Among America’s most famous stamps is the 1918 “Inverted Jenny,” featuring a misprint of a Curtiss Jenny JN-4HM biplane which is shown upside down, or “inverted,” and is valued at more than $1 million.
Just a single sheet of 100 of the misprinted stamps was accidentally released to the public in spring 1918, where a single individual snapped them up for $24. Until recently, 98 of the famous stamps were accounted for.
Now only a single Inverted Jenny remains missing after officials confirmed a stamp purported to have been purchased at a garage sale in Ireland sometime before late 2013 is one of the missing Inverted Jennys, one of four stolen in 1955.
The US Post Office created the stamp to coincide with the launch of the first regular airmail routes in May 1918, in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. A fleet of six modified Curtis Jenny biplanes was to be used to transport mail.
Given that flying was hardly an inexpensive proposition, the post office recognized that new stamps were needed and designed the 24-cent Flying Jenny, which were eight times more costly than standard first-class stamps.
Given the short lead time – engraving began on May 4, 1918, printing May 10 and the first sales to the public May 14 – it’s not surprising that mistakes were made. At least three sheets with upside-down biplanes were spotted by inspectors and destroyed, but a single sheet of 100 stamps managed to slip past, according to The History Blog.
Collector William T. Robey of Washington, DC, was the lucky philatelist, purchasing the sheet on May 14, 1918. He eventually sold the Inverted Jenny sheet for $15,000 to Philadelphia dealer Eugene Klein, who later sold it for $20,000 to collector H.R. Green.
Green would later break up the sheet and sell many of the individual stamps to other collectors. Prior to breaking up the Inverted Jenny sheet, Klein and Green lightly penciled a number on the back of each stamp so that each stamp’s original position on the sheet could later be identified, according to The History Blog.
The recently returned stamp is position 76 from the Inverted Jenny sheet.
That stamp was part of a block of four that belonged to Ethel B. Stewart McCoy, a philatelist and daughter of Charles Bergstresser, one of the founders of Dow Jones & Co.
McCoy had purchased the block from New York City stamp dealer Spencer Anderson in 1936 for $16,000. In September 1955, during an exhibition at a convention of the American Philatelic Society in Norfolk, Va., the McCoy Block was stolen by an unknown thief or thieves.
“It’s one of the most notorious crimes in philatelic history, and there’s a piece of the puzzle now that’s in place,” said Scott English, the administrator of the American Philatelic Research Library.
Inverted Jenny No. 76 turned up in April of this year when it was consigned for auction to Spink USA Inc. by Keelin O’Neill.
Spink sent the stamp to the Philatelic Foundation in New York to be authenticated, and personnel of the foundation identified it as having belonged to the McCoy block.
After Spink identified the stamp as one from the infamous block it alerted the FBI and the American Philatelic Research Library. The FBI approached O’Neill, who stated that he had received the stamp in or about October 2013 from his grandfather, now deceased.
Before her death in 1980, McCoy assigned all of her rights, title and interest in the stolen McCoy Block to the American Philatelic Research Library.
The FBI recovered one of the four missing stamps in 1977 and another in 1982, and both were returned to the APRL, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
O’Neill voluntarily agreed to relinquish it to the American Philatelic Research Library once he was told the stamp was stolen. He received a $10,000 reward from the American Philatelic Research Library and also got a $50,000 reward from Donald Sundman of Mystic Stamp.
“More than 60 years ago, a block of four of the most famous error stamps in philatelic history – the Inverted Jenny – was stolen from an exhibition. There were no witnesses, no suspects and little evidence to pursue,” said Assistant Director-in-Charge Diego Rodriguez of the FBI. “Today, the FBI is proud to assist in the return of the third Inverted Jenny stamp to the American Philatelic Research Library. This is just one example of the FBI’s commitment to restore significant arts and antiques to their rightful owners.”
The fourth and final Inverted Jenny from the McCoy block remains missing.