For a few weeks, an entire exhibition has been given over to a tiny piece of red paper — the world’s most expensive postage stamp.
On display is the “British Guiana 1c magenta”, a postage stamp issued in very small batches in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1856, and only one specimen is now known to exist. Put up for sale earlier this year, the stamp was bought by the British stamp dealer, Stanley Gibbons for an eyewatering £6.3 million.
At that price for such a tiny piece of paper, gram for gram, it’s thought to be the most expensive item ever made – equivalent to around £120 million per gram.
Sold in the USA, a couple of months ago it arrived in the UK under high security but is now something that anyone can get right up close to and look at as it’s gone on display in Stanley Gibbon’s shop on Strand, and this is also the first time it has ever been on public display in the UK.
A first-floor exhibition space inside Stanley Gibbon’s store is largely given over to the history of the stamp, and other stamps from Guyana, and then around a darkened corridor, is the stamp itself. Mounted so that you can see both sides, with spotlights that only come on when there’s someone looking at it, it’s a remarkably tiny scrap of paper to hold so much history in it.
Printed in black on magenta paper, and it features a sailing ship along with the colony’s Latin motto “Damus Petimus Que Vicissim” (We give and expect in return) in the middle. Four thin lines frame the ship. The stamp’s country of issue and value in small black upper case lettering, in turn, surround the frame.
Significantly, the stamp has been signed, as the production was botched as they were made in a hurry after another delivery of stamps was delayed, and to protect postage from forgery, the stamps had to be signed by a post office clerk. In the past, subsequent collectors often signed the backs stamps they owned, which to modern eyes seems a heinous crime to commit to a piece of heritage, but that’s the past for you.
In the exhibition, there’s a huge poster of the stamp and some marker pens, so you can add your own signature to a replica of the stamp. I spotted that David Lammy MP, who has Guyanese parents, had visited the store and added his signature to the display.
Just don’t try to do that to the real one.
The real stamp though is something worth seeing. It’s a badly printed scrap of paper designed to be used and thrown away, and yet has acquired the allure of a precious gem. Sitting here in its protective glass case with tiny spotlights in a darkened space only adds to the mystique of the stamp.
You don’t need to be a postage stamp collector to feel that there’s something special here, and as it’s only on display for a few weeks, this may be the last time you ever get to see it.
The exhibition, One Cent Magenta is at Stanley Gibbons at 399 Strand. It’s open 9:30am to 4pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday until 18th December. It’s also open on three Saturdays, this coming 20th November, and then the 4th and 18th December.
Entry is free, and there’s a range of souvenirs to buy, so if you are looking for a present to buy for a stamp collector, I suspect that a replica of the stamp will delight them.