Unique British Guiana 1¢ Magenta stamp sells

Jun 17, 2014, 3 PM

The world's most legendary postage stamp, the unique 1856 British Guiana 1¢ Magenta, was auctioned June 17 at Sotheby’s in New York City for a record-shattering $9.48 million.

That figure, which includes a 20 percent buyer’s commission, is almost exactly 10 times what the stamp last sold for in 1980 then also a record price. Even adjusting for inflation, the new realization is about double the old one, a good omen, indeed, for the philatelic world.

“It says the market is really strong,” commented auctioneer David Redden after the sale.

Watch Linn's video of the Sotheby auction of the British Guiana 1¢ Magenta here.

Sotheby’s had predicted the stamp would bring between $10 million and $20 million, including commission.

Since its discovery 141 years ago, the 1¢ Magenta has changed hands just eight or nine times, making its appearance at auction a once-in-a-generation event.

The dozens of attendees Tuesday evening were a who’s who of philately’s big players, with dealers, agents and collectors coming out to enjoy the show and perhaps place a discrete bid.

Sporting a dashing pink jacket was Irwin Weinberg, who bought the stamp in 1970 on behalf of an investors' consortium. In spite of his advancing years, he happily regaled the crowd with his reminiscences about the decade during which he traveled the globe, showing the 1¢ Magenta at major exhibitions.

Also in attendance was Sam Malamud, a longtime dealer who was an underbidder at the 1970 sale, accompanied by a wealthy friend who may or may not have been planning to raise his hand.

Other attendees recalled their presence at the stamp’s last sale 34 years ago, which was held by Robert A. Siegel at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

At 7 p.m., a sharp hush fell over the room, and camera operators from a dozen TV networks bent over their viewfinders.

Standing at the podium like a magician before a rapt audience, Redden recounted the stamp’s catalog description and opened the bidding at a modest $4.5 million. Bidders in the room quickly began nudging it up in half-million dollar increments.

At every step, Redden repeated the current sum: “… seven million, five hundred thousand dollars,” his plummy British voice savoring each syllable as he sought to build momentum, deftly turning the auction into dramatic theater.

Abruptly at $7.5 million, the action moved to the phone bank, where a line of sharply dressed Sotheby’s agents were fielding calls from anonymous bidders. The bid increments tapered off, edging up to $7.7 million, then $7.8 million, and finally $7.9 million, after which the bidding went no further.

“Fair warning, seven million nine hundred thousand dollars,” intoned Redden, clearly relishing the historic figure and enjoying the vindication of his team’s months of effort to build buzz over the stamp.

A final pause, and the hammer fell. The crowd leaned forward eagerly to see if the bidder’s identity would be revealed.

Alas, Redden announced that the buyer had requested “absolute anonymity.” Moments later, he was busy deflecting reporters’ requests for any hints, such as the buyer’s nationality.

“I can only say that given who the buyer is, we will be seeing more of this stamp in the future,” which seemed to hint at the possibility of an institutional buyer, or a buyer who would donate the stamp to a museum.

Asked if the buyer was a collector or an investor, Redden replied in an emphatically pleased tone of voice, “Oh, a collector.”

The stamp, produced in 1856 by a local newspaper printer after regular stamps ran out in the sleepy South American colony, is the sole survivor of its kind.

Discovered in 1873 by a schoolboy on his uncle’s mail and soon resold to a local friend for 6 shillings, the 1¢ Magenta has since belonged to collectors both celebrated and infamous, its story familiar to generations of starry-eyed schoolchildren and advanced philatelists alike.

But the stamp did not, at first, gain much attention. It is a somewhat unsightly thing, and the murky circumstances of its production and discovery took some years to research and verify. Early philatelic literature contained only vague and sometimes inaccurate references to the stamp and its siblings, the 4¢ Magenta and 4¢ Blue stamps of the same issue.

But it attracted enough interest in British philatelic circles for the legendary collector Count Philipp von Ferrary to agree to buy the stamp from an English dealer in 1878 for a then-astonishing £150.

Every time it has changed hands since then, the 1¢ Magenta is believed to have set record prices for a rare stamp.

When Ferrary died near the end of World War I, he left his collection to the Berlin Postal Museum, but the French government seized it as war reparations and auctioned it off in a series of 14 sales.

At one of those sessions, American industrialist Arthur Hind outbid three kings as well as the great philatelist Maurice Burrus, paying the equivalent of $36,000 to take the stamp home.

One of those kingly underbidders was Britain’s George V, an avid stamp collector who built the Royal Collection into a premier showcase of British philately.

Hind’s widow sold the 1¢ Magenta through the stamp manager of Macy’s department store in 1940, reportedly fetching $40,000 from an Australian engineer, Fred Small.

When Small’s holdings were dispersed in 1970, Weinberg paid $280,000 for the stamp and proceeded to take it on a world tour, boosting its fame and his investors' fortune.

When the stamp was auctioned by Siegel at the end of that decade, chemical heir John E. du Pont paid a record-high $935,000, including the 10 percent buyer’s premium.

Du Pont, an accomplished ornithologist and supporter of amateur wrestling, as well as an avid philatelist, added the stamp to his award-winning British Guiana collection and showed it internationally during the 1980s. Its last public appearance was in 1987, according to Sotheby's.

After that, the stamp lay hidden for over two decades as du Pont, suffering from mental illness, was convicted of murdering an Olympic wrestler and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Du Pont died in a Pennsylvania prison in 2010.

In the run-up to the Sotheby’s sale on Tuesday, the stamp again came out into the public eye. It was recertified as genuine by the Royal Philatelic Society, London, putting to rest occasional rumors that it might be a bogus creation.

The New York Times reported on the 1¢ Magenta’s visit to the Smithsonian Institution’s philatelic forensics lab, where it was examined and recorded for posterity. And the stamp again set out to tour the world, going on view in London, Hong Kong and New York.

Victor Krievins, who helped du Pont care for the 1¢ Magenta and the rest of his collection, was present at the Sotheby’s auction on Tuesday.

"I wish John had been here tonight," Krievins said, adding that du Pont would have been gratified by the result. No members of du Pont’s family were present.

Where the stamp will go next is up in the air. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum has asked to be allowed to display the 1¢ Magenta at a black-tie event this fall, and the organizers of World Stamp Show—NY 2016 have also requested that it be exhibited there.

One thing is certain: the unique British Guiana 1¢ Magenta continues to capture the imagination of collectors and the general public alike.