‘By size and weight, simply the most expensive object ever sold in history’: A $20 million stamp

June 4, 2014

“The British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta” at Sotheby’s in London. (Reuters)

 


A Sotheby’s employee holds the stamp. (Agence France-Presse)

In 1873, a British schoolboy living with his family in British Guiana (now Guyana) who was a fledgling stamp collector was going through his late uncle’s personal letters, soaking off the stamps to add to his collection, when he came across an octagonal specimen, printed in black letters on magenta, adorned with an image of a three-masted ship and inscribed with the colony’s motto: “We give and expect in return.”

Louis Vernon Vaughan had not seen anything like it, in part because there was nothing like it.

It was printed in 1856 by a newspaper publisher in the colony of British Guiana after the local post office ran out of stamps shipped from London.

The postmaster was unhappy with the quality of the stamps and concerned that they might be counterfeited. So he ordered the postal clerks to personally initial each stamp at the time of sale to prevent fraud, according to a history offered by the Kenmore Stamp Company.

Sotheby’s is set to auction the stamp known as “The British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta” on June 17 in New York.

The value: between $10 million and $20 million. (The highest auction price ever paid for a stamp is reportedly $2.3 million for the Swedish Treskilling Yellow.)

“It will be by size and weight simply the most expensive object ever sold in history,” said Sotheby’s David Redden in a promotional video.

Vaughn’s heirs and descendants, wherever they are, must be eating their hearts out.

Perhaps because it had been cut at the corners and was smudged, he thought it dispensable, according to an exhaustive study by Sotheby’s.

Vaughn offered the stamp to a local dealer who had no interest until Vaughn told him he would use the proceeds to make a few purchases. The dealer agreed to buy it for six shillings, the equivalent then of about $1.50.

“Now look here, my lad,” the dealer reportedly said, “I am taking a great risk in paying so much for this stamp and I hope you will appreciate my generosity.”

That was an early link in a long chain of ownership that would make the One Cent perhaps the most famous stamp in the world.

In 1980, it was sold for $935,000 to an anonymous bidder who turned out to be John E. duPont, heir to the chemical company fortune and an avid collector. DuPont, who also was a patron of amateur wrestling, was later convicted of murdering a freestyle wrestler with whom he had had a falling out. He died in prison in 2010.

In 1935, when the stamp had an estimated value of about $40,000, the Sotheby’s study reported that:

The London Daily Mail tracked down Louis Vernon Vaughan, still living in British Guiana, to ask how he felt about the prospect of the stamp selling for twenty-five thousand times the six shillings he had received more than sixty years previously. He appeared more bemused than regretful: “[I]t is apparently coming into the market again — and the world’s greatest stamp dealers and philatelists are ready to outbid each other and pay ridiculous sums of money for that little scrap of paper that I once owned. Really, it does seem remarkable! People ask me what I think about it. … As a matter of fact, I hardly ever think of it at all now and never with disappointment or chagrin. What is the use?”

Interested in bidding? Register here.

Fred Barbash, the editor of Morning Mix, is a former National Editor and London Bureau Chief for the Washington Post.
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