Sotheby’s Will Offer the British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta and Other Tiny Rarities

Liz Catalano
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Clockwise from center: the Inverted Jenny Plate Block, the British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta, and the 1933 Double Eagle. Image by Julian Cassady Photography.
Clockwise from center: the Inverted Jenny Plate Block, the British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta, and the 1933 Double Eagle. Image by Julian Cassady Photography.

Stamp and coin collectors will note the presence of three famous lots in Sotheby’s auction schedule. This June, the auction house will present the only legal 1933 Double Eagle coin, a set of four Inverted Jenny stamps, and the British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta of pop culture fame. Each lot followed a risky, storied, and occasionally scandalous path before reaching the collection of American luxury shoe designer Stuart Weitzman. 

“No one takes a U-Haul to the cemetery,” Weitzman said to The New York Times. “We have to figure out what to do with all this stuff.” While the aging designer arranges his affairs, other collectors will have the opportunity to purchase three icons from numismatic and philatelic lore. Bidding begins at 10:00 AM EDT on June 8th, 2021.

The 1933 Double Eagle

In the throes of the Great Depression, a newly-elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the first steps in abandoning the gold standard. The government required private individuals to submit gold assets to the Federal Reserve. Roosevelt hoped the effort would help pull the United States through the rising economic crisis. In 1933, the government also halted production of Double Eagle gold coins, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens more than 25 years earlier. These became the last gold coins that the United States ever produced.

The 1933 Double Eagle. Image from Sotheby’s.
The 1933 Double Eagle. Image from Sotheby’s.

The government melted down most of the 1933 Double Eagle coins. Only a few were sent to the Smithsonian or kept with the Federal Reserve. Israel Switt, known as a ‘gold coin bootlegger,’ obtained at least 25 of these increasingly scarce coins from a cashier at the Philadelphia Mint. The Secret Service eventually sniffed Switt out, discovered a tangled smuggling conspiracy, and prosecuted those who illegally circulated 1933 Double Eagles. 

Amid the growing controversy, King Farouk of Egypt acquired one of the troublesome coins. A Smithsonian employee mistakenly issued him a vital export license. The coin switched hands several times after King Farouk’s exile, moving from London to Texas to New York. The coin did not resurface until the Secret Service organized a sting operation at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel in 1996. A bitter legal conflict ensued. Weighing the export license against the government’s right to the Double Eagles, both parties agreed to settle out of court. The government granted an unusual exception for this coin. The globetrotting Double Eagle became the only example that an individual can legally own. 

Sotheby’s sold the coin for USD 7.59 million in 2002. Almost 20 years later, the anonymous buyer stepped forward. Stuart Weitzman kept his identity a secret until the announcement of the upcoming Sotheby’s sale. The only legal 1933 Double Eagle in circulation now has an auction estimate of $10 million to $15 million.

The Inverted Jenny Plate Block. Image by Julian Cassady Photography via Sotheby’s.
The Inverted Jenny Plate Block. Image by Julian Cassady Photography via Sotheby’s.

The Inverted Jenny Plate Block

Weitzman purchased the second lot of this auction in 2014. This set of four Inverted Jenny stamps dates back to 1918. Designed to promote the new Aerial Mail program, the United States Postal Service printed these 24-cent stamps in a hurry. The new line showed a Curtiss JN-4 biplane (also known as a “Jenny”). 

At the time, World War I raged. Overworked printers had little experience with bicolored stamps, and they faced a tight deadline. Misprints on a few sheets resulted in the plane flying upside down. An opportunistic stamp collector spotted the mistake and snapped up a sheet at his local post office. In his excitement, he alerted the postal clerk to the discrepancy. The Postal Service immediately suspended sales of the stamps and destroyed any surviving misprints. By accident or design, this collector became the sole owner of Inverted Jennies.

Unlike the 1933 Double Eagle coins, collectors immediately recognized the value of these Inverted Jennies. Individual stamps and blocks of four started selling at exorbitant prices. The available Inverted Jenny Plate Block dipped in and out of public view throughout the 20th century. Stuart Weitzman acquired the set in 2014 through a private sale. It now returns to auction with an estimate of $5 million to $7 million.

Front and back of the British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta. Image from Sotheby’s.
Front and back of the British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta. Image from Sotheby’s.

The British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta

The final lot of the upcoming Sotheby’s auction is the British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta. Arguably the most famous stamp in the world, this piece had humble beginnings. Early mail services in the small South American colony of British Guiana were notoriously inconsistent. Around 1856, a stamp shortage arose. A flustered printer placed a One-Cent stamp on magenta paper instead of the usual vermillion. The printer threw away all but a single One-Cent example from the emergency batch. 

A 12-year-old stamp collector found the magenta One-Cent rather unusual. He soaked the used stamp off of an old letter and later sold it for just six shillings. The piece quickly traveled through British philatelic circles as a curiosity. By 1891, collectors recognized it as the only known British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta. It reached celebrity status a few years later. 

Several famous collectors helped boost the One-Cent’s reputation and fame over the following decades, including Austrian count Philipp la Rénotière von Ferrary, English industrialist Arthur Hind, and wealthy heir-turned-murderer John E. du Pont. Each owner added a tiny personal mark to the back. Weitzman bought the One-Cent for $9.48 million in 2014 and fulfilled a childhood dream. It is now known as the most expensive stamp in the world and a “Mona Lisa” of philately. Sotheby’s expects the stamp to sell for between $10 million and $15 million.   

The 1933 Double Eagle coin, the Inverted Jenny Plate Block, and the British Guiana One-Cent Black on Magenta will be available with Sotheby’s on June 8th, 2021 starting at 10:00 AM EDT. Proceeds from the sale will support the Weitzman Family Foundation and other charitable causes. Visit Sotheby’s for more information and to register to bid. 

Searching for more collector stories? Auction Daily recently featured fashion designer Kenzo Takada’s collection of furniture, couture, and fine art.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
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James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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