There are any number of 'unique' philatelic items, but only one which is accepted as being 'The World's Rarest Stamp'. The 1856 British Guiana ONE CENT black on magenta is indeed unique in that all other contenders for the title are errors or varieties of more widely available stamps or have been rendered 'unique' by their postmarks or postal use. The story of the ONE CENT black on magenta has become part of philatelic history and now a new chapter in that story begins with the purchase on 8 June 2021 by Stanley Gibbons Ltd.
The first stamps of British Guiana were crudely printed at the offices of the Royal Gazette in Georgetown, the capital of the colony. The ‘design’ was created by bending a length of copper printer’s rule into a rough circle, setting ‘BRITISH GUIANA’ around the inside and placing the value in a straight line across the centre. To aid identification each value was printed on a different coloured paper and, due to fears that the stamps would be relatively easy to copy, each had to be initialled by a postal official. The stamps were in use from 1 July 1850. Seeking a more professional (and secure) design, Waterlow and Sons of London were engaged to design and print two values, 1 cent and 4 cents. Although subsequently one of the world’s foremost stamp printers, Waterlows were, themselves, inexperienced in the art of stamp production at this time and produced a fairly basic design, consisting of a three-masted sailing ship with the Colony’s motto ‘DAMUS PATIMUS QUE VICISSIM' (We give and seek in return), and the country name and value. A likely demonstration of Waterlows’ inexperience is the fact that the second word of the motto was a misspelling of 'PETIMUS'. The sailing ship was to remain a key element of British Guiana stamps until 1934 when Waterlows printed a fine set of pictorial designs for the colony. The first Waterlow stamps were issued on 1 January 1852 and, although the requirement to sign each stamp was dispensed with, the coloured papers were retained; magenta for the 1 cent and deep blue for the 4 cents. The following year Waterlows produced a rather more sophisticated design with the sailing ship within an oval surround containing the motto – this time with the spelling of the second word corrected to ‘PETIMUS’. This design ran through several printings, until replaced in 1860 by a very similar one, this time showing the ship sailing towards the right of the stamp instead of the left.
It was vitally important that colonial postmasters who procured stamps from the UK should ensure that sufficient stocks were held locally and that new stocks were ordered in plenty of time to allow not only for printing and production, but also for delivery and distribution. Judging from the number of times the British Guiana Post Office had to resort to locally produced stop-gap productions, they were not very good at doing this. The first-time supplies ran short was an 1856, when the authorities were forced to go back to the Official Gazette to print a provisional issue (the former Royal Gazette having since changed its name). The elements of the design were rather similar to the 1852 Waterlow production, with the sailing ship and motto within a rectangular frame and the country name and value around the outside. Also, like their Waterlow predecessors the stamps were printed on coloured paper, although, oddly, the 4 cent was initially printed on red (magenta or rosecarmine) paper and only later (from August) on blue. Again, due to fears of counterfeiting, postal officials were instructed to initial all examples. The 4 cent value was known about from the time of issue, but the now famous ONE CENT black on magenta was not recognised until some years later, its story eventually becoming one of the best-known in philately. The unique stamp, it has to be admitted, is not in the very finest condition, the magenta surfaced paper having darkened to a considerable degree over the years. It was signed at the left with the initials EDW(ight) and postmarked ‘DEMERARA AP 4 1856’. The four corners of the stamp had been cut off, as occurred with many of the 1856 provisionals.
It was first discovered by a local schoolboy, 12-year-old L Vernon Vaughan, amongst some family papers in 1873; he soaked it off and placed it briefly in his collection, before selling it to a local collector Neil R McKinnon for the sum of six shillings. Vaughan was apparently convinced that he would be able to find a better example of the stamp, but no one ever has. A few years later McKinnon sold his collection to a Liverpool stamp dealer Thomas Ridpath, for £120 and Ridpath subsequently sold the ONE CENT on to the renowned collector Philipp la Renotière von Ferrary, an Austrian living in Paris, for an undisclosed sum, believed to be around £40. Ferrary died in 1917, intending to leave his collection to the Postal Museum in Berlin. However, it was confiscated by the French Government as part of Germany’s war reparations and sold in a series of auctions between June 1921 and November 1925, with the ONE CENT going under the hammer on 6 April 1922, when it was bought by Arthur Hind, a British-born American millionaire for a total sum of £7343 including taxes, making it the highest price ever paid for a single postage stamp and leading to it being widely regarded as 'The World’s Rarest Stamp'.
Hind died in 1933 and after a legal battle between his wife and his estate, the stamp passed to Mrs Hind, who attempted to sell in London in 1935 when it failed to reach its reserve. It was finally sold for a sum believed to be around $45,000 in 1940 to an anonymous buyer who was eventually revealed to be Frederick Small, an Australian living in the United States. His name did not become known until the stamp was next sold in 1970, but it was exhibited on a very few occasions, most famously at the Stanley Gibbons Catalogue Centenary Exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall, London, in 1965, the programme for which quoted a valuation of £200,000. This proved to be reasonably accurate, because when the stamp sold in New York on 24 March 1970 as part of the ‘Great’ collection it reached the equivalent of $280,000, the buyer being an investment syndicate one of whom was stamp dealer Irwin Weinberg. Ten years later Mr Weinberg, on behalf of the syndicate, again offered the stamp for sale at Robert A Siegel of New York and this time, including commission, the sum paid totalled $935,000.
At first the name of the new owner was again a mystery but was eventually revealed to be John E du Pont, heir to the Du Pont Chemicals fortune. In 1997 du Pont was convicted of murder and spent the rest of his life in prison, dying on 9 December 2010. For most of its 30 years in du Pont’s ownership the stamp was in storage, but an extensive promotional ‘tour’ took place before it went under the hammer again, this time at Sotheby’s New York salerooms on 17 June 2014. This time the selling price was slightly more than ten times its previous peak, the buyer paying a total of $9,480,000. The new owner was shoe designer Stuart Weitzman. Over the next seven years the ONE CENT black on magenta remained in the limelight, being widely exhibited until it once again returned to the auctioneer’s rostrum, also at Sotheby’s in New York, on 8 June 2021, when it achieved a total price of $8,307,000. The buyer was Stanley Gibbons Ltd. who had proudly shown the stamp at its Catalogue Centenary Exhibition 56 years earlier, stating its value to be £200,000.
Announcing the purchase, Stanley Gibbons stated that the ONE CENT black on magenta would once more be returning to the UK, where it would be made available for public viewing at their flagship store at 399 Strand, London. In addition, they also announced their intention to make ownership of the item, in part at least, available to a much wider audience through shared ownership – a concept which has become increasingly popular in recent years and will hopefully create greater enjoyment of this rarest of philatelic artefacts for a far greater number of people.