On March 28th, Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries Inc. presided over the sale of an “Inverted Jenny” 24¢ U.S. Airmail stamp, which realized a whopping $718,750. The Inverted Jenny is the most well-known error stamp in U.S. philatelic history, such that its destruction makes for great comedy. Lucille Ball sucks one up in a vacuum on I Love Lucy, Homer Simpson tosses one out at a rummage sale, and Richard Pryor mails one in Brewster’s Millions. The upside-down plane has become an instant cue for something rare and valuable due to a mistake.
In 1918, stamp collector William Robey went down to the post office in Washington D.C., hoping to get a sheet of the new airmail postage stamps depicting a Curtiss bi-plane. Robey was familiar with the Exposition Invert error, and recognized that the two-color process in the Exposition stamp resulted in some inverted postage. Because the same process was being used on the new airmail stamp, he rightly figured inverts could be possible. Robey hit paydirt at the post office: he wisely paid for his sheet of 100 stamps first, then pointed out to the clerk that the sheet he received was inverted. Robey left the post office with his intact 100 Inverted Jennys and the eight other inverted sheets were discovered and destroyed by the post office before they could make it into the wild.
Inverted Jennys are referenced by their position in the sheet, thanks to the last owner of the full sheet, Colonel H.R. Green. Green recognized that he could make a bit more money selling stamps individually, and now that the stamps were cataloged he created some blocks of stamps and numerous individual Inverted Jennys. The stamp sold two weeks ago was Position 74. Last year Position 35 was sold, in 2007 Position 13 and Position 57, and in 2000 Position 69, all by Siegel as well. Siegel was also instrumental in the sale of the plate-number block of four, Positions 87, 88, 97, and 98, which sold for $2,970,000. Heritage Auctions sold Position 84 in 2007 and Position 73 in 2009. Position 9 was made into a pendant for Green’s wife, and has passed hands twice in the past ten years. Position 30 was given away to promote a stamp collecting website in 2008. The rest remain in the hands of dedicated collectors.
Well, almost all. Some of the stamps have disappeared, whereabouts unknown. In 1955, a block of four, Positions 65, 66, 75, and 76, owned by Ethel McCoy, was stolen at a philatelic show. The location of the McCoy stamps remained unknown until 1977, when the lone Position 75 turned up in Chicago. Five years later, Position 65 turned up as well, leaving 66 and 76 still in parts unknown. Three other stamps disappeared not long after their original purchase and haven’t been heard from since: Positions 49, 79, and 99.
The fates of the Inverted Jenny in fiction aren’t as far-fetched as you might think. Lucille Ball’s vacuuming of an Inverted Jenny mirrors the fate of one of the stamps: a stamp collector’s maid inadvertently sucked up his Inverted Jenny, damaging it slightly. And like the fate of the Inverted Jenny in Brewster’s Millions, one Inverted Jenny has been postmarked, accidentally mailed by Colonel Green’s wife to him while he was away. Various other damage and alterations have happened to the rest of the Inverted Jennys over time. Green saved the unperforated edges for himself, but the stamps became glued to each other in storage and had to be soaked, damaging the glue. Since Green’s estate sold those stamps, several now have perforations added to unscrupulously resemble other stamps from the sheet. Others just show the usual damage from having hinges or otherwise being stored improperly. The damage to these stamps has affected their value, but as a part of the only one hundred Inverted Jenny stamps in existence their value exceeds most other stamps, and they have grabbed the imaginations of people everywhere.