British Guiana One Cent Magenta

In April of 1980 the unique One Cent Magenta sold at auction for $935,000 ($850,000 plus 10 percent buyer’s commission). The first price that it traded for between philatelists was 6 shillings or about 50 cents. And the man who bought the stamp for that price only did so because the seller was a young boy and he wished to further the youngster’s interest in philately. Neither of the two, the discoverer or the first buyer, knew its rarity or its story.



British Guiana, a small country that is now part of Guyana on the northeast coast of South America, had since 1853 ordered its stamps from the Waterlow printing firm in London. In early 1856, the colony apparently ran out of stamps. This simple occurrence is all that we know with certainty, and we know it because the one-cent and the four-cent stamps that Waterlow supplied are not found cancelled from February until October 1856, no doubt the period during which the regular issue was out of stock and on reorder. Beyond this, all information on the world’s rarest stamp has been pieced together from what seems likely.


When the post office ran out of stamps, it turned to the only printer of any status in the colony, the firm of Baum & Dallas who printed the Official Gazzette, the newspaper of Demerara (now Georgetown), capital of British Guiana. Even by printing standards of the 1850s, Baum & Dallas were backwater printers. They had no engraving capacity and had a hand press. Stamps were ordered with newspaper type letters. The picture of the sailing ship on the stamp is a stock cut that Baum & Dallas pilfered from the “Shipping News” page of their newspaper. The stamps present a level of crudity in their execution that is almost unrivaled in philately. The one cent and four cent are textbook examples of ugly stamps, poorly designed and executed. But they are rare. The one cent to date is unique and the four cent has but a few specimens.


The one cent was found by a child named Vaughn, who in later years remembered it as being on a small letter from which he had soaked it off. This is the only part of the British Guiana rarity saga that is probably wrong. The one cent paid the newspaper rate, so the likelihood is that Vaughn found it on a wrapper of some kind, not an envelope. The use of the one cent on newspapers or newspaper wrappers accounts for its rarity– even if as many one-cent stamps were sold as were four-cent stamps, wrappers were rarely saved and stamps so used in the pre-1870 period are generally quite scarce. Vaughn did not even find the stamp until 1872, sixteen years after it was issued. He was unimpressed with the specimen; it was clipped diagonally and faded.


The man to whom Vaughn sold the stamp was the most prominent collector of British Guiana, a Mr. N. R. McKinnon. McKinnon kept the stamp for about five years, gradually becoming aware of its scarcity until his research led him to believe that it might well be unique. He sold the collection, including the One Cent Magenta, to an English dealer for 120 pounds. The dealer, Thomas Ridpath of Liverpool, sold the British Guiana One Cent Magenta to the one collector with the means and desire for the stamp– Baron Philipp La Renotiere Von Ferrary– for a sum believed to be in the neighborhood for 150 pounds.


The British Guiana One Cent Magenta’s fame rests on its distinction of having realized the greatest sum at the Ferrary sales held after World War I. Ferrary’s collection was an achievement; virtually every rarity of any stature was included, often in blocks and on cover as well. There were hundreds of volumes. Numerous other stamps elicted interest during the Ferrary sales, but the most attention was paid to the British Guiana. Including a bidder’s tax, the stamp realized over $30,000, which when you compare it to the $3,000 realized for the Sweden 3-skilling banco error of color (also unique), shows the awe in which this stamp was held.


At this time, there were several major collectors in the world with the means and the interest to purchase this stamp. But foremost among them were Arthur Hind and Maurice Burrus. Hind was a New York State industrialist; Burrus controlled tobacco in Belgium. When the lot opened up on the floor, the bidding was quite hesitant. Then the war began between Burrus and Hind’s agent: $8,000– $10,000– $15,0000– $30,000; and there it stopped. The auctioneer looked once at both the buyers, and twice, sold! Both bidders claimed victory as theroom hushed. It was unclear, even to the auctioneer, who had given the last bid. He was about to reopen the lot, which might well have gone to even dizzier heights, had not Burrus then bowed out and allowed Hind’s agent to buy the stamp.

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