To amateurs, the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta stamp that measures a mere 2.5 cm by 3.2 cm may appear to be like any other ancient postage stamp. However, for philatelists this octagonal scrap of paper that bears an illustration of a three-masted ship is a one-of-a-kind treasure, for which an avid collector recently paid $9.5 million. According to Sotheby's, the One-Cent Magenta is not just the world's most expensive stamp sold at an auction but also its most valuable object by weight and size!
What's even more interesting is that while philatelists all over the world have known about the stamp for years, most have never had a chance to see it in person. That's because since its discovery almost 140-years ago, it has been in view for a total period of less than a month. That is the reason the recent announcement that this invaluable scrap of paper will be exhibited at Smithsonian's National Postal Museum's until 2017 is generating such excitement.
By now you are probably wondering what makes this stamp so valuable. For that, we will have to travel back in time to when the modern day nation of Guyana in South America was a British colony known as British Guiana.
It all began in 1855 when a colony postmaster received a shipment of just 5,000 stamps instead of the 50,000 he had been expecting from Great Britain. Since the next shipment would not arrive for at least ten weeks, the enterprising worker decided to print temporary four-cent and one-cent postage stamps to fulfill demand. The pricier stamps were used to mail letters and the latter for newspapers. As a result, while many specimens of the former remained, the latter disappeared along with the tossed gazettes.
In fact, the existence of the One-Cent Magenta would have probably been forgotten had it not been for twelve-year-old Vernon Vaughan. The budding philatelist who stumbled upon it in 1873 thought it looked interesting enough to add to his collection. The stamp then went through several owners before it was purchased by John E DuPont, the heir to the DuPont fortune in 1980, for what was then a record price of $935,000 USD.
The One-Cent Magenta was seen only once after that until last June, when DuPont's estate handed it to Sotheby's to auction. To verify its authenticity, the auction house approached the Smithsonian Institution. The officials there seized the opportunity to ask the auctioneers to request the new purchaser, shoe designer Stuart Weitzman to lend it to them for other avid fans to admire. To their delight he agreed! Smithsonian officials believe that the One-Cent Magenta will not only help attract more visitors to the National Postal Museum but also help revive interest in postage stamp collecting.
Resources: smithsonianmag.com, sotheby's.com