A British Guiana 1-cent Magenta postage stamp from 1856, the only one of its kind to still exist, sold for a record $9.5 million at New York Sotheby’s on Tuesday, making it the world’s most valuable stamp. The United Kingdom ruled Guyana, a territory in South America, from 18141966. David Redden, Sotheby’s vice chairman, called the sale a truly great moment for the world of stamp collecting. “That price will be hard to beat, and likely won’t be exceeded unless the British Guiana comes up for sale again in the future,” Redden said.
Measuring 1 inch-by-1 1/4 inches, the 1-cent Magenta hasn’t been on public view since 1986. It’s the only major stamp absent from the British Royal Family’s private Royal Philatelic Collection. Smithsonian National Postal Museum Director Allen Kanes says “you’re not going to find anything rarer than this.” Before the sale, a 1855 Swedish stamp hold the previous auction record: it was sold for $2.3 million in 1996. Sotheby’s said the buyer wished to remain anonymous.
David Beech, longtime curator of stamps at the British Library who retired last year, has compared it to buying the “Mona Lisa” of the world’s most prized stamps. A growing global class of the ber-rich, combined with the Magenta’s rarity and its colorful history peppered by war, murder, and aristocratic intrigue has led to the high price tag, say economists and stamp experts, known as philatelists.
The stamp’s first owner was a 12-year-old Scottish boy living in South America who added it to his collection after finding it among family papers in 1873. He soon sold it for a few shillings to a local collector, Neil McKinnon. McKinnon kept it for five years before selling it to a British dealer who recognized the unassuming stamp as highly uncommon. He paid 120 pounds for it and quickly resold it for 150 pounds to Count Philippe la Renotiere von Ferrary, one of the world’s greatest stamp collectors.
Upon his death in 1917, the count donated his stamp collection to the Postmuseum in Berlin. The collection was later seized by France as war reparations after World War I and sold off in a series of 14 auctions with the 1-cent Magenta bringing $35,000 in 1922. Arthur Hind, a textile magnate from Utica, New York, was the buyer. Even Britain’s King George V was outbidded by him. As a result, it is the one major piece absent from the Royal Family’s heirloom collection.
After Hind’s death in 1933, the stamp was to be auctioned with the rest of his collection until his wife brought a lawsuit, claiming it was left to her. The next owner was Frederick Small, an Australian engineer living in Florida who purchased it privately from Hind’s widow for $45,000 in 1940. Thirty years later, he consigned the stamp to a New York auction where it was purchased by an investment consortium for $280,000.
By 1980, it had fallen into the hands of John Du Pont, a heir to chemical giant E.U. DuPont, who bought it for $935,000. John was convicted of murder in 1997, and died in prison in 2010. Now, in 2014, His estate has yet again put the stamp up for auction.