After being re-authenticated by the Expert Committee at the Royal Philatelic Society London and making the rounds at libraries and museums in Hong Kong, London, and New York, the world’s rarest stamp will go up for auction. The last time it made a public appearance was in 1980 when the mentally disturbed heir to the du Pont fortune, John du Pont, bought it for $935,000. When the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta’s owner was imprisoned in 1997 for murder, it is believed the stamp was locked in a bank vault. The stamp has re-surfaced as a result of du Pont’s 2010 death in prison. It will be sold on June 17 at Sotheby’s New York as part of du Pont’s estate and has a pre-sale estimate of $10-20 million. That makes it the highest price ever paid for a postage stamp. At one-thousandth of an ounce, it is probably the most valuable object in the world as well.
Everyone in philately, which is the study of postal history, knows the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta as the Holy Grail. The world’s most famous stamp came about by mischance. British Guiana, now known as the independent nation of Guyana, had been getting its stamps from a manufacturer in England since 1852. In 1856, however, a stamp shipment was delayed. Knowing that the delay had the potential to disrupt postal service throughout the entire country, a British Guiana postmaster commissioned a local printer to produce a temporary emergency supply of three different stamps: a four-cent blue, a four-cent magenta, and a one-cent magenta. (Two hundred of the four-cent stamps are known to exist, and they each have a value of $50,000.) The one-cent stamps were intended for use on local newspapers while both four-cent stamps were to be used for letters.
There is only one known British Guiana One-Cent Magenta in existence. A 12-year-old Scottish schoolboy first rediscovered the sole-surviving example in 1873 amongst his uncle’s letters in the Guyanese town of Demerara. The budding philatelist added it to his stamp album. However, because there was no record of it in his stamp catalogue, he sold it a few weeks later to a local collector for six shillings. In 1878, that collector sold his collection to a Liverpool stamp dealer, marking the stamp’s entrance into the U.K. That same year, the stamp was bought from the stamp dealer by Philipp von Ferrary, a son of Italy’s Duke and Duchess of Galliera. Ferrary, who was born in France and lived there until his death, assembled the most complete worldwide collection of stamps that has probably ever existed. Though his massive collection was willed to a Berlin museum, France took it as war reparations when Ferrary died during WWI in 1917. Five years later, American textile industrialist and philatelist Arthur Hind bought British Guiana One-Cent Magenta at auction for $36,000, outbidding King George V in the process. In 1940, Mrs. Hind sold it through the philately department in Macy’s New York City store to an Australian living in Florida. The acquisition gave Floridian Fred Small a complete set of British Guiana stamps. Small auctioned his entire stamp collection off in 1970, and the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta went to a syndicate of investors from Pennsylvania for $280,000. It spent much of the 70s touring the world.
The physical appearance of the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta belies its worth. It was printed in black ink on magenta paper as imperforate, meaning that the stamps had to be cut by hand from a sheet with scissors or a knife. Someone chose to cut it into an octagonal shape, perhaps in an attempt to gussy up its ordinary countenance. Though given specifications by the postmaster regarding the stamps appearance, the printer took the liberty of adding an image of a simple, workman-like schooner that is more visible these days on the four-centers. The line-drawn ship was placed in the middle of the colony’s motto. The latin words “Damus Petimus” are above the ship, and the words “Que Vicissim” are below it. Today, this is less a motto than a prophecy. We give, the motto points says, and expect in return.
By Donna Westlund