Tuesday, April 4, 2006 will mark the 150th anniversary of the famous British Guiana 1856 one-cent Black on Magenta postage stamp being postmarked and used. The survival of the only known copy, which bears the cancellation date of April 4, 1856, is rather fortuitous. Since its discovery in 1873, the stamp has passed from one famous stamp collector to another, whilst eluding the collections of many others, including that of the British Royal Family.
Once the premier rare stamp, being out of circulation since 1980 has caused the one-cent Black on Magenta to lose its standing as the 'World's Most Valuable Stamp.' In 1996, an 1855 Swedish stamp was sold for US$2.3 million, surpassing the Black on Magenta's 1980 value of US$935,000. In January this year, our philatelic prize slipped another rung in the rankings when an 1867 United States Franklin Z-Grill stamp was effectively valued at nearly US$3 million!
The popularity of the one-cent Black on Magenta, however, is clearly seen in it being frequently on exhibition (never in Guyana, unfortunately) and James Mackay, an eminent philatelic writer, tells us in Stamp Magazine of November 1992, of the reverence he felt at actually viewing the "little more than a square inch of paper." He was remembering that day in 1965 when he was in a long line of stamp enthusiasts to view the stamp at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and confesses: "For the only time in my life I began to understand what it must have felt like to be a mediaeval pilgrim visiting a shrine containing the relics of some saint."
Because of a shortage of the regular postage stamps in 1856, provisional issues were requested from the local firm of Baum and Dallas, printers and publishers of the Official Gazette of British Guiana. (I am happy to say that the rather ornate hand-press that was used to print this famous stamp is still with us - proudly on exhibition in our National Museum.) The stamps produced were very simple, and were so poor in quality that in order to make them safe from forgery, the Postmaster had postal officials initial each stamp before selling it: the unique one-cent Black on Magenta was initialled by Mr E D Wight.
Townsend and Howe in their authoritative The Postage Stamps and Postal History of British Guiana (1970) note that early information on the issue was not available and that "no reference seems to have been made in the Official Gazette of the period to the date of the issue." This was not unusual as they were provisional stamps. Importantly too, there is no information on whether or not both one-cent and four-cent stamps were ordered.
Accepted by most of the philatelic world as genuine, there is still the question of why only one copy of the Black on Magenta exists. Writing in the Gibbons Stamp Monthly of October 2004, Derek M Nathan put forward a theory on how the stamp may have been issued. Basing his argument on an April 3, 1852 Post Office notice suspending the one-cent postage for newspapers, he theorized that there was thus no longer a need for a one-cent stamp and that the issuing of the 1856 one-cent Black on Magenta was purely accidental.
The biography of the stamp begins with L Vernon Vaughn, a 12-year old boy who had just started collecting stamps; he found the one-cent 1856 Magenta, with other Guiana stamps, among some old family letters. He was not impressed with the stamp, because of both its ordinary looks and its poor condition, but he kept it. That same year he decided to sell the stamp and took it to an older collector, Mr Neil R McKinnon, who, after some debate, bought the stamp for $1.44 (six shillings).
McKinnon, it is said, expressed a risk at the price he was paying young Vaughn for the stamp, but five years later he sold his collection through the agency of Wylie Hill to a Liverpool dealer, Thomas Ridpath for 120 pounds sterling. That same year (1878) Philippe von Ferrari, of Paris, one of the greatest stamp collectors of all time, bought the Black on Magenta for about 150 pounds sterling. Ferrari, who was of Italian noble descent with German nationality, fled from Paris to Switzerland after the outbreak of World War I, leaving most of his philatelic collection behind - he died in Switzerland in 1917.
Though he had willed his entire collection to the Reichspost Museum in Berlin, Germany, the French government auctioned the collection in Paris between June 1921 and November 1925. By this time the British Guiana 1856 one-cent Black on Magenta was definitely known to be unique, and according to Stamps of Fame (1949) the sale of the stamp on April 6, 1922, "aroused tremendous interest among philatelists." Bidding was slow at first, but gradually gathered momentum. At 200,000 francs the agent of King George V, and some other bidders dropped out. Stamps of Fame describes the lively proceeding at the auction as a duel developed between M Maurice Burrus, a tobacco magnate, and Hugo Griebert, a London stamp dealer, on behalf of a Mr Arthur Hind: "A hush settled over the room, interspersed with murmurs of wonder and gasps of amazement from the onlookers as, by leaps and bounds, the bidding rose to heights previously unknown in a stamp auction: 200,000 francs... 250,000... 275,000... 300,000."
The legend had begun. This world record price established the British Guiana one-cent Black on Magenta as Rare Stamp No 1. With taxes, Mr Arthur Hind, a British-born American millionaire, paid 351,000 francs (US$30,000) for the Black on Magenta. After Arthur Hind's death in March 1933, there was a legal battle between Hind's widow and the executors of his estate about ownership of the stamp; eventually, the stamp was awarded to Mrs Hind in a lawsuit in 1933.
The next owner of the stamp was a Mr Frederick Small of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who bought it for US$40,000, in 1940. (At this point, the exhibit in our museum differs, stating that a Mr Leo Otto Krumbach bought the stamp from Mrs Hind.) In 1970 the Black on Magenta was on the auction block again. At a Robert Siegel auction in New York, USA, on March 24, 1970, the rarity dealer, Irvin Weinberg, acting on behalf of a syndicate, bought the one-cent Black on Magenta for US$280,000. Otto Hornung, writing in the Stamp Magazine of February 2000, notes that the stamp was sold within 90 seconds of bidding opening, and that "Weinberg travelled the world with it in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist." The stamp had broken its own record again.
Ten years later, on April 5, 1980, at another Robert Siegel auction, millionaire John E du Pont bought the stamp for a phenomenal record-breaking US$935,000 (G$2,384,250 at that time). The exact whereabouts of the stamp is not presently known, but it is assumed that Mr du Pont, convicted for the murder of an Olympic wrestler in 1997, and placed in a hospital for the criminally insane, is still the owner.
Much has been written about the one-cent Black on Magenta: there are, for example, stories of the stamp being a fake, even though it was approved by prominent philatelists. As early as the late 19th century doubts about its authenticity emerged, although in 1878 a Mr E L Pemberton inspected it and stated: "1 cent red 1856 as genuine as anything ever was" while Sir Edward Bacon declared it a genuine specimen in 1891. In the twentieth century it was M Burrus who lost the bid duel in 1922 who was most vociferous in the view that the stamp was a fake.
The stamp was submitted to an expert committee in 1937 and accepted as genuine, but Burrus again attacked the authenticity of the stamp in 1951. The Postage Stamps and Postal History of British Guiana devotes much space to discussing the queries of Burrus as well as the acceptance and approval of the stamp by many philatelic experts, including Sir Edward Bacon and Sir John Wilson, as well as a photographic expert, Colonel W R Mansfield. Burrus's contention was that the stamp was a four cents stamp altered to become a one-cent stamp. Sir Wilson, in 1951, pointed out that the paper used would have made such action impossible without causing heavy abrasion that could easily be seen by experts. Colonel Mansfield was definite that there was no alteration, and that the paper was completely un-rubbed.
There are also stories of other black on magentas. Stamps of Fame features a letter published in a stamp magazine in October 1938, describing a situation whereby the writer of the letter had offered Mr Hind another copy of the 1856 one-cent; Hind bought the stamp and burnt it in the presence of the shocked seller. Mr Hind is reputed to have said: "there is only one magenta One Cent Guiana." In January 1999 there was much excitement in the stamp world when another British Guiana 1856 one-cent Black on Magenta appeared.
The stamp was actually seen by an expert body in 1987 and turned down, but the owner was not happy with the decision. Thus the expertizing Committee of the Royal Philatelic Society, London, looked at the stamp again in January 1999. Otto Hornung in an article entitled The Great Pretender? which appeared in Stamp Magazine of February 2000, published the new verdict of the committee dated January 20, 1999: "1c Black on magenta - imperf - used is NOT SG23 but it is a 4 cent stamp faked to resemble a 1 cent, extensively repaired and mounted on backing paper."
Mr Hornung's article makes fascinating reading. He gives the history of the stamp, beginning with two 19th century Russian noblemen (including a Grand Duke) followed by a Roumanian dancer who had inherited the stamp in a collection from her grandfather, to the current owner, Peter Winter. Hornung notes that Mr Peter Winter has a poor reputation in Germany. He is alledged "to have produced a large number of copies of stamps and philatelic material," and he has been dubbed "the friendly forger" in the US by Linn's Stamp News, says Hornung.
Thus, there is still only one genuine British Guiana 1856 one-cent Black on Magenta; or is there? Let us celebrate the one-cent Black on Magenta in this its 150th anniversary year.
(The writer sincerely thanks Mr David Beech, Head of Philatelic Collections, The British Library, UK, and Mr Ian Jakes, Honorary Librarian of the British West Indies Study Circle, UK, for the material they so kindly supplied him; Ms Tamika Boatswain, Director of the Guyana National Museum for allowing the photographing of the museum's stamp exhibits; and Mr Jerome Benn of the GPO's Philatelic Service for the loan of the Guyana 1967 five-cents and 25 cents stamps.)
Lennox J Hernandez 2006-03-30