World’s rarest stamp expected to fetch $15M at Tuesday auction

A tiny scrap of paper is expected to sell for as much as $15 million at an auction in New York City Tuesday.

And while it may seem to be the latest art world “bubble” trinket, it’s actually a centerpiece of stamp-collecting history that recently spent more than four years next door to Washington’s historic Union Station.

The “One-Cent Magenta,” as the 1856 postage stamp from British Guiana is called, last sold for nearly $10 million in 2014. Stuart Weitzman, the shoe impresario, owns it, as well as a unique block of four 1918 “Inverted Jenny” airmail stamps that include a printing plate number in the marginal paper attached to the stamps and also are being auctioned.

The Magenta, printed in British Guiana (now Guyana), was created during a postage shortage when supplies from a colonial printer didn’t arrive. A schoolboy discovered it in a collection, and the rarity passed through the hands of several wealthy individuals in subsequent years. Believed to be the only example in existence — and the only stamp missing from the royal collection owned by Queen Elizabeth II — the Magenta has acquired a mystique that has captivated private collectors, an investment syndicate and a DuPont heir who reportedly slept with the stamp under his pillow. 

The Magenta holds the Guinness world record for the most valuable stamp, with its 2014 auction price “nearly one billion times the original face value,” the record keepers said.

Like the Magenta, the airmail plate-number block is unique, an error created when the 24-cent stamps were printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing with the illustration of a Curtiss Jenny aircraft upside down. The block is expected to fetch between $5 million and $10 million, with one expert saying it should sell for $8 million to $9 million, due to the exceptional condition of the stamps, with images “well centered” on the paper.

Mr. Weitzman also owns a 1933 gold “Double Eagle” U.S. coin, the only copy legally held in private hands. The coins were minted just before President Franklin D. Roosevelt took America off the gold standard. The coins were ordered destroyed, but several got into the marketplace. Mr. Weitzman’s copy was legally, and erroneously, granted an export license and sold to King Farouk of Egypt. After a lengthy tug-of-war, the coin was auctioned in 2002 and Mr. Weitzman bought it anonymously for $7.59 million. It is expected to sell for between $10 million and $15 million.

All three items are set to be auctioned by Sotheby’s Tuesday morning. Within an hour or so, the better part of $40 million — not including buyer’s premiums paid to the auction firm — should be achieved. Proceeds will benefit Mr. Weitzman’s charitable foundations, the auction house said.

“I don’t look at the Magenta as a postage stamp anymore,” said Charles Louis Epting, president of H.R. Harmer Inc., the stamp auction firm that sold President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stamp collection after his death. (Although a prolific stamp collector, Roosevelt never owned either item.)

The 27-year-old Mr. Epting, himself a collector, viewed the Weitzman items at Sotheby’s, handling the Magenta and the Inverted Jenny block outside of their usual plexiglass holders, an experience he said Friday he was still “trying to unpack,” as it differed from the many rare and unique philatelic pieces he handles in his business life.

“Just like I don’t think the Honus Wagner T206 card [is just] a baseball card. The Mona Lisa is not [only] a painting. I think there’s certain items that transcend whatever collecting field they might be. The Magenta is just on a different playing field that exists in a different universe,” Mr. Epting said.

He said he believes the Magenta will sell for $12.4 million, which would be short of the $15 million figure many collecting experts have suggested but would represent a roughly 31% return on Mr. Weitzman’s seven-year investment.

When Mr. Weitzman bought the Magenta, he paid $9.5 million, slightly more than 10 times the $935,000 that John DuPont, the chemical family heir and later a convicted murderer, spent in 1980 to acquire it. Mr. DuPont reportedly slept with the Magenta under his pillow at his FoxCatcher Farms Estate in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb.

For more than half the time Mr. Weitzman owned the Magenta, the stamp was under no one’s pillow. Rather, it was on display from June 2015 to December 2019 at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum, with brief appearances at an international exhibition in New York and another in Monaco.

“The One-Cent Magenta had not been seen in public since 1986 or ‘87, so for many philatelists it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a stamp they had only ever heard or read about,” said Daniel A. Piazza, the postal museum’s chief curator.

“For the One-Cent Magenta specifically, the fact that the stamp has been owned by a particularly colorful cast of characters and tends to disappear from public view for long periods of time, adds interest and mystique. And there is no getting around the fact that we are always fascinated by the incredible sums of money that some people can and will pay to own these items,” Mr. Piazza added.

There was a time, 80 years ago, when the Smithsonian tried to buy the Magenta. When the widow of Arthur Hind, who had owned the stamp before his death, showed the piece at the 1940 New York World’s Fair, she offered it for $50,000, or about $954,000 in today’s dollars. The Smithsonian’s philatelic curator, Catherine Manning, tried to raise the money to buy the stamp, Mr. Piazza recalled in an email, but failed, and it again passed into private hands, this time for $45,000.

Asked if the National Postal Museum would bid on the treasure on Tuesday, Mr. Piazza said he never comments on potential bids, adding, “it’s no secret that the National Postal Museum does not have a $22 million acquisition budget.”

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