NEW YORK - On June 17, Sotheby’s will offer the most important stamp in the world, The British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta, in a highly anticipated single-lot event auction. Issued in 1856, the present stamp is the sole survivor of its kind and for more than 100 years, has stirred the imagination of stamp collectors everywhere. The British Guiana has set a new world record for a postage stamp each and every time it has been offered at auction and is now estimated to bring between $10 million and $20 million.
Among those inspired by the return of the British Guiana to auction are tech entrepreneur and Paperless Post CEO James Hirschfeld, who recently visited Sotheby’s to view the British Guiana and to talk stamp collecting with our very own David Redden, Vice Chairman, Americas.
REDDEN: Did you see the Donald Duck comic? It’s actually quite fun – it dates from 1952 and Donald and his nephews go hunting for The British Guiana stamp in British Guiana. They go into the jungle and they run into all sorts of huge troubles. They finally find the stamp on an undelivered envelope in a mail sack in El Dorado’s palace. So they are about to leave British Guiana with this incredibly precious stamp and the postal authorities in British Guiana nab them and say “we never not deliver a letter!” [laughs] So they snatch the letter away so it can be delivered and it’s actually addressed to someone in America. Donald Duck and his nephews go shooting all over America and needless to say it was destined for the house next to Donald’s.
HIRSCHFELD: And who lived there – Mickey Mouse?
REDDEN: His arch enemy, who gets the stamp and sells it to a wealthy stamp collector for an enormous amount of money. There is a happy ending though, because Donald saves the album with The British Guiana and the collector gives him a $50,000 reward!
HIRSCHFELD: $50,000 in 1952 was serious money. $25–50 million today.
REDDEN: You could’ve bought 100 Andy Warhols!
HIRSCHFELD: And $50,000 for a bunch of ducks is a lot of money.
REDDEN: It probably still is. [laughs] Another amazing part of this cartoon is that the name of the wealthy collector is “Philo T. Ellic”
HIRSCHFELD: I wonder where they got that from! [laughs] So was this your stamp album?
REDDEN: So this was one of my first stamp albums. I had the same book as my brother, but my stamp album was better than my brother’s and contained far more stamps…because I was 8 years old and he was 6.
HIRSCHFELD: Which makes all the difference.
REDDEN: Besides which, I was a precocious 8-year-old. [laughs] And he was just being a little brother trying.
HIRSCHFELD: Trying to emulate you! Well, I actually had a real head start because I was given my grandfather’s stamp collection, so I had a nice base to build on. I was also very interested in coins.
REDDEN: I collected coins after I collected stamps.
HIRSCHFELD: I did too, but I took coins much further.
REDDEN: Oh! Still do?
HIRSCHFELD: I found other things to invest in – other than ancient coins – in my teenage years. [laughs]
REDDEN: Because you know, we sold the most expensive coin in the world – the 1933 Gold Double-Eagle – for $7.6 million. Today it would be worth over $15 million.
HIRSCHFELD: Amazing. I have some gold coins, but I also have some nice Greek coins – my mother is Greek. I’ve always been interested in stamps and coins because they are these functional things created by the government, but they are also so beautiful.
REDDEN: Well, and they convey history. It is interesting because coins convey history and stamps convey geography. You know, you put together a stamp collection and you’ve got this extraordinary education on geography , with coins you have this fantastic education on history, because coins go back so much further. Adhesive stamps began in 1840 and coins go back to the Greeks and earlier.
HIRSCHFELD: It is really interesting that you talk about geography – because that just goes to show that I was a somewhat delinquent stamp collector [laughs] but for me, I have always been interested in the idea of rarity, of beauty and authenticity. When I was younger I would dream of finding treasure under the ocean that no one knew existed. Anything that was rare and old—that was value to me. And I think that what I have done in my work and with the product I have developed is a lot about taking something that is rarified—the idea of fine stationery or a beautiful stamp—and making it accessible to people.
At one point [stamps] were common and now we collect them because they are exotic and beautiful to look at. So for me stamp collecting was about that, but I think for a more intellectual mind . . .
REDDEN: Well, I don’t know how much of an intellectual you can be at 8 years old! [laughs] But for me it was about filling up an album with all of these extraordinary and wondrous objects. And then what you had at the back of your mind was this thought that maybe one day you could discover that one stamp that nobody else had. And that’s why the British Guiana really did have an important role in my imagination, because there it was: this famous stamp discovered by a 12-year-old schoolboy.
HIRSCHFELD: It’s the fantasy.
REDDEN: Yes, the fantasy of this unique object that’s incalculably valuable – at least to an 8-year-old. And you sort of think “my goodness maybe there’s another envelope that I’m going to find . . .”
HIRSCHFELD: For me that was everything – this story of a boy finding it on an envelope and of it being the only one of its kind—that sort of sums up the romance, in my mind, of collecting stamps.
REDDEN: And stamp collecting fascinatingly enough is the introduction for so many people to the whole concept of collecting. And collecting is its own kind of special disease. It is a little bit of a pathological gene that makes people want to accumulate things in a certain logical order and stamps are particularly logical in that sense. You’ve got these albums to fill up for a start, so you kind of know where you’re going. It’s rather like the coins.
HIRSCHFELD: Yes, with the trays.
REDDEN: Yes, but then one often moves on from that, to collecting paintings and books or whatever else you’re interested in too. But one of the great things about the stamp is, unlike the 1933 Gold Double-Eagle, which is really only interesting to Americans, is that this is an object for the whole world.
HIRSCHFELD: It’s true. It’s almost . . . mythological.
REDDEN: Yes, a stamp for the world.
Read part two of this conversation on The Post.
The British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta will be offered at Sotheby’s New York on 17 June.
Visit Paperless Post from 3–17 June to use the British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta as the postage stamp on all your most valued digital correspondence.
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