The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World

Image of The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World
Release Date: 
March 6, 2017
Algonquin Books
Reviewed by: 

Pack rat or not, many people are collectors. Whether it be coins, stamps, marbles, baseball cards, automobiles, matchbook covers, or garden dwarves, the reasons and motivations behind collecting are myriad. Again, for many, it’s a matter of owning or possessing the rarest of the rare or, in this particular instance, a literal one of a kind.

Author James Barron’s introduction to the world of philately, the origin of which he discusses and defines in the text, came at a book-release cocktail party when he encountered the man who would soon be shepherding the sale of the world’s rarest stamp through the auspices of the well-known Sotheby’s auction house. Needless to say, this led to the story contained herein, one which discusses and defines as well, the sometimes odd world or hobby of stamp collecting.

Philatelists can be as disparate a group as the boy next door, tennis star Maria Sharapova, Winston Churchill, and King George V of England and possess collections of thousands of stamps from virtually every country in the world. The advent of prepaid postage in the 19th century added stamps to the list of collectibles, forming a new hobby.

Although lay people may not be familiar with the philatelic rarities of the mistakenly printed upside down or inverted Jenny airmail postage, 1840s Alexandria (Virginia) provisional stamps and Mauritius “blues,” they are not unique. There are actually a number of those extant.

No, the obsession to possess the one single unique stamp in the world involves, not surprisingly, a lot of cash and a single-minded purpose to obtain same—think Mona Lisa—to the extent that one’s own person might be considered unique by virtue of ownership of something so rare.

In any event, the story told in each chapter follows the history of the one cent magenta, so-called because of its coloration, from its creation in British Guiana in 1856 as a provisional substitute for non-arriving postage from Britain.

Disappearing from sight for 16 years, it was “discovered” by a 12-year-old boy among papers and documents in an uncle’s abandoned home whence he sold it, not realizing its uniqueness, for the modern day equivalent of $17, “probably the worst stamp deal in history.”

As time marched on and its unique rarity was authenticated by the world’s authority on stamps, the Royal Philatelic Society London, the stamp’s value increased accordingly each time it passed from one owner to another.

These owners, again, were as disparate as a French nobleman, an American plutocrat who may have burned a second magenta to maintain its uniqueness, his widow who retained possession in spite of the terms of his will, a syndicate led by a “rug-and-upholstery-cleaning entrepreneur who traveled with the stamp in a briefcase” handcuffed to his wrist, and John E. du Pont (yes, those du Ponts), whose infamy was the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Shultz.

Finally, in 2014, an anonymous bidder obtained the one cent magenta at Sotheby’s auction. Although this bidder’s identity may be unknown, it is known that the gavel came down at nearly $9.5 million, thus confirming the title of world’s most valuable stamp and surely leaving many of us to wonder if some people just don’t have too much money and nothing better to do with it.

Ultimately, this is a fun, easily and quickly read story as much as it is an interesting one. Besides tracing the history of the stamp and the lives of its multiple owners, it also provides much information on stamps, their collection, and the psychology behind the hobby.

Although the book has notes, they are tied to a specific page and quote or other expression in the text, so there are no actual citations listed; however, as indicated from the notes, the author has consulted multiple and varied primary and secondary sources from interviews, newspaper articles, reference and other books on philately to online resources.

Even without an interest in stamps and their collection, one should find this book worthy of reading as it winds its way through the years and the various intrigues and machinations which characterize this singular and valuable item.

Who knows? Perhaps books will be forthcoming in the future on other unique and rare collectibles with as interesting a story to tell as the one cent magenta, the world’s most valuable stamp.