Why a 1-Cent Postage Stamp Could Sell for $5 Million

If predictions are accurate, the sale would be the highest ever for an American postage mark

1-Cent Z Grill
This 1-Cent Z Grill from 1868 is one of the rarest U.S. postage stamps in history Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries

A 1-cent postage stamp from 1868 is up for auction and could fetch up to $5 million.

A New York auction house is selling what it calls “America’s Most Valuable Postage Stamp”—a 1-cent “Z-grill” stamp from 1868 featuring Benjamin Franklin—and that's hardly an exaggeration. It's one of only two of its kind known to exist. The auction will mark the first time the rare stamp is up for sale in 26 years. It's rarity comes from what philatelists call a "Z-grill"

Z-grill stamps are among the most coveted for collectors. A grill is a type of mark impressed into a postage stamp invented in 1867 to prevent reuse (the pattern's small indentions would have made it difficult for Americans at the timeto remove cancellation ink signifying the stamp's use.) The Z-grill, named after its zig-zag pattern, is the most rare of the grill shapes.

“This is, without question, the most significant and most valuable collection of United States Stamps formed this past half century,” says Charles Shreve, the long-time philatelic advisor to William H. Gross, the owner of the Z-grill stamp who made his fortune as an investor, “bond king,” and creator of PIMCO in the 1970s. “Its appearance at public auction will be a historic event, where all of the rarest and most sought after stamps issued by the United States will be offered for sale, including [the] iconic one cent Z-grill.”

Owning any Z-grill is no small feat, let alone a 1-cent Z-grill. The U.S. Post Office stopped issuing the stamps in the early 1870s. According to the auction house, a small handful of certified Z-grill stamps exist in the world today—all of which are used and have cancellation marks.

“Most of [the Z-grill stamps] were 2-cent and 12-cent stamps. Some were 3-cent stamps. And very, very few were 1-cent, 10-cent and 15-cent stamps,” explains Scott Trepel, the president of Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries, the firm presiding over the sale, in a statement.

The only other known surviving copy of the 1-cent Z-grill stamp outside of Gross’ collection is at the New York Public Library, which received the stamp as a donation in 1925.

Gross came to acquire the stamp in 2005 when Shreve, acting as his representative, traded with the Mystic Stamp Company for it by bartering a plate block of Inverted Jennys worth $2,970,000. According to the auction house, it was known as the “Greatest Stamp Swap of All Time.”

In collecting the 1-cent Z-grill, Gross had what is known as a "complete" U.S. stamp collection, becoming the second person to do so. Given the literal uniqueness of the stamp, only one person at any given time can have this holy grail. According to the New York Times’ James Barron, Gross has claimed to have spent over $100 million in his pursuit.

Since 2007, Gross has been selling off stamps from his international collection and in 2018, he began to sell the U.S. collection; he has given the proceeds of these sales to charity. The mogul tells the New York Times through a spokeswoman that “getting all of the rarest stamps took patience, but the chase was the fun part.” He’s ready for someone else to take up the mantle.

Siegel Auction Galleries has priced the 1-cent Z-grill at $4 to $5 million. If all goes well it will become the most expensive U.S. postage stamp in history. The current record holder is an Inverted Jenny priced at $2 million that sold last fall, and the most expensive stamp in the world is a 1-cent magenta from British Guiana, which fetched over $8 million in 2021.

The 1-cent Z-grill stamp will go on sale on June 14, along with 99 other top stamps in Gross’ collection. The entire collection is expected to generate between $15 million and $20 million.

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