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Book Review: The One-Cent Magenta


A new book by New York Times reporter James Barron follows the incredible history of a tiny postage stamp that ignited a deep desire among the rich, and not so rich, to possess it.  

161 years ago, London issued, among others, a provisional one-cent postage stamp for British Guiana because a regular shipment of stamps never arrived. In 2014, the one-cent magenta, called that for its color, was auctioned off at Sotheby’s to shoe design magnate Stuart Weitzman for $9.5 million.

The one-cent magenta, the only one of its kind in the world – making it unique as well as rare – is the only British colonial stamp not owned by Queen Elizabeth. That fact, along with many others, including some dubious but entertaining anecdotes, is told by New York Times writer James Barron in a witty and engaging short philatelic history called The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World.

One of the questers was John du Pont, the eccentric, deranged heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, who was convicted in 1997 for murdering an Olympic gold wrestler living on his estate. In 1980 du Pont bought the one-cent magenta for $935,000, and then, from jail, offered it to a museum if it would put in a good word for him toward a pardon. Du Pont died in prison in 2010, but the dull, rose-colored, clipped-corners one-cent magenta, called the Mona Lisa of stamps, continues its celebrated life at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, where it can still be seen through this November.

What a history! The stamp, used for periodicals, was discovered in 1873 by a 12-year-old boy rummaging through his uncle’s effects. He sold it for six shillings – about $17 today. But soon word was out about the stamp’s being the sole survivor of its kind, and the craze was on. In 1922 an American textile tycoon bought the stamp but heard there was another one-cent magenta, and so, the rumor goes, he bought that one and set it on fire with his cigar, thus ensuring he’d have the one and only. Apocryphal? Maybe, suggests Barron, but part of the culture of stamp collecting.  

Another anecdote has a rich oddball owner who had handcuffed himself to the stamp by way of a briefcase, needing to be sawed free because he lost the key.

Barron has a good time telling the tale, especially because it emerged by accident. He bumped into an old acquaintance at a cocktail party who turned out to be a leading auctioneer at Sotheby’s and was investigating the stamp. Sniffing out a story, Barron was invited to follow his friend around and was thus introduced to the secretive, clubby, insular world of stamp societies, plutocrats and obsessives. As Barron says “people in Stamp World fixate on what is old and rare, quiet and orderly – qualities all but lost in [our] age of high-speed internet and mass-market products.”

Barron’s little book is rich in history. Until the late reformist late 1830s, for example, British postal service was wasteful, expensive, inconsistent, with postage being paid not by the sender but by the recipient. As for America, did we know that the biggest-selling American commemorative stamp was not the 32-cent Marilyn Monroe in 1995 but the 29-cent Elvis Presley stamp from 1993? That, and other goodies,  constitute the heart of this insider look into a world most of us know nothing about and couldn’t afford. But the book also prompts a question for all of us: what do we collect and why and what kind of value do we ascribe to collecting, besides money?

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.