The Inverted Jenny - The World's Most Famous Stamp

There is no more iconic emblem of the stamp collecting hobby than the Inverted Jenny. The 1918 United States bi-color error features a blue Curtiss JN-4 airplane (nicknamed the Curtiss Jenny), upside down in a red frame. The dramatic nature of the error and its storied history has left the Inverted Jenny as perhaps the only stamp rarity to be widely recognized outside of the realm of stamp collectors. The stamp has appeared in numerous movies, television programs and books over the years, where simply referring to an "upside down airplane stamp" is typically enough to clue in the audience.

The Inverted Jenny is not the most rare nor the most valuable stamp. There is only one known copy of Swedish 1885 Treskilling Yellow color error, and that stamp is the current world record holder for price realized at auction: 2.87 million Swiss francs or approximately 2.3 million U.S. dollars. Just a few other notable rarities include the British Guyana 1856 one-cent Black on Magenta with only one authenticated copy in existence, and the United States 1868 Benjamin Franklin Z-grill with only two known copies.

Nonetheless, recent sales of Inverted Jenny examples are eye-watering enough. A single copy was sold at auction in November 2007 for $977,500 and in October 2005 a block of four was sold at auction for $2.7 million.

The 24 cent bi-color Curtiss Jenny was the high value of a set of three making up the United States' first airmail issue. The stamp paid the rate for airmail service between Washington DC, Philadelphia PA, and New York NY. The stamps were available in post offices on May 13, 1918 with the new airmail service set to begin on May 15.

At $24.00 for a sheet of 100, the Curtiss Jenny airmail stamps were shockingly expensive for their time. An office worker in 1918 would have earned in the neighborhood of $0.60 an hour, meaning that a humble collector might have spent the better part of a week's wages on the sheet. For more context, average rent on a six room house was $15, so for the price of a sheet of airmail stamps an office worker could have paid a month's rent and still had money in his pocket.

Collectors were on the lookout for errors. The method of printing stamps in more than one color involved feeding the sheet to the press multiple times, opening the possibility of a sheet being turned in the process to produce an invert error. Such errors had been seen before with the 1869 Pictorials and the 1901 Pan American Exposition commemorative series.

Washington D.C. stamp collector W.T. Robey was hopeful when he walked into the post office during his lunch break on May 14, one day after the airmail stamps had first gone on sale. He wasn't disappointed when the clerk handed him a full sheet of inverts. A week later, Robey sold the entire sheet to stamp dealer Eugene Klein for $15,000. To be sure, it was a tidy profit on his initial investment, but some might find it curious that as a collector Robey didn't keep at least one copy for himself. Postal inspectors had tracked Robey down and tried to convince him to turn in the sheet, a request which he refused and then reportedly slept with the stamps under his mattress for safekeeping! A little paranoia probably contributed to his selling them so quickly and in their entirety.

Klein in turn sold the sheet to Edward Howland Robinson "Ned" Green, an American businessman, the son of the "Witch of Wall Street" Hetty Green, and the assembler of perhaps the most valuable stamp collection of his day. It was Green who broke up the sheet into singles and blocks. He sold some and kept some, famously encasing one in a locket that he gave to his wife.

The rest, as they say, is history. The stamps have moved among various high-value collections over the decades, occasionally making headlines as they change hands.

Collectors who struggle to keep their own holdings safe and secure might be interested to ponder the rough ride some of the inverts have seen. Of the original 100, six stamps are missing altogether, their whereabouts unknown. Green had stored some of the Jenny's in a safe, where there was apparently a little too much moisture and they became stuck together. Those copies had to be soaked apart and therefore have no gum. Green's wife used one of the stamps for postage. He was able to get it back, but it became the only postally used, canceled copy. Several stamps have been intentionally mutilated. A stolen copy had the perforations cut off by the thief in an attempt to disguise it. Other stamps that had a natural straight edge because they came from the top of the sheet had fake perforations added to them in an attempt to make them appear as more desirable copies. Amazingly, one copy was even sucked up in a vacuum cleaner after it had fallen unnoticed to the floor. That copy was expertly repaired but remains a shadow of its former self.

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