One-cent magentas were provisional stamps, printed quickly when a shipment of official stamps from London did not arrive in British Guiana. They were mostly thrown out with the newspapers; one stamp survived. The singular One-Cent Magenta has had nine owners since a twelve-year-old boy rediscovered it in 1873. He soon sold it for what would be $17 today. Among later owners was a wealthy French nobleman who hid the stamp from almost everyone; a businessman who traveled with the stamp in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist; and John E. du Pont, who died while serving a thirty-year sentence for the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz.
The One-Cent Magenta explores the intersection of obsessive pursuits and great affluence and asks why we want most what is most rare.
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About the Author
James Barron is a reporter on the metropolitan staff of the New York Times. He wrote the timeline summaries for The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages: 1851-2008 and is the author of Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand.
Jonathan Yen was inspired by the Golden Age of Radio, and while the gold was gone by the time he got there, he's carried that inspiration through to commercial work, voice acting, and stage productions. From vintage Howard Fast science fiction to naturalist Paul Rosolie's true adventures in the Amazon, Jonathan loves to tell a good story.
Read an Excerpt
My improbable descent into Stamp World started at a cocktail party that had nothing to do with stamps.
It was in one of those Stanford White private clubs in New York City that was built at a cost of something like a million-plus in the days when something like a million-plus was real money. This was a party for a first- time author whose murder mystery had just been published. He is the younger brother of someone I went to college with. Their father is an author. Their mother was an author. The guy from college published a book that won an award. The brother, a Wall Street type I'd never met, had finally done what everyone else in the family had been doing for years.
What a place for a book party. The Palladian arch just past the front door that you had to walk under — perfectly proportioned. The black-and- white checkerboard floor in the lobby that you had to walk across — immense. The larger-than-life portrait of none other than J.P. Morgan — did I pass him on the way up the marble staircase, or just imagine it?
The party itself was in a basketball-court-size room on the second floor. The ceiling danced with cherubs or horses or celestial who-knows-what. I was early — my college classmate hadn't arrived yet — so I marched across the antique carpet to the only person I recognized.
"David!" I said. "What are you up to now?"
It no doubt sounded like, "What have you done for me lately," because that was exactly what I meant — and he knew it. David N. Redden always has something in the works with the makings of a feature for a newspaper reporter like me. I had written about him before. Little did I know what another round of journalistic recidivism would lead to.
Redden answered by saying that he was about to sell an old postage stamp, but some stamp collectors in London might want to dip it in benzene, and that would be a problem.
He was not talking about just any old postage stamp. Redden never dealt with just any old thing. He trafficked in superlatives — the rarest this, the most expensive that. He was an auctioneer at Sotheby's. He had sold everything from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's belongings to a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil. He had sold the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's furniture, and one of the pianos from the movie Casablanca. There were two. Of all the pianos from all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, this one went for $602,500.
He also sold the first book printed in North America, for $14 million. Twice he sold the same copy of the Declaration of Independence, one of twenty-five from a batch printed in July 1776. The second time, in 2000, it went for $7.4 million; the first time, in 1991, for $2.2 million. That sounds like an impressive profit until you learn that, before that first auction, it had changed hands for $4 at a flea market. The buyer didn't even know he was getting it. It was hidden behind a second-rate painting in an undistinguished frame.
Redden told me that his latest rarity was the one-cent magenta from British Guiana. He read the blank look on my face and all but rolled his eyes, as if to say, "How could you not know about the one-cent magenta from British Guiana?" He insisted that every schoolboy knows about the one-cent magenta from British Guiana: "quite simply," he announced, exuberantly, "the rarest stamp in the world." He predicted that it would become the most expensive stamp in the world when he sold it in a couple of months.
I would soon learn that the one-cent magenta was issued in 1856, and that until the mass suicide of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple followers in 1978, it was what the country now called Guyana was known for. This tiny thing was certainly its most famous single export.
That was my introduction to Stamp World, an arcane parallel universe peopled by collectors who are crazed and crazy, obsessed and obsessive. Stamp World exists for something that's practically obsolete — who sends old-fashioned mail when you can post and share on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram? In our instant-message, Snapchat age, stamps are untrendy and unchic (and unneeded, thanks to scannable barcodes). Stamps are what they have always been: quiet, orderly, proper. And it's certainly true that some stamp collectors are stuffy, stiff-upper-lip types — a high-energy, high-testosterone bunch they are not. "Get ready to freak out, stamp collectors (or, you know, get as excited as you ever get)," Time magazine joked in reporting the sale of the one-cent magenta in 2014, after, as Redden had forecast, it became the most expensive stamp in the world. The Globe and Mail of Toronto made stamp collecting sound less like a hobby and more like a hang-up. Stamp collectors, it said, inhabit "a fetishistic underworld with little bits of printed paper [that] people licked."
Yes. Well. Welcome to Stamp World.
Stamp World has its celebrities. John Lennon's boyhood stamp album can be seen at the National Postal Museum in Washington. Freddie Mercury of the British rock band Queen was a stamp collector, as was the violinist Jascha Heifetz. The aviator Amelia Earhart, the novelist James Michener, the undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, and the actor Bela Lugosi, of Dracula fame — stamp collectors all. The tennis star Maria Sharapova is one, too, but she did not sound happy when it became known. "Everyone's calling me a dork now," she said. "I mean, it's just a hobby."
Stamp World delights in catching mistakes: stamps with three horses but only eleven legs, or three men with only five legs. Or the collector on a commemorative stamp honoring stamp collectors who has six fingers on one hand. Or a stamp with a woman and a bald eagle. It's a patriotic image — Neoclassical, even. She's naked. But what gets their attention in Stamp World is that one of her feet has only four toes.
That stamp collectors are known as philatelists does not help. Smithsonian magazine's website peppered an article about the etymology of that word with lines like, "Get your mind out of the gutter." Fowler's Modern English Usage kept a straight face but lamented that stamp collecting had been burdened with an esoteric-sounding, difficult- to-pronounce term: "It is a pity that for one of the most popular ... pursuits, one of the least popularly intelligible names should have been found," adding that the word is "irksome to most of our ears."
A dictionary dive only deepened the frustration. I looked in the Oxford English Dictionary, which has a stake in all this because its first editor was a philatelist as well as a philologist. The entry for philatelist appears, tellingly, after philargyry, a love of money, and before philautia, a love of oneself.
Some psychoanalysts might insist that philatelists cannot live without one and are driven by the other. And some philatelists love the Post Office much too much. W. Reginald Bray, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century British eccentric, was gleefully enamored of the Post Office. But, as his biographer John Tingey noted, the people at the Post Office were probably less enamored of him, considering the trouble he put them through. He mailed himself. Not once but twice. The first time, he stuck a stamp on his head. The second time, he splurged and sent himself home by registered mail. Bray's house wasn't far from the local post office — the postage was less than a taxi ride would have cost. A bicycle messenger was assigned to deliver him. The messenger happily exacted some revenge. He walked to Bray's house after putting Bray on the bike and telling him to start pedaling.
In Stamp World, I would learn that the one-cent magenta is an accidental icon. It was not supposed to be so special. It was an improvisation, a quick- and-smudgy solution in a nineteenth-century British colony that dispensed stamps printed in London. But sometimes, your ship doesn't come in. When a shipment of 100,000 stamps did not arrive at the dock as scheduled, the local postmaster in British Guiana commissioned a local newspaper to print "provisional" stamps in two denominations. The four-cent stamps were for letters. The one-cent stamps were for periodicals like the newspaper itself. Nobody knows how many were printed, but they only needed enough stamps to last until the next boat arrived with the real thing.
To some collectors, the one-cent magenta is the Mona Lisa of stamps, but its face has no face, just a workmanlike image of a schooner and a Latin motto that is usually translated as, "We give and we take in return." Until Redden sent it on a pre-auction tour of libraries and museums a couple of months before the cocktail party, it had not been seen in public since the mid-1980s. It had not been displayed outside of a stamp show since the New York World's Fair in 1940, when it arrived in an armored car, a clever promotional gimmick that a later owner would copy. Once it disappeared at a collectors' convention. Detectives issued all-points bulletins and wondered which philatelic Houdini had made off with it. But it had not been stolen. It had slipped from its mooring and gone on the shortest of trips, drifting for a moment before putting in at the bottom of its own display case.
For all the fuss, the one-cent magenta is not much to look at. In the 1990s, the editor of American Philatelist magazine called it the ugliest stamp he had ever seen. That was fifty years after the writer Alvin F. Harlow described it as "a shoddy-looking thing." Another stamp writer mentioned it, but not in his chapter titled "The Postage Stamp as a Work of Art." In the 1960s, L.N. and Maurice Williams, two brothers from Britain who wrote more than thirty books about stamps and stamp collecting, said it was "unsatisfactory to the aesthete."
It is no more satisfactory now. When the one-cent magenta went on display at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum in 2015, Smithsonian magazine's website, bravely telling it like it is, reported that seeing the one- cent magenta in person was "a bit like looking at a red-wine stain or a receipt that's been through the wash a few times." The corners of the one-cent magenta have been clipped off, and it tricks your eye at first glance: Is it square? No. It's three millimeters wider than it is tall, such a slight difference that you have to squint to be certain (and look up the dimensions, just to be sure).
Would anyone in British Guiana have imagined that anyone would ever sit around trying to figure out how many one-cent magentas it would take to cover the real Mona Lisa? I did some math. Depending on whose measurements I used, the answer was between 520 and 600, more one-cent magentas than probably ever existed. Five hundred forty-one little stamps would not add much heft to the Mona Lisa's canvas, and at a championship weigh-in, the single one-cent magenta would barely register on the scale. A breeze would carry it off. A breath the strength of a happy- birthday candle blowout would send it soaring (and its handlers panicking, as they did at that stamp show).
But the one-cent magenta has a complexion problem. It's not really ruby or bordello red. I saw it when it was waiting in the wings before Redden sold it, and it was the dull color of dried blood at a crime scene. And then, when it was carried into the spotlight, its red deepened — it's a chameleon, changing in new surroundings.
So what color is it? I called color experts who can tell what shade of white the White House is. Frank H. Mahnke, the president of the International Association of Color Consultants/Designers' executive committee, told me it was a mixture of red and purple.
That is why he did what he did. He could see something in the one-cent magenta that I did not.
I printed a picture of the one-cent magenta and took it to a paint store down the block from where I live. There I asked a color consultant named Ferne Maibrunn to find the color closest to the one-cent's magenta. From among the thousands of paint strips in little holders on the walls, she picked out a shade called "Chili Pepper" after rejecting "Rosy Blush" as too pink.
She asked how the stamp had been printed. By then, I was deep enough in Stamp World to answer, "Amateurishly." I told her that the font was ordinary, the ink unevenly applied.
I had learned that, like the Mona Lisa, the one-cent magenta has its mysteries. Was it always that color, or was it colorized later in life, like an MGM movie? And the back of the stamp is a mystery all its own. It is reddish pink — not the magenta of the front, but not the usual creamy white you find on the reverse side of a stamp. It carries the markings of past owners, a custom in philately. Some signed their initials. But how did it get the unusual-looking wheel-like star on the back?
And if that's not enough to sustain a whodunit, there is the biggest mystery of all: Several hundred one-cent magentas must have come off the press, probably in sheets with four stamps on each page, so why haven't any others turned up? Where was the one-cent magenta for the first sixteen years after it was issued? David Redden understood the importance of raising questions like these, even if he couldn't answer them before the auction, or ever. But to create interest, he had to play detective as well as salesman.
Unlike the famous Inverted Jenny — the 1918 stamp that was mistakenly printed with a biplane upside down — the one-cent magenta is not just rare, it is unique. There are a hundred Inverted Jennies. There is only one one-cent magenta. Lately it has changed hands only once in a generation, leaving some who had the means to buy it — but whose timing was off — panting at the lack of an opportunity to part with their cash. For most of its life, it remained safely out of sight, locked in bank vaults or on a shelf in the palace that is now the official residence of the prime minister of France. Once it got out of British Guiana, it did not go slumming.
It had a presence, a personality. One owner called it the "big baby." Another referred to it by a more romantic-sounding term, the "magenta lady." Redden, while not an owner, possessed it for a while — on consignment, of course. As its custodian, he thought about how it affected those who did own it, even as he himself became the latest character in the life of this stamp, and there had been some characters. Among them was its last owner, John E. du Pont, who, besides being an heir to the chemical fortune, was a collector's collector. Long before he bought the one-cent magenta, he had amassed sixty million shells, two million birds, and thousands of stamps. He once slept with the one-cent magenta under his pillow in a hotel when the staff could not open the safe for him. He even paid a broker who dealt in such things to put his picture on a stamp from Redonda, a "micro-nation" in the Caribbean, really an uninhabited island that was named by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and later mined for fertilizer.
Intriguing as they were, those details about du Pont were largely forgotten when he died in 2010. Most of the obituaries about him began by saying he had shot a famous wrestler — Dave Schultz, an Olympic gold medalist who had lived and trained on du Pont's Pennsylvania estate — and was serving a thirty-year sentence for third-degree murder. The obituaries did not report that two hours before the shooting, he was in a stamp store, shopping. I talked to the sales clerk who waited on him — who assumed, when he heard there was trouble at du Pont's estate, that du Pont was the victim, not the gunman. Nor did the stories about his death say that he had tried to use the one-cent magenta as his get-out-of-jail card, offering it to the National Postal Museum in return for a pardon. ("I said, 'How can I get him a pardon? He's in jail for life,'" the museum's director, Allen R. Kane, told me.)
Before du Pont, the owner of the one-cent magenta was a man who traveled with the stamp in a briefcase he handcuffed to his wrist.
Before him was the upholstery and seat-cover manufacturer with wife trouble. She deprived him of his final wish, which was to deprive her of the one-cent magenta. But Arthur Hind left behind the one anecdote about the one-cent magenta that everybody remembers. Later, deep in Stamp World, I would read the original version in the yellowing pages of a long-defunct stamp magazine that published an anonymous letter accusing Hind of buying a second one-cent magenta for one reason — to destroy it, preserving the uniqueness of his stamp. But there wasn't much in the letter that Redden left out when he told it at the cocktail party.
"According to the story," Redden said, "he lit a cigar and used the same match to light the stamp and burn it. Part of the delight of the story is the cigar and the plutocrat. The image that creates in one's mind is indelible. Nobody knows if it's true."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The One-Cent Magenta"
Copyright © 2017 James Barron.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
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Table of Contents
ONE Stamp World,
TWO Travels with David,
THREE One Cent,
FOUR Six Shillings,
ELEVEN $9.5 million,