The one-cent magenta Inside the quest to own the most valuable stamp in the world

James Barron, 1954-

Book - 2017

"When it was issued in 1856, it cost a penny. In 2014, this tiny square of faded red paper sold at Sotheby's for nearly $9.5 million, the largest amount ever paid for a postage stamp at auction. Through the stories of the eccentric characters who have bought, owned, and sold the one-cent magenta in the years in between, James Barron delivers a fascinating tale of global history and immense wealth, and of the human desire to collect"--

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Chapel Hill, North Carolina : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2017.
Main Author
James Barron, 1954- (author)
First edition
Item Description
"Published simultaneously in Canada by Thomas Allen & Son Limited"--Title page verso.
Physical Description
276 pages ; 19 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 247-276).
  • Stamp World
  • Travels with David
  • One cent (1856: printed, sold, and forgotten)
  • Six shillings (1873: found by a twelve-year-old)
  • £120 (1878: Glasgow and London)
  • £150 (1878: the man in the yachting cap)
  • $32,500 (1922: the plutocrat with the cigar)
  • $40,000 (1940: the angry widow, Macy's and the other plutocrat)
  • $286,000 (1970: the Wilkes-Barre eight)
  • $935,000 (1980: "the man showed up")
  • $9.5 million (2014: "I expected to see magenta, and I saw magenta".
Review by New York Times Review

IF IT'S A SMALL marvel that a stamp, a spot of paper backed with adhesive, can send a parcel around the world, it's incredible that a person might spend $9.5 million to own a single one. Stamps are easy to dismiss as the province of fusty collectors, but James Barron, a longtime reporter for The New York Times, focuses on the power of one particular stamp and promises characters "crazed and crazy, obsessed and obsessive." The stamp, known as the "one-cent magenta," is on its face nothing special: a reddish rectangle with faded lettering and clipped corners. An expert once described it as "the ugliest stamp he had ever seen." It is made remarkable by its rarity - it is the only known stamp of its kind - and by the people who bought it for that reason, driving up its price until it became the most expensive stamp ever printed. The story of the one-cent magenta begins in what was then British Guiana in the mid-19th century, when a functional, efficient postal system was a mark of power and stamp collecting, a new and trendy hobby, was adventure by proxy. As routine as stamps might seem now, they were still a recent innovation, which had replaced a clumsy system that relied on cash-on-delivery. Stamps had a romance to them, too. These slight pieces of paper had been to faraway places, and by possessing them a person could own a tiny bit of the expansive world. Guiana was a backwater of British colonialism, though, and the postal system did not always work as planned. In 1856, a resupply of stamps that was supposed to arrive by ship did not. The one-cent magenta was a temporary fill-in, one of a batch of hundreds, it's reasonable to speculate, created on the printing press of a local newspaper. That obscure beginning elevated the stamp to its elite perch. It was so insignificant that it became unique. The stamp was discovered in 1873, by a 12-year-old boy sorting through his uncle's old letters. Within five years, the world's most renowned stamp experts had recognized its rarity, and the one-cent magenta was transported into the world of the ultrarich, where its value began to appreciate rapidly. Its first wealthy owner was a Parisian aristocrat who would leave bundles of money hanging on a wall and trust stamp sellers to take the amount they were owed. The stamp passed through the hands of a crass New York textile magnate; the young wife he had tried to disinherit; a consortium of investors from Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; and John E. du Pont, the chemical-company heir now most famous for murdering the wrestler Dave Schultz (and being portrayed by Steve Carell in "Foxcatcher"). Though the men who buy the magenta are linked by their interest in stamps, they are unusual specimens of power and privilege. Since the stamp's first two owners are average-enough men, this short book could have been even more compact: It is only once the stamp travels to Europe that the truly crazed and crazy collectors appear and Barron's detailed attention to each one pays off. Interlaced with the history of the magenta is the question of its worth today, when the prestige of stamp-collecting is all but obsolete. Barron first learns of the stamp from a Sotheby's auctioneer and strings along the small drama of its sale throughout the book. The resolution of the auction and Barron's unveiling of its winner are less satisfying than the new owner's reason for buying the magenta: He's not interested in stamps so much as oneof-a-kind treasures. Barron recognizes that for most people stamps' romance has long since dissipated, but he succeeds in showing why this one stamp, at least, is still alluring. ? SARAH laskow is a staff writer at Atlas Obscura.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [March 26, 2017]
Review by Booklist Review

In 1856 in British Guiana, the postmaster was running low on stamps from Great Britain. Not confident that a ship from London would arrive before delivery of the mail was disrupted, he contracted with a local newspaper publisher to print provisional one-cent and four-cent stamps on his basic hand-set press. Only one of the small one-cent stamps survived a decade, and this slightly tattered bit of paper was proclaimed the world's rarest stamp by the early twentieth century. Since achieving this fame, the one-cent magenta has attracted a peculiar group of men and women who have paid dearly to acquire it. Because of its high value, it was subjected to numerous scientific tests to confirm its authenticity, on which not all the experts agreed. In his second book, New York Times reporter Barron (Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand, 2006) chronicles the international journey of an unlikely treasure. This delightful short book is a good bet for readers of nonfiction, especially those who enjoy microhistories.--Roche, Rick Copyright 2017 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

New York Times reporter Barron (Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand) traces the provenance of the world's most expensive stamp in this entertaining account of great affluence and high-stakes hobbies. Framing the story around a 2014 Sotheby's auction, where the stamp sold for almost $9.5 million, the book traces the history of the tiny, square piece of paper and how it came to be one of the world's most valuable collectibles. The one-cent Magenta, a provisional stamp in British Guiana in 1856, soon became an object of pursuit for collectors around the world. Barron describes the obsessive world of collecting as he follows the stamp's travels from one unconventional owner to another. Eccentric Austrian French aristocrat Philipp von Ferrary purchased the stamp in 1878. American plutocrat Arthur Hind desired it simply for the enormous fame it would bring; after purchasing the stamp for $32,000, he had souvenir cards printed with a replicated stamp next to his own signature. Other owners, such as the eight people from Wilkes-Barre, Penn., who split the $286,000 cost in 1970, pursued it for its value as a commodity, a liquid collectible that holds its value even in times of uncertainty. The book falters when Barron digresses into loosely related subjects such as the origins of philately, the term for stamp collecting, or an even more tangential history of the post office, but the story of the stamp itself is quirky and informative. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

How could a provisional stamp printed in British Guiana in 1856 garner the highest price ever paid for a postage stamp? This book describes the stamp's travels and associations from its New World beginnings to its multiple sales and residence in Europe to the $10 million purchase at Sotheby's in 2014 by a New York shoe designer. The only known example of the stamp, the One-Cent Magenta, has had famous and notorious owners, including John E. du Pont, who owned it when he died in prison serving a sentence for murder. While learning about this elusive philatelic treasure, the listener also learns about the development of the British postal system, the hobby of philately, and strange habits of the rich and famous, as well as a little something about the art of the auction. The story is told as a quest of the author to learn about the obsession of his friend Sotheby's auctioneer David N. Redden to sell this rare stamp. Even for nonphilatelists, the history Barron chronicles is intriguing. Narrator Jonathan Yen delivers not only the main text with perfect diction, but the passages in French are read with expertise as well. VERDICT This audiobook will be most in demand among philatelists, but other history buffs will find it satisfying. ["Readers of history, microhistory, and narrative nonfiction and those with an interest in stamps will appreciate this absorbing tale of the rarefied world of high-stakes philately": LJ 1/17 review of the Algonquin hc.]-Ann Weber, Los Gatos, CA © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

The biography of a very special stamp.The "Mona Lisa of stamps" was bornor printedin British Guiana in 1856. As a mere, "provisional" one-cent stamp used to send out several hundred periodicals before the real stamps arrived by ship, its birth was unheralded. It was, as New York Times reporter Barron (Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand, 2006) notes, "overlooked and forgotten." The author first heard about the unique stamp at a party, and when he was told how much it might soon fetch at auction as part of the John E. DuPont estate, he had to know more. Barron turns this seemingly insignificant story into a thoroughly entertaining tale of speculation and investigation into "Stamp World, an arcane parallel universe peopled by collectors who are crazed and crazy, obsessed and obsessive." The first stop in the journey is 1873, when a 12-year-old boy found the stamp in his uncle's house and sold it to a novice collector for six shillings, the equivalent of "$16.83 in today's dollars." The stamp was soon sold to another collector, who then sold it to an eccentric Paris aristocrat and collector. When his entire collection was auctioned off in the early 1920s, the stamp was cataloged as "the only known example." Then, it was purchased by an anonymous, wealthy buyer, Arthur Hind, from Utica, New York for $32,500. Barron recounts the perhaps apocryphal story that Hind was approached by a man who claimed that he also had a one-center. According to the tale, Hind bought it and then burned it up with his cigar, saying, mischievously, "there's only one magenta one-cent Guiana." The author whimsically follows the stamp's long journey right up to where his story began: the record-breaking auction. A scintillating foray into "what makes something collectible, valuable, and enduring." Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.