For a few weeks, an entire exhibition has been handed over to a small piece of red paper – the world’s most expensive stamp.
Exhibited is “British Guyana 1c magenta”, a stamp issued in very small batches in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1856, and only one copy is now known to exist. The stamp, which went on sale earlier this year, was bought by British stamp dealer Stanley Gibbons for a whopping £ 6.3 million.
At the price of such a tiny piece of paper, gram for gram, it is believed to be the most expensive thing ever made – equivalent to approx. 120 million pounds per gram.
Sold in the US, a few months ago it arrived in the UK under high security, but is now something that everyone can get up close and personal with while it has been on display in Stanley Gibbon’s store on Strand, and this is also the first time, it has ever been publicly exhibited in the UK.
A showroom on the first floor inside Stanley Gibbon’s shop is largely dedicated to the history of the stamp, and other stamps from Guyana, and then around a darkened corridor, are the stamp itself. Fitted so you can see both sides, with spotlights that only turn on when someone is looking at it, it’s a remarkably small piece of paper that holds so much history.
Printed in black on magenta paper, it has a sailing ship with the colony’s Latin motto “Damus Petimus Que Vicissim” (We give and expect in return) in the middle. Four thin lines frame the ship. The country of issue and value of the stamp in small black capital letters, in turn, surround the frame.
Significantly, the stamps were signed when production went wrong, as they were made in a hurry, after another delivery of stamps was delayed, and to protect the postage from counterfeiting, the stamps had to be signed by a postman. In the past, subsequent collectors often signed the stamps they owned, which in modern eyes seems like a heinous crime to commit to a piece of inheritance, but that’s the past for you.
In the exhibition there is a giant poster of the stamp and some felt-tip pens so you can add your own signature to a copy of the stamp. I saw that David Lammy MP, who has Guyanese parents, had visited the store and added his signature to the display.
Just try not to do it against the right one.
However, the right stamp is something worth seeing. It is a poorly printed piece of paper designed to be used and thrown away, and yet it has been lured by a gemstone. Sitting here in his protective glass box with small spotlights in a dark room only adds to the mystery of the stamp.
You do not have to be a stamp collector to feel that there is something special here, and since it is only on display for a few weeks, this may be the last time you will ever see it.
The exhibit, One Cent Magenta, is at Stanley Gibbons at 399 Beach. It is open 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday until December 18th. It is also open three Saturdays, the coming November 20th and then the 4th and 18th of December.
There is free admission and there are a number of souvenirs to buy, so if you are looking for a gift for a stamp collector, I suppose a copy of the stamp will delight them.