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article imageWorld’s most valuable stamp goes up for auction

The world’s most valuable stamp is the British Guiana one-cent magenta. Measuring one inch by one-and-one-quarter inches, the magenta-colored stamp is the most valuable object to ever be sold at auction (based on its weight and size), and could fetch between $10 million and $20 million when it goes to auction at Sotheby’s in mid-June.
Issued in 1856, the one-cent magenta – manufactured in what is now Guyana – is octagonal in shape and was manufactured out of necessity when British Guiana didn’t get an expected shipment of British stamps. The postal delay would have disrupted shipments throughout the colony. As Sotheby’s worldwide chairman of books and director of special projects David Redden commented to The Telegraph that the one-cent magenta is the “very definition of rarity and value”. The collector who acquires it, he said, would have “completed the philatelic equivalent of conquering Everest, fulfilling a lifelong dream.”
Chris Harman, chairman of the expert committee for the Royal Philatelic Society London (RPSL) who re-authenticated the stamp, told The Guardian the stamp has gained “iconic status,” owing to its being one of the first stamps in the world and the historic significance associated with that milestone. In 1856, British Guiana was one of the very first countries to issue its own stamps.
The colony’s postmaster ordered a contingency supply using the local Royal Gazette newspaper’s printers. A four-cent blue, a four-cent magenta, and a one-cent magenta were hurriedly printed, the latter being re-discovered in 1873 close to where it had originally been bought. The young son of a Scottish family living in British Guinea found it among a stack of family papers; a budding philatelist, the boy added it to an album but later sold it to another collector within the colony.
The stamp came to Britain in 1878 and shortly thereafter was purchased by Cont Philippe la Renotiere von Ferrary, known for being one of history’s great stamp collectors. His collection was later seized by France as part of war reparations due from Germany. The stamp was sold in 1922 and changed hands before Chemical company heir John du Pont bought the stamp at auction in 1980 for $935,000. He passed away in a Pennsylvania prison in 2010 (having been convicted in the 1996 shooting of American Olympic wrestler David Schultz) and his estate has put the one-cent magenta up for auction.
Other stamps have a similarly interesting history. The Treskilling Yellow auctioned in 1996 for 2.8 million Swiss francs (or roughly $2.2 million at that time); in 2010 it was bought by a group of mystery buyers in a telephone auction. The exact price was not disclosed, but it was believed to be around £1.7 million (or roughly $2.6 million). What makes the 1855 Swedish stamp so valuable is the printing error that resulted in yellow being used in place of the usual green coloring particular to postage of the era. To date, only one has been located. It holds the current auction record for a single stamp sale.
Also valuable is the rare US Franklin Z-Grill stamp. Named for its portrait of Benjamin Franklin and its unique design, the stamp boasts an embossed z-grill design which was pressed straight into the paper, creating tiny indentations. Issued in 1868, the one-cent stamp had a specific grill designed to facilitate the adhesion of canceling ink to the stamp paper, preventing its re-use.
There are currently only two US Franklin Z-Grill one-cent stamps, one of which is housed in the New York Public Library’s Benjamin Miller Collection. The other was purchased in 1998 for $935,000 by Donald Sundman, president of the Mystic Stamp Company. In 2005, he traded it for a block of airmail error stamps from 1918 worth nearly $3 million. The man he traded with, Bill Gross, now has a complete collection of American stamps from the 19th century.
At the other end of the rarity spectrum, the famous Penny Black stamps from 1840 have a wide range of values. As the first postage stamp in the world, over 68 million were issued, each bearing a sketch of Queen Victoria set against an all-black background. The stamp was printed and circulated for nine months. Penny Blacks are valued between £15 and £1000 (roughly $25 - $1700), though ones in good condition can fetch considerably more.
Expert collector David Coogle has emphasized the importance of getting an expert to assess a collection or individual piece. Prior to its recent re-authentication with the RPSL, the last time the one-cent magenta had been assessed was in 1935; many forgeries of the stamp have appeared since. Coogle views stamps as “pieces of art” and has been active online in encouraging those interested to join local philatelic organizations. After all, some stamps can reap enormous financial benefits.
“The prices on some of these stamps are incredible,” Coogle says. “I've worked with stamps that would allow a person to retire.”
His tips for starting a collection are simple: approach friends, family, local businesses and even churches to save old envelopes. “Stamp collecting may start out as a hobby,” he notes, “but once you find how enjoyable and profitable it is, it can become a career.”
The one-cent magenta is considered the “Holy Grail” in stamp collecting. It hasn’t been on public view since 1986 at a Chicago stamp show, but is set to go under the hammer June 17th at Sotheby’s in New York City.
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