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Blog > Book Review: The One-Cent Magenta

The cover of James Barron's book on about the One-Cent Magenta, showing a few photos and a small image of the stamp

I try to review a range of different kinds of books about post: my own interests are pretty wide-ranging and I read books of all kinds of genres, so it’s fun to seek out new things! So this time I thought I’d read some non-fiction: James Barron’s The One-Cent Magenta: Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World.

Stamps in and of themselves aren’t a huge interest of mine, though I understand the urge to collect things very well, and there are some really amazing designs on stamps. So before reading Barron’s book, I didn’t know anything about the “one-cent magenta”, a stamp now considered probably the rarest in the world. As a stamp issue, it was pretty humdrum: it was issued in British Guiana, as a stop-gap measure when the real stamps didn’t arrive. It was issued along with a 4-cent magenta and a 4-cent blue, which aren’t nearly so famous, and it’s not exactly very attractive. You can make out a signature, and a bunch of smudging, and some very faint printed lines, but really it just looks like a grubby bit of paper to me.

So why has it become the most valuable stamp in the world, and why is it so highly sought after? Solely because it’s the only existing example, as far as we know.

A photo of the stamp, which is rather smudged and faded

Really, Baron’s book is not about the stamp itself (you can learn as much on Wikipedia), but about the journey the stamp has taken through the hands of collectors and eccentrics. To me, somewhat bemused about the fuss, it’s mostly interesting as a portrait of the value people can put on pretty arbitrary things. It’s absolutely bananas to me to spend so much money in a way that does so few people any good. Some of the owners just kept the stamp and looked at it on rare occasions—could that really give enough pleasure and good in the world to be worth that much money?!

Consider the possibly apocryphal story about an alleged other copy of the stamp, too. An owner of the one-cent magenta was offered another copy of the same stamp and allegedly agreed to buy it, and then immediately burned it to protect the rarity of the well-known version. It seems so bizarre to me that we can even believe it might be true, but… knowing people, I wouldn’t have been terribly shocked if it were.

I found Barron’s book fascinating in a way—I’m more interested by the idea of reading more about the general history of stamps, but one almost can’t look away from the excesses of most of these collectors. And some of them had very dramatic lives in their own right! It does come out more as a biography of the owners of the one-cent magenta and their colourful lives (including a murder), so bear that in mind. It’s less about stamps than just the human tendency toward obsession, writ large!

For my next review, I’ll probably change things up again and review a new fantasy/SF novel which promises to hold intimate letters at its heart: A Letter to the Luminous Deep, by Sylvie Cathrall, which promises a romance initiated via letters, and then uncovered by the writers’ siblings after they disappear, wrapped up in a fantastical world. I’m eager to read it, so hopefully I’ll get the chance soon!

I haven’t forgotten as well that I mentioned planning a review of Lynne M. Kolze’s Please Write—and if you have any other suggestions for books I should read and review, there’s a forum thread for that. (To view and post there, you may need to log in and spend some time browsing and participating in the forum first!)


13 comments so far

Ceres1849, United Kingdom

The 1 Cent British Guiana. Of course one lives in hope another will turn up in a dusty collection or pile of Kiloware ! You never know !
Some years ago at a previous sale of this stamp at Sotheby's in London i went to take a look, i mean what Philatelist wouldn't. Crazy stamp, crazy history, crazy Price ! Even the room was decorated in Magenta. ... there it was a hushed atmosphere, i grabbed a catalogue walked up to it slowly, so small, so delicate. the most impressive bit for me was to see the tiny initials of some of the previous owners in little cartouches on the reverse. Quite amazing ! I'm glad I went....

volvomom, United States of America

Adding to my Goodreads list!

jjmedusa, United States of America

I am fortunate to have seen this stamp in person sometime between 2015 and 2018 (I can't recall the exact date) at The National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. It was really cool to see!

CStar9, United States of America

A cool and important historical artifact for us to know about! I’ll be checking out this book - thanks!!

Demmi, Romania

Thanks for the story & the book! I didn't know about it!

MOJoSmiles, United States of America

This book sounds intriguing.
Thanks for the story and review.
I have place a request from local library system.

sanddunebunny, United States of America

Thanks! This sounds like the perfect book for my brother-in-law, who collected stamps as a kid and is a recluse of sorts and loves to read.
Last book I sent him was the "Feather Thief" by Johnson. terrific book about another obsession of all things, feathers for Fly Tieing.

sedgewick, United States of America

Thank you for this review, and I intend to add this book to my (long) reserve list!

Flippie, Canada

Thanks for sharing. Love always reading news.

secondhandrose, Australia

I read this book some years ago and then saw the stamp at the postal museum in Washington DC. Interesting piece of postal history.

AvaJoy, United States of America

I added to my books to read list! Thank you

durtlskdi, United States of America

Oh I definitely have to read this book. Thanks!

pojim, United States of America

I ordered this book through Thrift Books and received it yesterday. As soon as I finish the book I'm presently reading, A Farewell to Arms, I will be reading this! I love stories like this. Thank you for recommending it!

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