When it was issued in 1856, it cost a penny. In 2014, this tiny square of faded red paper sold at Sotheby's for nearly $9.5 million, the largest amount ever paid for a postage stamp at auction. Read more...
When it was issued in 1856, it cost a penny. In 2014, this tiny square of faded red paper sold at Sotheby's for nearly $9.5 million, the largest amount ever paid for a postage stamp at auction. Through the stories of the eccentric characters who have bought, owned, and sold the one-cent magenta in the years in between, James Barron delivers a fascinating tale of global history and immense wealth, and of the human desire to collect.
One-cent magentas were provisional stamps, printed quickly in what was then British Guiana when a shipment of official stamps from London did not arrive. They were intended for periodicals, and most were thrown out with the newspapers. But one stamp survived. The singular one-cent magenta has had only nine owners since a twelve-year-old boy discovered it in 1873 as he sorted through papers in his uncle's house. He soon sold it for what would be $17 today. (That's been called the worst stamp deal in history.) Among later owners was a fabulously wealthy Frenchman who hid the stamp from almost everyone (even King George V of England couldn't get a peek); a businessman who traveled with the stamp in a briefcase he handcuffed to his wrist; and John E. du Pont, an heir to the chemical fortune, who died while serving a thirty-year sentence for the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz.
Recommended for fans of Nicholas A. Basbanes, Susan Orlean, and Simon Winchester, The One-Cent Magenta explores the intersection of obsessive pursuits and great affluence and asks why we want most what is most rare.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-12-19
- Reviewer: Staff
New York Times reporter Barron (Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand) traces the provenance of the worlds most expensive stamp in this entertaining account of great affluence and high-stakes hobbies. Framing the story around a 2014 Sothebys auction, where the stamp sold for almost $9.5 million, the book traces the history of the tiny, square piece of paper and how it came to be one of the worlds most valuable collectibles. The one-cent Magenta, a provisional stamp in British Guiana in 1856, soon became an object of pursuit for collectors around the world. Barron describes the obsessive world of collecting as he follows the stamps travels from one unconventional owner to another. Eccentric Austrian French aristocrat Philipp von Ferrary purchased the stamp in 1878. American plutocrat Arthur Hind desired it simply for the enormous fame it would bring; after purchasing the stamp for $32,000, he had souvenir cards printed with a replicated stamp next to his own signature. Other owners, such as the eight people from Wilkes-Barre, Penn., who split the $286,000 cost in 1970, pursued it for its value as a commodity, a liquid collectible that holds its value even in times of uncertainty. The book falters when Barron digresses into loosely related subjects such as the origins of philately, the term for stamp collecting, or an even more tangential history of the post office, but the story of the stamp itself is quirky and informative. (Mar.)