At first glance it could be an old scrap of paper that has had blackcurrant juice knocked over it. In reality it is, in terms of size, weight and material, arguably the most valuable object in the world. When it goes to auction in June it is expected to sell for between $10m and $15m – more than a billion times its original value.
The scrap of paper is the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, which was created in 1856 and is the most famous and valuable stamp in the world. “It is the Mona Lisa of philately,” said David Beech, a philatelic expert. “It is the one stamp that every philatelist and every collector would have heard about and seen an illustration of.”
The stamp, the only one of its kind, has gone on display at Sotheby’s London headquarters before its sale in New York and will be on public view this week. Beech, formerly the curator of the British Library philatelic collections, said its fame was enhanced by the people who had owned it – and those who desperately wanted to own it.
The stamp was created in British Guiana, now Guyana, when a shortage of stamps usually imported from England threatened to disrupt the colony’s postal service. The one cent stamp was mainly used for delivering newspapers, and most of those would have been thrown away. Beech said the surprise was less “why does only one exist today?” and more “it is a miracle that one stamp has survived”.
It was discovered in 1873 by a budding 12-year-old philatelist called Vernon Vaughan, a Scottish boy living in British Guiana. He found it in his uncle’s papers, thought it looked valuable and sold it for six shillings.
The stamp was passed through collectors before being spotted by Count Philipp La Rénotière von Ferrary of Paris, who devoted his life to philately and amassed the greatest and most comprehensive collection of stamps in history. He died of a heart attack in 1917, leaving his stamps “with pride and joy to my German fatherland”.
France seized the collection from Berlin in 1920, selling the stamps at auction with the proceeds deducted from Germany’s war reparations. The auction was attended by the agents of the world’s greatest collectors, including King George V of England and King Carol II of Romania. The winning bidder, setting a world record for a single stamp, was a Bradford-born industrialist called Arthur Hind, who made his fortune in the US making upholstery fabrics.
Subsequent owners included an Australian engineer called Frederick T Small who kept his ownership so quiet that, it is said, his wife didn’t even know he had bought it.
It was sold in 1980 for a record $935,000 to an anonymous bidder, who was later revealed as John du Pont, the eccentric millionaire, amateur sportsman and dedicated stamp collector who murdered the wrestler Dave Schultz – a bizarre story told in the film Foxcatcher starring Steve Carell.
Its current owner is the American designer Stuart Weitzman, known as the shoe designer to the stars.
Previous owners have made their own small marks on the back of the stamp. Weitzman’s mark is a stiletto heel alongside his initials SW.
In philately the stamp is something of a holy grail. Beech recalled seeing it an exhibition in Brussels in 1972. “You viewed the thing inside a small safe and there was a queue of people. It was a bit like seeing the crown jewels, you had about five seconds to peer into this dark safe.”
Each of the four times the stamp has sold at auction it has achieved a world record price for a single stamp, and that is expected once more at the 8 June sale in New York. Proceeds will benefit charitable ventures, the auction house said.
David Goldthorpe, a senior director at Sotheby’s, said the stamp’s provenance was fascinating. “It is the ultimate collectible, it speaks about the mania of collecting, the thrill of the chase. And there is only one.”