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The notorious legacy behind Inverted Jenny

During his lunch break on May 14, 1918, William T. Robey, a bank teller at Hibbs and Company in Washington D.C., traveled, as he often did, to the post office on New York Avenue. There, he hoped to purchase a new stamp celebrating the launch of the U.S. airmail service, set to make its first official flight the following day.

William T. Robey, discoverer of the Inverted Jenny, in a family photograph taken in 1940 at his daughter’s wedding

The stamp was an impressive sight. It featured a Curtiss JN-4 or “Jenny”, the same plane set to deliver the mail the following day, and was printed in carmine rose and deep blue. The striking color scheme no doubt wooed buyers, but like many of the avid collectors who gathered at post offices in Philadelphia, New York and the nation’s capital, Robey also knew that it enabled an even more spectacular possibility—a printing error. It was just the second time the Postal Service had attempted a two-color stamp and with the fervor of World War I, sloppy mistakes were a more likely occurrence.

Among the many philatelists, Robey was the lucky one. Instead of flying high through the skies, the Jenny on his stamp appeared upside down, as if it were doing an elaborate aerial flip for some grand barnstorming performance. Even luckier for Robey, the person selling him the stamps on that fateful day had never seen an airplane and couldn’t tell the difference.

When he saw the error, Robey saw opportunity, and he coolly asked to purchase a 100-count sheet for $24.

But when Robey asked for another sheet, the jig was up. In 1918, spending $24 on stamps was surprising, and $48, suspicious. The clerk closed down shop, and no one else would ever buy a sheet of Inverted Jennys.

Soon after, Robey sent word of the mistake to fellow friends and collectors, and it didn’t take long for the news to spread to postal inspectors, who were eager to reclaim the errant stamps. Of course, Robey rebuffed their offers, and for a few days, he hid the sheet of stamps under the mattress in a one-room apartment he shared with his wife. Under mounting scrutiny, he was eager to make a deal, and in a panic, he sold the stamps to Eugene Klein, a Philadelphia businessman an avid philatelist for $15,000.

Eugene Klein (1878-1944)

The money allowed the Robeys to purchase a new house along with a car, which as the story goes, William promptly drove through the back wall of his garage. Its symbolic of a much larger blunder that emerged from his panicked selling: Robey assumed that more flawed stamps would emerge since they were typically printed on a larger 400-subject plate. But the other mistakes were caught and destroyed. Had Robey been patient, he could have made even more.

Klein, in turn, resold the Inverted Jennys for $20,000 to railroad scion Edward H.R. Green. Green divvied the sheet up into 25 rectangles of four Jennys apiece.

Edward Howland Robinson Green

From there, the Jenny sets passed through various hands. Green almost burned some in a pub ashtray before fellow stamp collectors stayed his hand. He numbered the stamps in pencil, 1 to 100. One stamp was stolen from the New York Public Library; another Inverted Jenny possibly appeared on a 2006 absentee ballot.

About 98 of the 100 stamps, have been accounted for.

Thievery is responsible for those that are missing. In 1936, Ethel B. Stewart McCoy bought a quadruplet of Inverted Jennys. In 1955, she allowed the American Philatelic Society to display the stamps at a Virginia convention. That was the last time those four stamps appeared together, as they were filched from the premises.

Ethel B. Stewart McCoy one of the most prominent philatelists of her day. Ms. McCoy was a New Yorker and the daughter of Charles Milford Bergstresser, a co-founder of Dow Jones Company

Ms. McCoy’s foursome had been a gift in 1936 from her first husband, so its sentimental value to her greatly exceeded the $15,000 she insured it for before lending it to the American Philatelic Society to exhibit at its Norfolk, Va., convention in the fall of 1955.

Twenty years later, Chicago collectors found two of the four. But, after the early ’80s, there was no sign of the missing stamps, except, perhaps, on the ballot.

In April, however, everything changed. Another stamp had been found, having made its way across the Atlantic years before. An Irish man, Keelin O’Neill, knew he had a strange stamp among items he had inherited from his grandfather, but did not recognize its significance.

“I had no idea about the history and importance of the stamp until very recently,” he said to the Associated Press. When he tried to sell it to a U.S. auction house earlier this year,  the assessor thought he had a forgery.

“The chances of him having the real McCoy, so to speak, were between slim and none,” George Eveleth, who evaluated O’Neill’s stamp, told NBC News. But when it turned out to be real, collectors tipped off the FBI.

American Philatelic Society executive director Scott D. English, left, congratulates Keelin O’Neill, who was awarded for helping return an ‘Inverted Jenny’

During the World Stamp Show in New York City, the FBI handed it over to the American Philatelic Society. For his part, O’Neil turned out okay, scoring a $50,000 reward for his role in wrapping up a part of the mystery.

But the final Inverted Jenny remains at large, just as the question of who pilfered the block of four of the rare stamps, 60 years ago, remains unanswered.

The discoverer -Robey, continued to enjoy stamp collecting for another 31 years, he never owned another Inverted Jenny after selling the sheet to Klein. He continued to report other philatelic “discoveries,” but none were even remotely comparable to the Inverted Jenny. After witnessing the complete dispersal of Colonel Green’s holding of Inverted Jenny stamps, Robey passed away in February 1949.

Hawaiian Stamps: When it all started

The first Hawaiian stamps came out in 1851. It was King Kamehameha III’s response to the missionaries needing a reliable postal service for letters to their friends and family east. The first post office was part of the government’s newspaper, the Polynesian. In 1855 no less than 24,984 pieces of mail left the islands and 23,940 answers returned!

6-cent 1893 Hawaii stamp Valued at $12,500

These first stamps, with a floral border and a number, were aptly called “the Missionaries”. Valued at $150,000 to $250,000 (way back in 1990’s) the rare two-cent blue stamp now belongs to a few lucky collectors. It is the only stamp in history for which a collector was killed and the only stamp once accepted by two sovereign nations, Hawaii and the US.

Around the same time, a stamp was printed with the image of King Kamehameha III. But a few years later, the government issued a series of plain numerals, seemingly forgetting how much a picture can explain to the world. Where was the image of the Great King Kamehameha I? What about Kamehameha II?

Above letter was stamped in 1852 with the 13-cent blue, “Hawaiian Postage”.

In 1864 a new series came out presenting the Hawaiian royalty. But neither Queen Kaahumanu or Princess Kinau was represented. On stamp, also, appeared King David Kalakaua, Hawaii’s merry ruler, who had started himself out as a postmaster and became king due to a lack of royal heirs. Probably the only king in the world with such a career, Kalakaua made sure to be on millions of colorful stamps while still alive. Kamehameha I finally appeared in print in 1883.

In 1893, the Hawaiian people, unhappy with Queen Liliuokalani’s rule, abandoned the monarchy. Hawaii declared itself a republic. The stamps reflected the change only through an overprint.

The 1882 5-cent Kamehameha V stamp.

The following year Hawaii officially became a republic and seven new stamps came out. Among them one of Star and Palms, expressing already the idea of annexation which occurred in 1898.

At the turn of the century, Hawaii was declared US territory. From now on, stamps were US postage with or without a Hawaii theme. In 1959 Hawaii became the 50th State.

Over the 20th century many stamps continued to reveal Hawaii’s unique position.

The entire collection of Indian Miniature Sheets (M/S)

Stamps of India: Miniature Sheets: chronological order, if you happen to like any stamp and would like to buy or trade, do not hesitate to get in touch !

The History of Post in India

The history of India’s postal system goes back several millennia. The Atharvaveda, one of the oldest books in the world written around 1000 BC, has several references to messenger services. In ancient times messenger services were primarily used by Indian rulers to convey and obtain information. This was accomplished through runners, messengers and in some cases even through pigeons.

runnersIssue date 13 January 2012

On the inaugural day of MAHAPEX - 2012, Pune, a special carried cover with Silver Replica of Gandhi Rs.10/- stamp of 1948 was released. The first day cover also featured the Indian Dawk Runner as part of the cachet design. The number of cover were limited and numbered. Continue reading "The History of Post in India"

Philately Tools

No tools are required to be a stamp collector but a few may prove useful in organizing, identifying, and handling your stamps.

Stamp Tweezers

Stamp tweezer

Keep your stamps in good condition by handling them as little as possible. We suggst that you use tongs to handle dry stamps because no matter how well you wash your hands, oil from your skin will damage your stamps. Tongs look like tweezers, but have a smooth gripping surface designed to handle stamps.

Magnifying Glass

There are many varieties of magnifying glass

Some stamps appear to be alike, but with close inspection you will see small differences that can help to identify a rare stamp. Considering the size of a stamp, a magnifying glass is a great tool to help see the details of our stamps and to find differences. When selecting a magnifying glass, choose one that magnifies clearly, without distortion. We recommend a magnifying lens with at least 5 times to 10 times magnification. It’s also a good idea to select one that folds into a case to help prevent scratches on the lens.

Stamp Albums and Stock Books

There is variety of stamp albums to safeguard stamps from fire; water & humidity damage.

It is a good idea to store your stamps in albums to help protect them. You can buy stamp albums from local stamp dealers, make your own, or even use a photo album with acid-free paper. (Do not use a photo album with pages that are sticky as these pages will damage your stamps). Some stamp albums that you purchase feature specific categories with pictures of the stamps that should appear on each page. A stock book is another type of album with plastic or paper pockets on each page. Stock books do not picture the stamps, so you can organize them however you wish. Printable “Three Tips” brochure may help you with finding a stamp album (print, fold, and share.)

Hinges and Mounts

Stamp Hinges

Put stamps in your albums with a hinge or a mount. Don’t use tape or glue as you will decrease the stamp’s value and possibly damage the stamps when you try to remove them from your album. Hinges are small, thin, folded pieces of translucent paper or plastic with special gum on one side. Mounts are clear plastic sleeves. Both hinges and mounts are available from local stamp dealers. We discuss the proper way to mount stamps in further detail in our “Stamp Tips” post.

Stamp Catalog

A sample page from a stamp catalogue

A variety of stamp catalogs are available. Although one needs to be careful, many big names in stamp collection ( who also do auctions ) tend to inflate the stamp prices. Since stamp collecting world is unregulated, greed has remained unchecked. Try to reference a few or more catalogs as they are very helpful, and can be borrowed from some libraries. A stamp catalog is a great reference book filled with illustrations that can help us identify and learn about our stamps. They provide us with such information as, the date when the stamp was issued, a description of the stamp, why it was issued, how it was printed, and gives the value of the stamps in used and unused-condition.

Perforation Gauge

Perforation Gauge
Perforation Gauge

Here’s another tool to help us find differences in stamps. Some stamps have the same design but different numbers of perforations (holes between stamps that make it easy to separate them). Of course you could count the perforations yourself by counting how many appear along a row 20 millimeters long on each edge of the stamp — sounds confusing, don’t you think? That’s why perforation gauges are a good idea. They are usually made of cardboard, plastic, or metal and make the measurement of perforations simple. The gauge has different scales showing the various sizes of perforations so that you can simply place your stamp against each scale until its perforations match exactly those on the gauge.

Watermark Detector

Watermark Detector

Watermarks are another way to recognize differences in similar stamps. A watermark is a design (maybe a letter, a number, or a picture) that is pressed into the paper that a stamp is printed on during manufacturing. Watermarks are used to make it harder to counterfeit stamps. Sometimes watermarks are visible, or can easily be seen by looking at the back of a stamp as you hold it up to the light, or by placing the stamp face down on a black background. If these methods don’t work, a watermark detector can be used. A watermark detector is a shallow, glass black cup or dish. Simply place your stamp face down in the detector, and pour watermark fluid over it; if there is a watermark, it should become visible. Here’s a YouTube video to help you with How to Detect Watermarks A few advanced collectors may also desire an ultraviolet light to detect faults or to determine if a stamp is tagged, or glows under light of a certain wave length to enable the use of automatic facing and canceling machines.

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