Saturday, March 25, 2017

The One-Cent Magenta

Title:  The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World
Author:  James Barron
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2017. 224 pages.
ISBN:  1616205180 / 978-1616205188

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "My improbable descent into Stamp World started at a cocktail party that had nothing to do with stamps."

Favorite Quote:  "These days, stamps are museum exhibits, relics of a world that knew the world from stamps. Once, stamps were tantalizing because they had gone places. And they depicted places most people would never see:  exotic destinations."

In 2014, the one-cent magenta sold for a record-breaking $9,480,000 at a Sotheby's auction in New York City. The stamp has in fact set a new record for price the last four times it has sold. The stamp is now exhibited, by permission of the owner, at the National Postal Museum of the Smithsonian Institute. So, what is it about this tiny little piece of paper that makes it so valuable?

The one-cent magenta is a stamp issued by the colony of British Guiana (what is now the country of Guyana). Only a small number were printed because the postage was used in an emergency when the ship carrying the official postage failed to arrive in Guiana. Only one is known to be in existence today. Rumor has it that a second was found but purposely destroyed. Hence, the stamp's value lies in its rarity. It's the only one of its kind.

This book tells the journey of this stamp from its origin in 1856 to its present home. More than that, it tells the story of each of its owners. As such, it is a walk through history and a walk through the world of philately and stamp collecting. Although not academic in its reading, the book includes a lot of details - name, places, dates. The book also includes an extensive list of end notes substantiating its research. These range from academic writing's to the author's own interviews with individuals.

The first couple of chapters set up the background with the author's introduction to the world of stamp collecting and with the introduction to the man who would be responsible for the 2014 Sotheby's auction. Then, the book goes back to the original creation of the stamp in 1856 and travels forwards through nine chapters as the stamp journeys from British Guiana through Glasgow, Long, New York to its current home in Washington DC. Each chapter title also includes the rising price of the stamp each time it changes hands; the changing currency shows its travels:

  • 1856 - original - one cent
  • 1873 - six shillings
  • 1878 - £120
  • 1878 - £150
  • 1922 - $32,500
  • 1940 - $50,000
  • 1970 - $286,000
  • 1980 - $935,000
  • 2014 - $9.5 million

All this for a not-very-pretty-looking piece of paper not even an inch in size. All this because it is the only one in existence. That is the world of the collectors. I know very little about the hobby or business of stamp collecting, but even I recognize some of the names who have played a role in this stamp's history.

The histories of the owners is told in a light, easy to read narrative. It is almost gossipy in tone, with chapter titles describing characters such as "The Man in the Yachting Cap," "The Plutocrat with the Cigar," and "The Angry Widow." The story is not just about the stamp but about other parts of the owners' lives - business deals and personal relationships - that led to some of their actions. This stamp represents wealth; people and money can lead to some interesting machinations and decisions. The only question again is will this stamp ever change ownership again and what will the price be?

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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