Most Expensive Thing in the World is a One-Cent Stamp; Is this a Good Thing?

Stamps used to be a cheap and easy collection for kids to start. Today, not so much.

Stamps used to be a cheap and easy collection for kids to start. Today, not so much.

The new Most Expensive Thing in the World is a stamp; the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta postage stamp, to be exact.

The calculations going into the designation seem to make sense. The little red scrap of paper, measuring just one inch by 1 1.2 inches, sold on Tuesday night for $7.9 million. Add in the 20-percent buyer’s premium and the total sales price is $9.48 million. Based on size and weight, according to Sotheby’s, it makes the One-Cent Magenta the Most Expensive Thing in the World.

Something has to be Most Expensive Thing in the World, but a stamp?

When I was 7, I received a world stamp collecting kit for Christmas. It came with an album showing U.S. and world stamps, an envelope of about 500 stamps, some hinges, tweezers and a little plastic magnifying glass; enough to jumpstart my interest in stamp collecting. Over the next six or seven years, I picked up new stamps wherever I could. Usually, on the cheap.

I’d raid the mailbox and tear the corners off the envelopes of bills and letters when I got home from school. I enlisted my grandparents, aunts and uncles to save stamps for me, too (I garnered some prized Italian stamps from my Nana and great aunts. I also hit up my teachers, coaches, neighbors and any other adult I’d regularly come in contact with and ask them to save their stamps for me. When I was able to scrape together $1.99 (plus tax), I’d ride my bike to the five-and-dime store and buy a bag of 500 stamps and would spend the rest of the day (or weekend) engrossed in adding to my collection.

I was given this stamp collecting kit when I was 7. I spent the next six or seven years scouring the neighborhood for stamps on the cheap.

I was given this stamp collecting kit when I was 7. I spent the next six or seven years scouring the neighborhood for stamps on the cheap.

Eventually, I was able to fill out most of my U.S. collection for the 1950s through the ’70s, and large chunks of my world album (mainly Italy, England and—because of Mr. and Mrs. Doskocil down the street—Czechoslovakia).

That collection was shelved when I reached high school age; there were just too many other things to do with my time. But I save those albums and they made more than a dozen moves with me, even if they never made it out of the box. When I started working at WorthPoint, and my collecting juices started flowing again, I pulled those albums out and started filling in the stamps that, as a kid, I couldn’t afford to buy.

As I worked on my collection, my daughter got interested and I bought her an album of her own. It was then that I realized that even something as simple as a stamp collection was relatively pricey to get into. After buying the album and a bag of starter stamps, I realized that the only way to for her fill out the collection was to buy each one. Except for birthday and Christmas cards, we seldom get any mail with a stamp on it anymore. If she wants to continue to fill out her collection, she (me) is going to have to pay for it. For kids starting collections, I think that’s a terrible turn of events.

But paying for face value for new stamps at the Post Office or buying colorful and fun stamps from a catalog—she is partial to stamps depicting cats and horses and other animals right now—is not exactly the same thing as dropping a cool $10 million on a single stamp, and that says something about the state of the world and is an example of the skyrocketing prices for playthings for the über-rich.

According to The Economist, the One-Cent Magenta is just the latest example of gross excess brought to you by income inequality:

“Why have prices for very rare stamps risen so high? The broad reason is that number of extremely wealthy people in the world has soared in recent years. The Hurun Global Rich List, published in February, counted 1,867 dollar-billionaires, an increase of 414 on the previous year. That means ever higher premiums are paid for the most covetable items over those that are merely good—from world-famous works of art, to the finest wines, to one-of-a-kind stamps. One estimate suggests that really rare stamps have risen in value by 11 percent annually for the past four decades; meanwhile the value of good-but-not-extraordinary collections has slumped.

Just about every week, there are new auction records being set, with prices in categories that boggle the mind. In May of 2012, Edvard Munch’s iconic masterpiece “The Scream” sold for $119,922,500, setting a new world record for any work of art at auction. The previous record for a work of art at auction was held by Pablo Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust,” which sold at Christie’s New York in May 2010 for $106,482,500.

The new Most Expensive Thing in the World is this stamp; the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta. It sold on Tuesday night for $7.9 million ($9.48 with the 20-percent buyer’s premium). Based on size and weight, according to Sotheby’s, it makes it the Most Expensive Thing in the World.

The new Most Expensive Thing in the World is this stamp; the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta. It sold on Tuesday night for $7.9 million ($9.48 with the 20-percent buyer’s premium). Based on size and weight, according to Sotheby’s, it makes it the Most Expensive Thing in the World.

Those prices make some others seem reasonable. Just in the last couple of months, we’ve tracked some jaw-dropping realized prices: $46 million for a Norman Rockwell? No problem; $25 million for a Popeye statue? Sure. A measly $5 million for a sapphire and diamond ring? Let me check my pocket for some spare change.

A doodle of a four-eyed guitar player” fetched $109,375—more than four times the high estimate of $25,000—because the doodler was John Lennon.

I’m not really begrudging the One-Cent Magenta or its buyer. The stamp has a fascinating history (King George V of England once tried to buy it but was outbid), it is a one of kind (unless another one miraculously turns up somewhere) and it surely is a blue-chip investment. Each of the four times this stamp set value records, it was exponentially. The estate of John du Pont (heir to the DuPont chemical company fortune) put this stamp up for auction. When du Pont bought it in 1980, he paid a little less than $1 million for it. The profit was nearly eightfold.

Still, I wonder what good purposes those millions of dollars could do it they weren’t locked up in a tiny scrap of paper… Most Expensive Thing in the World title be damned.


Gregory Watkins is the editor of WorthPoint.com You can email him at greg.watkins@worthpoint.com

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