Throughout history, some very special stamps have skyrocketed in value, selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars in auctions. The reasons why these stamps are so valuable vary.
Some stamps are priceless because they are incredibly old. Others are rare because only a very few were printed in the first place. Others rise in value over time because of the significance of the person or event commemorated on the stamp.
Among the most exciting of all high-value stamps are misprints. These stamps contain mistakes, and since only a few sheets of misprinted stamps will make through the printing and quality-checking process, they can sometimes be worth millions.
This is the case with the Inverted Jenny. A single sheet of 100 stamps was misprinted so that the airplane, a Curtiss JN-4 (or “Jenny”), is flying upside down within a red border.
Robey and His Priceless Sheet of Stamps
Now, in the last article, we left William T. Robey, in his 20s, at the New York Avenue branch post office in Washington, D.C., trying to hide his surprise as he was presented with a sheet of Inverted Jennys.
We didn’t mention last time how Robey, for reasons he wasn’t able to fully recall later, had already been to the post office earlier in the day. But he didn’t buy any Jenny Stamps then. Instead, at noon, with 30 dollars in his pocket, Robey came back to the office to buy a sheet of the new stamp.
Twenty years later, in an article for the Weekly Philatelic Gossip, Robey described his feelings at seeing the Inverted Jennys: “My heart stood still… It was the thrill that comes once in a lifetime.”
The Inverted Jenny sheet cost him 24 dollars. He asked to see more sheets, but they weren’t misprinted. He even walked down to another nearby post office branch, but the sheets there were all normal, too.
Robey had no way of knowing if any other misprints would surface over time. But, for now, it seemed he had the only inverted set!
Word Gets Out… Fast!
Robey wasted no time in spreading the news to some of his friends and co-workers. He also sent telegrams to a few collectors and dealers in nearby New York and Philadelphia.
Word of this discovery spread like wildfire, especially among stamp-collecting fanatics. Of course, this means the US Postal Service also learned of the mistake. But how?
Apparently, one of Robey’s co-workers, realizing these misprints were a gold mine, rushed down to the local post office to look for more, spilling the beans in the process.
At 4:00 p.m., only a few hours after Robey bought the Inverted Jennys, postal officials shut down sales of the Jenny Stamps, possibly to review the rest of the sheets to destroy any other misprints. Sales resumed by 6:00 p.m. with no other errors found.
Around the same time, two postal inspectors came to Robey’s office, attempting to confiscate the sheet of misprints. Robey wasn’t going to let go of his purchase that easily, and he argued with the two men, saying he’d paid for that sheet and had full right of ownership. After all, he reasoned, he wasn’t the first person to buy misprints over the counter. Why should he be treated any differently?
Eventually, the officials left, frustrated and indignant. Robey was able to keep his priceless stamps since he’d purchased them, fair and square.
Urgently Looking for Buyers
As a young man with a family, Robey was interested in turning a profit as quickly as possible. This did not mean he wanted to get rid of the stamps at any cost. Hamilton F. Colman, a local stamp dealer, came by the office and offered Robey $500 for the whole sheet, an offer Robey rejected out of hand.
No, he knew that these stamps could make him a least a few thousand dollars, which would be comparable to over $100,000 by today’s standards. Robey called several collectors and dealers to get better offers. That evening, he visited Colman in his office, where a group of fellow collectors and dealers had gathered to inspect the Inverted Jennys for themselves.
Among those present was Joseph B. Leavy, a man with decades of experience collecting stamps. Leavy inspected the sheet of stamps and noticed the straight-edge cuts on the top and right of the sheet. Because of this, he assumed this 100-stamp sheet was one of four. One way of printing stamps during this time was to press out larger sheets of 400 and cut them into four.
Leavy announced that there must be 3 other sheets out there somewhere. He was wrong, however. The Jenny Stamps had been printed in sheets of 100 only. But production had been rushed on these stamps, so Leavy didn’t know the full details of their printing.
We can only imagine Robey’s disappointment, not thinking that his stamps were not nearly as rare as he’d imagined. He also knew that, in the event of more inverted stamps being found, his 100 would drop in value. He needed to sell some of them off, and quick!
That night, Robey took his stamps home since his boss was afraid of break-ins if they were left there overnight...
And this is where we leave Robey for this installment, home with his wife, fretting over the priceless stamps in their home and an untold number of hungry dealers anxious to get their hands on them.
Where would these stamps go next? Would Robey find a buyer or buyers? Stay tuned for the next article as we follow these priceless stamps from Robey’s hands to new collectors and dealers.