Despite great expectations, the British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta stamp got licked in a much anticipated auction this morning.
The diminutive wisp of paper was expected to set a new world record for a single stamp sale at auction. Instead, bidding closed at $8,307,0oo—not pocket change by any means, but considerably short of its previous winning bid, $9.5 million, to say nothing of the $10-$15 million the stamp was expected to fetch today.
Even so, the stamp remains by weight one of the most highly valued items on the planet. "To philatelists, it's a really big deal, since it's the only copy of this stamp that has survived since 1856," says Daniel Piazza, chief curator of philately at the Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum. (Philately = a fancy word for loving and studying stamps.) The dark red, octagonal British Guiana One-Cent Magenta is often called "the Mona Lisa of the stamp world." But Piazza admits, "it's fairly unremarkable looking."
Murky in hue and scribbled upon by a colonial postal worker and former owners, the stamp disappointed some visitors to the museum when it was displayed there a few years ago. "I would say a common reaction was – 'this doesn't look right,' " Piazza remembers. "Well, that's because you've been looking at magazine [reproductions] for 40 years."
Rarely was the stamp seen in public for much of its existence until it was purchased by footwear magnate Stuart Weitzman in 2014, who allowed it to be exhibited for years.
"Blemished, battered and cut, the "British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta" is a stamp with a twisty tale to tell, one that begins in the hands of a young Scottish boy and passes through the hands of a killer," wrote my colleague Laurel Dalrymple in 2014, when Weitzman bought it for $9.5 million.
"The stamp was printed just 16 years after the introduction of postage stamps," she continued. "The postmaster in British Guiana (now Guyana), facing a stamp shortage, asked the colony's newspaper to print an emergency supply while awaiting a shipment of stamps from London.
"Displeased with the quality of the printing, the postmaster asked each postal clerk to initial the stamps upon sale to prevent fraud. The One-Cent bears the initials "EDW," those of clerk E.D. Wight, and a postmark of April 4, 1856, from the town of Demerara.
"The stamp's first owner was a Scottish boy named Vernon Vaughan who found it in 1873 among his family's letters. He sold it to a local collector for 6 shillings (The Washington Post says that was about $1.50 back then)."
Since then, the stamp has passed through the world's great collections, was seized by the French as reparations from Germany in 1920 and was owned for a while by John DuPont, a scion of one of America's richest families, even after he was convicted of murdering a wrestler in 1997.
Another devoted philatelist who saw the One-Cent Magenta in 2016 at the World Stamp Show in New York, likened the experience to seeing the actual Mona Lisa. (Meaning: it's less overwhelming than you'd think.) "Look, I don't want to get kicked out of the philately club," laughs Warachal Eileen Faison, who runs a philately organization geared towards African American collectors. "But as we were standing there in line, I could hear other people—and it wasn't me – saying, 'Is that it?'"
Still, the One-Cent Magenta is more than just a stamp, says Faison. "At least for me. Who touched the stamp? Who had it in their possession?" This most recent sale, she says, gives us a chance to reflect on how many of the ordinary things we touch today might also be histories in miniature.