Paper is plentiful and most of it is worth next to nothing. But like paper money, postage stamps can be incredibly valuable. One postage stamp that is considered the most unique, and possibly the most valuable in Czechoslovak history, has just been shown to the public for the first time in decades.
Before a scrum of journalists and collectors, philatelist Ludvik Pytlicek unveiled the tiny piece of postage, which looks at first like nothing much. A tiny rectangle of paper printed in green and black ink. From a few meters away it's barely big enough to see. But Mr. Pytlicek has insured the stamp for 10 million crowns (about 450,000 USD. He explains why it's worth so much.
"Few countries can say that one single single stamp is its most unique. For example, in England, a number of stamps are each considered to be equally unusual - nobody's ever said what's the most valuable. But the postal museum of Czechoslovakia declared this one to be the country's most unique stamp, and it really is."
So what makes this stamp so special? Let's take a closer look. In green ink, and in German, it is printed with the words "imperial and royal Austrian post: four crowns". Superimposed along on a diagonal on top of that, in black ink, and in Czech, are the words "Czechoslovak Post 1919".
The stamp was printed in the last days of the Habsburg Empire. After Czechoslovakia came into existence in 1918, the old imperial stamps were considered valid, as long as they had the imprimatur of the new republic. Pytlicek's is thought to be the only such stamp that is worth four crowns and which is printed on what philatelists call granite paper. That makes it probably the most unique Czechoslovak stamp in existence.
In 1959, the state took the stamp out of private hands and gave it to the Czechoslovak Postal Museum, where it languished in a vault for more than 30 years. After the fall of Communism, the stamp changed hands again in the process of restitution:
"The Postal Museum had to return the stamp to its private owner, and I then bought it from him, on the condition that I not show for ten years. I also had to promise not to say how much it cost..It was very difficult for me to obtain. The owners knew of course that it was very valuable, and I had to sell other stamps from my collection, and some stocks, in order to get the cash for this purchase."
For ten years, Mr. Pytlicek kept his part of the agreement, and was quiet about his amazing acquisition.
"For ten years I would go down to my safe and have a look at the stamp, and I enjoyed doing it. But I just couldn't exhibit it anywhere."
Today the stamp remains Mr. Pytlicek's private possession, but he's now free to show it anywhere he likes.
The rarest Czechoslovak stamp will be on view this weekend at an international collector's conference in Prague. In November, Mr. Pytlicek will travel to Monaco on the invitation of Prince Albert, where he'll show his possession to the crème de la crème of world philately, the Monte Carlo Club.