Rare Stamps: the “Inverted Jenny” of the USA

Background to Airmail Stamps

As commercial aviation developed and postal authorities considered flying the mails, a new collecting theme was born – airmail stamp collecting and airmail postal history.  As far back as 1870-72, during the Siege of Paris and the Franco-Prussian War, balloons were used to carry messages in and out of the besieged city via the now famous ballon monté cancellations and postcards.  Letters with this postmark are eagerly sought after by postal historians.

These early flights were unofficial (from a post office perspective) but some of these pioneer airmail flights carried mail that had “stamp-like” labels affixed.  These unofficial stamp-like labels are also eagerly sought after by collectors. Eventually, postal administrations began to issue special airmail stamps to cover the more expensive method of carrying letters via air.  An intermediate form was overprinting normal stamps with a special message, surcharge and/or symbol to denote this new, faster method of carrying the mails.

  • The first official postage stamp to be issued for an airmail flight was in May 1917 when Poste Italiane overprinted their existing special delivery stamps.
  • The following year, the U.S. Post Office issued their first airmail stamp.
  • It doesn’t have “airmail” or “air post” printed on it – it simply illustrates a Curtiss JN-4 airplane.
1918 USA airmail stamp, feauring an image of the Curtiss JN-4 airplane in the center of the design

1918 USA airmail stamp, featuring an image of the Curtiss JN-4 aeroplane

An extremely rare piece of American philatelic history

Before we had colour printers, multi-colour printing was done via a second, or third pass through the printing press.  This often led to invert errors if the paper was inserted upside down in the paper tray.  This led to a specialist stamp collecting theme known as “invert” collecting.  There was one other way an “invert” could happen and that was when an individual stamp die was removed from the printing press for cleaning or repair and placed back up-side down.  This resulted in one stamp being “inverted” and these are often collected in pairs – one normal + one invert – also known as tête-bêche pairs.

In philately, tête-bêche (French for "head-to-tail",  is a joined pair of stamps in which one is upside-down in relation to the other, produced intentionally or accidentally.  Like any pair of stamps, a pair of tête-bêches can be a vertical or a horizontal pair.

In the instance of the 1918 USA inverted Jenny, the entire sheet was inverted – so it was a paper-handling error.  Initial deliveries went to post offices on Monday, 13th May and being aware of the potential for inverts, a number of collectors went to their local post offices to buy the new stamps and keep an eye out for errors.

USA inverted Jenny stamp error1918 “inverted Jenny” airmail stamp of the USA – one of only 100 examples known to exist today

Only one pane of 100 stamps were found to have an invert error, known as the Inverted Jenny, i.e. the airplane image in the centre is inverted relative to the outer frame.  The error is one of the most well-known airmail stamps and is also one of the most expensive stamps in the world – the last one to be offered at auction sold for over one million US dollars.

  • Each sheet of the 24-cent stamps was printed in two colors – so they had to be fed through the printing press twice once for red, once for blue.
  • A few of the sheets of the stamps were inserted in the wrong direction for the second pass, and so the blue plane appeared upside down inside the red frame.
  • In total, 700 of the “Inverted Jenny” stamps were printed, and 100 were sold before USPS inspectors noticed the error
  • All 100 stamps were sold in a single sheet to one sharp-eyed stamp collector (William Robey, from Washington, D.C.).
  • He paid just $24 for the stamps – their face value and quite a bit of money at the time.
  • The other 600 errors were withdrawn and destroyed by the USPS.

Who found them and how?

Collector William T. Robey was one of those “invert collectors” and he wrote to a friend on 10th May remarking that “it would pay to be on the lookout for inverts”.  On 14th May, Robey went to the post office to buy the new stamps, and as he wrote later, when the clerk brought out a sheet of inverts, “my heart stood still”.  Recognising what he saw, he paid for the entire sheet and asked to see more.  The remainder of the sheets were normal but, unknown to him at the time, he had just bought the only sheet of errors in existence and had “cornered the market” for this now famous error.

  • Robey sold the sheet to noted Philadelphia dealer Eugene Klein for US$15,000
  • Klein then immediately re-sold the sheet to a Colonel H. R. Green for US$20,000
  • Klein advised Green that the stamps would be worth more separately than as a single sheet
    • The sheet of 100 stamps was later re-sold and separated into individual stamps and blocks
      • one block of eight stamps was broken from the sheet
      • several blocks of four were broken from the sheet
      • the remainder of the stamps sold individually
  • Green kept a number of the inverts, including one that was placed in a locket for his wife
    • This gold and glass locket displayed the inverted Jenny on one side, and a “regular” Jenny stamp on the other
    • This locket was offered for sale for the first time ever by the Siegel Auction Galleries Rarity Sale, held on May 18, 2002
    • It did not sell in the auction, but the philatelic press reported that a Private Treaty sale was arranged later for an unknown price
 text from the auction listing:     24c Carmine Rose & Blue, Center Inverted (C3a) Contained in Mabel Green's Legendary Locket. Position 9 from the top row with wide natural straight edge at top, rich colors on bright fresh paper, placed back to back with normal 24c 1918 Air Post (C3), held between circular glass disks secured in a gold-metal frame with clasp at top, the Inverted Jenny has two trivial corner creases at bottom from rim of pendant, small chip in edge of glass

text from the auction listing:  24c Carmine Rose & Blue, Center Inverted (C3a) Contained in Mabel Green’s Legendary Locket. Position 9 from the top row with wide natural straight edge at top, rich colors on bright fresh paper, placed back to back with normal 24c 1918 Air Post (C3), held between circular glass disks secured in a gold-metal frame with clasp at top, the Inverted Jenny has two trivial corner creases at bottom from rim of pendant, small chip in edge of glass

  • It is thought that six of the stamps have been lost or destroyed through theft or mishandling
  • Several others have been damaged, including one that was sucked into a vacuum cleaner
  • Green’s wife also mailed one – and was recovered afterwards – and is the only cancelled (used) example known to exist

One of the most famous and most expensive stamps in the world

The 1918 “inverted” jenny is one of the most expensive stamps in the world today and when the Smithsonian Museum held a “rarity revealed” exhibition from 2007 to 2009, the “inverted” jenny was one of their most requested items on display.

  • In November 2007, an unidentified bidder paid $977,500 for just one of the rare stamps ($825,000 + sales commission and taxes)
  • In late October 2005 the unique plate number block of four stamps was purchased by a then anonymous buyer for $2,970,000.
    • The purchaser was revealed to be U.S. financier Bill Gross.
    • Shortly after purchasing the Inverted Jenny’s he proceeded to trade them with Donald Sundman, president of the Mystic Stamp Company, a stamp dealer, for one of only two known examples of the USA 1c Z Grill.
    • By completing this trade, Gross became the owner of the only complete collection of U.S. 19th century stamps
    • Apparently, even the wealthiest of stamp collectors have to swap stamps to get what they want !

You too can own a copy of this famous stamp

To honor stamp collecting, on September 22, 2013 the United States Postal Service issued a souvenir sheet showing six examples of the stamp denominated $2 each rather than the original 24 cents.  The issue was sold at face value, although various special packaging for collectors were also offered for a premium.

stamp error invert

The Postal Service announced it has also printed 100 sheets of “corrected Jenny sheets” — the plane flying right side up. All sheets of the stamp are individually wrapped in a sealed envelope to recreate the excitement of finding an Inverted Jenny when opening the envelope and to avoid the possibility of discovering a corrected Jenny prior to purchase. Individuals purchasing “corrected Jenny sheets” will find a congratulatory note inside the wrapping asking them to call a phone number to receive a certificate of acknowledgement signed by Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe.

1918 normal Jenny USPS reproduction sheet ( $2 stamps in block of 6)

1918 normal Jenny USPS reproduction sheet ( $2 stamps in block of 6)

As covered in Linn’s Stamp News, on 12th January 2008, StampWants.com (an online marketplace for stamps, now known as bidStart.com) gave away a genuine “inverted Jenny” after a year-long promotion the company ran.  According to Linn’s Stamp News, this represented the most expensive stamp ($1million) ever given away in any sort of promotion.

  • The winner of the giveaway was John Shedlock, of California
  • The stamp was presented to him by the then current Miss New Jersey, Amy Polumbo

YouTube video narrating the history of the US Airmail Service and the Inverted Jenny stamp of 1918

1918 USA Inverted Jenny errorClick here (or on the image above) to view the video

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One thought on “Rare Stamps: the “Inverted Jenny” of the USA

  1. Pingback: Are stamps still a good investment ??? | The Collectors' Shop, Blackrock

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