The 1856 British Guiana One Cent Black on Magenta bears the image of a sailing ship and the colony‚??s Latin motto, ‚??Damus Petimus Que Vicissim‚?Ě ‚?? ‚??We Give and Expect in Return.‚?Ě / AP
When it is auctioned Tuesday, a smudged scrap of paper that began its journey 141 years ago in the hands of a 12-year-old boy and wound up in the collection of millionaire murderer John E. du Pont will become, by size, the priciest man-made object ever sold.
So says Sotheby's, which that evening will offer for sale the British Guiana One Cent Black on Magenta, the sole surviving specimen from an 1856 issue printed on a newspaper press while the colony's postmaster awaited a stamp shipment from Great Britain.
The roughly one square inch of paper, with its corners trimmed off, is expected to fetch $10 million to $20 million.
"It stands alone. When you're the only one in the world, you really have nothing to compare it to," said Thomas Lera, chair of research at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. He examined the object for Sotheby's to record its characteristics for posterity.
The storied scrap is the only British colonial stamp missing from the Royal Philatelic Collection, said Selby Kiffer, Sotheby's senior vice president and senior specialist in the special projects department, who wrote the catalog copy for the stamp.
Paul Skinner, head curator for philatelic collections at the British Library, confirmed that in an email, saying, "The One Cent that Sotheby's has for auction is the only known example."
David Redden, director of special projects and worldwide chairman of the books department for Sotheby's, arrived at the Smithsonian museum in April, carrying the framed stamp in a briefcase and accompanied by an armed guard, Lera said.
"It was very, very interesting. You always want to see for yourself. You look at the stamp and you say to yourself, 'I actually thought you were bigger,' and you realize you were looking at enlarged pictures," Lera said with a laugh.
Lera was not permitted to touch the stamp, which Redden removed from its custom-made case using stamp tongs and placed under special lights in the museum's non-destructive philatelic forensics lab.
"What struck me was all the markings on the back," Lera said of the various owners' imprints, which start with Philipp de la R√©noti√®re von Ferrary's purple trefoil and end with "JEdp," written in pencil.
"Provenance in art is very important," Lera said. "A stamp is a piece of art because it's a collectible. On this stamp, you're able to follow the provenance."
Pillow protects his prize
Its most recent owner was the eccentric du Pont heir who died in prison at age 72 in 2010 after being convicted in 1997 of murdering Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler David Schultz, who was training and living at du Pont's 800-acre Foxcatcher Farm in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Du Pont was arrested after a two-day standoff with police.
Du Pont's life and interests were so varied and bizarre that they are the subject of a forthcoming movie, Foxcatcher, starring Steve Carell as du Pont.
In typically dramatic fashion, du Pont acquired the stamp at a Siegel auction in 1980 as an anonymous buyer, pre-arranging the bidding instructions so he could watch the auction from within the room while not drawing attention to himself, according to Sotheby's.
In 1986, du Pont displayed the stamp at the Ameripex '86 International Stamp Show in Chicago under the pseudonym Rae Mader, which was figured to be an anagram for Demerara, the county of British Guiana where the stamp was printed. In Chicago, his British Guiana collection won du Pont the Grand Prix International honor.
That collection, minus the One Cent, will be auctioned June 27 in Switzerland by David Feldman.
Du Pont exhibited the stamp for the last time in Perth, Australia, in conjunction with the 1987 America's Cup. Kiffer said the One Cent was returned to du Pont on a Sunday, when he could not access a bank vault. So du Pont slept with the treasure under his pillow.
On Thursday, Taras Wochok, longtime du Pont friend and attorney, recalled him as an avid stamp collector, noting that even on the morning of the shooting at Foxcatcher, du Pont had been at a stamp dealer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, buying supplies for his collection.
Until this month, as Sotheby's began drumming up publicity for the auction with showings in London and Hong Kong, du Pont's exhibit was the last time the stamp had been shown publicly.
'He'd be in his glory'
Doug Gaul, an appraiser at Dutch Country Auctions on Concord Pike north of Wilmington, said whoever purchases the stamp will be buying a story rather than an object of intrinsic value.
"As far as stamps go, it's not a particularly attractive stamp," he said. "What you use today on your mail is more attractive.
"But it's such an aura, such a story, it's like a pot of gold," Gaul said. "And the person who wins that gets to be part of that story, and gets to add his name to that story. ... If you own that, you own the touchstone of philately."
Kiffer believes the stamp will go to a collector. But, he said, "It won't be someone who is solely a stamp collector. Increasingly, we see people who want to get the best of the best, regardless of the category."
Per du Pont's will ‚?? amended a month before his death and unsuccessfully contested by several parties ‚?? 80 percent of the proceeds will go to the family of Bulgarian wrestler Valentin Jordanov Dimitrov and 20 percent to the Eurasian Pacific Wildlife Foundation, based in Paoli, Pennsylvania, which du Pont founded to support wildlife preservation in the Pacific.
Du Pont, as dictated in his will, was buried in a red wrestling singlet with awards and championship rings in a grave at Christ Church in New Castle, Delaware.
Wochok said that if du Pont could witness the heralded auction of his prized stamp, he'd get a kick out of it.
"He'd be in his glory that it's getting this kind of attention, and he would have loved to have been not the focus of it ‚?? that wasn't his style," Wochok said. "But privately, he would have been very, very pleased."
There is no online bidding for Tuesday's 7 p.m. auction, but it will be broadcast online.
Read the original story: Murderer du Pont's rare stamp could fetch $20 million