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To many people, a tree is a tree. However, if you’re a botanist then there is a bit more to it than that.

For starters, trees are perennial plants with a trunk, branches and leaves and there are around 100,000 different species, and even if you select just one of these, say the good old Oak tree –  part of the genus Quercus – there are still, believe it or not, about 500 different types. And we all know that ‘mighty oaks grow from little acorns’. Oak trees apparently produce 10 million acorns in their lifetime, but only one in 10,000 ever makes it as a tree. So whilst a tree can be lumped into a single pile, it’s not really carving an accurate picture if we ignore the broader aspect. Similarly, in philately a Maltese Cross is a Maltese Cross to some people, to others, such as the GB line engraved aficionado, there is a forest of species to look out for, and some very rare specimens indeed.

If you start at the beginning the red Maltese Cross has some intriguing branches of interest. There are the dates of usage such as early and late use, the occurrence such as on penny blacks, penny reds (particularly rare) and twopence blues, and there is a spectrum of red shades from deep red to pink, magenta, ruby, orange, and purple, vermilion to name just a few. And even black Maltese Crosses have a canopy of distinct types and varieties, from the first Experimental use during the life of the red Maltese Cross, the dates of introduction when replacing the red Cross in England, Ireland and Scotland, the distinctive types such as the Kilmarnock, York, Alexandria, Colehill, Cowbridge, Leeds, Moate and many more. Not to mention the Stonehaven doublelined and the Welshpool solid centre, and the Wotton-under-Edge hatched type.

There are even blue and brown Maltese Crosses, and you could even see red and black used together. And all this is wonderfully illustrated in our upcoming auction of Great Britain, which includes the Line Engraved “Quercus” collection. Within the 203 lots there are six May date penny black covers including the scarce 8th May (lot 7000), the elusive use on the 13th May (lot 7001) and the rarely seen 24th May (lot 7004).

If eye candy is your thing then proceed immediately to lot number 70014 which is a stunning entire with a superbly placed red Maltese Cross leaving a clear profile. As equally difficult to find as May date covers and superb used examples are Mulready 1d envelopes uprated with a penny black, and lot number 70022 has a four margin plate 2 tied by a red Maltese Cross and unusually the Mulready hasn’t been cancelled – normally a cancel of some sort would be seen over the central Britannia part. And as if to demonstrate lot number 70051 is a Mulready 1d envelope uprated with a twopence blue plate 1 tied by a red cross and the Britannia being cancelled by the towndated of Saltscoats (Scotland), a very rare example, and lot 70071 is a Mulready uprated with a plate 14 penny red tied by a Shifnal Maltese Cross which has an additional strike across Britannia.

The 1840 2d blues are in fact a lot scarcer on cover than the black or reds and in this offering there are examples with red and black Maltese Cross and multiples including a very rare front sent to Dublin with five singles (lot 70054), and lot 70055 which has two different shades of the same issue on a cover, and lot 70057 an attractive example again with two singles, but underpaid with a manuscript “over 2oz/ 4 more to pay”. Probably the standout item is in fact a penny red plate 11 tied to a printed circular by a stunning Billericay (Essex) red Maltese Cross (lot 70069) an extremely rare example. Along the same lines are the very visual subset of these early line engraved issues – the distinctive Maltese Crosses. The perceptibly peculiar Plymouth Maltese Cross is a great example which is rare on penny blacks and lot 70173 is a plate 11 four margin black, this being the rarest of all penny black plates and almost certainly unique. Which in this botanical landscape of Maltese Crosses is equivalent to it being the only tree of its kind in existence, and if you know your Pennantia baylisiana from your Quercus that is like the tree known as the Three Kings Kaikomako which is a one of a kind.  Or putting it another way, ‘mighty Maltese Cross covers come from small penny black printings’. That is to say, of the few thousand estimated surviving copies of penny blacks from plate 11, the odds of one being so fine and still tied to a cover and then struck with a distinctive Plymouth Maltese Cross is like one little acorn being struck by lightning and still growing up to be a mighty oak tree. Of course unlike acorns, Maltese Crosses don’t grow on trees, even if once upon a time the paper that the stamps were printed upon came from a tree.