On this date in 1970, a poorly-printed, smudged, slightly damaged postage stamp that was originally worth one cent sold at an auction for $280,000!
Which prompts us to ask the question, How can we know what something is “worth”?
If a little bit of once-sticky paper in not very good condition can go from being sold for a penny to being sold for more than a quarter of a million dollars—we have to ask ourselves why!
As far as postage stamps go, there is a one-word answer: Rarity.
Some people like to collect postage stamps. Stamps are colorful, they often have interesting pictures, and they come from all over the world—what's not to like? Some people buy large stamp-collecting books that have labeled pages on which to put stamps from Japan (the stamps say Nippon), Hungary (they say Magyar), Germany (they say Deutschland), and every other country. You can learn a lot from collecting stamps—including learning about the various names for countries throughout history.
Stamp collectors, who are called philatelists, know that, if there are lots and lots of a particular stamp, then each one isn't worth very much. However, if there are very few of a particular stamp, lots of collectors want them to “finish off” their collection—and so the price goes up. For almost all old stamps, whatever they were worth when first sold, they are more (sometimes far more) now!
The reason that the stamp we are discussing here sold for $280,000 in 1970 was that it is rare. Very rare. It is the 1856 one-cent “Black on Magenta” stamp from British Guiana, said by some to be both the rarest stamp in the world and the most famous. Although it was printed in a rectangular shape, the corners were clipped off, so it has an octagonal shape. It was originally printed poorly because it was an emergency printing order with a printer never used before for stamps, in order to fill a gap left by a shortage of the normally printed stamps. Not very many of the stamps were printed for this stop-gap order, and each one was signed by a post office employee as a security measure (since the print quality was poor, it could be more easily copied).
That's what happened when these stamps were first printed. Now let's follow the sales of this one particular stamp, which is the only of its kind known to still exist:
- 1856 – stamp printed and sold for one cent.
- 1873 – a 12-year-old stamp collector (Vaughn) finds the stamp on old family papers and puts it into his collection.
- Circa 1874 – Sells for 6 shillings (less than one US dollar).
- Circa 1879 – Sells for unknown amount.
- Late 1800s – Sells for 120 pounds.
- Early 1900s – Sells for 150 pounds.
- 1922 – Sells for 7,343 pounds.
- 1940 – Sells for between US $40,000 and US $75,000
- 1970 – Sells for US $280,000
- Circa 1980 – Sells for US $935,000
According to Wikipedia, today the stamp is believed to be locked away in a bank vault while its owner is serving a 30-year sentence for murder. ( ! )
So... Something is worth...
Things are only worth what someone is willing to pay for them. Obviously, you and I would never consider handing over almost a million dollars for a postage stamp. Even if we had million dollars, which we don't, right?
There are some things that have worth to almost anybody. Food and water are necessities and are widely valued (although they are relatively cheap because they are pretty easily available in most places). A car that runs, a boat that is seaworthy, and a well-maintained bike don't appeal just to a few collectors—many people need such vehicles.
Gold and diamonds are pretty rare on earth, which is why they have value, and they are pretty easy to sell. Still, in some societies in the past gold and diamonds were not recognized as valuable, and in the future they may have less value than non-polluted fresh water.
Then there are autographs, sports memorabilia, art, and other things that people buy and sell. With these things one can ask, “What is it worth to you?” In other words, let's say you have a basketball signed by Michael Jordan. If you search Google and then offer it on e-bay, you may be able to sell the autographed ball. But you have to ask yourself if it is worth giving up that bit of memorabilia for the offered amount of money. Maybe you get more enjoyment from owning it and showing it off...or maybe you really want to hold onto the ball and see if it is “worth” more later.
And a piece of art that you truly enjoy may well be worth more than whatever you can sell it for.
Enough about money!
It's said that the best things in life are free. Things like love and friendship and loyalty don't have price tags and can't be auctioned off on e-bay....but that does not make them “worthless.”
Try stamp collecting!
The American Philatelic Society is ready to help you get started.
Learn more about stamps with “Stamp Whys.”
The U.S. has a National Postal Museum.
Check it out here.
Did you know...?
The first postage stamp was brought out by Britain in 1840. Stamp collecting as a hobby (and sometimes an investment) began RIGHT AWAY. One person, John Edward Gray, bought some of the very first stamp on the very first day the stamp was sold—just so he could keep them. Stamp collecting was largely done by kids and teens, so adults thought of it as “childish,” but when those kids grew up, they began to publish books about their hobby and began to display their collections, and stamp collecting gained instant respect.
Design a stamp!
Every year in the United States there is a Junior Duck Stamp contest, with kids encouraged to enter artwork depicting a duck or other waterfowl. One winning entry is made a stamp and sold, and the money from sales is used for environmental programs.
But there isn't just one winner in this contest! Instead, there are 100 winners per state, district, and territory. The awards vary with each state, but the national winners get thousands of dollars in prizes. (For example, first place wins $5,000 plus a trip for three to Washington, D.C., for the unveiling of the new stamp.) There is also a contest for Best Conservation Message concerning waterfowl and wetlands.
The 2010 contest closed in most states earlier this month, but find out about the program for next year. It takes a while to research species, find out about wetlands, and gather materials.
You will probably want to look at the previous winners, and you may want to go see the 53 “Best of Show” entries as they tour the U.S. Check it all out here.
Cartoon Critters offers some printable sheets with U.S. postage stamps, ready to color.
Here is an online jigsaw that features postcards. And do you know what postcards have on them? That's right, postage stamps!
And here's a jigsaw with just the stamps.
Note: You can choose to make these puzzles easy or hard—12 pieces up to 192 pieces!!!