Book Review: The One-Cent Magenta

Collectors of any stripe will recognize themselves within the pages of James Barron’s absorbing book, The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World ($23.95), published earlier this year. À la The Red Violin, Barron traces the episodic history of the penny postage issued in British Guiana in 1856 that implausibly became the world’s most expensive stamp when it sold at Sotheby’s for about $9.5 million in 2014 (auctioneer David Redden, who has sold his share of famous rare books, plays the role of supporting actor in Barron’s book).

magenta.jpgIt all began with a twelve-year-old philatelist who discovered the reddish scrap with clipped corners among his uncle’s old papers. He sold it for six shillings (about $16.83 in today’s dollars, Barron informs us). After that, the stamp had many adventures and more than a few oddball owners, which Barron, a New York Times journalist, reports with verve.

Hidden away for large blocks of time in a Parisian castle and a New York City bank vault, the unique one-cent magenta became a source of intrigue: Was it doctored? Over-painted? Was a second discovered and quickly destroyed to bolster its value? Barron delves into these details without getting bogged down in philatelic minutiae--readers need not have more than a passing interest in postal matters to thoroughly enjoy this book.    

                                                                                                                                                                                       Image Courtesy of Algonquin Books

Auction Guide