On June 17th, Sotheby’s will auction the most expensive object by weight and size ever sold: the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, a one-of-a-kind stamp with an infamous history. Paperless Post CEO James Hirschfeld sat down with David Redden of Sotheby’s to talk stamps, design, and the value of virtual paper.
Read part one of this conversation on Sothebys.com. Our favorite quote: “$50,000 for a bunch of ducks is a lot of money.”
HIRSCHFELD: A lot of what we do at Paperless Post has to do with the dialogue between the authentic thing and the image of it. When we created Paperless Post, we relied on this metaphor of “authentic mail” as a way of communicating value. The cherry on top was the idea of putting a stamp on every envelope that got sent. As government documents, stamps connote authenticity, and the image of the stamp served as a way of validating and expressing the importance of the message that was being delivered.
REDDEN: It signified that it had been sent and that it was going to be received by its recipient. The stamp was the official recognition that this was going to go safely from point A to point B.
HIRSCHFELD: Of course, within the protocol of email, it was completely unnecessary—a total metaphor, and a bit glib maybe. It was fun, though. When we first launched, we charged money by selling stamps. People would buy one stamp per card, and it was a process consumers really understood.
REDDEN: And people love them!
HIRSCHFELD: Yes, it’s a way for people to express themselves.
REDDEN: It also conveys a formality to the whole procedure, which is wonderful. The virtual envelope, the stamp, the animation: these are all things that regular email doesn’t have. Normal email seems too simplified, too glib, too insignificant, and you make it more significant by having all of this apparatus around it.
HIRSCHFELD: Ideally, that apparatus hearkens back to a more personal type of communication, which in itself is a means of self-expression and design. Back when stamps like the British Guiana were being used, communication was less about design, but now you see design being a big part of it. Stationery has gone from being a necessity to an accessory. People buy it because they want it, not because they need it. The paradigm of communication is shifting, but there are parts of it that are disappearing and parts of it that will always be there.
REDDEN: Everybody has to communicate.
HIRSCHFELD: These days, people are communicating in so many ways— Snapchat, text message, satellite phone, email—so it really is a statement to send paper. Paperless Post plays in this dialogue between the physical object and the image of it. We sell both, and the two create value for each other.
REDDEN: So you sell virtual paper and you sell real paper.
HIRSCHFELD: Yes, exactly. We sell a lot of actual paper because we sell virtual paper, and we sell a lot of virtual paper because we sell actual paper. Incorporating the image of the British Guiana into our virtual platform will hopefully grow the understanding and appreciation of the actual object.
REDDEN: It’s about history and value and the idea that you can have an image that’s only recognizable to a tiny handful of specialists over time be recognized by more and more people: “My goodness—this is that stamp that is going to be worth so much money.”
REDDEN: And ultimately, it’s significant because it is going to be the most valuable object by weight and size in history. That’s almost a virtual value right there!
Photo by Seth Caplan.