A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Willy Wonka, Philatelist-Style

By Nicole Rowlands

In 1918, a U.S. Postal Office mistake changed one man’s life forever.

Stamp collector William T. Robey lucked into a golden ticket when he bought a sheet of 100 stamps, sold it to a dealer, and used to proceeds to purchase a new home.

Nearly a century later, the Postal Service has reissued the classic stamp error (intentionally, this time) known to collectors as the “Inverted Jenny,” which shows a Curtiss JN-4 biplane, or a “Jenny” upside down. The new stamp has a face value of two dollars and sold in mini-sheets of six. More than two million sheets were made, but included in the press run are 100 new sheets showing the plane flying right side up. The sheets are each wrapped with opaque paper so buyers can’t know if their purchase holds one of the valuable rarities. Worst case scenario:  they’ve bought stamps worth their face value and can do something really novel these days: mail a letter.

Last month, a New York Times article about the stamps noted that the “decision to intentionally produce an instant rarity, sure to rise drastically in price, is a reversal of past policy, when the Postal Service fought to keep valuable errors out of collectors’ hands, even going to court to do so.”

LASIS was curious. When has the Postal Service gone postal trying to keep its errors out of collectors’ hands?

When a 1962 multi-colored commemorative stamp of the Thatcher Ferry Bridge was printed by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a few sheets came off the press with the bridge –Oops! — missing from the design. (And we thought the Bridge to Nowhere was a modern malaise).  At the time, the Panama Canal Zone was administered by the U.S. postal officials discovered the error and quickly seized the printing, but they were not fast enough; Boston collector Henry E. Harris had already purchased a sheet of the stamps. Shortly after he announced his discovery of the error and his intention to keep the stamps, the Canal Zone postal authorities announced its decision to reprint 500 additional sheets – this time with an intentionally missing bridge, so as to devalue the stamps with the error.

Mr. Harris sued the Canal Zone postal authorities in Washington District Court and successfully prevented postal administrators from saturating the market with stamps of commemorating a bridge with no bridge to be found. The judge ruled in favor of Mr. Harris, stating that the governor of the Canal Zone had “no statutory authority to reprint the missing bridge error solely for a philatelic purpose.”

Collectors haven’t been so lucky since.

In 1993, the U.S. Postal Service released a sheet of “Legends of the West” stamps featuring 20 different designs. One stamp depicted the image of a legendary cowboy with his name, Bill Pickett. The problem was that the man on the stamp wasn’t Bill Pickett. It was his brother, Ben Pickett. The Postal Service immediately ordered the stamp’s entire press run be recalled and destroyed. But the plan faltered when it became clear that 183 of the stamps were already in the hands of the public. So the Post Office decided to release 150,000 more of the wrong-brother-Picket stamps.

Six of the collectors and one stamp dealer sued the Postal Service, arguing that the printing of additional stamps would make their stamps less rare, and consequently, less valuable. The court held that because the Postal Service regulations do not provide a standard that sets forth “how the agency is supposed to handle the inadvertent creation of a philatelic rarity, ” it couldn’t render a decision. There was simply no law to apply.

Who will be win a fortune from the 2013 release of the not-so-Inverted Jenny?

It could be you.

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