The Object at HandHow an upside-down biplane on a 24-cent stamp, now on display at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum, seemed to jinx early attempts at carrying the mail by air
By Edwards Park
The people over at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum call it the Jenny Class Reunion. But there are no drinks, songs or hotel hospitality rooms crammed with loud and aging humans. It is simply a gallery with 23 silent and splendidly preserved postage stamps on decorous display. One of them belongs to the Smithsonian. The others are on loan from generous owners around the country.
To a layman, the Inverted Jenny is just a 24-cent stamp, red with a blue picture of an old-fashioned biplane — but oops! The plane is upside down. To a pilot it pictures an ancient Curtiss JN-4, or "Jenny," apparently at the top of a loop or in the middle of a slow roll. To postal officials it's an embarrassing error that regrettably stumbled into circulation. Only 100 examples slipped past printing inspectors and made their way to the public at the tag end of World War I. All 100 instantly became collector's items. To philatelists, each one is worth about $100,000, depending on its condition. Quite a return on an original investment of 24 cents, though in 1918 for that sum you could buy four glasses of beer with change left over.
"Ever since we were given ours about 30 years ago," says James Bruns, director of the National Postal Museum, "philatelists have planned their vacations around a visit to Washington just to look at it. When they arrive and find it's hidden away, they complain and write nasty letters. But we can't put it on permanent display if we want our grandchildren to see it."
Why? Because of that old museum curator's bugaboo: ultraviolet light. The stamp's perimeter, the "frame," is red, an unstable color. Ultraviolet light would gradually fade it, turning it orange. It's OK, however, to showcase this Smithsonian treasure for short periods. So, in order to atone for past disappointments, and to celebrate the Institution's 150th birthday, our Inverted Jenny is being reunited with those others to provide a feast of philatelic rarities worth more than $2 million. The 23 stamps will be on display at the Postal Museum (Smithsonian, August 1993) from July 30 through September 30.
"This is our first big-time exhibit," Bruns says with pride--and a touch of stage fright. "We have to cope with insurance and security."
The stars of the museum's show are airmail stamps offered for sale on May 13, 1918, in time for the first official airmail flights, two days later. On the morning of the 14th, avid Washington, D.C. collector William T. Robey showed up at a post office on New York Avenue near 13th Street. He was looking for errors and knew that the last minute rush to print, as well as the two-color printing process, would make the stamps especially vulnerable to discrepancies. He knew that stamp collectors would pay high prices for those errors, but he probably never imagined just how high.
Though $24 was serious money back then, Robey decided to get a sheet of 100 stamps. The details of what happened that day are varied, but one version recounted by Robey in 1938 describes how he went back to the post office and asked the clerk if any more airmail stamps had come in. "He brought forth a full sheet," Robey said, "and my heart stood still." The image was upside down! "It was a thrill that comes once in a lifetime," said Robey.
The clerk scanned the sheet but did not hesitate to hand it over. Robey asked if he had more sheets just like it. "At that," says Jim Bruns, "the clerk smelled a rat, and closed his window."
Laying the sheet carefully in his briefcase, he went back to work. There he quickly set about notifying friends and collectors of his find. It wasn't long before a couple of postal inspectors arrived. One of his coworkers, upon hearing of Robey's good fortune, had gone off in search of more inverts and had told postal officials where they could find Robey.
The inspectors were extra polite. Had he just purchased a sheet of 24-cent airmail stamps with an inverted center? "Yes." "Would it be too much trouble to show it to us?"
"Sorry." "Would you be interested in selling it back to us?"
"Sorry." If the expression "No way!" had been in vogue in 1918, it would have sprung to Robey's lips.
Politeness aside, the inspectors then threatened that the government would confiscate the sheet. Robey went home that evening and hid the stamps under his mattress. He knew that official pressure would increase. So he got in touch with some well-known philatelists. One Eugene Klein of Philadelphia snapped up Robey's sheet of stamps for $15,000. Exit Robey, whistling happily. Enter Edward H. R. Green (son of the miserly financier Hetty Green, the fabled "Witch of Wall Street"), who paid Klein $20,000 for the sheet of upside-down Jennies.
Green broke the sheet up, dispersing individual stamps and blocks of four to collector friends. "The condition of some of those stamps has deteriorated since 1918," says Bruns. "Four were stolen; two, recovered. The thief cut off the perforations so the stamps wouldn't be recognized. Perforations are like a stamp's fingerprints, you know. They fit like pieces of a puzzle."