British Guiana has the stamp of genius

The only known specimen of a 1856 British Guiana one cent magenta stamp is coming up for sale on 17 June 2014 at Sotheby’s New York. It is expected to fetch between $10 million and $20 million.

MagentaThe British Guiana one cent magenta is regarded by many philatelists as the world’s most desirable stamp. Issued in limited numbers in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1856, only one specimen is now known to exist. It is printed in black on magenta paper, has no perforations, and it features a sailing ship with the Latin motto “Damus Petimus Que Vicissim” (We give and expect in return). The line may be a corruption of a quotation from Horace (Hanc veniam petimusque damusque vicissim – We both expect this privilege, and give it in return.) The stamp’s country of issue and value in small black upper case lettering surround the frame.

The world’s first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system was the famous Penny Black. Issued in Britain on 1 May 1840, it depicts Queen Victoria in profile. The Penny Black was only in use for little over a year. The red cancellation mark was hard to see on a black background and the red ink was easy to remove, making it possible to re-use stamps. In 1841, the Treasury switched to the Penny Red and used black ink for cancellation.

The British Guiana one cent magenta has a much livelier history. A 12-year-old Scottish schoolboy, L. Vernon Vaughan, discovered it in 1873 among his uncle’s letters in the Guyanese town of Demerara (whose postmark the stamp bears). There was no record of it in his stamp catalogue, so he sold it some weeks later for six shillings to local collector, N.R. McKinnon. In 1878 McKinnon’s collection was sold to a Liverpool stamp dealer, Thomas Ridpath, for £120. Shortly afterwards, Ridpath sold the 1c to Philipp von Ferrary for about £150. Ferrary’s massive stamp collection was willed to a Berlin museum and in 1917 it was taken by France as part of war reparations.

In 1922 Arthur Hind bought the one cent magenta at auction for over US$36,000 (reportedly outbidding three kings, including King George V). In 1940 Mrs Scala (formerly Mrs Hind) offered the stamp for private sale through the philately department of Macy’s department store in New York City. It was purchased for $40,000 by Fred “Poss” Small, an Australian-born engineer from Florida, who had wanted to own the stamp since he first heard about it as a boy.

In acquiring it, Small completed a full set of stamps from British Guiana. In 1970, he auctioned his entire stamp collection (estimated to be worth $750,000), and the 1c stamp was acquired by a syndicate of Pennsylvanian investors, headed by Irwin Weinberg, who paid $280,000 for it and spent much of the decade exhibiting it worldwide. John E. du Pont bought it for $935,000 in 1980. Subsequently it was believed to have been locked in a bank vault while its owner was in prison.

Tannu-TuvaIn an age of digital communications, it may be difficult to imagine the excitement generated by stamps among boys (and perhaps girls too) who grew up in the 20th century. Among many others, the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman (1918-88) was smitten by the diamond-shaped postage stamps from Tannu Tuva, in Mongolia, which produced many quirky, colourful stamps.

In 1977, Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton decided to visit Tuva, at that time deep in the Soviet Union. Their attempts to reach Tannu Tuva spanned a decade, interrupted by Feynman’s appointment to the committee investigating the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster and his struggle with the cancer that finally killed him. All is memorably described in Tuva or Bust! Richard Feynman’s Last Journey (1991) including the wonders of Tuvan throat-singing.

Feynman would have been fascinated by the story of the British Guiana one cent magenta and would have marvelled that a scrap of sticky paper could ever be worth such a vast sum of money. All of which reminds me:

Q. What did the envelope say to the stamp?
A. Stick with me and we’ll go places!


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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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