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This rare stamp sold for a record $2 million

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A first-class U.S. postage stamp will set you back 66 cents these days, which, you know, might seem expensive to anyone who remembers cheaper postage.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

But a stamp that's more than a century old in mint condition and also happens to be a historic misprint? Well, that will set you back a lot more than 66 cents.

SCOTT TREPEL: Well, the stamp that we sold for $2 million is the Inverted Jenny, and it is the icon of stamp collecting.

CHANG: That is Scott Trepel, president of Siegel Auction Galleries in New York. And the proud new owner of that rare Inverted Jenny stamp is a real estate developer named Charlie Hack. So what makes this stamp worth a record $2 million?

TREPEL: The Inverted Jenny is the era version of a stamp which at the time was very important because it was the first stamp for the world's first regularly scheduled government airmail service.

SHAPIRO: At the center of the stamp is a picture of the kind of Curtiss biplane, nicknamed Jenny, that would be used for this new airmail service. As postal officials rush to print the new stamps in time for those first postal flights in 1918, a mistake was made. Some of the stamps were printed with the plane flying upside down, which Trepel says is understandable. Planes were still a relatively new form of transportation at the time.

TREPEL: People weren't familiar with what they looked like, and so the inverted plane on the stamp slipped through the inspectors, slipped through the clerk at the post office. And even he said, you know, look. Don't blame me. I don't know what a plane looks like, so I didn't recognize it when I sold it.

CHANG: A single sheet of 100 Inverted Jenny's was sold before anyone caught the mistake. The stamp that was sold this week at auction was one of them. It's known as Position 49 based on its placement on that original sheet. So yeah, other Inverted Jenny's do exist, but Trepel says this one is extra special because it's in really good condition after being in storage for decades.

TREPEL: It had been held by probably three generations of the same owners and hidden away, so it never was exposed to light. The colors were beautiful. The paper was bright. The back of the stamp, the gum had never been hinged and put into an album.

SHAPIRO: Keep in mind, Trepel is a preeminent expert in this field. He says he's handled the sale of 66 of the 100 stamps on that original misprint sheet, and Position 49 is tops in his opinion.

TREPEL: We grade stamps from one to 100 in terms of the centering of the design with the perforations around it. And this one is a 95, and there is no better. There's no 98. There's no 100. This 95 is the best that any Jenny will ever get.

CHANG: Scott Trepel of Siegel Auction Galleries in New York. By the way, he says stamp collectors wondered for years where Inverted Jenny 49 was, so that mystery is solved for now. But there is still one more big question mark for Inverted Jenny fans.

TREPEL: There's still one stamp out there that was stolen in the 1950s. It was part of a block of four. There's still one, the upper right stamp of the block, which has yet to emerge from hiding. But one day, somebody will try to sell it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gabriel J. Sánchez
Gabriel J. Sánchez is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. Sánchez identifies stories, books guests, and produces what you hear on air. Sánchez also directs All Things Considered on Saturdays and Sundays.
Kat Lonsdorf
William Troop