After a century and a half in various bank vaults and private collections, the world’s rarest stamp is getting a turn in the spotlight.
The most valuable stamp in the world, the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta sold last year for nearly $10 million at auction. It will be on display at the the National Postal Museum until November 2017.
The stamp is scarcely bigger than a thumbnail and its imagery is faded. But it’s the stamp’s history that’s expected to draw crowds.
“It’s small, it’s dark, it’s old. But the story around it is what’s really interesting,” said Allen Kane, director of the National Postal Museum.
The stamp dates to 1856, when a postmaster in British Guiana ran out of stamps and asked a local printer to prepare a small number of replacements.
The One-Cent Magenta is the only surviving example of the one-cent stamps prepared in that batch. Its value grew as it made its way around the world – passing through owners, including a 12-year-old Scottish boy, who didn’t realize its rarity; the French government, which seized it as enemy property from Germany in World War I; and philanthropist-turned-convicted murderer John du Pont, who owned the stamp until his death in jail in 2010.
It has been the world’s most valuable philatelic object since 1922, when it was bought by American industrialist Arthur Hind, who reportedly outbid several European kings. Following his death in 1933, it was sold to an anonymous buyer who kept his identity so secret that a 1954 Life magazine article on the stamp claimed that even the owner’s wife didn’t know he’d purchased it.
The stamp changed hands twice more and went on a worldwide tour in the 1970s before being bought by du Pont in 1980. The heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, he purchased the stamp for almost $1 million.
Wrestling soon replaced stamp collecting as his main interest, however, and the One-Cent Magenta disappeared from public view for decades. In 1996, du Pont shot and killed an Olympic wrestler living on his estate – dramatized last year in the film “Foxcatcher” – and the stamp was reportedly locked away in a bank vault while he was in prison.
It was auctioned off last June and purchased by shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, who was an avid stamp collector in his childhood. Rather than keep the stamp in his own collection, as so many of its past owners have, he decided to loan it to the National Postal Museum.
The stamp has only been shown to the public on rare occasions, allowing the mystique around it to build further.
Anne Kinter of Potomac, Md., first heard the story of the One-Cent Magenta from her brother decades ago when the two were children with a budding interest in stamp collecting. She visited the stamp at the museum Thursday, its first day on display, snapping a picture to show her brother.
“Frankly, if you had asked me last week, before I saw it in the paper, it would have been buried in my brain under decades,” she said. “Then you see it, and it evokes all the memories.”
Kane said the museum expects the stamp’s history and value to attract even those without a strong interest in stamps. For members of the stamp-collecting community, it’s something more, he said, representing “their world, their love, their passion.”
“It gives us a chance to show the world something that they haven’t seen in a long time,” Kane said.