The Story of the ‘Inverted Jenny’ 24¢ Air Mail Error Stamp

The U.S. Air Mail stamp #C3 1918 24¢ Curtiss Jenny, printed upside down and known as the “Inverted Jenny,” is the most famous error stamp in the world.

During the first decade of the 20th century, the United State Postal Service conducted numerous experimental trials on ways to effectively carry the mail, including by airplane. The first official USPS Air Mail flight took off on May 15, 1918, on a route between Washington, DC, and New York City, with an intermediate stop in Philadelphia.

The USPS decided to set an unprecedented rate of 24 cents an ounce for the nascent Air Mail service, considering the regular first-class mail rate was only 3 cents. Because of the new service and rate, a new stamp was needed. Because the Curtiss JN-4—a comparatively pokey, 90-horsepower biplane known as a “Jenny”—was chosen to shuttle the mail, it was decided the plane would grace the inaugural Air Mail stamp. The stamp (Scott #C3 1918 24¢ Curtiss Jenny) was printed in sheets of 100 stamps instead of the customary 400 per sheet and in printed in patriotic red and blue ink on white paper.

The process of choosing, designing and printing of the stamp was rushed to meet the deadline. Only six days expired between the engraving and printing. Since the printing consisted of two colors, the paper needed to be fed twice through the printing press. This printing process had resulted in errors before (in 1869 and 1910) and the result was that several sheets of these first Air Mail stamps were misprinted, with the blue Jenny airplane inverted or upside down. Officials discovered the error and destroyed all of the misprinted sheets they could find. One sheet of the 100 stamps (the only one known of so far), however, got through unnoticed. Soon, news of the misprints got out and collectors went in droves too their post offices in the hope of finding the “Inverted Jenny” error sheet. A collector by the name of W.T. Robey went to his local post office on May 14 and was the lucky one. Details of that event are rather uncertain, but after spiriting away his lucky discovery, he contacted several stamp dealers and newspapers to announce his find. The first recorded sale was between Robey and a Philadelphia dealer, Eugene Klein, for the sum of $15,000 for the sheet. Klein, in return, sold it immediately to “Colonel” H.R. Green for $20,000.

On advice of the dealer, Green broke up the sheet into a block of eight stamps, block of four with the plate number center, a block of four with center lines and separated the rest into individual stamps.

This number block of four Inverted Jenny stamps was purchased by U.S. financier Bill Gross for $2,970,000 in October of 2005.

Later, Gross traded the block with Donald Sundham, president of Mystic Stamp Company, for one of only two known examples of US 1867 1¢ Franklin “Z” Grill (Scott #85A).

The story of the “Upside Down Jenny” evolved over the years. In recently years, the unique number block of four stamps was purchased by a unanimous buyer for $2,970,000 in October of 2005. Later, it was revealed that the buyer was U.S. financier Bill Gross. Shortly thereafter, he entered into an agreement to swap the block of four stamps with Donald Sundham, president of Mystic Stamp Company, for one of only two known examples of US 1867 1¢ Franklin “Z” Grill (Scott #85A), as the value of both are about the same. By completing this trade, this, Gross became the owner of the only complete collection of 19th-century United States stamps. (The other 1867 1¢ Franklin “Z” Grill stamp is owned by the New York Public Library and is part of the Benjamin Miller Collection).

On June 18 of this year, Robert Siegel Auction Galleries, held an auction of “Rarities” and one of the items was a 24¢ “Inverted Jenny.” The opening sales price for the mint, never hinged stamp was set at $ 850,000. To the frustration of the auctioneer, no bids materialized. The auction still ended on a somewhat happy note. A potential buyer had forgotten about the sale and was on a bicycle ride. He contacted Siegel and was eager to buy the stamp for the starting price plus 15-percent buyer’s fee.

It is believed that seven of the 100 stamps were lost or destroyed, either through theft or mishandling.

If you are looking to fill your Air Mail collection, an example of a regular #C3 1918 24¢ Curtiss Jenny stamp can be had for about $100 on the low end and a mint sheet of 100 can still be had for upwards of $18,000.

Tonny Van Loij is a Worthologist who specializes in stamps and philately. He is a member of national and international stamp societies and Gold award-winning stamp exhibitor.

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