Color + Design: The World’s Most Valuable Stamps

Since the first self adhesive stamp (the Penny Black, made in 1840 featuring the bust of Queen Victoria) stamp designs have been one of the most highly visible designs in society, one that is particularly important since it represents the nation it comes from.

Today we are featuring some stamps from around the world that you will probably never come across, and if you did you would be quite happy because of their value, along with info about the history of stamp design.

The most common types of stamp designs are Portrait bust, Emblem, Numeric, or Pictorial.

Color & Stamps

Although multi-color printing was always possible, and may be seen on the earliest stamps of Switzerland, the process was slow and expensive, and most stamps were in one or two colors until the 1960s.

World’s Most Valuable Stamps

Post Office Mauritius, 1847
It is estimated that fewer than 30 individual copies of these stamps have survived and they are valued at between $600,000 or more depending on the condition of the particular stamp being sold. In 1993 a cover bearing 2 of these stamps sold for a whopping $3.8 million, the highest price ever paid any philatelic item.

Sweden Three Skilling Banco, Yellow Color Error, 1855
The three skilling stamp (yellow color error) was issued in Sweden in 1855. Due to a printing error, this stamp is printed on yellow colored paper (meant for the eight skilling stamp of the same set) instead of the usual green color (used for the three skilling stamp). One copy of the yellow error variety of this stamp was found in 1885 by a young Swedish boy in his grandfather’s collection.It is a one-of -a- kind rarity, as no other copies have been discovered to date. In 1996 the stamp was sold to an anonymous collector for $2.3 million at auction.

U.S. Franklin Z-Grill, 1867
This stamp is the rarest of all U.S. stamps, as only 2 copies are known to exist. These stamps depict a portrait of Benjamin Franklin and are embossed with a “Z-Grill” – being a pattern of tiny squares embossed into the paper and visible on the back of the stamps. The purpose of the “Z-Grill” was to permit the canceling ink to be absorbed into the stamp paper thus preventing those who wanted to cheat the post from washing out cancellation marks.The use of “Z-Grills” was not found to be practical and the practice was soon discontinued. An 1868 1 cent “Z-Grill” stamp sold for $930,000 in 1988.

British Guiana One Cent Black on Magenta, 1856
For a very long time, the 1856 one-cent “Black on Magenta” of British Guiana was considered to be the world’s rarest and most expensive stamp. Production of these stamps did not last for very long. In 1873, a 12-year local boy discovered an octagon-shaped one cent “Black on Magenta”, postmarked April 4, 1856, and bearing the initials “E.D.W” in his family’s attic. Over the years it became apparent that this stamp was unique, as no other copy was ever discovered. In 1980 it was auctioned to John Dupont for $935,000.

Hawaiian Missionaries, 1851

In 1851 Hawaii issued its first stamps. These stamps are now referred to as the “Hawaiian Missionaries” because they were frequently used by American missionaries on the islands to send letters back to the continental United States. The new stamps were printed in Honolulu in three denominations (2 cent, 5 cent, and 13 cent). Because the first “Hawaiian Missionaries” were crudely engraved and printed on thin and poor quality paper, very few of these stamps have survived and they are extreme rarities.

The lowest denomination, the 1851 two cent, is the rarest of the set, with only about 16 copies known to exist today. A 2 cent Missionary is valued at about $760,000 in unused condition and about $225,000 used.


Usage of patterns has varied considerably; for 60 years, from 1840 to 1900, all British stamps used exactly the same profile bust of Victoria, enclosed in a dizzying variety of frames, while Spain periodically updated the image of Alfonso XIII as he grew from child to adult. Norway has issued stamps with the same posthorn motif for over a century, changing only the details from time to time as printing technology improves, while the US has placed the flag of the United States into a wide variety of settings since first using it on a stamp in the 1950s.

Most valuable U.S. Stamps

VALUE: Used $220,000.00
Color: Black, Z Grill

VALUE: Flags Inverted: Unused, Hinged $210,000.00
Color: Ultramarine & carmine

VALUE: Unused, Hinged $275,000.00
Color: Green & violet

VALUE: Used $160,000.00
Color: Rose, B Grill

VALUE: Center Inverted, Unused, Hinged $275,000.00
Color: Brown & blue

CURTISS JENNY Center Inverted 1918
VALUE: Mint, Never Hinged $200,000.00
Color: Carmine rose & blue

Monopoly On Design

Since postage stamps are a gov’t regulated monopoly we dont get to see a very free and wide selction of stamp designs and such…though now you can get you own stamps designed….

In some cases, overt political pressure has resulted in a backlash; a famous example is that of the US in the late 1940s, when the US Congress had direct authority over stamp design, and a large number of issues were put out merely to please a representative’s constituency or industry lobbyists. The resulting uproar resulted in the formation of an independent Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee that reviews and chooses from hundreds of proposals received each year. Occasionally the public is polled for its choice of design, as with the US’ Elvis stamp of 1993, or some issues of the Celebrate the Century series.

Occasionally designs use text as their primary design element; for instance, a series of US stamps from the 1970s featured quotations from the United States Declaration of Independence. In general however, text has come to be used more sparingly in recent years.

More Color Inspiration From Stamps


Thomas Hawk







Stamps Errors

On the other side, design errors regularly get through the multiple stages of review and checking. Errors have ranged from minute points of rendition (such as the subtly-reversed ears on an Austrian stamp of the 1930s), to misrepresentations of disputed territory in maps, to mistaken text (“Sir Codrington” on 1920s Greece), to the truly spectacular, such as the US “Legends of the West” sheet using the picture of the wrong person. See stamp design error for further detail.

Another category of failure includes designs that are simply rejected by the stamp-buying public. The 1970s-era anti-alcoholism stamp of the US is a well-known example; it consists merely of the slogan “Alcoholism: You Can Beat It!”, which must have looked good during the design process, but affixed to the corner of an envelope it suggests that the recipient is an alcoholic in need of public encouragement, and few people ever used this stamp on their mail.

Sources: stamp design, rarest postage stamps.

Author: evad
David Sommers has been loving color as COLOURlovers' Blog Editor-in-Chief for the past two years. When he's not neck deep in a rainbow he's loving other things with The Post Family (, a Chicago-based art blog, artist collective & gallery.