Collectors around the globe will be watching on Tuesday when the world's rarest stamp is expected to fetch as much as $20 million at a Sotheby's New York auction.
The stamp is legendary, but its owner is infamous.
The late multimillionaire John E. du Pont, heir to the chemical company fortune, led a privileged life in a mansion outside Philadelphia and became an author, conservationist and sports patron. But he died a paranoid schizophrenic in the state prison in Somerset County in December 2010 and was buried in his wrestling singlet.
During a sensational trial, a jury determined he was mentally ill in 1996 when he shot to death U.S. champion Olympic wrestler David Schultz in a wrestling facility on his Newtown Square estate. He was serving a 13- to 30-year sentence.
The British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, which du Pont acquired in 1980 for $935,000, is truly unique, Sotheby's spokesman Darrell Rocha said.
It is the sole surviving 1-cent stamp of the entire 1856 issue produced in Georgetown, British Guiana, on a newspaper printing press while the colony's postmaster awaited a shipment of stamps from Great Britain.
It's the Cadillac of Cadillacs in the stamp world, said Saul Weitz, of Harold B. Weitz Inc. in Pittsburgh, dealers of rare coins, currency and stamps.
“This is a stamp that when we were kids, it was being advertised as the rarest stamp ever,” he said. “It has world appeal.”
Under du Pont's will, 80 percent of the proceeds from the sale will go to former wrestler Valentine Jordanov Dimitrov of Sewickley and his family members. The remainder is designated for the Eurasia Pacific Wildlife Conservation Foundation, based in Paoli, Pa., which du Pont founded.
Dimitrov, 54, won a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics representing Bulgaria. He gained notoriety in 2013 when he returned his medal to the International Olympic Committee to protest its decision to drop wrestling from the program.
The will was contested several times by du Pont family members but was most recently upheld in 2012 in local and state appellate courts. Attorneys involved in the appeal have said the last formal deadline to appeal the will expired in November.
Sotheby's spokesman Rocha would not elaborate on the distribution of proceeds, saying only that the stamp is being sold by du Pont's estate.
The significance of the stamp was first recognized by philatelist Edward Loines Pemberton as early as 1878. Thirteen years later, The Philatelic Record formally acknowledged that the British Guiana was “without doubt, in our opinion, the rarest stamp in the world, in its solitary grandeur.”
The roughly 1 square inch of paper, with its corners trimmed off, is expected to bring $10 million to $20 million at auction. The auction record for a single stamp,
$2.2 million, was set in 1996 by the Treskilling Yellow, a misprinted Swedish stamp.
“It will be interesting to see how high it goes,” said Tom Sivak, a stamp dealer in Butler. “People who have a lot of money are keeping this hobby going.”
Nonetheless, dealers say collectors are spending plenty of money on scarce objects.
“It's a very live market,” Weitz said. “There's a lot of money chasing anything that is rare.”
As for du Pont, his story will live on in a new film titled, “Foxcatcher,” starring Steve Carell, Channing
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