Chapter 5: Valuable and Rare Stamps: Case Studies

Though many people collect stamps simply for pleasure, it’s fascinating to hear about stamps that are rare and costly. This chapter gives you insight into which stamps are most valuable.

What Are Some of the Most Valuable Stamps?

Collectors pay more for stamps that are special in some way, including:

  • Mistakes: Issuers destroy many stamps that have imperfect prints, so survivors are precious.

  • Old and excellent condition: However, not all aged stamps bring high prices. For instance, during the Victorian era, large quantities of stamps were printed. Many are still around, so they aren’t valuable.

  • Rarities: Some collectors pay top dollar to have stamps that few others possess.

Famous Stories Behind Valuable Stamps

Many of the most valuable stamps have interesting stories attached.

1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta

In 1855, Great Britain did not ship enough stamps to British Guiana, one of its colonies. At the request of the colony’s postmaster, a local newspaper printed one-cent stamps for newspapers and four-cent stamps for letters. The intention was to copy the British stamp as closely as possible.

Because four-cent stamps were on envelopes and used for correspondence, they were more likely to survive than one-centers. A 12-year-old boy found a single stamp of the lower denomination in 1873. He soon sold it, and that One-Cent Magenta passed through the hands of several collectors. By 1878, it had ended up with a world-renown philatelist.

Upon the owner’s death in 1917, the stamp went to the postal museum in Berlin, Germany. After World War I, France confiscated the One-Cent Magenta as part of the country’s reparation plan. The stamp had a few more owners before being purchased for $935,000 by John DuPont, heir to the chemical company.

Now the long path takes a strange twist. In 2010, DuPont died in prison after being convicted of murder. His One-Cent Magenta sold at auction for $9.5 million in 2014. That’s almost one billion times its initial value. So far, that’s the highest price ever paid for an individual stamp.

Abraham Lincoln 1867 Stamp

This 15-cent stamp was issued to honor the 16th president after his death. If you wanted, you could still stick it on an envelope and put it in the mail — but you’d better not. The stamp has an estimated price of $200,000. What makes it so valuable? It has a special “grill.”

On a stamp, a grill consists of small indentations that help ink from the post office’s cancellation stamp soak in better. This prevented stamps from being reused. The 1867 Lincoln stamp had horizontal indentations, much more rare than vertical ridges.

1869 Shield, Eagle and Flags Stamp

Breaking from the U.S. stamp tradition of featuring leaders, this stamp displayed national icons. It was also the first stamp to use two ink colors: red and blue. Because of this, the shield, eagle and flag stamp wasn’t easy to print. Mistakes happened. The most valuable version of this stamp has inverted flags. In pristine condition, it’s worth $210,000. Used, the stamp goes for $65,000.

1918 Curtiss Jenny

This is another stamp that gets its value from an error. This 24-cent stamp features a military bi-plane: the Curtiss JN-4. In one run of stamps, the plane was upside down. About 100 of the stamps made it into circulation. While a single stamp runs about $200,000, a block of four is worth millions.

1855 Sweden Three Skilling Banco

During the 19th century, the Swedish Coat of Arms was featured on several stamp denominations. Each was printed on a different colored paper — or should have been. A single three-skilling stamp was put on yellowish rather than blue-green paper. Since no others have ever turned up, this individual stamp is worth a fortune: It sold for $2.3 million in 1996.

Which Country’s Stamps Are Most Valuable?

Another criterion for assessing a stamp’s value is its country of origin. Many collectors are interested in particular nations for specific reasons, such as heritage, history, geography and travel. Stamps from certain areas are more highly prized:

Dead Country Stamps

Some collectors interested in both history and geography look for stamps from countries no longer in existence. They have changed, shifted, disappeared or been renamed. Because these stamps will never be issued again, they are often rare and valuable. Examples of dead countries include:

  • Kingdom of Hawaii
  • Confederate States of America
  • Danish West Indies
  • Cuba under Spanish Possession
  • Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic
  • Mesopotamia under British Occupation
  • French Congo
  • British Central Africa
  • India as a British Colony
  • French Indochina
  • Kingdom of Samoa

Classic examples of valuable collectors’ items from a dead country are two 19th century Mauritius post office stamps. Great Britain introduced the concept of stamps for postage prepayment in 1840. Within three years, Brazil and Switzerland had adopted the practice. The U.S. and Mauritius were next on board in 1847.

Though Mauritius was claimed first by the Dutch, and then by French settlers, by 1810 it was under British rule. Within 25 years, the postal service had expanded to include inland delivery. In 1847, two types of stamps were printed and issued in the colony: a red one-penny stamp and a blue two-penny stamp. Each stamp had a single run of 500 and sold out quickly. By the 21st century, few are left. Most of the remaining 15 red and 12 blue stamps are in museums.

In 2011, a two-penny Mauritius stamp was auctioned off for over one million pounds, the highest price at any auction in the United Kingdom. Other rare, though somewhat less valuable, stamps also come from the Mauritius colony. All were printed there between 1848 and 1859 and were based on the original stamps’ designs and colors.

Prominent Countries

Countries favored by stamp collectors change over time. For instance, during the 1960s, most stamp collectors weren’t interested in stamps from communist nations such as China. However, by the 21st century, certain Chinese stamps have become quite valuable. Stamp collecting is a growing hobby in many Asian countries, so stamps from Hong Kong, Japan and India are popular.

Similarly, stamps from the U.S., U.K. and British Commonwealth countries — most of which were once under British rule — remain top sellers. Stamp collecting is still strong in these areas. Conversely, stamps from several western European countries, including Switzerland, Germany and Italy, were prized during the 20th century. However, their value is dropping because so many have recently entered the market.

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