New York Times reporter Barron (Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand) traces the provenance of the world’s most expensive stamp in this entertaining account of great affluence and high-stakes hobbies. Framing the story around a 2014 Sotheby’s auction, where the stamp sold for almost $9.5 million, the book traces the history of the tiny, square piece of paper and how it came to be one of the world’s most valuable collectibles. The one-cent Magenta, a provisional stamp in British Guiana in 1856, soon became an object of pursuit for collectors around the world. Barron describes the obsessive world of collecting as he follows the stamp’s travels from one unconventional owner to another. Eccentric Austrian French aristocrat Philipp von Ferrary purchased the stamp in 1878. American plutocrat Arthur Hind desired it simply for the enormous fame it would bring; after purchasing the stamp for $32,000, he had souvenir cards printed with a replicated stamp next to his own signature. Other owners, such as the eight people from Wilkes-Barre, Penn., who split the $286,000 cost in 1970, pursued it for its value as a commodity, a liquid collectible that holds its value even in times of uncertainty. The book falters when Barron digresses into loosely related subjects such as the origins of philately, the term for stamp collecting, or an even more tangential history of the post office, but the story of the stamp itself is quirky and informative. (Mar.)
(An) absorbing tale of the rarefied world of high-stakes philately.”— Library Journal “Delightful.”—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.” —Booklist “Exhilarating.” —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 “Compelling.”—The Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria, OH)
Once a popular hobby, stamp collecting now has a smaller but passionate following. New York Times journalist Barron (Piano: The Making of a Steinway Grand) tells the story of philately through an unassuming but extremely valuable stamp. This one-cent magenta, printed in British Guiana in 1856, was forgotten until 1873. The stamp's value comes from uniqueness rather than beauty or a printing error, since there is only one remaining in the world. Similar to Tracy Kidder's House, this microhistory uses one object as a gateway to an examination of a larger idea. Tracing the one-cent magenta's changing ownership and increasing value, Barron explores what drives people to collect stamps in particular and unusual items in general, describing them and the world of stamp collecting in all their idiosyncratic glory. VERDICT Readers of history, microhistory, and narrative nonfiction, and those with an interest in stamps, will appreciate this absorbing tale of the rarefied world of high-stakes philately.—Laurie Unger Skinner, Coll. of Lake Cty., Waukegan, IL
The biography of a very special stamp.The "Mona Lisa of stamps" was born—or printed—in British Guiana in 1856. As a mere, "provisional" one-cent stamp used to send out several hundred periodicals before the real stamps arrived by ship, its birth was unheralded. It was, as New York Times reporter Barron (Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand, 2006) notes, "overlooked and forgotten." The author first heard about the unique stamp at a party, and when he was told how much it might soon fetch at auction as part of the John E. DuPont estate, he had to know more. Barron turns this seemingly insignificant story into a thoroughly entertaining tale of speculation and investigation into "Stamp World, an arcane parallel universe peopled by collectors who are crazed and crazy, obsessed and obsessive." The first stop in the journey is 1873, when a 12-year-old boy found the stamp in his uncle's house and sold it to a novice collector for six shillings, the equivalent of "$16.83 in today's dollars." The stamp was soon sold to another collector, who then sold it to an eccentric Paris aristocrat and collector. When his entire collection was auctioned off in the early 1920s, the stamp was cataloged as "the only known example." Then, it was purchased by an anonymous, wealthy buyer, Arthur Hind, from Utica, New York for $32,500. Barron recounts the perhaps apocryphal story that Hind was approached by a man who claimed that he also had a one-center. According to the tale, Hind bought it and then burned it up with his cigar, saying, mischievously, "there's only one magenta one-cent Guiana." The author whimsically follows the stamp's long journey right up to where his story began: the record-breaking auction. A scintillating foray into "what makes something collectible, valuable, and enduring."