On your way out of Old Government House, don't forget to stop at the gift shop which offers a variety of attractive First Day Covers - envelopes with affixed postage stamps that receive a special "first day of issue postmark". If kept in mint condition First Day Covers can become quite valuable over time. Bags of loose unsorted B.V.I. stamps - perfect for sparking children's interest and starting a collection - are also on sale.
Collectors can also set up a standing order with the local Post Office in Road Town to receive new sets of stamps and First Day Covers as soon as they are issued.