The Twisty Tale Of The World’s Most Expensive Stamp

June 18, 2014

Blemished, battered and cut, the “British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta” is a stamp with a twisty tale to tell, one that begins in the hands of a young Scottish boy and passes through the hands of a killer.

The 1856 treasure was sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $9.5 million on Tuesday to a phone buyer who wished to remain anonymous — the fourth time it has broken the auction record for a single postage stamp.

The price, which Sotheby’s notes is nearly 1 billion times the stamp’s original face value, obliterates the previous single-stamp record: the 1855 Swedish “Treskilling Yellow,” which sold for about $2.2 million in 1996.

Just one copy of the One-Cent is known to exist, and it has not been seen in public for 30 years.

“It has always been the world’s most famous stamp. It is one of these objects around which a huge mystique has grown up over the years,” said David Redden, the worldwide chairman of books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s.

The stamp was printed just 16 years after the introduction of postage stamps. The postmaster in British Guiana (now Guyana), facing a stamp shortage, asked the colony’s newspaper to print an emergency supply while awaiting a shipment of stamps from London.

Displeased with the quality of the printing, the postmaster asked each postal clerk to initial the stamps upon sale to prevent fraud. The One-Cent bears the initials “EDW,” those of clerk E.D. Wight, and a postmark of April 4, 1856, from the town of Demerara.

The stamp’s first owner was a Scottish boy named Vernon Vaughan who found it in 1873 among his family’s letters. He sold it to a local collector for 6 shillings (The Washington Post says that was about $1.50 back then).

From there, the stamp passed through the hands of many philatelists, including Philipp von Ferrary, one of the world’s greatest stamp collectors. It also spent some time in a Berlin museum and in the hands of the French as World War I reparations.

The stamp nearly ended up in the hands of King George V, but he underbid. It is the one major piece absent from the Royal Family’s heirloom collection of stamps, said David Beech, recently retired curator of stamps at the British Library.

The outbidder was Arthur Hind of Utica, N.Y. Hind was later anonymously accused of buying a second One-Cent and burning it, making the first more valuable. The accusation is unproven.

Before Tuesday, the One-Cent’s last owner was John E. du Pont, an eccentric American multimillionaire and heir to the DuPont chemical fortune. Du Pont was also a generous sponsor of amateur wrestling and allowed his friend David Schultz, a champion Olympic wrestler, to live in a guest house on his estate.

In 1996, du Pont shot Schultz three times, then locked himself in his mansion, holding police at bay for two days. Du Pont was eventually captured and convicted of murder, and died in prison in 2010. Relatives who later unsuccessfully contested du Pont’s will said du Pont alternately claimed to be the Dalai Lama, Jesus Christ and a Russian czar.

Who knows what the One-Cent’s next adventure will be. But as its history grows richer, the next buyer will have to be, too.

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