A one-cent postage stamp from a 19th century British colony in South America is poised to become the world’s most valuable stamp — again. The 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta could bring $10 million to $20 million when it goes on the auction block at Sotheby’s on Tuesday.
Three times in its long history, the little stamp has broken the auction record for a single stamp.
Measuring one inch by one and a 1/4 inches, it hasn’t been on public view since 1986 and is the only major stamp absent from the British Royal Family’s private Royal Philatelic Collection.
“You’re not going to find anything rarer than this,” according to Allen Kane, director of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. “It’s a stamp the world of collectors has been dying to see for a long time.”
An 1855 Swedish stamp, which sold for $2.3 million in 1996, currently holds the auction record for a single stamp.
The last owner was John E. du Pont, an heir to the du Pont chemical fortune, whose estate sold it to help the Eurasian Pacific Wildlife Conservation Foundation that du Pont championed.
Printed in black on magenta paper, it bears the image of a three-masted ship and the colony’s motto, in Latin, “we give and expect in return.” It went into circulation after a shipment of stamps was delayed from London and the postmaster asked printers for the Royal Gazette newspaper in Georgetown in British Guiana to produce three stamps until the shipment arrived: a one-cent magenta, a four-cent magenta and a four-cent blue.
While multiple examples of the four-cent stamps have survived, only the tiny one-cent issue is known to exist today.
Its first owner was a 12-year-old Scottish boy living in South America who added it to his collection after finding it among family papers in 1873. He soon sold it for a few shillings to a local collector. It was resold it for 150 pounds and later seized by France as war reparations.