The British Guiana 1c Magenta (1856) has a sailing ship image and the colony’s Latin motto, "Damus Petimus Que Vicissim" or "We Give and Expect in Return." Image Source: stampboards.
The most rare and valuable stamp in the world is the British Guiana One Cent Magenta, which is worth almost USD $9.5 million, according to its last auction in June 2014. As far as we know, there is only one 1c Magenta. It is so rare and valuable that it is the only major stamp not in the private philatelic collection of Britain's royal family, who have been collecting stamps for as long as stamps have existed. The stamp was discovered in 1873 by a 12-year-old Scottish schoolboy, Louis Vernon Vaughan, who found the stamp among his uncle's papers in Demerara. He saw that the stamp was not listed in his catalogue and sold it for six shillings to a local collector. According to online inflation and currency conversion calculators, six shillings in 1873 would be equivalent to approximately USD $259 in September 2015 values.
The stamp is so rare because it was produced in an emergency issue at the Georgetown newspaper, the Royal Gazette, when a British ship did not deliver enough stamps needed for the colony. Since its discovery, the stamp has had many adventures, exploded in value, and gained worldwide attention due to its uniqueness. In 1878, the greatest stamp collector in history, Count Philippe la Renotière von Ferrary added it to his collection. In 1922, the British royal family tried to buy it and failed. In 1970, a consortium of Pennsylvanian businessmen bought it. In 1980, the heir to the Du Pont fortune bought it; and the stamp spent the late 1990s up to 2010 in the owner's bank vault, while the owner spent time in prison for murdering an Olympic gold medal wrestler. The current owner has briefly lent the stamp to the Smithsonian. If you want to see it and you live anywhere near Washington DC, visit the Gross Stamp Gallery at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum, where the 1c Magenta is on display between June 2015 and November 2017. The Museum warns: please call in advance to confirm the stamp's availability at +1 (202) 633-5555, since it will be periodically removed from display for preservation.
The story of this stamp is a lesson about paying attention to details and the origin of real value. It took the eyes and perspective of a twelve-year-old boy to see the value of the stamp, that is, a boy not yet brutally shaped by the world, whose imagination was still fully available to him and completely his own. Before the stamp's 2014 auction to current owner Stuart Weitzman, the Du Pont trust placed the stamp in the care of Sotheby's auction house. The Sotheby's agent who was temporarily entrusted with the stamp recognized that it takes that youthful perspective - to have one's eyes open to the wonders of the world - to recognize this stamp and things like it of immense value:
Imagine digging through an attic stuffed with old junk. You shuffle through a sheaf of dusty papers, and a tiny square of wine-coloured paper flutters onto the floor. You step on the scrap of paper, pull it off your shoe, toss it out, and throw away the second example in the world of the British Guiana 1c Magenta, which would have been your biggest lotto ticket ever, if you had only known, if you had only been paying attention to the details.David Redden, director of special projects at Sotheby’s, said the “British Guiana” was a stamp of almost mythical repute among philatelists. He said: “For me, as a school stamp collector, it was a magical object, the very definition of rarity and value: unobtainable rarity and extraordinary value."
No Country for Old Men (2007): "Don't put it in your pocket. It's your lucky quarter." This film tells the story of an America so endangered by a new force of violence that her sheriff can no longer protect his community. For the origin of the movie title, see this post. Video Source: Youtube.
The valuable stamp hiding in plain sight was a plot device in the 1963 thriller, Charade (-thanks to C.). Coins and stamps in regular circulation are already interesting economic artifacts because they sit at the fork where actual value diverges from representations of value. The confusion between those two ideas drives consumerist materialism and superstitions about blind luck. Representations of value inspire magical thinking. If you cast the right spell, your fantasy about what something is worth becomes reality. If you cast the wrong spell, or are guided by wrong judgement, false assumptions or broken principles, you are left with a worthless token. Consumers are encouraged to consume conspicuously, to buy the material manifestations of a future idea of success, happiness, stability and prosperity, in other words, to buy things to create a fantasy of a personal and future identity which may or may not come to exist. In the meantime, while they are waiting for the fantasy to come to fruition, consumers are encouraged to treat themselves, and other human beings, and just about everything else, like commodities.
That is only half the story. Capital's defenders claim the value of capitalism lies in its motivating force, its idealism, its drive toward betterment and expansion. While materialism, labour exploitation and wealth inequality have long corrupted capitalism, those drives toward growth, ambitious vision and accomplishment were the original sources of prosperity in capitalist countries, not the outward signs - cars, televisions, houses. I don't want to rehash Max Weber, but plainly the goal of many middle class and working people in capitalist countries is to make enough money to become free, independent and self-sufficient. They want financial freedom, so that they can support themselves and their families, and choose not to work, or work on what they really want to do, or give back to the world, or a combination of above. This correlation between money, freedom, and pursuing one's heart's desire for the good of oneself and others is also flawed.
One can spend money with a positive and philanthropic intentions and be left spiritually and morally destitute. One's values and priorities can be flawed even when one tries to improve the world. Take the disturbing example of the 2002 Christmas Day Powerball lotto winner, who won USD $315 million. Jack Whittaker grew up poor in West Virginia, but he had built a successful construction business which employed 100 people. No earlier success could prepare him for what followed his lotto win. By 2007, he claimed the money was a curse. He set up a foundation to help people, built churches, gave to the poor, but his generosity brought out the darkest aspects of himself and everyone around him:
"Since I won the lottery, I think there is no control for greed," he said. "I think if you have something, there's always someone else that wants it. I wish I'd torn that ticket up." ... "There were so many letters that they wouldn't even deliver the mail. It was nothing for us to sit for 10 hours just opening envelopes," said Jill [one of Whittaker's employees], who asked that her last name be kept private.Jill says the foundation received all kinds of requests, such as, "people wanting new carpet, people wanting entertainment systems, people wanting Hummers, people wanting houses -- just absolutely bizarre things."Whittaker gave away at least $50 million worth of houses, cars and cash. Suddenly, the man who won a fortune at Christmas had become everybody's Santa Claus. "Any place that I would go they would come up," he said. "I mean, we went to a ballgame, a basketball game … and we must have had 150 people come up to us … and it would be going right back to asking for money." ...Rob Dunlap, one of Whittaker's many attorneys, said Whittaker has spent at least $3 million dollars fending off lawsuits. ... As his company's reputation was challenged by lawsuits, Whittaker began drinking heavily to console himself. At night, he made the rounds of the local bars throwing money around everywhere he went.
Almost two years after Whittaker hit the jackpot ... [his granddaughter, whose allowance from Whittaker led to a drug habit, burglaries and a dead boyfriend] disappeared. After a frantic two-week search, on Dec. 20, 2004, she was found dead, wrapped in a plastic sheet, dumped behind a junked van. The cause of death was listed as unknown. Whittaker believes that the Powerball win had become a curse upon his family. "My granddaughter is dead because of the money," he said.
Lotto winner Whittaker's granddaughter's body was found behind a junked van in Scary Creek, St. Albans, West Virginia, USA. Image Source: Craig Cunningham/Charleston Daily Mail via Bloomberg.
By 2012, Whittaker concluded that those winning numbers - 5, 14, 16, 29, 53 and 7 - ruined his life. He didn't lose all his money, but he lost nearly everything else that mattered. But he kept going back to the convenience store to buy more lotto tickets. Bloomberg:
By April 2008, Whittaker had divorced his wife of nearly 42 years. He had become a guarded figure, who refused to speak to journalists without a hefty fee. In December 2012, Bloomberg reporter, David Samuels, explains how he got Whittaker to talk to him, a decade after the big lotto win:On Jan. 25, 2008, Jack Whittaker once again bought a lottery ticket at the C&L convenience store in Hurricane. Lottery spokeswoman Nancy Bulla stated that Whittaker had “matched four numbers plus the Powerball number for a $10,000 prize”—meaning he had been one number off from winning a second mega-million-dollar jackpot. His run of bad luck had not yet ended.
Even though Whittaker has said that he feels he would have been better off without the winning ticket, in 2015 he told CNN that every week he spends $600 buying more lotto tickets.I suggested that he’d been through experiences that no sane man would want to go through, that others might benefit from being able to understand, and that was why he should speak to me for free. I told him that his story was an American story, about the belief in luck and the damage people can do while meaning to do good. ...He looked me up and down and shrugged. “I don’t care what people think I am. That doesn’t bother me one bit,” he said. “I know who Jack Whittaker is. And some days I don’t like who I am.” He knew Christmas would be the 10th anniversary of his big win, a thought that seemed to fill him with pride and bitterness. “Yeah, I’m not even the biggest single winner anymore,” he said. “Somebody about a month ago won $327 million somewhere, so that kicks me out of the Guinness Book of World Records.” The charge for an interview would be $15,000. Otherwise, he said, he wasn’t interested in talking.
This misunderstanding between real and represented value is a strange problem. Frightening people and situations emerged after Whittaker's win, as did darker, uncontrolled impulses - greed, addiction, divorce - in Whittaker and those around him, even when they were trying to do good.
Almost everyone in the world, let alone capitalist countries, is striving just to get to the floor Whittaker reached with his lotto win. Most people want enough wealth for survival and material comfort; some would like a bit more for ostentation. If they are more high-minded, they dislike materialism and conspicuous consumption, but they still want to have more money so that they can become praiseworthy, a curious vanity, born of the notion that financial independence allows them to work in the service of their community's greater good.
Whittaker's example shows that thinking along those lines can be misguided. This is not to dismiss the tremendous value of philanthropic donations, but rather to question the motivations which sometimes lie behind them. When paid-for, push-button solutions are put to the test, they may show a broken connection between wealth and value. The whole problem is like a machine with good input and bad output. If you were to win complete financial independence tomorrow, what would you think if, like Whittaker, you tried your best to build your hopes and dreams, and to help others, and your efforts led to death and destruction? What kind of crisis would that provoke? When people imagine accomplishing their most cherished dreams, that is not the twist ending that anyone contemplates.
Orson Welles's Magnificent Ambersons (1942), a great film about the invention of the automobile and the rise of modern America, based on the 1918 novel by Booth Tarkington. The movie portrays the fall of the Ambersons, a family that prospered in the pre-automobile era. In this scene, the heir to the family loses everything he owns. Video Source: Youtube.
History's most exalted projects always have bones in the foundations. The Bloomberg reporter was right to see Whittaker's story as an American story. Above and below are three iconic videos around that story, previously posted on this blog here, here and here. America is the country that won the lotto and tried to help the world with her high ideals and nearly boundless resources. It is a land where there is a painful crisis of faith, deep in the country's heart, because the United States is so bitterly reviled, dismissed and betrayed, even by her closest allies. A Mexican friend of mine, J., once said to me: "When I think of how the Americans treat us, I think, 'Those bastards.' But then I think of how we would behave if we had all their wealth and power. I don't think we would be any better."
Imported from Detroit (February 2011) Superbowl ad featuring Eminem, promoting the Motor City. Video Source: Youtube.
Private dashcam video of Eminem's 8-mile neighbourhood, Detroit, USA (November 2012), where a drug economy supplanted the auto economy and destroyed the city for generations. Video Source: Youtube.
At this time of year, we try to understand how wealth operated in Whittaker's lotto win, or the real value of the 1c Magenta. The harvest season leading up to Hallowe'en is not just about ghosts, wolfmen, and vampires. It is an annual stock-taking to understand value by reevaluating the neglected side of life, the underside, the shadow self, the suppressed memory or emotion that was shoved aside, belittled or denied to make everything work. In the fast-paced global culture, negations of uncomfortable truths can be effective, until one day some hidden detail brings down the whole house of cards. There will always be a periodic revenge from the margins as long as we create margins. This is why it is important to take time to pay attention to unimportant details, to explore forgotten places, to look again at the shuttered shopfronts. The answers people seek sit right in front of them. But to recognize the answers requires a different perspective, an internal shift that rejects the buy-and-sell instrumental mentality, which tries to force reality into what it 'should be,' as opposed to what it really is, including its darkest and most humiliated aspects.
Incidentally, the expression, 'the devil is in the details' derives from an earlier expression, 'God is in the details.' The switch from the latter, with the focus on God, to the former, with the focus on the devil, came about sometime in the 1960s. It may seem odd that an ageless-sounding aphorism is so new. But that devil is in that detail.
See my earlier post on Guyana.
See all my posts on Horror themes.
See all my posts on Ghosts.
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