Uruguay’s Montevideo Suns by L. N. Williams

This is the second extract in a series of articles about philatelic rarities taken from the Encyclopaedia of Rare and Famous Stamps, vol.1, pp.331-334, by L. N. Williams, published by David Feldman in 1992, with updates since its publication.

When Mme Borchard swapped the first known examples of the Post Office Mauritius with Albert Coutures in 1864, she received in exchange two Montevideo Suns.

Even the rarest Sun, a much-disputed 180 centavos error of colour, would be now priced at less than a tenth of the price of one of the Mauritius stamps. The Suns are so called because of their design, the main feature of which is a rather chubby face surrounded by rays.

It was on 14 October 1856 that Señor Atanasio Lapido, then recently appointed Post Administrator at Montevideo, announced that in order to avoid loss of time and other difficulties, letters sent to the provinces by diligencias should be properly checked at the agencies or the head office.

At that time Uruguay did not have a railroad system. An interesting description of the method of mail-carrying was written by Dr. Wonner, one of the early specialists in the stamps of Uruguay:

These ‘Diligencias’ are like mail-coaches or omnibuses which accept for transport all official and private correspondence, and are also used for the conveyance of travellers and their baggage. The correspondence had to be delivered on the evening before the departure of the diligences at the Central Office at Montevideo, or latest on the same day at the Diligence Office before five o’clock in the evening, which was the hour fixed for their departure.

Imagine a large omnibus with ten places inside and three beside the conductor, who had charge of all mail matters and baggage. The team consisted of six horses, placed in a triangle, three next to the carriage, two preceding these, and the sixth one in front mounted by a young lad – at the side of the diligence, a horseman continually stimulating the ardour of the horses. When his cries had not sufficient effect, he brandished his whip with much dexterity.

Although there was no mention of stamps in the Post Administrator’s notice, they had actually been in use for a fortnight when the notice was issued. They were first of the issues referred to as “The Diligencias” because not only of the inscription at the top of the design but also in acknowledgment of their use on mail carried by the diligencias.
There has been some question as to the date on which the stamps did in fact appear, although an ex-Inspector of Posts stated that it was on 1 October 1856. There were three values of stamps: 60 centavos blue, 80 centavos green, and 1 real red. They were lithographed by Mège & Willems, of Montevideo, and only one stone was used for printing all three denominations. In each case the sheets contained thirty-five stamps in seven horizontal rows of five.

The first value to be produced was the 60 centavos. When a sufficient number had been printed (it is not known how many, but probably very few thousands), the figures of value at the foot of each design were erased and replaced by ’80′. This was tricky work, and although no doubt a considerable amount of care was exercised, the joint between the figures and the currency is apparent on most stamps in the sheet. For the production of the 1 real the entire label was erased and replaced.

Most of the stamps used on letters were cancelled with a penmark cross or occasionally the date, but some were left uncancelled. Postmarking hand-stamps were not issued to the offices at the time when the stamps came into use. However, a few examples have been found bearing genuine postmarks in red or black ink, but they were applied much later.
Apparently the number printed of the 60 centavos did not meet all requirements; probably towards the latter part of 1857 it was found necessary to order a fresh supply. The designs on the stone used for previous printing might, by that time, have been faulty; in any event, the value tablet at the foot of each design would have had to be changed, as the 1 real had been the last denomination printed. Rather than have that alteration made, Señor Lapido apparently ordered the building up of a new stone for the stamps. The letters of the word DILIGENCIA at the top of the design were spaced farther apart, the Greek border in the right and left frames was replaced by a series of short dashes, and the number of rays in the sun was reduced from 105 to 67. The colour of the stamps remained unchanged. The date of issue is stated to have been 1 October 1857, one year later than the first of The Diligencias.

In the past there was much controversy as to the status of this modified stamp. Its chief vilifier was Louis Hanciau, virtual editor of Le Timbre-Poste, whose denunciation of the stamp appeared, however, to have been based upon the absence of pro, rather than that of the presence of con. In the opposite camp was Dr. Jose Marco del Pont, the leading South American specialist of his time, who eventually brought forward documentary proof to shatter his opponent’s contention and to show that the stamp actually was used. Despite that, the redoubtable Hanciau retained his conviction to the end, and would never admit that the second type of the 60 centavos was anything more than an essay, or perhaps a fake. The stamp has long enjoyed catalogue rank as an issue variety of considerable rarity; there is now scant reason why it should not keep its status.

Probably early in 1858 two values in a different design, but retaining the sun as the central feature, were printed by Mège & Willems for use on letters to the Argentine. The inscription at the top of the design was still DILIGENCIA, but as the mail would have had to be transmitted by ship instead of by omnibus the stamps were not issued. The values were 180 and 240 centavos; they were printed respectively in green and red. Examples exist only in unused condition.

Tête-bêche varieties
Stamps bearing an altered inscription, MONTEVIDEO at the top and CORREO at each side, were printed soon afterwards and were issued, apparently without any previous notification, in March 1858. There were three denominations: 120, 180 and 240 centavos, printed in blue, green and red respectively. A separate stone was used for each value of these stamps. As far as is known, the arrangements of the sheets of the 120 and 180 centavos was seventy-eight stamps in thirteen horizontal rows of six, and each sheet contained one inverted design. The tête-bêche varieties thus caused are extremely rare, and only three such pairs of the 120 centavos have been recorded as existing. One is in the Tapling collection at the British Library. Another was in the collection formed by Alfred F. Lichtenstein which, when the collection was auctioned on 7 May 1970 by H. R. Harmer Inc. as lot 975, realised $9,000 (£3,750).

In The Postage Stamps of Uruguay by Emanuel J. Lee, London 1931, that author related a curious story about the third pair. When the C. Lathrop Pack collection was offered for sale in 1929, the pair was found to be missing, as also were several other scarce stamps. Mr Pack was informed of this, and he stated that the stamps may have been removed at some time or another by his son, possibly for showing at an exhibition, but not replaced. However, the price at which the collection was to be sold had already been fixed and would remain unchanged whether the stamps were found later or not.

The collection was bought in its entirety by Mr Lee, with a proviso that if and when the stamps were found they should be handed to him. Soon afterwards he advertised in a number of philatelic journals, offering £100 reward for information leading to the recovery of the missing pair, but without result. “This offer”, wrote Mr Lee, “still holds good and I feel assured that it will bear fruit, if not in my lifetime, later on; my executors have received definite instructions from me to honour above offer and should occasion arise to take any steps necessary for its recovery”. At the New York auction on 20 November 1945 of the Charles Lathrop Pack collection of Uruguay the third pair was included.

Of the 180 centavos only two tête-bêche pairs are known. One is in the Tapling Collection at the British Library. The other was in the Lichtenstein collection and at Harmer’s sale in New York, as lot 982; the 180 centavos pair realised $11,000 (£4,583).

The 240 centavos of this issue was printed in much larger sheets than the other values, and the arrangement was rather curious. There were 204 stamps to the sheet, in twelve horizontal rows of seventeen, but seven spaces the size of a stamp were left blank! The stone was built up from a transfer of thirty impressions, in five rows of six, and this was repeated six times; then the first four rows were added. The blank spaces occurred at regular intervals on the sheet, and were due possibly to the removal of a faulty transfer from the block of thirty. A complete sheet of stamps was in existence once, but in 1910 it was acquired by a London firm of dealers who cut it up when they could not find anyone willing to buy it whole for £1,650.

Error of colour
It is in this issue that the much-disputed 180 centavos error of colour occurs. The normal colour of the stamps is green, but two examples have been found in the red of the 240 centavos. It has been said that these varieties owe their origin to the accidental use of a transfer of the 180 centavos in the sheet of the highest value. After a few sheets were printed, the error was noticed and the impression was erased from the stone, thus, so it is said, accounting for the blank spaces in the sheets of the 240 centavos. However, this theory has been disputed on the grounds that the known specimens of the error exhibit characteristics which do not correspond with those of any of the thirty types of the 180 centavos in green. Some collectors believe strongly in the authenticity of the error; others maintain that it is a chemical colour changeling or possibly a forgery. It is no longer listed in Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue (which states that “We no longer list the error 180c red from the stone of the 240c as there is considerable doubt as to whether a genuine copy exists.”) but is listed in Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue as Uruguay number 6c (although not priced) and, also as number 6c in Catalogo de Estampillas Uruguay Mundus 1985. An example was in the Lichtenstein Collection and at the New York auction on 7 May 1970, as lot 995, and realised $7,500 (£3,125). In the catalogue of that sale the lot is headed: “The unique copy of the 180c. vermilion in the stone of the 240c”.

The 120, 180 and 240 centavos stamps were issued about the end of March 1858, but were withdrawn on 5 August of the same year. They were put into use again, officially, on 11 June 1859, and remained current until January 1861.

At the end of 1858 the Postmaster-Generalship was taken over by Señor Prudentio Echevarriarza, and soon afterwards he wrote to the Minister of the Interior asking for a new set of stamps. This request was granted on 11 June 1859 and the stamps were issued about a fortnight later. Once more the design was modified, although the “sun” remained the central feature. The sketch of the amended design was the work of Señor J. I. Blanco, and the printing was done by Mège & Willems.

The currency up to 1859 was 120 centavos equalling 1 real with eight reales to 1 peso.
For the Government issues the currency was 100 centesimos equalling 1 peso, but only centesimos stamps were issued.

There were six denominations: 60c. lilac, 80c. yellow, 100c. carmine, 120c. blue, 180c. green and 240c. red. Four stones were used: one for the 60 and 100c., one for the 120 and 180c., and one each for the other two values. There were 204 stamps in each sheet, and the stones were built up by transferring six blocks of twenty stamps and then adding seven rows of twelve. All these stamps had the figures of value and the currency at the foot of the design in characters of approximately the same height, but in 1860 a further series appeared with the figures of value much bolder than the word centesimos. The exact date of issue is not known. The official records give it as 28 November 1860, but examples have been found bearing postmarks dated as early as January of that year. There were only five values in this series as the old 240 centavos remained in use. The stamps were printed in sheets of 192, built up from four panes of forty-eight, and a separate stone was used for each denomination. The printing was done by the same firm that produced the earlier stamps.

An interesting variety of the 120 centesimos has been found. The supply of stamps sent to some of the smaller provincial offices did not always meet the demand, and occasionally a shortage arose. The value affected by this stamp famine was chiefly the 60 centesimos, and when that happened the 120 centesimos was bisected and each half used separately, even though such use was not officially authorised. These were the last of the Montevideo Suns. On 13 April 1864, stamps in a new design were officially issued and the Suns went out of use.