World's Rarest Stamp at Smithsonian

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June 15, 2015

A cancelled postage stamp that a collector paid $9.5 million for is on display in Washington, D.C.

The British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, a tiny 1856 stamp showing a three-masted ship on a red background, is part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum until 2017.

Guyana is an independent South American country now. But in the mid-19th Century, the name was British Guiana because it was a colony of Great Britain. In 1855, a postmaster in the colony was waiting on a shipment of 50,000 stamps from the Mother Country. The shipment arrived but contained just 5,000 stamps, and the note that came with the stamps said that the next 45,000 stamps wouldn’t arrive in the colony for another 10 weeks, at the earliest.

Desperate to provide stamps for the colony’s residents, the postmaster, E.T.E. Dalton, printed his own stamps, in denominations of 4 cents and 1 cent. Postal customers used the 4-cent stamps to mail letters and the 1-cent stamps to mail newspapers. The temporary stamps were eventually replaced by official stamps, and collectors found the 4-cent temporary stamps much more interesting. The 4-cent stamps were much more available to collectors as well because those stamps were on envelopes, whereas the 1-cent stamps were on the newspapers themselves, which were, in most cases, disposed of by those who read the newspapers. The 4-cent stamps were printed on magenta paper or on blue paper; the 1-cent stamps were printed exclusively on magenta paper.

The One-Cent Magenta was printed on magenta paper. The main feature of the stamp is a sailing ship, with three masts. Also on the stamp are black letters spelling out the British Guiana colony’s motto, in Latin: Damus Petimus Que Vicissim, which in English means “We give and expect in return.” A signature, that of postal clerk E.D. Wight, can be seen in the left corner of the stamp, which has been postmarked. The stamp has been cut into an octagonal shape.

The stamp was languishing in a collection of papers owned by the uncle of Louis Vernon Vaughan, a Scottish schoolboy who lived in Demerara, a town in British Guiana. (The postmark on the One-Cent Magenta bears the Demerara postmark.) Vaughan was 12 when he discovered the stamp, in 1873. He sold it a few weeks later to a local collector, for 6 shillings. That collector sold the stamp to a Liverpool philatelist for 120 pounds. That dealer sold the stamp to another collector, for 150 pounds. That collector was Count Philippe la Renotière von Ferrary, who was then regarded as the foremost stamp collector in the world. When Ferrary died, the stamp then became property of a Berlin museum, along with many other stamps owned by the collector.

France claimed the Berlin museum’s holdings as part of war reparations after the end of World War I. The stamp then went up for auction, and a collector bought it for 300,000 francs, the then-equivalent of 7,343 pounds.

After a series of other Americans bought and sold the stamp, John E. DuPont, the heir to the DuPont fortune, bought the stamp in 1980, for a then-record price of $935,000. When he died in 2010, the stamp went up for auction.

The new owner, shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, has consented to include the stamp in the Smithsonian exhibit. Weitzman, who collected stamps as a child, won the Sotheby’s auction in 2014, paying $9,480,000 for the stamp.

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