Just this month, The Prague Monitor reported that legendary Czech philatelist Ludvik Pytlicek is planing to sell his prized possession – a green, four-crown, Austro-Hungarian stamp from 1919, valued at five million CZK (roughly $250,000). Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal recently announced that investment manager Bill Gross intends to start auctioning his rare US stamp collection in September 2018. The estimated value of that collection is $9.1 million.
But in the world of stamp collecting, those numbers are actually low. For example, they pale in comparison to the value of the most expensive stamp in the world.

The Most Valuable Stamp Ever

British Guiana 1 Cent Magenta British Guiana 1 Cent Magenta

The story of the most valuable stamp ever – the British Guiana 1 Cent Magenta – began in 1856. That year, the colony of British Guiana (now the independent nation of Guyana) ran out of postage stamps. While waiting for more, the local postmaster printed temporary four cent and one cent stamps – four cents for letters; one cent for newspapers. The temporary stamps circulated for two months, until more true stamps arrived.

Some temporary four cent stamps survived. But since newspapers are typically discarded after reading, it was assumed all of the temporary one cent stamps were gone forever. Then in 1873, a 12-year old Scottish child found one in a pile of old newspapers and sold it to a local collector for what would be less than $20 today – not a bad return on a one cent stamp, but also not such a good deal.

That stamp went on to break three world auction records. The first time was in 1922, when it sold for $35,000. The next was in 1970, when it sold for $280,000. Finally, it sold in 2014 for $9.4 million – $500,000 more than the value of the entire Gross collection and Ludvik Pytlicek’s Austria-Hungarian stamp combined.

Becoming a Master Philatelist

The word philately means the study of stamps, but it has become synonymous with stamp collecting since the more you study, the more likely you are to build a valuable stamp collection. The first thing for a philatelist to know is that rarity is the key to value. And the two key factors that affect rarity are age and condition.
The British Penny Black is the oldest postage stamp. There were nearly 69 million Penny Black stamps printed between 15 April 1840 and 27 January 1841. It was not perforated, so each had to be cut by hand. A used, damaged Penny Black might fetch less than $20. But an unused, mint Penny Black could be worth $10,000 or more. This is where studiousness becomes an asset. Eleven different successive plates were used to print Penny Blacks, and every stamp can be traced to its plate. The final plate produced only 168,000 stamps, making those the rarest, and thus potentially the most valuable.

Stamp Collecting Tools

Serious philatelists keep two things in mind – analyses and protection. Analyses requires proper tools. The first priority is a magnifying glass. Second is a set of stamp tongs, with flat ends to prevent damage. Third is a set of stamp catalogues, listing the postage stamps of every nation. Fourth is a perforation gauge, to distinguish similar looking stamps according to perforation number and size. Finally, many stamps have watermarks, like currency, so an ultraviolet lamp can be handy.

For protection, though stamps are designed to withstand some wear and inclement weather, it is best not to take chances with condition. Philately supply stores offer protection sleeves, binders, and even metal cases in which to store stamps.

Spotting Valuable Stamps

105066-289x300 90r Early Intermediate impression. Image: David Feldman

Often the most valuable stamps are the oldest stamps. A mint, 1843 Brazilian Bull's Eye stamp, which was the first South American stamp, could fetch $5,000. A sheet of 50 mint 60 reis Bull’s Eye stamps sold at auction in 2013 for $648,500.

But stamps do not have to be old to be valuable. A stamp with an error will always increase in value. Some famous error stamps include the Inverted Jenny (a US stamp printed with an upside down airplane), and the Roses Error Stamp, a British 13p stamp from 1973, of which some lacked the 13p. A single missing 13p stamp recently sold for £130,000.

The most notorious error stamp is the British Plate 77 Penny Red. Printed in 1863, they were deemed inadequate for sale and destroyed. But a few survived. A used Plate 77 Penny Red sold at auction in 2016 for £495,000, and another, on an envelope alongside a Four Penny Red, sold for £550,000.

The Real Value of Stamp Collecting

Of course, for many stamp collectors, the value of their collection is not about financial investment. It is more about history, tradition, and the joy of learning. Every nation on Earth prints stamps, documenting and celebrating important moments in their history. Every stamp is a starting point for deeper research into human culture, which means studying stamps is really a way of studying everything.

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