James Barron

The One-Cent Magenta

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An inside look at the obsessive, secretive, and often bizarre world of high-profile stamp collecting, told through the journey of the world’s most sought-after stamp.
When it was issued in 1856, it cost a penny. In 2014, the one-cent magenta sold at Sotheby’s for nearly $9.5 million, the most money ever paid for a stamp at auction. Following the journey of this highly coveted item, we meet a fascinating gallery of eccentric, rich, and influential characters who have bought, owned, and sold this tiny square of faded red paper.
One-cent magentas were provisional stamps, printed in what was British Guiana when a shipment of official stamps failed to arrive. Most were thrown out with the newspapers. But one stamp survived. The singular one-cent magenta has had only nine owners since a twelve-year-old boy discovered it in 1873. He soon sold it—in what many call the worst stamp deal in history—for what would be $17 today.
Among later owners was a wealthy Frenchman who hid the stamp from everyone, including King George V; a businessman who traveled with the stamp in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist; and John E. du Pont, an heir to the chemical fortune, who died in prison after murdering Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz. Together, their stories form a peculiar global history of immense wealth and obsessive desire.
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