Thursday, July 13, 2017

THE ONE-CENT MAGENTA by James Barron (non-fic)

Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World

You certainly don’t have to be a stamp collector to enjoy this book.  James Barron relates a fascinating account of the most valuable stamp in the world, how it came to be so, and along the way, a bit of the history of British Guiana, now independent and known as Guyana.

Guiana, a small country along the north coast of South America, was always an area of interest from its earliest founding.  Many, including Walter Raleigh, hoped it would contain the riches of El Dorado.  At one time Portugal and Spain claimed the area.  The British fought for it, and at several times in history, it was ruled by the Dutch.  Eventually the French captured it, and after the Napoleonic Wars, Britain again ruled.  By the middle of the 19th century, Georgetown, the capitol was thriving and an efficient postal service was in place.  We don’t often spend time thinking about stamps, but before stamps, people paid cash on delivery for their mail.  Imagine receiving a trove of love letters, but having to pay for the postage yourself, or even worse, as the recipient of bills or hate mail, paying the cost of postage.

One time in 1856, a shipment of stamps from England to the Georgetown post office didn’t arrive when expected, and the postmaster requisitioned a printing of temporary stamps be made by a local newspaper’s printing press.  Thus came into being the now famous One Cent Magenta.  The stamp was nothing special, it pictured a ship on a reddish background, and no one bothered saving it.  What makes this stamp so special, the Mona Lisa of stamps, is that it is the only one that has survived. Nondescript with its two clipped corners, it has remained the obsession of every serious and wealthy stamp collector since the mid-19th century.  In 1873, a 12 year old boy, found the stamp on an old letter from an uncle.  Within five years, it was being fought over by collectors, famous and unknown. This was the heyday of philately, stamp collecting.  Every young boy, a some girls, spent house cutting stamps from letters and carefully pasting them in albums.  Until baseball cards took over, stamp collecting remained on of the most popular of hobbies.  I can remember my father, working with tweezers and small tabs, positioning stamps and placing them in the large album he had.  Inside were pictures of stamps from all over the world, and the ideal was to own a copy of each stamp.

The first owner of the Magenta was a French aristocrat, followed by a New York textile manufacturer.  It was passed on to his wife at his death and she eventually sold it to a group of investors from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  By 1970, its worth was $286,000.  It was eventually bought by John E. duPont, who was made famous when charged with the murder of Dave Schulz.  The movie, Foxfire, was made in 2014, about him, and starring Steve Carell.  No mention was made in the movie about his fixation with stamps.

The Magenta continues to fascinate;  it has travelled all over the world to museums and special exhibits.  It was sold again in 2014 by Southey’s for 9.5 million dollars.  Its current owner is Stuart Weitzman, a familiar name to lovers of stylish shoes.

Philately may have declined in popularity, but people love unattainable, one of a kind objects.  Because of this the stamp continues to beguile and fascinate.  The story of its history is equally captivating.  This book will appeal to all who love an engrossing story of a world-wide obsession.


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