The biography of a very special stamp.
The “Mona Lisa of stamps” was born—or printed—in British Guiana in 1856. As a mere, “provisional” one-cent stamp used to send out several hundred periodicals before the real stamps arrived by ship, its birth was unheralded. It was, as New York Times reporter Barron (Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand, 2006) notes, “overlooked and forgotten.” The author first heard about the unique stamp at a party, and when he was told how much it might soon fetch at auction as part of the John E. DuPont estate, he had to know more. Barron turns this seemingly insignificant story into a thoroughly entertaining tale of speculation and investigation into “Stamp World, an arcane parallel universe peopled by collectors who are crazed and crazy, obsessed and obsessive.” The first stop in the journey is 1873, when a 12-year-old boy found the stamp in his uncle’s house and sold it to a novice collector for six shillings, the equivalent of “$16.83 in today’s dollars.” The stamp was soon sold to another collector, who then sold it to an eccentric Paris aristocrat and collector. When his entire collection was auctioned off in the early 1920s, the stamp was cataloged as “the only known example.” Then, it was purchased by an anonymous, wealthy buyer, Arthur Hind, from Utica, New York for $32,500. Barron recounts the perhaps apocryphal story that Hind was approached by a man who claimed that he also had a one-center. According to the tale, Hind bought it and then burned it up with his cigar, saying, mischievously, “there’s only one magenta one-cent Guiana.” The author whimsically follows the stamp’s long journey right up to where his story began: the record-breaking auction.
A scintillating foray into “what makes something collectible, valuable, and enduring.”