- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2014

The most expensive stamp ever sold went for $5 million, and now a worn-out, dull-red, 1 cent stamp bearing the image of a sailing ship and issued by a far-flung outpost of the old British Empire is poised to shatter that mark.

The 158-year-old British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta could become history’s most valuable postage stamp Tuesday evening at Sotheby’s New York, where avid collectors are expected to bid as much as $20 million.

Each time it has been sold at auction, the one-cent magenta has set a record price for a single stamp.

The postage stamp was the last of a commissioned supply printed in British Guiana — until 1966 a British possession on the northern coast of South America — by the Royal Gazette newspaper in 1856 when the postmaster ran out of stamps because of a delayed shipment. Its colorful backstory and uniqueness have led philatelists to call the one-cent magenta the “holy grail” of stamp collecting.

Discovered in some family papers by a young philatelist in the colony in 1873, the one-cent magenta stamp was sold later to a local collector for a few shillings. After entering the United Kingdom in 1878, the British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta passed through the hands of some of the world’s most renowned stamp collectors, creating one of the most colorful histories for a rare stamp along the way.

“It has a pedigree, so to speak,” said Ken Martin, executive director of the American Philatelic Society.

Among its owners was Count Philippe la Renotiere von Ferrary, owner of the world’s most famous stamp collection. Upon the Austrian count’s death, the stamp was donated to the Post Museum in Berlin. It was seized by France as part of reparations after World War I and later sold at auction to Arthur Hind, a textile industrialist from Utica, New York. Australian engineer Frederick T. Small bought the stamp from Hind’s widow and consigned it for auction in 1970. The stamp, the only one of its kind, then was purchased by a syndicate of Pennsylvania investors headed by Irwin Weinberg.

Mr. Weinberg, an internationally known stamp dealer with a flair for marketing, set a record price when his group bought the British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta for $280,000. He also did much to promote the stamp’s value and rarity, and was known to carry it in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist and followed by bodyguards.

The stamp was sold again in 1980, for $935,000. The buyer was John du Pont, heir to the DuPont chemical company fortune and avid philatelist.

In 1997, du Pont was convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison, where he died in 2010. Du Pont’s estate now has put the one-cent magenta up for sale once more.

Sotheby’s Vice Chairman David Redden, who will be directing the auction, said in an interview that “it is impossible to speculate” who will bid. The price tag narrows the category of stamp collectors tremendously. Others who might be interested are “the people who collect the very best of everything.”

Two possible bidders, the auctioneer said, are Bill Gross and Donald Sundman.

Mr. Gross, co-founder of Pacific Investment Management, and Mr. Sundman, president of Mystic Stamp Co., are well-known philatelists who received worldwide attention when they traded two of America’s most valuable stamps.

In 2005, Mr. Gross bought the famous plate block of four stamps known as the Inverted Jenny — with the image of an upside-down plane — for $3 million, then traded it to Mr. Sundman for the Z Grill to complete his collection of 19th-century U.S. postage stamps.

Mr. Martin suggested that the bidder may not be an established collector or may wish to remain anonymous, but one thing is certain: The buyer will have to be wealthy.

There is a “definitive decline in the organized selling of stamps” but the “popularity of stamp collecting is debatable,” Mr. Martin said.

Because most stamps are sold and traded over the Internet, it is hard to track how many people take part in the business. To some outside the stamp collecting community, the hobby seems to have dwindled, but others within it say it’s more alive than ever.

The one-cent magenta sale may help settle that debate.

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