Stamp collecting, also known as philately, is a hobby as old as stamps themselves. Ever since nations began to regulate and standardize the post, there have been people collecting these little paper squares, and the price of rare vintage stamps continues to rise over time. That said, their transitory nature means most stamps are thrown away without the recipient having given them a second thought. Many rare stamps are truly one of a kind, but collectors often hold out hope that there are additional copies hidden away in an attic somewhere, just waiting to be found.
The Four Main Elements of a Stamp
Typically, the value of a stamp is determined by four distinct elements:
- The image on the face.
- The perforations along the edge where it was attached to its sheet.
- The denomination or monetary value.
- The country of origin—usually featured on the face.
The name of a stamp is usually derived from these elements. For example the 2c George Washington features the image of George Washington with the denomination of 2 US cents.
The most valuable stamps in the world often feature some kind of blunder or misprint within one of these main components, known as an error. Typically, a stamp error arises from a mixup in the printing plates during pressing. Errors are usually quickly caught and removed from circulation, increasing rarity and value of the affected stamp. In the below list of some of the most valuable stamps in the world, you’ll see many colorful errors that bring whimsy and humor to the field of philately.
Let’s dive in.
The Most Valuable Stamps Ever Sold
|British Guiana 1c Magenta||1856||$9.48 Million|
|Treskilling Yellow||1855||$2.6 Million|
|The Sicilian Error of Color||1859||$2.6 Million|
|Baden 9 Kreuzer Error||1851||€1.31 Million|
|The Inverted Jenny||1918||$1.35 Million|
|1c Benjamin Franklin Z Grill||1868||$935,000|
|3c George Washington w/ B Grill||1867||$900,000|
|24c Declaration of Independence||1869||$625,000|
British Guiana 1c Magenta, 1856
Price: $9.48 Million
The British Guiana 1c Magenta is the most valuable rare stamp in the world. In 1856, The British Guiana (now the independent nation of Guyana) post office issued the initial run of 1c magenta stamps for use in newspaper circulation. When an expected shipment of the stamps went missing, an emergency run was produced as a stop-gap measure. The printers of this emergency run added a small boat to the stamp, which can be seen faintly on the face of the stamp underneath the signature of postal clerk E.D Wright, distinguishing it from the official stamp run. Only one copy of this emergency print run is known to exist.
The sole surviving copy was first discovered by a young boy in 1873 who sold what would become known as the rarest stamp in the world for six shillings! The stamp quickly rose in value as collectors realized the rarity of the little octagon the boy had stumbled upon. It has since traded hands across the world many times, with shoe designer and collector Stuart Weitzman currently possessing it. The final price of $9.48M made it the most expensive single stamp sale in the world—the fourth time the British Guiana 1c Magenta has broken that record.
Treskilling Yellow, 1855
Price: $2.6 Million
The 1855 Treskilling Yellow is a color error of one of the very first stamps issued in Sweden. The three-skilling stamp was usually printed in a blue green, but an unknown printing error led to a batch of yellow stamps briefly being circulated in the 1850s. Only one Treskilling Yellow is known to have survived, though these stamps were printed in sheets of one hundred, leaving many to speculate that there are more waiting to be found.
In 2010, Baron Jean-Claude Pierre Ferdinand Gunther Andre and his wife claimed to have stored nine separate Treskilling Yellow stamps in a trunk inside a Clydesdale Bank vault in London. The vault was allegedly broken into and the stamps were stolen, leading the powerful couple to file a lawsuit against the bank. Both philatelists and the court found the claim to be unfounded, but there are some holding on to hope that there’s a Treskilling Yellow stamp fortune hidden somewhere in the world.
The Sicilian Error of Color, 1859
Price: $2.6 Million
The most remarkable thing about the Sicilian Error of Color stamp, other than its immense price point, is how incredibly well preserved it is. Most stamps from the 1800s are naturally worn down from years hiding in boxes waiting to be discovered. However, this stamp featuring the side profile of a bearded man looks as if it was just printed. The stamp was originally printed in yellow but misprinted in a stark blue.
Two copies of the Sicilian Error of Color stamp are known to exist. One of them briefly held the title of world’s most expensive stamp when it was sold at auction by Dreyfus for 2.6 million dollars in 2011, but that title has since been reclaimed by the British Guiana 1c Magenta.
Baden 9 Kreuzer Error, 1851
Price: €1.31 Million
One of the first stamps issued by the former German state of Baden, it is believed the color error was due to a simple misreading on the part of the printer. The green ink plate was intended to be used for the 6 Kreuzer stamp, but the printer likely simply misread the 9 for a 6, resulting in the fourth most expensive stamp in existence.
The Baden 9 Kreuzer Error became known to collectors in 1894 at the philatelic club of Berlin. In attendance at the meeting was Baron von Türckheim who showed the stamp to his father and discovered that he had two copies of the stamp on letters in his possession! This incredible coincidence accounts for half of the known copies in the world.
The Inverted Jenny, 1918
Price: $1.35 Million
Perhaps the most famous rare US Stamp, the Inverted Jenny, with its small print run and fanciful error, has been a golden goose for philatelists for over a century. Unlike other stamps on this list, there are 100 Inverted Jennys in circulation, but the wider availability makes the stamps even more sought after. The Inverted Jenny is a misprint of a 1918 stamp featuring one of the Jenny biplanes first used by the US Post Office to carry mail. The plane on the face of the stamp was accidentally printed upside down.
The US Post Office released several million sheets of Inverted Jenny stamps in 2014 for the 95th anniversary of the misprint. Among the intentionally inverted stamps were 100 non-inverted sheets of stamps, a teasing tribute to the original mistake. The sheets of ‘Upright Jennys’ are collectors items in their own rights, selling for as much as $50,000. However, this publicity stunt did cause some controversy, as the US Post Office is not allowed to intentionally print errors.
1c Benjamin Franklin Z Grill, 1868
The former Postmaster general of the United States is a popular figure to feature on many US postage stamps. The most valuable of all Benjamin Franklin stamps is the 1c Benjamin Franklin Z Grill, sometimes just referred to as the Z Grill. A grill is an embossed pattern on the face of a stamp used to prevent the reuse of stamps. The US Postal Service used several different types of grills in the early days of the office as they experimented with the best methods to stop fraud. The Z grill was not widely used, but there are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln stamps that also feature the pattern. The Benjamin Franklin Z Grill is the rarest, with only two known surviving examples.
This stamp was last sold at auction for $935,000 in 1998, though one was more recently traded for a block of four Inverted Jennys valued at 3 million dollars.
3c George Washington w/ B Grill, 1867
The 3c George Washington printed in rose pink is one of the many stamps featuring a portrait of President George Washington released throughout the history of the US Post Office. Rare, old stamps featuring George Washington are always popular collectibles. A 1967 3c George Washington stamp can be purchased for a relatively affordable price if you want to add one to your collection. However, the real prize collectors seek is the 3c George Washington with a B Grill pattern across the back. Similar to the Z grill pattern featured on the Benjamin Franklin stamp, the George Washington B Grill featured a waffle like pattern used to catch fraud. There are only four stamps known to exist featuring this particular pattern.
Tiflis Stamp, 1857
The Tiflis Stamp, also known as the Tiflis Unique, is one of the more interesting looking rare stamps in the world. With a metallic sheet and embossed lettering, it almost resembles a metal bookplate more than a stamp. It is one of the oldest surviving stamps from the Russian Empire, originating from the city of Tiflis (now part of the country of Georgia).
Unlike most examples on this list, the Tiflis Stamp is not highly valued because of a misprint, but rather for the combination of its historical significance, aesthetic novelty, and rarity. There are only five of these stamps in existence.
24c Declaration of Independence, 1869
The 24c Declaration of Independence is a rare example of a collectors stamp that is highly sought after simply because it is a work of art unto itself. This stamp features a highly detailed, two tone rendering of John Trumbull’s famous painting of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. There are 42 individual figures depicted on this stamp, some so small they can only be seen with a magnifying glass.
Hawaiian Missionaries, 1851
Hawaiian Missionaries were the first stamps issued by the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1851. They were issued in 2, 5 and 13-cent valuations and predominantly used by Christian missionaries, thus the nickname. Hawaiian Missionaries were not an uncommon stamp at the time of production, but the stamps were printed on very thin and easily tearable Pelure paper. Unsurprisingly, most Hawaiian Missionaries did not survive to the current day, and the ones that did are mostly damaged. However, this scarcity only raises the value of well preserved copies.
The most valued Hawaiian Missionaries are the 2-cent variations used for newspaper circulation. There are fifteen in the world, and the most unique variety is a 2-cent stamp used on the cover of a letter alongside a 5-cent. Known as the Dawson Cover, it is the only known example of a 2c Hawaiian Missionary used on a letter.
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