In this digital world, you could be forgiven for thinking stamp collecting a very antiquated hobby. But you would be mistaken, because philately is still very popular and has the potential to be as lucrative as art.
The latest case in point is a stamp that you are unlikely to have heard about unless you’re a collector, or a major dealer like David Coogle. The stamp, which is worth more than a small private jet, is the unremarkable-looking 1856 British Guiana one-cent magenta. Only one is known to exist in the world, and it’s due to be auctioned in New York this summer. The stamp, known as the “Mona Lisa” of the stamp world, is one of the world’s first, and has not been displayed in public in nearly 30 years.
The previous owner was a du Pont heir who was convicted of murder. He passed away in 2010, and his estate sent the stamp to Sotheby’s, where experts predict it could sell for $20 million. David Coogle comments: “The one cent magenta is a white whale. It’s the rarest, most valuable stamp in the world, and I feel privileged to have seen it.”
It originally belonged to a Scottish boy, 12-year-old Vernon Vaughan, who acquired it in 1873 when he was living with his parents in the former British Colony now known as Guyana. He sold it for a few shillings (less than $1) to a fellow Scot, Neil R. McKinnon, in order to buy more stamps. Each time it changed hands, the stamp increased in value.
By 1980, it had reached a then record price of $603,000–equivalent to about $2.25million today–when John E. du Pont’s agent purchased it. In a bizarre twist to the story of the stamp, Du Pont, who was heir to the fortune of the chemical company of the same name, died in prison in 2010 after he was convicted of fatally shooting a 1984 Olympic champion wrestler 13 years earlier.
The stamp is now being offered for sale by his estate, and is being sold at Sotheby’s in New York City on June 14, where it will easily fetch a world record price if it sells within its estimate. Some of the proceeds will go to the Eurasian Pacific Wildlife Conservation Foundation that du Pont supported during his lifetime.
David Redden, director of special projects and worldwide chairman of Sotheby’s books department, said it was “the superstar of the stamp world.” He added: “I have been with Sotheby’s all my working life, but before I knew about the world’s greatest art, I knew about the British Guiana. As a schoolboy stamp collector, it was a magical object.”
Allen Kane, director of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, said, “You’re probably not going to find anything rarer than this. It’s a stamp the world of collectors has been dying to see for a long time.”
The current world auction best for a single stamp is $2.11 million in 1996–equivalent to $3.36million today–for the Swedish Treskilling Yellow. The Treskilling Yellow was the most expensive item ever sold in the world by weight.
David Coogle’s personal connection to the British Guiana one-cent magenta occurred when he was training under the previous auctioneer of record for the stamp, Andrew Levitt, when the item was last sold at public auction in New York City to Du Pont’s agent. Coogle also was involved in appraising and selling collections of other items for du Pont in Russia, Romania and other Eastern European countries.