Chris Rosenblum | Businessman reflects on brush with world’s priciest stamp

Irwin Weinberg
Irwin Weinberg

During 10 years of trips, Irwin Weinberg and his trusty briefcase were inseparable — literally.

Weinberg traveled with the case handcuffed to his wrist. If that wasn’t enough to distinguish him from the average businessman, he also surrounded himself with armed guards.

You can’t be too cautious while carrying probably the world’s most expensive item based on size and weight.

Inside the case was a tiny piece of paper with cut corners: the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta stamp, considered then and now the ultimate rarity among philatelists.

The only one known to exist, the 1856 stamp sold for a record $9.5 million Tuesday at Sotheby’s auction house in New York to an anonymous buyer.

Though the final bid fell short of presale estimates of $10 million to $20 million, it was an eye-popping chunk of change for a scrap of paper and ink many would find nondescript.

By comparison, a single 1918 Inverted Jenny — an image of an upside down biplane and the most famous U.S. postage stamp — sold for a bargain $977,500 in 2007. Only a single pane of 100 misprinted stamps is believed to have survived.

Weinberg, a Wilkes-Barre stamp dealer now 86, and seven other local businessmen in an investment consortium owned the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta from 1970 to 1980.

But he was the front man for their $280,000 inflation hedge, a record purchase sold for $935,000, another high mark.

On Thursday, Weinberg and his daughter, Jan Weinberg, drove from Wilkes-Barre to the American Philatelic Center in Bellefonte to speak to stamp collectors and dealers about his brush with the priciest postage stamp ever. He also recounted the Sotheby’s sale, which he attended.

For his presentation, he wore a salmon-colored blazer, gray-striped slacks, and black and white loafers. As the British Guiana stamp’s public owner, he displayed a similar flashy style.

Over the years, the stamp has had several owners, including Arthur Hind, a Utica, N.Y., textile magnate who paid a then-record $32,250 for it in 1922.

But none did more than Weinberg to boost the stamp’s value and reputation, said Ken Martin, the executive director of the American Philatelic Society in Bellefonte.

Weinberg often took the stamp out of its New York bank vault and flew it to international stamp shows in London, Paris, Tokyo, New Delhi, Prague and Perth, among other cities, on one-man promotion tours.

“I was trying to introduce it to the world, and maybe find a buyer,” Weinberg recalled. “After all, this was a commercial proposition.”

In doing so, he revealed a flair for showmanship.

Airlines comped him seats, keeping the rows around him empty, in exchange for the publicity of transporting the world’s rarest stamp. He drummed up TV coverage of him emerging, secure briefcase in hand, from the New York bank vault where he kept the stamp and then climbing into the back of an armored car. Police motorcades and security details escorted him everywhere abroad.

One photo, taken on his first jaunt while he waited to go to Zurich, shows Weinberg at John F. Kennedy International Airport with his briefcase chained to his wrist and a guard, a large revolver drawn, standing nearby.

“I had never been in public relations,” Weinberg said. “I’m just a guy from a small town with some imagination.”

Riding in armored cars, jetting around the globe, took him a long way from picking up soda bottles around Wilkes-Barre for a few cents.

His parents, like many, lost almost everything in the Depression. Weinberg collected bottles for the deposits instead of shining shoes downtown, as other neighborhood children did.

Later, he worked as Fuller Brush salesman, going door to door, learning the art of the persuasive pitch and whetting his appetite for bigger things.

“I made up my mind when I got out of high school, I would go out and do something,” he said.

He started collecting stamps as a hobby at 8, but after graduation, he followed his dream and turned them into a business. Against the wishes of his mother, who urged him to open a grocery, he took a $2.50 bus ticket, rode to New York with his Underwood typewriter and became a dealer.

Cut to the late 1960s.

Weinberg owned Miner Stamp Co., still his business, in Wilkes-Barre. Friends approached him about pooling their money and investing in rare stamps to offset the inflation they anticipated from the escalating Vietnam War.

They formed a group, with Weinberg in the lead, picking a rarity here and there. Then the big time arrived.

A local reporter informed Weinberg that the British Guiana stamp was up for sale in New York. Was he interested? Weinberg, who had seen the stamp at the 1964 World’s Fair, talked it over with his partners, and it was agreed: They would go for it, up to $650,000.

Weinberg booked a hotel suite and, superstitious about tipping his hand, stayed put until the auction.

“That day, I did not leave the suite,” he said. “I didn’t want to give anybody a clue or make a mistake.”

To his partners’ delight, he won the stamp far under his limit. Leaving the room, he heard a roar behind him.

“It was like a herd of animals charging me,” he said. “It was the press.”

A celebration party in his suite led to a New Yorker article — just the start of a decade of publicity that included appearances on “The Mike Douglas Show” and the panel game show “To Tell The Truth.”

From the start, Weinberg told himself to embrace the spotlight and never look worried about carrying around a fortune.

“I had to play a part,” he said. “I was on the world’s stage.”

A Lloyd’s of London insurance policy provided some peace of mind. But, truth be told, Weinberg was enjoying himself — even when, in the Toronto airport, he accidentally snapped the handcuff key while showing off during an interview.

A firefighter with a hacksaw arrived. Not only did Weinberg escape from a jam, he also got bonus publicity when a news photographer captured the moment.

“There were a bit of nerves,” he said of his travels. “I was never scared, no. Most of the time I was in nirvana.”

On Tuesday, it was someone else’s turn.

Weinberg sipped Champagne and watched the estate of the late John E. du Pont, the chemical fortune heir who bought the stamp in 1980, continue its journey. The stamp hadn’t been shown in public since 2007.

He holds no regret for selling 34 years ago. The economy was changing; the time was right. His group turned a nice profit.

These days, he’s more interested in trying to inspire potential young entrepreneurs than in owning a status symbol. An initiative he’s hoping to develop already includes a video.

“I believe if there are one or two kids in Pennsylvania, we can give them hope and encouragement and, basically, they can go on to be the Sam Walton of tomorrow, the Henry Ford of tomorrow,” he said.

Back in 1980, a friend asked Weinberg how he would get along without his famous stamp. He replied immediately.

“I said, ‘Listen, my emotions are saved for people, not for material objects. And I’ll get along very nicely.’ ”