[UPDATE: The 1856 British Guiana 1c magenta sold for $8.3M USD in June 2021]
The British Guiana 1c magenta is regarded by many philatelists as the world’s most famous stamp. It was issued in limited numbers in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1856, and only one specimen is now known to exist.
It is imperforate, printed in black on magenta paper, and it features a sailing ship along with the colony’s Latin motto “Damus Petimus Que Vicissim” (We give and expect in return) in the middle. Four thin lines frame the ship. The stamp’s country of issue and value in small black upper case lettering in turn surround the frame.
The 1c magenta was part of a series of three definitive stamps issued in 1856 and was intended for use on local newspapers. The other two stamps, a 4c magenta and 4c blue, were intended for letter postage.
The issue came about through mischance. An anticipated delivery of stamps by ship did not arrive so the local postmaster, E.T.E. Dalton, authorised printers Joseph Baum and William Dallas, who were the publishers of the Official Gazette newspaper in Georgetown, to print an emergency issue of three stamps. Dalton gave some specifications about the design, but the printer chose to add a ship image of their own design to stamps. Dalton was not pleased with the end result, and as a safeguard against forgery ordered that all correspondence bearing the stamps be autographed by a post office clerk. This particular stamp was initialled E.D.W. by the clerk E.D. Wight.
Only one copy of the 1c stamp is known to exist. It is in used condition and has been cut in an octagonal shape. A signature, in accordance with Dalton’s policy, can be seen on the left hand side. Although dirty and heavily postmarked on the upper left hand side, it nonetheless could be the most valuable stamp in existence.
It was discovered in 1873 by a 12-year-old Scottish schoolboy, L. Vernon Vaughan, in the Guyanese town of Demerara (whose postmark the stamp bears), amongst his uncle’s letters. There was no record of it in his stamp catalogue, so he sold it some weeks later for six shillings to a local collector, N.R. McKinnon. In 1878 McKinnon’s collection was sold to a Liverpool stamp dealer, Thomas Ridpath, for £120. Shortly afterwards, the same year, Thomas Ridpath sold the 1c to Philipp von Ferrary for about £150. His massive stamp collection was willed to a Berlin museum. Following Ferrary’s death in 1917, the entire collection was taken by France as war reparations following the end of World War I.
Arthur Hind bought it during a series of fourteen auctions in 1922 for over US$36,000 (reportedly outbidding three kings, including King George V); on 6 April 1922, sale 3, lot 295, the stamp sold for 300,000 franc + 17½% tax (@48 frs to £1 = £7,343). On 30 October 1935 it was offered for sale at Harmer Rooke & Co auction 2704, lot 26, where a bid of £7,500 was received from Percival Loines Pemberton. However the lot was withdrawn and returned to Mrs Scala (formerly Mrs Hind). In 1940, she offered it for private sale through the philately department of Macy’s department store in New York City. It was purchased for $40,000 by Fred “Poss” Small, an Australian-born engineer from Florida, who had wanted to own the stamp since he first heard about it as a boy. In acquiring it, Small completed a full set of stamps from British Guiana. In 1970, Small auctioned his entire stamp collection (estimated to be worth $750,000), and the 1c stamp was acquired by a syndicate of Pennsylvanian investors, headed by Irwin Weinberg, who paid $280,000 for it and spent much of the decade exhibiting it in a worldwide tour. John E. du Pont bought it for $935,000 in 1980. Subsequently it was believed to have been locked in a bank vault while its owner was in prison and is presumably still there because the owner died while still incarcerated.
At one point, it was suggested that the 1c stamp was merely a “doctored” copy of the magenta 4c stamp of the 1856 series, a stamp very similar to the 1c stamp in appearance. These claims were disproven.
In the 1920s a rumour developed that a second copy of the stamp had been discovered, and that the then owner of the stamp, Arthur Hind, had quietly purchased this second copy and destroyed it. The rumour has not been substantiated.
In 1999, a second 1c stamp was claimed to have been discovered in Bremen, Germany. The stamp was owned by Peter Winter, who is widely known for producing many forgeries of classic philatelic items, printed as facsimiles on modern paper. Nevertheless, two European experts, Rolf Roeder and David Feldman, have said Winter’s stamp is genuine. The stamp was twice examined and found to be a fake by the Royal Philatelic Society London. In their opinion, this specimen in fact was an altered 4c magenta stamp.
1. Carlton, R. Scott. The International Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Philately. Iola WI: Krause Publications, 1997, pp. 36-37. ISBN 0-87341-448-9
2. Williams, L.N. and M., Famous Stamps. London: W & R Chambers Ltd., 1940, p. 26.
3. George McGann, “What did it feel like to own the most valuable piece of paper in the world?”, Australian Women’s Weekly, April 8, 1970, pp 2-3.
4. Rachlin, Harvey (1996). Lucy’s Bones, Sacred Stones, and Einstein’s Brain: The Remarkable Stories Behind the Great Artifacts of History, From Antiquity to the Modern Era. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0-8050-6406-0.
5. Sheryll Oswald, “Peter Winter and the modern German forgeries on eBay” (28 July, 2001)
6. “British Guiana 1c, 1856: Weltrarität oder Fälschung?” Bund Deutscher Philatelisten (BDPh) e.V. (in German)
7. “Is the British Guiana 1c unique?” Stamp Online
8. “British Guiana Four Cent and One Cent of 1856” by Patrick Pearson in The London Philatelist, No. 1275, May 2000, pp. 108-120.