The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World

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The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World

by James Barron

When it was issued in 1856, it cost a penny. In 2014, this tiny square of faded red paper known as the one-cent magenta sold at Sotheby’s for nearly $US9.5 million, the highest amount ever paid for a postage stamp at auction. Through the stories of the eccentric characters who have bought, owned and sold this stamp, THE ONE-CENT MAGENTA weaves a fascinating tale of obsession to own a treasure that no one else can have. One-cent magentas were provisional stamps, printed in British Guiana when a shipment of official stamps from London failed to arrive. They were intended for periodicals, and most were thrown out. But one stamp survived. It has had only nine owners since a 12-year-old Scottish boy discovered it in 1873 (and sold it for what would be $17 today). Later owners included a fabulously wealthy Frenchman who hid the stamp from view – even King George V of England couldn’t get a peek – a businessman who traveled with the stamp in a briefcase he handcuffed to his wrist; and John E. du Pont, heir to the chemical fortune, who died while serving a thirty-year sentence for the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz. THE ONE-CENT MAGENTA is a hugely entertaining and swashbuckling yarn that explores the life of a magnificent obsession through the stories of the people who loved and lost it.

Editorial Reviews


“(An) absorbing tale of the rarefied world of high-stakes philately.”

— Library Journal


—The Washington Post

“Quirky and informative.”

—Publishers Weekly

“A scintillating foray into ‘what makes something collectible, valuable, and enduring.’”

— Kirkus Reviews

“This delightful short book is a good bet for readers of nonfiction, especially those who enjoy microhistories.”



—Seattle Book Review

“Interesting…Even without an interest in stamps and their collection, one should find this book worthy of reading as it winds its way through the years and the various intrigues and machinations which characterize this singular and valuable item.”

—New York Journal of Books

“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.”

—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Barron’s layered, complex genealogy-of-motivations for the stamp’s suitors becomes the narrative’s yeasty and compelling attraction.”

—Washington Independent Review of Books


—The Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria, OH)

About the Author

James Barron is a reporter for the New York Times, where his writing has appeared in virtually every section of the paper. 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. He and his wife live in New York City.

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Weight0.5 kg