It was a perfectly ordinary looking cover offered on eBay. The most the seller believed it could claim was a decent circular date stamp cancel from Sioux City in 1893. But the anonymous collector who chose to share his story with me saw something more.
It is known that there are many unusual cancels on stamps and covers from the 19th Century. One of the most popular and definitive reference works on this subject is the book Herst-Sampson 19th Century United States Fancy Cancellations. It is a book that was published many years ago, though that doesn't lessen its importance as since its publication date few new examples have come to light. That's why this new discovery is exciting.
Not all fancy cancels are artistic or exciting. Some, in fact, are little more than ink blobs transferred from a hastily carved simplistic cancelling device onto a stamp on an envelope. Collectors of fancy cancels find items that appear to be blobs, but are hopefully more, and twist their head this way and that hoping to find the blob is an old woman in a bonnet, a turtle with the letters USA on its back, a profile of a pretty woman and any number of things that imaginative postmasters of an earlier day carved onto wood, cork or lead.
It was the eBay collector's/buyer's familiarity with the area of fancy cancel collecting, as well as an item in the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum that made him believe that the Sioux City, Iowa cover contained more than a blob. He believed that it held a previously undiscovered version of a Kicking Mule fancy cancel.
The most familiar example of the Kicking Mule is from Port Townsend, Washington Territory. It is a much more elegant cancel than the Sioux City Kicking Mule, which truly appears to be a quick carve job from the Sioux City postmaster.
When Stamp Collectors Consult Experts
Now the collector's next step is to visit an expertizer. That is, send the item, or at least send a scan of the item to a professional philatelist qualified to render an opinion that the collecting world will accept. If all is well with the item one receives back a certificate attesting to the item's genuineness. It may be a bit tougher to find an expertizer who will certify a cancel, as stamps are the usual thing, but it is worthwhile to find one.
Of course in this case, with a brand new find, there is even the possibility that some would deny it is a kicking mule cancel. But when one compares it to the cancelling device in the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum collection, the dramatic similarities would tend to outdo those who might cast doubt upon the cancel.
On the question of value: some fancy cancels command high prices. This is related to scarcity. It remains to be seen if any more of the type of Kicking Mule cancel seen here come to light. Of course every stamp collector, or any collector actually, dreams of owning a one-of-a-kind item.
An interesting aspect of a new discovery coming to light in the philatelic world is that others see something that they may recognize in their own collections, the full meaning of which they've missed. After all, if a stamp dealer could miss this Kicking Mule, so could a collector.
If you have a friend that collects classic era postal history, especially from Iowa and specifically from Sioux City, you would be doing him a favor to point him to this example of what appears to be a newly discovered fancy cancel of the Kicking Mule variety.