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Why is this Stamp Worth $9.5 Million?

Posted on June 05, 2015

1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta World's Rarest StampTo see in person the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta—better known as “the rarest stamp in the world”—is a bit like looking at a red-wine stain or a receipt that’s been through the wash a few times.

The octagonal scrap of magenta paper, bearing a postmark and illustration of a three-masted ship, or barque, isn’t much to look at. But as the only known stamp of its kind, with a strange and peculiar origin story replete with colorful characters and record-breaking sales at auction, well, let us say that there is much more to this unspectacular stamp than meets the eye. Beginning today, the exhibit of the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. explores what the museum's chief curator of philately Daniel Piazza calles its "long, most interesting, circuitous history."

That history began in 1855, when just 5,000 of an expected 50,000 stamps arrived from Great Britain to its colony of British Guiana on the northern coast of South America. Shorted by 90 percent, the local postmaster found himself in a tough spot. If the colony's letters and newspapers were to be delivered, he was going to need some way to show the transaction of postage paid. So he decided to issue a provisional stamp to keep the mail moving until more postage could arrive from overseas. The only place that could create something with enough official cache to do the job in 1850s British Guiana was the local newspaper, the Royal Gazette.

Read the full story at Smithsonian Magazine.

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