Friday, March 1, 2024

Name a stamp. Any stamp.

Unless you are a hard-core stamp collector, you might well answer: “There’s one with an upside-down old-timey airplane, isn’t there?”

That stamp, known to philatelists as the Inverted Jenny, has transcended the hobby and gained a measure of fame.

And the other day, one of them, originally priced at 24 cents, sold for more than $2 million.

The Inverted Jenny, issued by the U.S. Post Office in 1918, depicts a biplane called the Curtiss JN, known as a Jenny. But in part because of a rush to print the stamps, the plane was accidentally printed upside down on some.

Only one block of 100 of the misprinted stamps went public.

The value was not immediately apparent. A clerk bought it for face value, $24. He later sold it for $15,000.

Eventually the block was broken up, and individual stamps began to be sold to collectors: for a few hundred dollars, then a few thousand, then more and more and more. Soon the six-figure barrier was broken, and then they were going for seven figures.

The tale of the misprint, and the ever-increasing sale prices, began to make the Inverted Jenny famous enough to be a cultural reference.

In the 1985 comedy “Brewster’s Millions,” Richard Pryor, who for plot reasons is desperately trying to spend $30 million, asks a dealer for his most expensive stamp and is shown the Inverted Jenny. He pays $1.25 million for it … then uses it to mail a postcard.

In a 1993 “Simpsons” episode, Homer digs through a box of five-cent items at a swap meet. He elects not to purchase a block of Inverted Jennys, complaining that “the plane is upside-down.” (He also passes on a Declaration of Independence, a copy of the first Superman comic book and a Stradivarius violin.)

The modern Postal Service tried to cash in. In 2013, it released replicas of the stamps, this time with the plane flying upside down on purpose.

The stamps have even been targeted by thieves. In 1955, a block of four was stolen from a stamp collecting convention in Norfolk, Va. Despite reward offers, only three of those stamps have been recovered. The other is out there somewhere. Maybe start looking?

The stamp sold last week was discovered in 2018 after spending generations in a safe deposit box. The long stay in a vault helped keep it in perfect condition. Later that year, it was sold for $1.593 million.

On Wednesday, it was put under the hammer again by Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries.

The final price was a record for the stamp, $2,006,000.

The buyer, Charles Hack, a 76-year-old real estate developer and investor, had lost out during the 2018 sale, told The Washington Post. This time he was willing to go higher for such a pristine stamp.

“This is the premium copy,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

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