'Inverted Jennies' get together again in D.C.

August 04, 1996|By Scott McCaffrey | Scott McCaffrey,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

To stamp collectors, it's known by the catalog designation "C3a." To noncollectors, it's known as "the stamp with the upside-down airplane."

It's the most famous American postage stamp ever, a 1918 24-cent airmail adhesive that was printed incorrectly. A single sheet of 100 "Inverted Jenny" stamps made its way into collectors' hands, and today a single example can trade hands for more than $100,000.

Nearly a quarter of those stamps will be on display through Sept. 30 at the National Postal Museum in Washington, as the Smithsonian Institution celebrates the error with an exhibit.

Called the "Jenny Class Reunion," the exhibition brings together the Smithsonian's single invert with 22 more on loan from private sources. It is the biggest exhibit in the postal museum's three-year history.

"We had help from a lot of philatelists and stamp dealers -- it did require some sleuthing," Daisy Ridgway, the museum's spokeswoman, said of putting the exhibit together.

This isn't the largest collection of the inverts ever under one roof -- more than 35 were part of a large stamp show in the 1980s -- but it is the most ever collected for a single exhibit.

"It's very well protected," Ridgway said of the Jenny exhibition. "We have a large security force on hand at all times."

The Post Office Department, forerunner of today's Postal Service, issued the 24-cent stamp on May 13, 1918. It was produced to pay postage and special delivery charges for the government's fledgling airmail service between New York, Philadelphia and Boston.

A day later, stamp collector William T. Robey sniffed out the possibility of an error. Robey went to a Washington post office and bought a sheet of 100 airmail stamps, no small purchase those days. The stamps were printed correctly.

According to the legend that has grown up around the stamp, Robey soon returned to buy another sheet. The clerk handed one over, and Robey discovered to his delight that the blue color -- depicting a Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" airplane -- and the carmine (red) frame had been printed in different directions.

How did it happen? The stamp was engraved, with the paper run through two separate presses, one for each of the two colors. Midway through the process, apparently during an inspection, Robey's sheet was inadvertently turned around.

Because the blue plane was printed first, it's most accurate to say that the frame is upside-down rather than the plane. Nevertheless, collectors and noncollectors alike refer to the stamp as having an upside-down plane.

The stamp was printed during World War I, when the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was overwhelmed with postage and revenue stamp production. The 24-cent Jenny was rushed into print, taking only nine days from production of the printing plates to completion of the press run. With that type of schedule, it might be more amazing that only one sheet of error stamps escaped to the general public.

The price takes off

When word of the error leaked out, government officials tried various threats to get Robey's stamps back, but the collector refused to budge -- with good reason. He quickly sold the sheet to a big-name stamp collector for $15,000, and it quickly was re-sold for $20,000 to eccentric millionaire and stamp accumulator Edward Green.

He separated the sheet into single stamps and blocks of four. Today, a well-centered example with its original gum can sell for more than $100,000.

Collectors have tracked the whereabouts of all the stamps for rTC years. Only a couple have disappeared from public view, including two that were stolen and have not resurfaced.

The Smithsonian acquired its stamp about three decades ago, but it is not continuously displayed, because lighting causes the red frame to dull.

New technology will help the situation. The postal museum has installed fiber-optic lighting for the exhibit, which cuts down on direct glare.

"The fiber-optic lighting reflects off the dark canvas, then back onto the stamp," Ridgway said. "It will enable us to keep stamps like this on display a longer time."

For those who think inverted stamps are a thing of the past, two major U.S. errors -- one involving the Richard Nixon commemorative stamp -- have surfaced in the past decade. Neither has yet achieved the fame, or the price tag, of the Inverted Jenny.

The Post Office Department once even printed 40 million stamps in error -- on purpose.

When some copies of the 1962 commemorative honoring Dag Hammarskjold were found by collectors with the yellow printed upside-down, post office officials ordered the error repeated on millions of stamps to deflate the value of the errors. Today, a Hammarskjold "error" can be bought for mere pennies, not thousands.

A bad-luck flight

The National Postal Museum has several other displays of airmail material, including several mail planes.

Oddly, the inaugural airmail flight experienced similar bad luck to the stamp printed for it. On May 15, 1918, while piloting a Jenny airmail flight from Washington to New York, Army Lt. George L. Boyle became disoriented and landed in a Maryland field. The plane's mail load was transported to New York a day later.

The exhibit is part of the Smithsonian's 150th anniversary celebrations, which are going on all year. The postal museum is home to 16 million items; only a small percentage are on display at any one time.

If you go

What: "Jenny Class Reunion"

Where: National Postal Museum, First Street and Massachusetts Avenue N.E., Washington.

When: 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. daily through Sept. 30

How much: Free admission. Paid parking available at nearby Union Station. Metro (Red Line) also runs to Union Station.

Information: (202) 357-2700

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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