The Most Expensive Item In The World

By one measure, it’s a cute little stamp:

The British Guiana One-Cent Magenta stamp that was sold at Sotheby’s in New York Tuesday fetched a world-record price for the fourth time in its long life. It went under the hammer at $7.9 million – $9.48 million if the 20-percent buyer’s premium is included – to an anonymous private bidder. This makes it the most expensive item in the world by weight and size, according to the auction house.

Laurel Dalrymple shares some of its colorful backstory:

Just one copy of the One-Cent is known to exist, and it has not been seen in public for 30 years. … The stamp’s first owner was a Scottish boy named Vernon Vaughan who found it in 1873 among his family’s letters. He sold it to a local collector for 6 shillings (The Washington Post says that was about $1.50 back then). From there, the stamp passed through the hands of many philatelists, including Philipp von Ferrary, one of the world’s greatest stamp collectors. It also spent some time in a Berlin museum and in the hands of the French as World War I reparations.

The stamp nearly ended up in the hands of King George V, but he underbid. It is the one major piece absent from the Royal Family’s heirloom collection of stamps, said David Beech, recently retired curator of stamps at the British Library.

On a less charming note, The Economist observes that the stamp – which, Sotheby’s was quick to point out, sold for nearly 1 billion times its face value – is just the latest example of gross excess brought to you by income inequality:

Why have prices for very rare stamps risen so high? The broad reason is that number of extremely wealthy people in the world has soared in recent years. The Hurun Global Rich List, published in February, counted 1,867 dollar-billionaires, an increase of 414 on the previous year. That means ever higher premiums are paid for the most covetable items over those that are merely good – from world-famous works of art, to the finest wines, to one-of-a-kind stamps. One estimate suggests that really rare stamps have risen in value by 11 percent annually for the past four decades; meanwhile the value of good-but-not-extraordinary collections has slumped.