The British Guiana 1c magenta is quite possibly the rarest and most well-known stamp in the world.
Many consider it one of the ugliest stamps, too. It’s dirty, smudged, and postmarked, making the picture of the ship in the middle very difficult to make out.
The stamp came about when an order of stamps didn’t reach a post office, so the postmaster ordered an emergency issue of three stamps. He was unhappy with the resulting stamps, however, and asked post office clerks to sign the stamps to prevent forgery. The clerk E. D. Wight initialed this particular stamp.
A related question: When only one collectible item exists, what happens when a second one is introduced, and how does that affect the value of the first one?
Rumor has it that one stamp collector, Arthur Hind, had a definite view on the subject. When a second, previously unknown British Guiana surfaced unexpectedly, Hind bought it for a high price and immediately burned it. He made sure he had the only version of the stamp in the world.
As engaging as this story is, there’s no concrete proof that it actually happened. The earliest, most solid recording of the event comes from Hind’s obituary in 1933, which says “Because of his obsession with the ‘black on magenta,’ Hind (according to rumor) bought not only one of the stamps, but the other remaining one, and then destroyed one so that he would own the only one in the world…” (Sefi, A. J.)
The rest of the tales surrounding the Guiana are more rooted in truth, though arguably just as dramatic.
A Scottish schoolboy first discovered the stamp in 1873 (you can see the postmark of his town Demerara on the stamp). He couldn’t find the stamp in his stamp collecting catalog, so he sold it for six shillings (about a dollar fifty cents).
The stamp changed hands a number of times after that, increasing in purchase price each time. In 1940, Arthur Hind’s wife sold it through Macy’s for $40,000. Fred Small bought the stamp to complete his set of British Guiana stamps.
Eventually, the stamp reached multimillionaire John E. du Pont for a price of $935,000 in 1980. Years later, unrelated to the stamp, du Pont shot and killed David Schultz, an Olympic wrestler. The mentally ill du Pont was convicted of third degree murder and later died in prison, leaving behind the 1c stamp in a bank vault.
On June 17, 2014, the stamp went on auction in New York and sold for a record-breaking $9.5 million.
Who knows where it’ll go next?