It’s just an old scrap of paper, faded and mutilated. It’s been described as resembling a wine stain, or a receipt that’s been through the wash a few times.
But that wine stain has aroused lust in the hearts of kings.
It spent decades hidden away by owners for whom it was just another acquisition, one item among many that offered proof of their status. At times it’s been transported with grand ceremony in armored cars; at other times it’s been carelessly thrust away in an envelope stuffed into a pocket or a desk.
It’s the one-cent magenta, a hastily improvised postage stamp, printed in 1856 by a newspaper in a remote British colony after an expected shipment of stamps from the mother country failed to arrive in British Guiana.
And it’s the only one of its kind in the world. The last time the stamp was sold at auction, in 2014, it fetched nearly $9.5 million, making it more valuable than a first printing of the Declaration of Independence.
In “The One-Cent Magenta,” a leisurely account of the stamp’s history, New York Times reporter James Barron takes the reader into Stamp World, an exclusive and eccentric land whose inhabitants vie for prestige with a fierce and somewhat musty gentility that has largely managed to withstand the onslaught of new, vulgar money.
Over the years, the population of Stamp World has included such notables as King George V of England, the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II. John Lennon and Freddie Mercury collected stamps; so did President Franklin D. Roosevelt and aviator Amelia Earhart.
Glamorous tennis star Maria Sharapova admitted to the guilty pleasure, complaining that after her hobby became known, “everyone’s calling me a dork now.”
In tracing the path of the magenta over more than 160 years, Barron touches on the history of postal service, the legal wrangles of the rich and powerful, and the change in collectibles from hobby to investment portfolio. He describes the larger-than-life personalities who have owned the magenta, including John E. du Pont, the chemical heir whose privileged life devolved into madness and murder. (The 2014 film, “Foxcatcher,” tells the story of his obsession with the sport of wrestling and his murder of the Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz.)
What the owners shared, Barron writes, was a desire to possess “the thing that no one else could have.”
Barron got the idea for his book after writing a newspaper story about the stamp, and his work has the feeling of an entertaining, in-depth magazine story that’s been padded out to book length. But the key is “entertaining.” The voyage into Stamp World is like the world itself: detailed, ruminative and filled with arcane detours ultimately leading to a destination whose rewards are subtle yet satisfying.
John Reinan is a reporter for the Star Tribune.
The One-Cent Magenta
By: James Barron.
Publisher: Algonquin Books, 276 pages, $23.95.