By Jesse Robitaille
The author of The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World will be sharing the intriguing story of the 162-year-old, $9.5-million stamp during a presentation at the National Postage Stamp and Coin Show on April 7.
James Barron’s 11-chapter, 241-page book is a penetrating tale about the world’s most valuable stamp – British Guiana’s 1856 one-cent magenta – as told through the lens of “history and mystery.”
“It’s a general-interest book, and the people coming to the show are probably more specialized than a general-interest reader, but one of the the things that I came to realize is that philately needs the general-interest reader,” said Barron, a self-described baby boomer that “fiddled with stamp collecting” as a child.
“A lot of baby boomers fiddled around with stamps – boys and girls – although probably boys more than girls. My impression is this no longer happens when you’re 11 or 12, and that’s just acknowledging the way the world has changed.”
The advent of email and social media means both personal and business communications are no longer dependant on the post office, explained Barron, highlighting the post office’s continuing trend towards decreased lettermail delivery and increased parcel delivery.
“While the post office is not doing less business, it’s doing different business, and what that means is consumers, especially kids, might not get interested in stamps.”
Barron’s goal was to tell the story of the one-cent magenta in a way that would interest people who either haven’t thought about stamps at all or haven’t thought about stamps in a long time.
“This is a story with history and mystery, and you almost can’t go wrong with that combination. The history is everything; stamps were an innovation of the late industrial age. It was once a cool thing.”
Barron, a long-time journalist with The New York Times, contemplates being in British Guiana in 1856 and the thrill of “real stamps” – opposed to the one-cent magenta, which was a provisional stamp meant for temporary use – coming in from London.
“Imagine being in this colony, several thousands miles from London, where it took six months to get there. Think how thrilling it would’ve been to look at a sheet of stamps printed in London, done by engraving and done by the provider to the Royal post office.”
The mystery portion of the story relates to the stamp’s uniqueness.
“This is the unusual one. This is the one that stands out because it’s not one of those ‘real stamps.’ This is the anomaly – the oddity – and that’s what makes it now the ultimate rarity.”
The inspiration for his book came during a by-chance meeting with David Redden, retired vice-chairman of Sotheby’s, at a private club built by iconic 19th-century architect and socialite Stanford White in New York City.
“I have written about him before,” said Barron, of Redden, “and the thing about him is he always had a good story, whatever it was. You rarely meet somebody with the enthusiasm and the effervescence and – for a lack of a better word – the bonafides. He’s not one of these guys that talks 90 miles an hour, so if he says he’s got something, it seemed to me it was worth finding out what it was.”
WHAT IS THE ONE-CENT MAGENTA?
When the batch of several months’ worth of stamps didn’t arrive in British Guiana in late 1855, the colony’s postmaster, E.T.E. Dalton, authorized printers Joseph Baum and William Dallas – publishers of the Official Gazette newspaper – to print three provisional stamps, the famed one-cent magenta among them.
“That’s how we got the one-cent magenta,” said Barron. “Obviously, the mystery is how we came to get only one, and a related part of that mystery is what happened to it for those first 16 years when it was printed, sold and forgotten to when little Louis Vernon Vaughan went to his uncle’s house, his uncle having retired and moved onto Bermuda, and the house had to be cleaned out.”
Vaughan, a 12-year-old Scottish schoolboy, quickly sold the stamp for six schillings – little more than $21 Cdn. in today’s money.
“Every 12-year-old who fooled around with stamps dreamed of finding the one-of-a-kind stamp; I know I did. Here’s the guy who had that in his hand, but he didn’t know it, so he traded it in the worst stamp deal ever, as some writers have said.”
ACCLAIMED AUTHOR, REPORTER
James Barron has covered the Sept. 11th attacks – both the minute-to-minute reporting in 2001 and the 10th anniversary story in 2011 – as well as the Sandy Hook shooting and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Among the other topics he has written about are museums, mass transit and music. Barron is also an accomplished amateur pianist and has written for The New York Times about many piano-related subjects, including the auctioning of both pianos from Casablanca and the concert pianist Gary Graffman’s hobby of infusing vodka. He is the author of Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand and he also edited The New York Times Book of New York. Barron was born in Washington, D.C. and often visited the building that is now the National Postal Museum as a child. He and his wife live in New York City.
PRESENTING THE PROVENANCE
Barron’s story, which is laid out by the stamp’s provenance, beginning with its 1873 discovery, “builds on the founding fathers of philately – Edward Denny Bacon and Edward Denny Bacon – and on down to our own day with the expert committee at the Royal (Philatelic Society London), which I think of as the ‘Supreme Court of Philately.’”
Barron said this chronological format is – at least with historical stories – the best way to keep it straight in the reader’s mind.
“The milestones along the way are the sales. It also let me tell the story through people,” he said, adding he’s written two books, both on inanimate objects (the first being a piano).
“This stamp can’t tell us where it’s been; if it were an animate object it could tell us all kinds of things; imagine what it could tell us.”
Rather than inquiring with the stamp itself, Barron’s research included two visits to the iconic British Library and the Royal Philatelic Society London (RPSL) as well as “a lot of lunch hours” at the New York Public Library, which is two blocks from his office.
“The New York Public Library is fabulous for things you don’t realize they have. I spent a lot of lunch hours there reading philatelic magazines that you can’t check out. I also went to the British Library on two separate trips,” he said, adding he interviewed the philatelic curators at the library in addition to visiting the RPSL.
He also interviewed U.S. philatelists, collectors and former collectors, including the lawyer of one of the one-cent magenta’s nine owners, John E. du Pont, who died while serving a 30-year sentence for the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz.
APRIL 7 IN MISSISSAUGA
Following his presentation on April 7, Barron will also answer questions from the audience and be available to autograph his book, which will also be sold at the show.
“I think this stamp is known to philatelists; I think every philatelist has probably heard of this stamp, but there are probably some things, if I’m lucky, that I can say that’ll pique their curiosity and interest so they might want to read it.”