Hard Cover eBook


PAGES: 224


ISBN: 978-1-61620-518-8

LIST PRICE: $23.95


ISBN: 978-1-61620-717-5

LIST PRICE: $23.95

An inside look at the obsessive, secretive, and often bizarre world of high-profile stamp collecting, told through the journey of the world’s most sought-after stamp.

When it was issued in 1856, it cost a penny. In 2014, this tiny square of faded red paper sold at Sotheby’s for nearly $9.5 million, the largest amount ever paid for a postage stamp at auction. Through the stories of the eccentric characters who have bought, owned, and sold the one-cent magenta in the years in between, James Barron delivers a fascinating tale of global history and immense wealth, and of the human desire to collect.

One-cent magentas were provisional stamps, printed quickly in what was then British Guiana when a shipment of official stamps from London did not arrive. They were intended for periodicals, and most were thrown out with the newspapers. But one stamp survived. The singular one-cent magenta has had only nine owners since a twelve-year-old boy discovered it in 1873 as he sorted through papers in his uncle’s house. He soon sold it for what would be $17 today. (That’s been called the worst stamp deal in history.) Among later owners was a fabulously wealthy Frenchman who hid the stamp from almost everyone (even King George V of England couldn’t get a peek); a businessman who traveled with the stamp in a briefcase he handcuffed to his wrist; and John E. du Pont, an heir to the chemical fortune, who died while serving a thirty-year sentence for the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz.

Recommended for fans of Nicholas A. Basbanes, Susan Orlean, and Simon Winchester, The One-Cent Magenta explores the intersection of obsessive pursuits and great affluence and asks why we want most what is most rare.

Photograph Courtesy of Sotheby’s, Inc. © 2014


“(An) absorbing tale of the rarefied world of high-stakes philately.” —Library Journal

“Delightful.” —The Washington Post

“Quirky and informative.” —Publishers Weekly

“A scintillating foray into ‘what makes something collectible, valuable, and enduring.’” — Kirkus Reviews

Meet the Author

James Barron is a reporter and Metro columnist for The New York Times.

In 2015, he began the biweekly “Grace Notes” column. It’s not about music, though musicians sometimes appear. It’s about those beautiful little notes that fill the spaces in urban life.

In a long career at The Times, he has written for virtually every section. He wrote the minute-by-minute stories on the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the lead story on the 10th anniversary for The New York Times on the Web in 2011, and has written for virtually every section of the paper. He wrote the front-page lead stories on the Northeast blackout in 2003, on Hurricane Irene in 2010 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and on the elementary-school shootings in Sandy Hook, Conn., also in 2012.

He wrote a nine-part series in 2003 and 2004 that followed one piano as Steinway & Sons built it, from start to finish. That series was the basis of the book “Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand,” (Times Books/Henry Holt, August 2006). He was also the editor of “The New York Times Book of New York” (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2009).

From 1987 to 2012, he prepared an audio version of the next morning’s front page — first for WQXR-FM in New York and, from 2006 to 2012, for NYTimes.com, which distributed it as a podcast.

Born in Washington, D.C., he joined The Times in June 1977 after graduating from Princeton University, where he had been The Times’s campus correspondent during his junior and senior years.