Auction watch: The world’s most valuable stamp (it’s the ugly one)

UPDATE: This article previewed Sotheby’s Three Treasures auction in New York on Tuesday, 8 June, 2021. At the bottom, I have appended the prices realised. Come back soon for a more detailed analysis in a separate article!

If the stamp collector in your life is jumping around like an excited puppy this week, either there’s a sale on argyle knitwear, or they’ve heard about Sotheby’s Three Treasures auction in New York on Tuesday.

The Three Treasures are being sold by shoe designer Stuart Weitzman. He was a childhood stamp collector, and once he grew up and got rich, he went and bought some of the priciest collectables on the planet. They happened to be the 1856 British Guiana 1c black-on-magenta (the world’s most valuable stamp; estimate $US 10-15 million), the 1918 USA Inverted Jenny plate block (the most valuable US philatelic item; estimate $5-7 million), and the 1933 $20 Double Eagle (one of the most valuable US coins; estimate $10-15 million). Now they can be yours!

The stories behind each of these items are interesting, convoluted, and have been told a thousand times elsewhere. The auction links above will bring you up to speed – the write-ups are superb.

But the headline act in this three-ring circus is undoubtedly the ‘penny magenta’. Philatelists are holding their collective breath to see how much the world’s most valuable stamp sells for this time around. Weitzman paid $9.48 million (including auction premiums) back in 2014.

Read that again. $9.48 million. For this.

British Guiana 1856 1c magenta stamp face
Image: Sotheby’s

Sorry, I brightened it up a bit in the header image. I had to, or you wouldn’t have clicked. In case you’re wondering, there’s a ship in there somewhere, with some Latin words on the inside, some English words around the outside, a Demerara date stamp, and a postal clerk’s initials.

You may ask why such a dog of a stamp fetches such stupid money. My response would be to first agree that, yes, it is stupid money. Even as a stamp collector, I feel that, of ALL the things that $9.48 million could be spent on, a piece of paper from 1856 deserves to be well down the list. However, in the event that a multi-millionaire shoe designer ever offers me $9.48 million for any stamp in MY collection, I reserve the right to accept that money with grabby hands.

(In fairness, let’s note that Stuart Weitzman is donating proceeds of the Three Treasures auction to charitable causes, including medical research and higher education. So, y’know… dig deep.)

Thankfully I have a university degree in the field of duh, so I can tell you that the prices are due to supply and demand. All three Treasures are items of extreme rarity in well-established collecting fields that happen to attract well-heeled bidders. Motivations differ, but ultimately, only one will prevail. It might be outrageous money, but before you start hating on stamp collectors, let’s remember that in 2015, someone paid the modern equivalent of $104.1 million for Roy Lichtenstein’s painting Nurse, which places it at merely fortieth on the list of highest prices paid for paintings. So stop pointing your molotov cocktails at us.

I am unashamedly one of those pedants who likes to point out that the one-cent magenta is not, as commonly reported, “the world’s rarest stamp”. It’s the world’s equal-rarest stamp. There are others that, like the one-cent magenta, are sole survivors of original printings. (Start with Sweden’s Treskilling Yellow, which briefly took the crown of World’s Most Valuable Stamp in 2012.) Once you add printing errors and other freaks, the ones-of-a-kind skyrocket. Find one in an unpopular collecting field and you could pick it up for a song.

So why is this stamp the prom queen? Well, it doesn’t hurt that fame breeds fame. It was identified early(ish) in its philatelic life as The World’s Rarest Stamp, which soon made it The World’s Most Valuable Stamp. And what philatelist, nobleman or shoe designer wouldn’t love the prestige of owning the World’s Most Valuable Stamp? The slogan becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It also doesn’t hurt that this particular stamp (like the other two Treasures) comes with plenty of stories attached. When I was nine years old, the one-cent magenta graced the cover of my Beginner’s Guide to Stamp Collecting. At that time, it had last sold for $935,000. And it was not lost on me who originally discovered it among a pile of his uncle’s papers in 1873: Louis Vernon Vaughan, a 12-year-old schoolboy. Who was to say that I, also a schoolboy, might not also one day discover this or another rarity?

For a while there, I thought I DID discover another rarity. I went and dug it out this week and took another look through magenta-coloured glasses. Back in my earliest days, a staffer at our family’s local pharmacy had learned that I was a stamp collector, and bequeathed me a small album containing a tiny collection that someone had given up on. In it was this stamp:

British Guiana 1956 24c Mining for Bauxite stamp

It was the first time I had owned any stamp from the mysterious land of British Guiana. And I knew that the most valuable stamp in the world was a used, one-cent stamp from British Guiana. How much more, then, I reasoned, must a used, TWENTY-FOUR cent stamp from British Guiana be worth?

I treasured that stamp for, well, let’s say a few years. As many years as it took me to learn a few more things, like the basics of scarcity, and how there’s a big difference between 1856 issues and 1956 issues. The 24c Mining for Bauxite stamp now lives in a small collection of stamps that are of little monetary worth, but immeasurable sentimental value. It’s a fun album to leaf through.

There’s another story about the one-cent magenta that I love. It concerns the American industrialist Arthur Hind, who bought the stamp in 1922 for 352,500 francs ($32,500). It is said that a fellow collector realised he owned a second one-cent magenta, and negotiated its sale to Hind. Hind lit a cigar, and then put the match to his new stamp. His vendor must have stared on, open-mouthed, as Hind announced: “There’s only ONE magenta One Cent Guiana.”

The story is 100% probably not true. Good story though, isn’t it?

And I have barely STARTED on the stories. There’s the guy who travelled the world with the stamp in a suitcase that was handcuffed to his wrist. The guy who slept with the stamp under his pillow (once, anyway), later ending up in jail for murder, and subsequently being played on film by Steve Carell. (I’ve mentioned him before.)

And then there’s this guy. Sotheby’s calls him 11-year-old Asher Horowitz. I call him ‘young me from earlier in this article’. Asher is a keen stamp collector who, having given up on owning the actual one-cent magenta, made himself his own copy. In this adorable bit of PR, Sotheby’s gave him the chance to compare his forgery to the real thing. I’m sure you can appreciate how closely I relate. Junior Punk might have worn more argyle.

An interesting side-note to the one-cent magenta is a tradition that almost beggars belief: owners leaving their initials, stamp or other mark on the reverse of the stamp. From the trefoil stamp of Count Philipp de la Rénotière Von Ferrary, who bought the stamp in 1878, through to the alarmingly heavy, stiletto-themed scratching of current owner Stuart Weitzman, it seems the owners of the “world’s rarest stamp” have decided that they also buy themselves the right to etch themselves into philatelic history.

British Guiana 1856 1c magenta stamp reverse
Image: Sotheby’s

Could be worse. If the next owner works for the post office, expect the name to be added in black permanent marker to the FRONT of the stamp.

The one-cent magenta may be the most famous stamp in philately, but the Inverted Jenny is probably the most famous stamp in the normal outside world. As I’ve mentioned before, what other stamp has been the subject of a throwaway joke on The Simpsons? The misprinted sheet of 100 was sold over the counter in Washington, D.C., in 1918, and immediately recognised for its value. It’s only while perusing Sotheby’s auction listing that for the first time I read the response from the postal clerk who sold the sheet: “How was I to know the thing was upside down? I never saw a plane before.” Fair point, I’ll pay that.

USA 1918 24c Inverted Jenny plate block
Image: Sotheby’s

The most remarkable thing about this stamp’s market value is that, in stamp collecting terms, it’s not actually that rare. Most of the 100 are still known to exist – the excellent website invertedjenny.com tracks them all! But fame brings money, and nowhere more so than in America. There are several blocks of four, but only ONE of those blocks has (half) the plate number at the bottom. That makes this the ‘unique plate block’, and for that reason we can expect the dollars to roll in. I’ll leave the rest of the Inverted Jenny story for another day. In the meantime, as with the one-cent magenta, check out the Sotheby’s listing for a fantastic long-read on the history of this error.

Making up the third of the Treasures is the 1933 Double Eagle coin, the last gold coin struck for circulation by the USA, and the only one that may legally be owned by an individual:

USA 1933 $20 Double Eagle coin
Image: Sotheby’s

That’s all I need to say about this because coins are boring. That’s why you’re reading a stamp blog.

The Three Treasures auction kicks off at 10am on Tuesday morning, New York time obvs. It will be midnight where I live. I think I might have to stay up late and watch. With any luck, Sotheby’s will agree to my request to slip in a fourth item: a sweet 24c British Guiana stamp about mining bauxite. I’ve signed the back of it and everything. Fingers crossed!

I’ve been watching auctions since before they were cool. Click here to find out why!

UPDATE: PRICES REALISED

Well, that was over before it began! Sotheby’s doesn’t mess around. Here are the prices paid:

1933 Double Eagle
Estimate: $10-15 million
Hammer price: $16.75 million
Final price including premiums: $18,872,250

Great result. Wall Street still loves money.

1918 Inverted Jenny plate block
Estimate: $5-7 million
Hammer price: $4 million
Final price including premiums: $4,860,000

Interesting that the hammer price fell short of the estimate. Stuart Weitzman was said to have paid around five million dollars for it in 2014. Ouch.

1856 British Guiana 1c black-on-magenta
Estimate: $10-15 million
Hammer price: $7 million
Final price including premiums: $8,307,000

WOW. What a reality check for the top end of the market! A very disappointing result for the hype-mongers. The questions have already begun. Was it the economy? Is stamp collecting dying? (No. I’ll explain why later.) Could Weitzman’s heavy-handed signature have turned people off? Whatever the case, he has just lost over two million dollars and added another spectacular story to the saga of the one-cent magenta.

I look forward to analyzing these questions and more in my next post, which will be written when it’s not 1.30am at my desk! Goodnight!

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