‘Inverted Jenny’ Stamp recovered after 1955 Theft; One of Three Mates Still at Large

An example of a 1918 “inverted Jenny” stamp. Four of these collector’s Holy Grails were stolen in 1955. One showed up last week at Spink USA, a New York auction house. Selling for 24 cents in 1918, they are now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today.

An example of a 1918 “inverted Jenny” stamp. Four of these collector’s Holy Grails were stolen in 1955. One showed up last week at Spink USA, a New York auction house. Selling for 24 cents in 1918, they are now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today.

It seems that we can’t go a week without hearing a news report about someone lacking in scruples but with an abundant amount of brass stealing an important or valuable antique, collectible or piece of art. But a recent news article has brought back to light a theft that happened more than 60 years ago.

According to the Associated Press, an “inverted Jenny” stamp—one of a block of four on loan to the American Philatelic Society that was stolen in 1955—showed up at Spink USA auction house in New York City. The stamps are among the most famous in the world and a must-have for every über-serious stamp collector, as there are only 100 of the 24-cent air mail stamps in existence.

“It’s one of the most notorious crimes in philatelic history, and there’s a piece of the puzzle now that’s in place,” said Scott English, the administrator of the American Philatelic Research Library, which owns the stamp.”

Printed upside down by mistake in 1918, a savvy postal customer managed to buy a 100-stamp sheet before the error was discovered and the remainder of the error stamps—six more sheets—were recovered and destroyed.

This stamp in particular was part of a block of four loaned by wealthy stamp enthusiast Ethel B. Stewart McCoy for an exhibit at the 1955 American Philatelic Society convention in Norfolk, Va. The stamps were stolen from a display case there and were lost for more than a quarter century until two of the stamps were recovered from two different Chicago collectors in the 1970s and 1980s. Both collectors told officials they had purchased the stamps from 1) a person who had since died and 2) someone whose name they did not know.

Now, a third of the quartet is back in the hands of its owner, the American Philatelic Research Library, which has ties to the original American Philatelic Society. McCoy had willed the rights to the stamps to the philatelic library before her death in 1980.

The stamp in question was brought to Spink USA by a young man from England who said he inherited the stamp from a relative. Authorities and the auction house are not releasing the consigner’s name, and they are working to discover where and when the consignor’s relative came to possess the stamp.

How’d It End Up Upside Down
So, how do these error stamps slip from the United States Postal Service’s grasp and into circulation? Somehow, whether by accident or intentionally, seven sheets were fed into the press the wrong way so the Jenny ended up upside down. Each sheet contained 100 stamps and in a great stroke up luck, stamp collector William Robey purchases one sheet of the inverted Jenny stamps from a Washington, D.C. post office, paying $24. The six other error pages were caught and destroyed before they, too, could be sold.

With one hundred soon-to-be valuable stamps, Robey resold the sheet and the stamps were then separated into blocks of four and the individual stamps that are now known the world over. In November 2007, an unidentified bidder paid $977,500 for just one of the rare stamps in a sale at Heritage Auction Galleries.

A right-side up 24-cent Jenny can be purchased today for as little as $58 for a used example with small flaws to about $160 in mint condition. A mint sheet of 100 will run you $16,000.

The set of three Jenny stamps can be purchased for between 125 to $260, depending on condition.

The set of three Jenny stamps can be purchased for between $125 to $260, depending on condition.

The Beginning of Airmail

By act of congress on May 6, 1918, the U.S.Postal Service was authorized to begin carrying mail by airplane. The act also required a new stamp of unique color and design, and the airmail rate was set at 24 cents per ounce. The stamp featured a Curtiss JN-4 (“Jenny”) biplane—the model intended to be used by the USPS to deliver airmail—and issued on May 10, 1918. Two shaky, 90-horsepower Curtiss Jennys were the first planes to carry airmail, flying from New York and Washington, respectively. The inaugural flight to New York went fine, but the pilot heading to Washington ended up way off course, landing in Maryland due to a “faulty compass.”

The airmail rate was reduced to 16 cents for the first ounce in June of 1918 (a special-delivery fee was charged) with 6 cents more for each additional ounce. The rate change necessitated a new 16-cent stamp. It featured the same design as the original, but was produced in green only instead of the two colors. Later in 1918, the rate was again lowered to 6 cents per ounce (no longer charging the 10-cent special delivery fee). The original Jenny design was again used; this time the color was changed to orange.

A set of three Jenny stamps can be purchased today for between $125 to $260, depending on condition.


Gregory Watkins is the editor of WorthPoint.com. You can email him at greg.watkins@worthpoint.com.

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