The most valuable stamp in the world is an ugly, faded morsel with clipped edges. It’s the color of a rose petal. The one-cent magenta was issued for a penny in 1856 in British Guiana, a colonial outpost in South America and bought at auction in 2014 for $9.5 million.
“To some collectors, the one-cent magenta is the Mona Lisa of stamps,” New York Times reporter James Barron writes, “but its face has no face, just a workmanlike image of a schooner and a Latin motto that is usually translated as, ‘We give and we take in return.’ ”
“The One-Cent Magenta” is Barron’s jaunty romp through what he calls “Stamp World.” It’s the sort of oddball, breezy read that’s perfect for a long flight or train trip.
There are, of course, other famous stamps: Sweden’s Treskilling Yellow, its color a printing error; the Basel Dove, the first stamp printed with three colors; and the Inverted Jenny, misprinted with an upside-down Curtiss JN-4 biplane. But the one-cent magenta is extra special.
“ There are a hundred Inverted Jennies. There is only one one-cent magenta,” Barron writes.
The one-cent magenta was discovered in 1873 by a 12-year-old boy, a budding philatelist (Barron offers a humorous disquisition on its pronunciation), rummaging in his uncle’s basement. The lad didn’t quite know what he had, and he sold it for six shillings, equal to $17 today. “The worst stamp swap in history,” the stamp writer Viola Ilma said.
The stamp was later sold to a French aristocrat whose collection filled three palace rooms. He spent $35 million in today’s money collecting stamps — “the collector to end all collectors,” Barron notes.
It was later sold to an American textile industrialist, who may or may not have burned a second sample. He fell out with his wife and tried to keep it from her, but she got it after he died and sold it for $50,000.
In 1980, John E. du Pont, heir to the chemical fortune, bought it for $935,000. Du Pont later murdered an Olympic wrestler and, while serving a 30-year sentence, offered to donate the one-cent magenta to the National Postal Museum in return for a pardon. That didn’t work out. Its current owner is the shoe designer Stuart Weitzman. Weitzman likes to collect rare things.
“It has been a record-setter time after time not because it is a stamp but because it is the only one of its kind,” Barron writes. “What [Weitzman] wanted was the thing that no one else could have.”
And that is the appeal of this unusual stamp, its mystique captured in this delightful book.
Timothy Smith is the bestsellers editor of The Washington Post.
By James Barron
Algonquin 276 p. $23.95