BEN and Billy Pickett are in the news again. You may...

Salmagundi

August 23, 1994

BEN and Billy Pickett are in the news again. You may recall the flap earlier this year when it was discovered that a stamp honoring Billy Pickett, a well-known black rodeo cowboy, was actually a portrait of his brother Ben: the artist had used a 1920s photograph that turned out to be of Ben, not Billy.

Now we come to Act II. The U.S. Postal Service issued a new stamp as part of its "Legends of the West" commemorative series with the correct portrait -- of Billy, not Ben. And it decided to destroy the original stamps printed -- of Ben, not Billy.

Except it decided to keep 150,000 sheets of the flawed stamps (3 million individual stamps) to be sold off on a first-come, first-serve basis -- at 29 cents a stamp ($5.90 per sheet, plus $2.80 for shipping and handling).

But two big stamp collecting companies wanted to halt the destruction of these stamps. There's big money to be made from Postal Service goofs of this sort.

A circuit court rejected the arguments of the two companies. Last week, though, an appeals court ordered a stay -- but not before 3.1 million sheets of the Ben, not Billy, stamps had been turned into ashes. Some 1.9 million sheets still exist.

The money-making pitch of the stamp-collecting companies is understandable. A new flawed stamp should prove highly profitable. The appreciation on the Ben, not Billy, stamps might prove substantial.

Yet why isn't the Postal Service cutting the government in on some of this profit? Aren't we supposed to be "reinventing" government? With the Postal Service running a multi-billion-dollar deficit, it's time to use commemorative stamps -- especially when a novel opportunity arises -- to reap a windfall.

Why not have the government sell 1 million sheets of the Ben, not Billy, stamps via auctions across the country? And another 500,000 sheets in a few years? And 100,000 auctioned off each year thereafter until the supply is exhausted? Think of the profits for the Postal Service.

If each stamp sold for an average of $2 -- because of the greater value of the Ben, not Billy, portrait -- the government would wind up with $76 million. That won't erase the postal deficit, but it's a move in the right direction.

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