Author(s): James Barron
When it was issued in 1856, it cost a penny. In 2014, this tiny square of faded red paper known as the one-cent magenta sold at Sotheby's for nearly $US9.5 million, the highest amount ever paid for a postage stamp at auction. Through the stories of the eccentric characters who have bought, owned and sold this stamp, The One-Cent Magenta weaves a fascinating tale of obsession to own a treasure that no one else can have.
One-cent magentas were provisional stamps, printed in British Guiana when a shipment of official stamps from London failed to arrive. They were intended for periodicals, and most were thrown out. But one stamp survived. It has had only nine owners since a 12-year-old Scottish boy discovered it in 1873 (and sold it for what would be $17 today). Later owners included a fabulously wealthy Frenchman who hid the stamp from view - even King George V of England couldn't get a peek - a businessman who travelled with the stamp in a briefcase he handcuffed to his wrist; and John E. du Pont, heir to the chemical fortune, who died while serving a thirty-year sentence for the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz.