It has been described as a “shoddy-looking thing”, and like “a red-wine stain or a receipt that’s been through the wash a few times”. The item in question is a stamp, one of a kind. It is now on public view in London, ahead of its auctioning in New York in June, when it is expected to fetch around £10m.
The story of the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta began when, in 1855, only 5,000 of an expected 50,000 stamps were shipped to the colony from England. The postmaster therefore commissioned “contingency” stamps – crude versions of the official issues, some of them four-cent stamps for letters, some one-cent stamps for newspapers, which were briefly put into circulation. Not a single example of the one-cent stamp was known to have been kept, until a small boy called Vernon Vaughan found one among his uncle’s papers in 1873 and sold it to a chum for six shillings.
Since then the One-Cent Magenta – tiny, fragile, capable of being lost in a puff of wind – has been on a remarkable peregrination, amassing owners, fame and value. Indeed, it is so celebrated in its (now) home country that one of the first stamps issued by the nation state of Guyana, after independence in 1966, was a celebration of the One-Cent Magenta: a stamp of a stamp. It has, in its time, belonged to a count and to a convicted murderer (John du Pont, one of the heirs to the chemicals fortune). It has been seized as part of war reparations and been the subject of court cases. Its reverse bears witness to this history through markings made by its various owners. The present one, the footwear designer Stuart Weitzmann, who added a pencil drawing of a pair of shoes by way of a signature, has said that he will support charities with the proceeds of its auction.
To those outside the circle of philately, the monetary value of the stamp – especially given its lack of obvious aesthetic charms – is bewildering. And yet the urge to possess the supremely rare, precious object, by fair means or foul – whether a virtually extinct water lily, or a Leonardo painting of Christ – is a profoundly human one.
Nabokov had something of that urge in his love for butterflies, which in his day involved the cruel practice of killing them (now in many cases illegal in Britain). In a remarkable 1948 essay, he described an obsession rooted in science; indeed, he made a significant contribution to lepidoptery, identifying a subspecies, the Karner blue. But it is hard, too, not to perceive lepidoptery operating as a metaphor for the writing and reading of literature in his essay: both require a sharp eye and the skill and sang-froid to anatomise and analyse.
Most of us will never understand what might drive a rich man or woman to spend millions on a frail scrap of paper; indeed there is no rational sense to it. The collector’s practice may be merely a matter of avarice and speculation; at its purest, it is an act of love.