Stamp collectors from all over the world will again be treated to the next instalment of the story of the rarest stamp in the world. The long and fascinating history of the most valuable object on the planet for its size, weight and mass will continue in June 2021 when the British Guiana 1856 1c black on magenta goes under the hammer in New York. The stamp is currently owned by Stuart Weitzmann, the famous American shoe designer to the stars, and will have a pre-sale estimate of $10-$15 million. Mr Weitzmann purchased the stamp in 2014 for $9.5 million and in doing so fulfilled his lifetime dream of owning this unique stamp. The stamp has only previously been up for sale 4 times in the last 80 years and so to have this exciting sale taking place twice in 7 years is quite unusual.
British Guiana, which today is currently known as Guyana, is an ex. British colony based on the Northern coast of South America. Over its long history it has mainly been known for sugar production, hence the name Demerara which was the name of a local region in Guyana.
Stamps were initially issued in the territory in 1850 and soon after production was handed over to Waterlow and Sons of London. Everything was going smoothly when suddenly supplies ran out in 1856 before the fresh shipment from England had arrived. The local postmaster concerned that a crisis may ensue disrupting communications and trade with the wider world, enlisted the help of a local printer in the capital Georgetown, to print some stamps to tide them over. There were 3 values that were needed, the 1c on magenta, 4c on magenta and 4c on blue – all printed in sheets of 4. It is unknown exactly how many sheets were printed in total but what is known is that there is only one example remaining of the 1c black on magenta – thereby becoming the most famous and rarest stamp in the world.
As it was locally produced rather than being printed at the famous Waterlow printing works, it has a rather crude appearance heightened by a scribbled signature “E.D.W.”, which was in fact the mark of E.D.Wight, one of the postmasters. The postmasters were instructed to initial the stamps before sale because the Chief postmaster in charge of the whole country was concerned that the stamps could be easily forged due to their primitive production.
Since then, the stamp has gone through many hands starting with a 12 year-old schoolboy, who was based in British Guiana, who found it amongst his Uncle’s belongings. He sold it shortly afterwards to a local dealer and despite the lack of global communication that we have today, it became widely known and talked about in the philatelic world. Over the next century it changed hands half a dozen times and, on each occasion set new records. Of course, the story would not be complete without scandals and rumours. In 1878 the stamp was purchased by Count Philippe la Renotiere von Ferrary, perhaps the greatest ever collector of stamps. He was a recluse who never sold a stamp and never showed his collection to anyone. He died in 1917 and left his collection to the Postal Museum in Berlin. After WWI France confiscated the whole of the Museum’s possessions as war reparations.
The stamp then turned up in an auction in 1922 and was bought by American Arthur Hind – who is rumoured later, to have been offered a second example which he bought, and then after the deal was completed, casually lit his cigar with it. Personally, I do not believe this story as I think that a true collector and lover of stamps would never destroy a rarity even if it did make the other example unique – but who really knows?
After another couple of record-breaking auctions the stamp was then bought in 1980 by John duPont, a member of the famous and wealthy DuPont Chemical company family. What was interesting about this purchase was that Mr. duPont was not necessarily buying it just solely for an investment, but he actively collected British Guiana stamps and needed this stamp to complete his collection – a collection that only one person could ever put together. In 1996 Mr. duPont was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the murder of an Olympic Wrestler on his Foxcatcher estate. This grim episode was depicted in Hollywood by the film “Foxcatcher” starring Steve Carell playing duPont. Whilst in prison the stamp was locked away in a high security bank vault and only saw the light again after Mr duPont died in 2010. Eventually after all the wrangling over the will and estate the stamp came up for sale again in 2014 when it was purchased by Mr Weitzmann. He generously gave permission for the stamp to be made available for public display, giving the opportunity for thousands of collectors to view this unique stamp before it is possibly locked away again for years or even decades. All the proceeds from the sale, along with two other great rarities to be sold by Mr Weitzmann, will go to charity.