The One Cent Magenta

By James Barron
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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 travelled 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.

About the Author:
James Barron is a reporter on the metropolitan staff of the New York Times. He wrote the minute-by-minute stories on the 9/11 attacks for the Times on the web and the front page lead story on the 2003 blackout. He initiated the ‘Public Lives’ column, later called ‘Boldface Names’, and writes a podcast for the Times’s website summarising the next morning’s front page. He is the author of Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand.
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Algonquin Books
Softcover, 288 pages

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