The world’s rarest stamp is expected to fetch a record price when Sotheby’s puts the famous British Guiana one-cent magenta on the auction block June 17. The coin, which Sotheby’s estimates at $10 to $20 US million, will lead off the sale of the world famous collection of John E. Du Pont, millionaire heir of the prominent Du Pont family fortune, and convicted murderer.
David Redden, director of special projects, and chairman of Sotheby’s book department, described the stamp as magical.
“I have been with Sotheby’s all my working life,” he said, “but before I knew about the world’s greatest works of art, before I knew about the Mona Lisa or Chartres Cathedral, I knew about the British Guiana. For me, as a schoolboy stamp collector, it was a magical object, the very definition of rarity and value. “That schoolboy of long ago would be bemused and astonished to think that he would one day, years later, be temporary guardian of such a world treasure.” The stamp was born out of desperation.
In 1856, a shipment of postage stamps from Great Britain to the South American colony of British Guiana was delayed. The local postmaster, E.T.E. Dalton, ordered an emergency printing of stamps from local printers, Joseph Baum and William Dallas.
The design of a ship was selected from the printer’s inventory and three stamps were printed. The one-cent magenta, a four-cent magenta, and a four-cent blue. Reportedly, Dalton was not happy with the quality, and ordered that all copies be initialled by a postal clerk.
The one-cent stamp was for the newspaper rate, and only one example survived. It has the manuscript initials EDW, corresponding to postal clerk E.D. Wright, and it is postmarked Demerara.
The stamp itself was unknown for many years. In 1873 it was discovered by a 17-year-old stamp collector, Vernon Vaughn in his uncle’s old correspondence. Vaughn sold it to a local collector, N.R. McKinnon for six shillings. McKinnon sold it to a British stamp dealer, Thomas Ridpath who sold it to famous Austrian collector Count Phillip von Ferrary. When the count died in 1917 his famous stamp collection was donated to a German museum. At the end of the First World War, the collection was seized by France to be sold for war reparations. The collection was sold in a spectacular series of 14 auctions in 1922. Arthur Hind bought the one-cent magenta for $36,000 US. The stamp was offered for sale again by Harmer Rooke & Co., of New York, in 1935. The firm had it expertized by the Royal Philatelic Society, of London, that same year.
Hind’s widow, however, contested the sale, claiming that the stamp was not part of his estate, but had been gifted to her years before. She won the suit, and kept the stamp. In 1940 she offered it for sale through the stamp department of Macy’s store in New York City. Fred Small, an Australian engineer living in Florida, bought it for $40,000 US. Small sold his collection in 1970, and the stamp was acquired by a syndicate for $280,000. In 1980 it was sold to du Pont for $935,000 US. Du Pont, a member of the prominent family of chemical industrialists, was a somewhat unusual character. A philanthropist and a Harvard graduate with a PhD in ornithology, Du Pont kept the stamp, along with the rest of his British Guiana collection, in a bank vault.
Born in 1938 he conducted some research in the 1970s before settling down to a life of good works. He founded the Delaware Museum of Natural History, and supported the Eurasian Pacific Wildlife Conservation Foundation, and donated to several universities. He was married in 1983, but the marriage was annulled after 90 days. In the 1990s, du Pont became active in supporting amateur sport. He donated to several sports and opened up a training centre on his farm. He became a coach in wrestling, swimming, track, the modern pentathlon and started competitive wrestling. On Jan. 26, 1996, he shot and killed his friend, U.S. Olympic wrestler Dave Shultz in front of two witnesses. He was arrested after a two-day standoff. During his trial he entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. A defence witness described him as a paranoid schizophrenic. Du Pont was found guilty of third degree murder and sentenced to 13 to 30 years in prison. He died in prison in 2010.
The Sotheby’s sale will take place in New York City. Shortly after the Sotheby’s announcement, auction house David Feldman announced that it would be selling the balance of the British Guiana collection a few days later. The sale is to take place June 27 at the firm’s Geneva, Switzerland office. Du Pont’s British Guiana collection was exhibited a number of times. Over the years it has earned five Grand Prix Awards at national and international levels, ranking the collection third on the list of multiple Grand Prix Winners in 2000. Du Pont also collected British North American stamps, specifically New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, as well as Samoa, Falklands Islands, and some Easter European nations. Those stamps will be sold by David Feldman in May.