Objects Of Desire: The envy of the Queen

The British Guiana 1 cent Magenta.
The British Guiana 1 cent Magenta.
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Lick that! John Vincent tells how a young British schoolboy stumbled on the world’s most famous stamp.

IT certainly doesn’t look like much... this unprepossessing red stamp from an outpost of the old British Empire. And 12-year-old Vernon Vaughan wasn’t overly impressed when he came across it among family papers 141 years ago while living with his parents in what is now Guyana.

He tucked the specimen away in his album but later sold it for a few shillings to a fellow Scot, Neil McKinnon, to buy more stamps. Young Vernon’s descendants have cause to regret that decision... for his find back in 1873 is the sole surviving example of the British Guiana one-cent magenta.

And the unassuming scrap of paper – the only major stamp absent from the Queen’s private collection – is set to fetch a world record price of $10m-$20m (approximately £6m-£12m) at Sotheby’s in New York this summer.

It owes its fame to a delayed shipment of stamps to British Guiana from England in 1856. To prevent disruption to postal services, the postmaster commissioned the printers of the local Royal Gazette newspaper to produce a contingency supply: the one-cent magenta, a four-cent magenta and a four-cent blue.

It was the one-cent magenta that Vernon Vaughan, a budding philatelist, stumbled across 17 years later, not far from where it was originally purchased. It first entered the UK in 1878 and each time it changed hands it increased in value.

For a while it was in the collection of Philippe von Ferrary, Baron de la Renotire, perhaps the greatest stamp collector in history. France seized his collection, which had been donated to the Postmuseum in Berlin, as part of the war reparations from Germany, and the one inch by one and a quarter-inch stamp was sold in 1922 to Arthur Hind, a textile magnate from New York, for its first auction record price of $35,000.

By 1980, its value had reached $935,000 when it was bought by John du Pont, heir to the eponymous chemical company fortune.

Now, if sold within estimate in New York on June 17, it will once more establish a new auction record for a single stamp, easily beating the $2.2m paid for the Swedish Treskilling yellow in 1996, equivalent to £2.24m today.

Sotheby’s has been offering stamps since 1872, the year before young Vernon’s find, and sold the greatest single-owner collection of all time, that assembled by Sir Gawaine Baillie, which achieved a total of £16.76m in a series of 11 sales in London, New York and Melbourne between 2004 and 2007.