British Guiana 1c Magenta
The British Guiana 1c Magenta is the only remaining known and undisputed example of a limited issue of stamps produced in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1856. It has been described as the most famous stamp in the world and some have argued the most valuable, having been estimated at up to $5 million by some experts after being sold for $935,000 in 1980.
The 1c Magenta was created as the result of a mishap: a shipment of stamps to the British colony of Guiana was delayed, and the postmaster E T E Dalton commissioned an emergency production from a local printer run by J Baum and W Dallas.
Three stamps were produced: two 4 cent stamps, one magenta and one blue, and a 1 cent magenta for newspapers.
Dalton was adamant that the stamp issue was not to be extended, especially after the printer altered his specifications for the stamps. He even had post office clerks sign every stamp from the issue as a guard against fraud as he considered them too easy to copy.
A Scottish schoolboy by the name of L Vernon Vaughan discovered a 1c stamp on one of his uncle's letters in Demerara, the capital of British Guiana. He sold it for the equivalent of $1.50 to a local collector in order to use the money to buy other stamps for his collection.
From there, the stamp passed into the famous collection of Count Ferrary, and its reputation began to spread.
By most standards of stamp collecting, the 1c Magenta is in poor condition, being heavily postmarked and dirtied as well as cut to an octagon from its original shape. The signature of the postal clerk who signed it, E D Wight, also mars its appearance.
Famous owners and sales
Arthur Hind bought the 1c Magenta, during the series of fourteen auctions in 1922 which sold Ferrary’s collection, for over US$36,000 (reportedly outbidding three kings, including George V).
It was then sold by his widow for US$40,000 to a Florida engineer. Most recently, it was bought by John E. du Pont for $935,000 in 1980. Today it is believed to be locked away in a bank vault, while its owner serves a 30-year sentence for murdering his friend, the Olympic wrestler David Schulz, without rational motive due to du Pont suffering from schizophrenia.
Two sales of the stamp helped to cement the reputation of the great stamp dealer Robert A Siegel.
The only one of its kind?
The most famous legend associated with the stamp is that whilst it was in Arthur Hind’s collection another came onto the market which Hind bought and burnt, declaring ‘There’s only one magenta One Cent Guiana’. There is no hard evidence that this occurred.
More recently, a German opera singer by the name of Peter Winter claimed to have found a second example, bought from a Romanian dancer for 10,000 Deutschmarks. Doubts were immediately raised because Winter is known for producing reproductions of famous stamps.
The stamp has been brought before the Royal Philatelic Society in London and its most recent assessment in January 1999 is that the stamp is a fake; specifically that it is a doctored version of the 4c magenta stamp, which whilst very rare is certainly not unique.
That judgment has proved controversial, with some experts believing it to be genuine, including David Feldman of Geneva who has previously sold the Treskilling Yellow (another unique stamp, thought to be the most valuable item in the world by weight ever sold).
The Guyana 1c was used as a plot device in the 1941 film, "The Saint in Palm Springs." In the film its value was stated to be $65,000.
The stamp was sought after in the 1952 Carl Barks comic The Gilded Man in which Donald Duck, the philatelist, said it was "worth more than fifty thousand dollars!"
It was mentioned in John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series "The Scarlet Ruse" (1972) as being worth $325,000.
Collectibles news website Paul Fraser Collectibles based an April Fools Day prank based on the stamp in 2009, showing a video in which a recently discovered 1c Magenta stamp appears to be accidentally destroyed. No such stamp had been discovered or damaged.