1873–1878: From Georgetown to Paris

In 1873 Louis Vernon Vaughan, a twelve-year-old schoolboy of Welsh Scottish descent whose family had immigrated to British Guiana, came upon the correspondence of his uncle Andrew Hunter while clearing out his relative’s home. Hunter had recently left the colony after forty-two years and moved to Barbados, where he died on 12 October the following year. Vaughan had recently caught the philately bug, and he began soaking the stamps from their covers and placing them into his collection. The correspondence dated from the earliest issues of the colony, and even though the quality and appearance of the early issues paled in comparison to the new brightly colored and sharply engraved stamps now appearing throughout the world, Vaughan was happy to add them to his album. He could not have known that the One-Cent was unique, but he likely did recognize it as being from the scarce emergency issue of 1856—and he certainly knew that he did not have an example.

It is worth noting that The Official Gazette of British Guiana, which usually published on Wednesday and Saturday only, issued a one-page “Extraordinary” number on Friday, 4 April—the date the One-Cent was cancelled. This special issue, with a blank verso, could very easily have been folded, sealed, addressed, and stamped with the proper One-Cent postage. And the fact that the “Extraordinary” issue contained two proclamations by Philip Edmund Wodehouse, the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of British Guiana, could help explain why Andrew Hunter retained it among his papers.

The Official Gazette Extraordinary of British Guiana. Georgetown, Demerara: Printed and published by Joseph Baum and William Dallas. 4 April 1856. Courtesy of the Center for Research Libraries.

Shortly afterwards, Vaughan received a packet of unused foreign stamps on approval from Albert Smith and Company. Smith, located in Bath, England, had been in business since the 1860s and was one of the world’s first stamp dealers. The firm’s advertisements in all the major magazines for boys throughout the English-speaking world created a lucrative business during the first decades of the hobby. Smith was also the publisher of The Stamp-Collector’s Magazine, 1863–1874, one of the best regarded of the early periodicals devoted to stamps.

In the 1 July 1865 issue of the magazine Mr. (later Judge) Frederick Adolphus Philbrick, writing under the pseudonym Damus Petimusque Vicissim, had attempted to clarify the issues of the colony of British Guiana. He listed the 1850 4-cent, 8-cent, and 12-cent cottonreels and mentioned the possible existence of a 2-cent value on pink paper, although he thought it unlikely (Philbrick’s “First Issue”). He described the 1-cent and 4-cent from 1852 as from 1850 and 1851, respectively (“Second Issue”), but the 1853 issue was catalogued correctly (“Fourth Issue”). As his “Third Issue” Philbrick described and illustrated what is now recognized as the 1856 issue: oblong rectangles printed in black on surface-colored paper. He described two 4-cent values only, one on deep magenta, the other on deep azure blue:

These stamps are engraved on wood, and printed in the colony; a sheet or so only was printed on blue, to replace the old blue 4 c. upright rectangle, but the supply of blue paper failing, they were also printed on pink paper, the shape sufficiently guarding against confusion with the former issue. The circulation of these stamps was of the most limited duration, both kinds are of the highest degree of rarity; few indeed are the happy possessors of either, while those who have the blue may be reckoned twice over on the fingers of one hand, and may be congratulated on having probably the very rarest stamp known to collectors. Two English collections, it is believed, and two only, boast of this matchless blue; while on the continent a specimen is not known to exist. The pink is also of but one less degree of rarity, scarcely known even among the élite of collections. All stamps of this issue, which the writer has ever seen, bear an initialed signature, in addition to the usual postmark. In their perfect state these stamps have a margin of considerable width.

F. A. Philbrick’s pioneering article on the stamps of British Guiana, from The Stamp-Collector’s Magazine, vol. 3, 1865 

This is almost certainly the reference that the young Vernon Vaughan had when perusing his find. His newfound stamps contained cottonreels and quite likely at least two of Philbrick’s “Third Issue” stamps. (In 1906 L. V. Vaughan displayed his collection for the British Guiana Philatelic Society at Georgetown; it still contained a 12-cent cottonreel and an 1856 4-cent Black on Blue.) The fact that one of his 1856 oblongs was a One-Cent and not listed should have been exciting, but as it was a poor copy with cut corners he decided to sell it in order to buy some of the newer and more attractive issues that he had been sent on approval from Mr. Smith of Bath. He might have expected to eventually turn up a better example among his uncle’s papers.

Vaughan removed the stamp from his album and offered it to a local collector, Neil Ross McKinnon of Berbice. McKinnon, a young Scots gentleman in his early twenties, at first declined. He thought it a bad specimen and objected to it being cut octagonally rather than square. When he understood that Vaughan only wished to sell in order to buy other stamps, McKinnon relented. After Vaughan accepted his offer of six shillings ($1.44), McKinnon is supposed to have given him this observation with the money, “Now look here, my lad, I am taking a great risk in paying so much for this stamp and I hope you will appreciate my generosity.”

McKinnon kept the One-Cent in his collection for about five years, during which period there was an explosion of interest in British Guiana from the fledgling stamp-collecting world. Philatelists were particularly intrigued by the circular cottonreels of 1850, and the few examples that had made their way into the English and European trade had sold for large sums.

From the perspective of 1921, A. D. Ferguson, Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society, London, described the early “stamp rush” during those years in The British Guiana Philatelic Journal:

Evidently these comparatively large sums obtained, together with the advertisements of English dealers in local newspapers, acted as an incentive to searchers for stamps. The result was that many searches were made from 1876 on, among private letters, in banks, merchants’ offices, Government offices, etc., as opportunity offered, with the result that hundreds of the early issues were found. In some cases these searches were made without permission by clerks, office-boys, etc., and were promptly sold on the spot.

 L. Vernon Vaughan later recalled selling cottonreels as a teenager for a pound ($5.00) each, regardless of denomination.

The most successful buyers turned out to be local collectors, many of whom ran their own standing advertisements offering cash for the early issues. These men, all still in their twenties, included, in addition to Neil Ross McKinnon in New Amsterdam, Edward Chauncy Luard, Charles Guy Austin Wyatt, and Mewburn Garnett in Georgetown. Of these, only Luard would go on to become a prominent philatelist. These young men became, in turn, the source of supply for the English dealers who started receiving large troves of these issues during 1876 and 1877. One consignment sent to Stanley Gibbons in London numbered well over three hundred specimens.

Oddly, it seems that the Demerara collectors were not aware of the activities of McKinnon in Berbice. E. C. Luard, writing in 1882, appeared to have no knowledge of the series of events that had played out during 1877 and 1878. Up to 1876 there were supposedly two complete collections of British Guiana. One belonged to the famous dealer J. B. Moens of Belgium, the second to the equally celebrated Baron Arthur de Rothschild. These collections were valued at one hundred and fifty pounds each at the time. Now it is known that both were short by two issues: the fabled 1850 2-cent cottonreel on rose-colored paper alluded to by Philbrick and the 1856 One-Cent Black on Magenta, the existence of which was not even yet a rumor. Today there are four known single used copies of the former and just one of the latter. In 1876, Neil Ross McKinnon owned all five.

Edward Bacon, writing in The London Philatelist in February 1900, describes the first appearance of the 2-cent cottonreel. According to Bacon, a Mr. Kirton sold the stamp to the twenty-six-year-old Liverpool dealer Thomas Ridpath in late 1877. A. D. Ferguson, writing years later, suggested that the seller must have been Neil McKinnon since he was the seller of the only other known single copies of this rarity. But Bacon’s version of events is almost certainly accurate. He received his information directly from Ridpath, albeit twenty years after the transaction. And Ridpath purchased the entire McKinnon collection some thirteen months after acquiring the 2-cent and would presumably have remembered his name when speaking to Bacon.

McKinnon was the original owner of this stamp but not Ridpath’s vendor. He must have exchanged or sold the stamp to Mr. Kirton, who was probably another local enthusiast. There was a Kirton plantation in British Guiana and a fairly prominent Kirton family that had interests in Barbados and throughout the West Indies. But regardless of how Ridpath acquired the stamp, he quickly sold it on to the twenty-seven-year-old Philipp La Rénotière von Ferrary of Paris. For a short period between late 1877 and March 1878 this was the only known copy and the rarest stamp of British Guiana. This particular example, one of the two known single examples in private hands, is presently part of the John E. du Pont Collection.

McKinnon sold two further copies of the 2-cent on rose paper in March and July of 1878, both to Alfred Smith of Bath, whose appealing offerings had enticed young Vernon Vaughan to part with his One-Cent Magenta. Smith paid something in the range of fifteen pounds each for the cottonreels. Very little information has survived regarding private-transaction prices from that period, but it is recorded that Judge Philbrick purchased the first of these specimens from Smith in March for twenty pounds.

By late summer 1878, whether encouraged by his recent windfall or sensing the peak of the market, Neil McKinnon decided to sell his entire collection. With the knowledge that his duplicate copies of the 2-cent cottonreel had fetched very good money, his attention probably turned to the strange little red octagonal One-Cent he had purchased five years earlier. The stamp was not pretty, but neither were the earlier circular issues and they were selling well. The problem was that there was no mention in any publication anywhere of any value of this issue apart from the 4-cent. What McKinnon needed was an expert opinion.

Edward Loines Pemberton, from The Philatelic Record, vol. 13, 1891. Courtesy of the Collectors Club, New York City

Edward Loines Pemberton was the leading philatelic expert of the day, certainly at least in the English-speaking world. He had published the great Stamp Collectors Handbook (1874), his monthly Philatelic Journal was widely circulated and uniformly praised, and his pioneering works on forgeries, Album Weeds, remains a required reference to this day.

McKinnon dispatched his entire collection to his old friend Robert Wylie Hill in Glasgow. Wylie Hill was the grandson of the successful hair and feather merchant Robert Wylie, and beginning about 1875, he spent several years in South America collecting birds, sometimes traveling far up the Amazon River to obtain exotic specimens. It was during this time that Hill would have met McKinnon; two educated young Scotsmen of the same age and living in the same colony could hardly have failed to know each other. McKinnon’s instructions to Hill were simple. The collection was to be sent to Edward Pemberton for his examination, and if he so chose he would then have first refusal at a price of one hundred and ten pounds. (Perhaps the ten pounds represented a commission to Hill.) 

Neil Ross McKinnon

Pemberton examined the collection sometime in late September 1878 and pronounced the One-Cent Magenta to be absolutely genuine. For some reason, possibly illness, he did not purchase the collection immediately. He may well have sent the stamps back to Wylie Hill in Scotland with a counteroffer. But what Pemberton did not realize was that McKinnon had stipulated that if he turned down the collection, Hill was to then send letters offering the collection to the major dealers in the country. These would have almost certainly included Stanley Gibbons in London, Alfred Smith of Bath, and Thomas Ridpath of Liverpool.

Ridpath acted first. He later wrote to Bacon that he received Hill’s letter at 4:45 p.m. on 2 October 1878, “and by 8 p.m. I was on my way to Glasgow. I saw Mr. Hill before 9 a.m. next morning, concluded the business and was back in Liverpool all within twenty-four hours.” Ridpath paid £120, and legend has it that Pemberton’s check for £110 arrived shortly afterwards. In order to come up with the purchase price so quickly, Ridpath may have sought a loan from his friend and sometime backer James Botteley, a coal merchant from Birmingham and an avid stamp collector. Botteley’s fee in such arrangements was not monetary, but rather the right of first choice from the new acquisition.  

Thomas Ridpath

Both reproducded from a souvernir of the Daily Chronicle Exhbition, 1940. Courtesy of Peter Lazar. Philatelic Collector Inc.

It is not known if Botteley passed on the One-Cent because of its appearance or if, as L. N. Williams maintained, because “he was asked by Ridpath, as a special favour, not to take the 1 cent stamp as the dealer could obtain a far greater price from Paris than he would dream of asking Botteley.” Within days Ridpath visited Ferrary in Paris, and sold him the One-Cent Black on Magenta, which both parties recognized as a rarity, although neither could have known it was unique. The price is not known, but it is unlikely to have been more than £40. At the same time, Ridpath exchanged the 2-cent cottenreel for the example he had supplied the previous year as he believed it a slightly superior copy. Both stamps would remain in the Ferrary collection for over forty years. (Five years later, the 2-cent cottonreel Ferrary traded back to Ridpath would end up in the collection of James Botteley at a cost of thirty pounds.)

1878–1891: Establishing Authenticity

Almost as soon as the One-Cent Black on Magenta had arrived in Britain, it disappeared into the fabled cabinets belonging to Philipp von Ferrary at 57 rue de Varenne in Paris. During its brief stay in late 1878 it had been seen by a total of four people: Robert Wylie Hill, Thomas Ridpath, James Botteley, and Edward Pemberton. Following Pemberton’s death on 12 December 1878 at the age of 34, only three witnesses remained. Fortunately, Pemberton left a written record of his impression of the stamp in a letter sent the previous month to his friend Frederick Philbrick. He had had the opportunity to examine the McKinnon collection, Pemberton related, and it included a “ONE cent, red, 1856!!! as genuine as anything ever was.”

In British Guiana Neil McKinnon was pursuing his law career and apparently never returned to philately. He may have spoken to Vernon Vaughan at some point about the sale of his stamps to Ridpath because Vaughan’s later recollection of the 1856 One-Cent accounting for twenty-five pounds of the total sum paid for the McKinnon collection is probably the most accurate of the many and varied estimates. The continuing lack of information regarding the stamp was underlined in 1882 when Edward Luard wrote “Valuable Curiosities from the British Guiana Post Office.” The article mentioned the 2-cent “Pink” cottonreel, to which Luard assigned a value of thirty pounds, while noting a decline in the price of the other values in 1879 due to the many discoveries during the previous three years. On the subject of the 1856 issue he makes no reference at all to the One-Cent. He does describe a 4-cent yellow, but this is obviously a confusion with the earlier cottonreel of the same color and denomination.

Back in England, a largely accurate description of the One-Cent did appear in The Philatelic Record for January 1882:

The old issues of this colony [British Guiana] form a mine from which unexpected treasures are yet to be unearthed. Comparatively few of our readers have ever heard of the existence of a One cent, brown of the same design, and probably issued at the same time, as the large, oblong, magenta and blue Four cents stamps of 1856. And yet we have excellent reasons for chronicling the existence of this stamp, a specimen of which is, we understand, in the collection of M. de. Ferrari. We shall be glad if this gentlemen will give some account of this rarity for the benefit of the many collectors who are as enthusiastic, but in many respects less highly favoured than he is.

Seven years later, on 3 May 1889, a paper was read before the Philatelic Society, London. The title was “Some New Facts connected with the History of the Postage Stamps of Brh Guiana.” The author was a twenty-eight-year-old philatelist named Edward Denny Bacon. In his May paper, Bacon does not cite the One-Cent, and there is only a brief synopsis of the 1856 issue as a whole. But it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the ensuing contributions of this one man to the story of the One-Cent Black on Magenta. By gathering all the available information he was able, for the first time, to provide a concise history of the stamps of the colony. In many ways he completed the last work of E. L. Pemberton, whose untimely death ten years previously had left so much information unrecorded.

Edward Denny Bacon, from The Philatelic Record, vol. 13, 1891. Courtesy of the Collectors Club, New York City

The “New Facts” paper is notable because, for the first time, it correctly listed all the issues prior to 1856, complete with Post Office records, dates of issue, and the printers of the various issues. It also corrected several errors in F. A. Philbrick’s 1865 article in The Stamp-Collector’s Magazine. Philbrick, at this point president of the Philatelic Society, issued a response to Bacon, published in The Philatelic Record for June 1889, which included additional commentary about the One-Cent:

Mr. Pemberton, to whom this stamp was originally offered by Mr. Wyatt, accidentally omitted to close with the offer till too late, but believed firmly in it. He wrote me in November 1878, he was to have given £110 for this, and four circulars of 1850 — five stamps in all. He says the lot included a “ONE cent, red, 1856!!! as genuine as anything ever was.” Later on, in the same letter, he adds, “I can learn nothing of that 4 c, ’56, yellow. This one cent, ’56, red, is queer; no doubt went with the 4 c, blue—nothing unlikely in that; it was a dreadfully poor copy.”

Having examined it myself, I regret I must agree with him that the copy is very poor. The shade of colour is neither full nor bright; the appearance is as if it had been washed out; while the value is not clearly legible. But the people at the Royal Gazette office left this value standing in the list, and they ought to know. Mr. Pemberton’s remark that a 1 cent value is not unlikely to have been called for is plausible, and I think we must agree that, so far as our present knowledge goes, there is no impossibility in such a stamp having been created. The absence of another copy, too, notwithstanding the later “finds,” is in its favour; but I do not feel in a position, until Gazette notices are traced out, or other official documents supplied, to pronounce definitely on the subject. If admitted to the list, it should be catalogued under, “All reserve.”

The reference to the 4-cent yellow pertained to the stamp mentioned previously by Edward Luard in 1882 (and now known to be a chimera). “Mr. Wyatt” is a reference to Charles Wyatt, who sent a large find of the 1850 cottonreels to Stanley Gibbons in 1877; here Philbrick seems to confuse him with Wylie Hill. The amount of £110 is believed to be correct, although it is likely, but not certain, that this price was for the entire McKinnon collection and not just for the One-Cent and four circulars. As early as 1881 Philbrick claimed that he had viewed the One-Cent “before it went overseas” and believed it to be an altered 4-cent; this article indicates that, eight years later, he remained unconvinced that the One-Cent was genuine. 

Frederick Adolphus Philbrick, from The London Philatelist, vol. XX, 1911.  Courtesy of the Collectors Club, New York City

The period from 1889 to 1891 saw two events critical to the standing of the One-Cent. Edward Bacon began expanding his paper on the stamps of British Guiana for the Philatelic Society’s monograph The Postage Stamps, Envelopes, Wrappers, Post Cards, and Telegraph Stamps of the British Colonies in the West Indies together with British Honduras and the Colonies in South America. He was also invited to view the fabulous stamp collection of Philipp von Ferrary. Bacon’s verdict on the stamp was unambiguous: “While in Paris, I had a long-wished-for opportunity of examining the only known copy of the one cent of this issue, of which Herr P. von Ferrary is the fortunate possessor. Doubts have more than once been expressed about the ‘face’ value of this stamp, but after a most careful inspection I have no hesitation whatever in pronouncing it a thoroughly genuine one cent specimen. The copy is a poor one, dark magenta in colour, but somewhat rubbed. It is initialed E. D. W., and dated April 1st, the year not being distinct enough to read.”

Bacon’s comment regarding the doubts expressed about the “face” value of the stamp seems to be aimed directly at Philbrick. This was the genesis of a controversy that would resurface periodically over the next eighty years. On one point, Pemberton, Bacon, and Philbrick were agreed: the One-Cent was a poor specimen. This was a fact conceded by every owner since Vaughan. Pemberton described it as “red” and “queer”; Bacon as “dark magenta” and “rubbed”: both terms which approximate the current condition of the stamp. Philbrick noted that “the shade of colour is neither full nor bright” and that “the value is not clearly legible.”

In all likelihood, however, Philbrick probably never actually saw the One-Cent and later confused it in his memory with a 4-cent black on magenta of the same issue. This supposition is supported by circumstantial evidence. First, Philbrick was not made aware of the possible existence of the stamp, via Pemberton’s letter, until November 1878, weeks after Ridpath had sold the stamp to Ferrary in Paris. Second, just prior to Philbrick’s claim that he examined the stamp “before it went overseas,” a hoard of between eighty and one hundred copies of the 1856 4-cent magenta had appeared.

The publication of The Stamps of the West Indies in 1891 was met with universal acclaim. The opening editorial of the October issue of The Philatelic Record claimed that “However noteworthy and important the previously-issued productions of the Society have been, we are doubtless correct in stating that in the magnitude of the work undertaken, the importance of the subject, and the successful outcome of their labours, the Stamps of the West Indies transcends all its predecessors.” In particular, the editorial praised the wealth of new information and facsimile reproductions regarding “that Philatelic Parnassus—a complete set of the early issues of Guiana”: “The very scarcest stamps of the mainland colony—British Guiana—are and must remain ‘a dream’ to the vast majority of collectors;  … the announcement of the undoubted existence of the oblong 1 c. magenta of the 1856 issue will come as a surprise to thousands of collectors who have, of course, not been fortunate enough to inspect this famous stamp, the possession of which Herr von Ferrary need well be proud.” And in a review proper of the book later in the same issue, the One-Cent was first formally recognized, thirty-five years after it was printed, as unique: “This is without doubt, in our opinion, the rarest stamp in the world, in its solitary grandeur.”

In a coda to the now-settled controversy, on 23 October 1891 Edward Bacon proposed Philipp von Ferrary for membership in the Philatelic Society, and in June 1892 Frederick Philbrick QC resigned as President.