A tiny piece of paper nearly 160 years old reaffirmed its place as the world’s most expensive item by weight and size.
The famous British Guiana One-Cent Magenta stamp, the only one of its kind, was sold at Sotheby’s in New York earlier this week for $7.9 million – nearly $9.5 million if one includes the buyer’s premium.
It marks the fourth time the stamp has fetched a world-record price over its storied existence and a marked increase from the $935,000 it last sold for, when John duPont purchased it in 1980.
The stamp was produced in a very limited issue in Georgetown, British Guiana, (now Guyana) in 1856, and only one specimen is now known to exist. It features a sailing ship along with the colony’s Latin motto “Damus Petimus Que Vicissim” (We give and expect in return).
The stamp came about after an anticipated delivery of postage stamps by ship did not arrive, forcing the local postmaster to authorize printing of an emergency issue. The postmaster gave some specifications about the design, but the printers, showing an artists’ inclination, chose to add a ship image of their own design to the stamps.
The postmaster was less than pleased with the result and, and as added protection against forgers, ordered that all correspondence bearing the stamps be autographed by a post office clerk. This cursive initials “E.D.W.” seen on the One-Cent Magenta are those of clerk E.D. Wight.
There are several reasons why this stamp reached such stratospheric heights at auction on June 17, according to The Economist:
- The One-Cent Magenta is the only one of its kind known to exist;
- It has a fascinating history, having been printed in 1856, just 16 years after the introduction of the first stamps, by a British Guianese newspaper when the colony was in danger of running out of stamps; and
- There are a growing number of rich people throughout the world, due particularly to China’s turbo-charged economic rise, increasing the premium for collectible items.
The stamp, purchased by an anonymous buyer, broke the mark set by the previous record holder, the Treskilling Yellow, a Swedish stamp produced in 1857 and last sold in 1996 for at least $2.3 million.
In terms of background, it’s tough to match the One-Cent Magenta.
It was first found by a 12-year-old Scottish schoolboy, L. Vernon Vaughan, in 1873 in the Guyanese town of Demerara among his uncle’s letters. There was no record of it in his stamp catalogue, so he sold it some weeks later for six shillings to a local collector, N.R. McKinnon.
In 1878 McKinnon’s collection was sold to a Liverpool stamp dealer, Thomas Ridpath, for £120. That same year, Ridpath sold the stamp to Philipp von Ferrary for about £150. Von Ferrary’s massive stamp collection was willed to a Berlin museum but the entire collection was taken by France as war reparations following World War I and auctioned in the 1920s, according to The Economist.
The One-Cent Magenta was then bought by Arthur Hind, an American collector, who outbid King George V of England, setting its first world-record price of $35,000. Its previous sale, to the heir to the DuPont chemical company fortune was for the equivalent of $2.7 million when adjusted for inflation.
(Top: Famed One-Cent Magenta on the auction block at Sotheby’s in New York on June 17, 2014.)