Part III: Proud Owner of 96 Color Errors Sells One for 15 Pence

By J. C. Kuhn

From time to time stories circulate in the popular and philatelic press about stamp errors which somehow have passed the inspection controls of the issuing postal authority.

If a post office customer sees them at the counter, knows stamps, and is lucky, he will buy as many as he sees before the postal clerk realizes that these stamps should not be sold.

The most famous incident in Canadian stamp collecting involved the 1959 St. Lawrence Seaway five-cent stamp with the centre inverted. When these errors surfaced in Winnipeg, the purchaser–an office boy–had not noticed the error in the post office.

Thirty of the stamps went back with him to the business office where a stenographer spotted the error. Neither customer nor postal clerk observed anything amiss, so that authenticity of the error had to be established apart from eyewitness evidence.

Value of the Seaway errors was great from the beginning. Within three months of their discovery, 16 of the Winnipeg 30 were sold for an average of $1,000 each. Seventeen years later, in October 1976, one of the errors was auctioned in Toronto for $3,000. About 300 copies of the error went into circulation.

An early, and equally famous, discovery occurred in Washington, D.C., when the first U.S. airmail stamps were issued in May 1918.

Mr. Walter Robey, a knowledgeable philatelist, saw before his eyes over a post office counter a sheet of 100 stamps with the airplane in the centre upside-down. He bought that sheet from the clerk for $24 and then, in Mr. Robey’s own words, “(I) showed him the sheet I had just purchased and drew his attention to the fact that the airplane was upside down. Without any comment he left the window and ran for a telephone. Needless to say, I left that office in a hurry.”

Later that day two postal inspectors called at his home and questioned him about his purchase, trying to recover the stamps, but Robey refused to give them back or even to show them to the inspectors. To prove authenticity, it was enough that the post office clerk had momentarily seen the sheet in question.

It was a risk, but a necessary and worthwhile one, for Mr. Robey to let the clerk see what he had sold. Again in the case of these errors, value was great right from the start: in about a week Mr. Robey shrewdly negotiated the sale of his 100 stamps for $15,000. Fifty-nine years later, a block of four sold for $170,000 in June 1976.

Authentic Errors

My reason for relating these two stories is to call attention to the matter of authenticity and the importance attached to over-the-counter purchase of the errors.

Because stamps are printed pieces of paper, one can expect printing errors to occur. Proof sheets have to be run, colour overlays have to be worked out and various technical processes make it inevitable that “printer’s waste” is a necessary part of printing anything–stamps included.

One of the many admirable things about stamp collecting is the trust that exists between collectors and postal authorities. Collectors make it a point of honour to shun stamps of questionable origin. The postal authorities have a great responsibility to supervise their own operation in such a way that errors of any sort are weeded out before stamps are sold to the public.

This is the reason that the Director of the Stamping Branch of the Revenue commissioners in Dublin was taken aback at the sight of my sheet of stamps missing one colour. Reputable stamp dealers and serious philatelilsts will not touch printer’s waste that may have been smuggled out a back door somewhere. Exotic errors from trial printings of most stamps line waste bins but are discountenanced as philatelilc material. (Remember the recent 10-cent stamp with the queen on it, which was printed on inferior paper? Canada Post assures us that all these stamps have been destroyed.)

Back-door stamps are therefore worthless, even though they may be identical in every respect to a “front-door” error that made a respectable entrance into society by passing numerous checkpoints without being detected. For this reason the history of the appearance of an error is as important as the visible stamp itself.

Errors spotted by purchasers in the post office and acknowledged by the clerk on duty are the most exciting and authentic kind. Who could hope for the chance to use one of the errors by mailing a letter from the very post office of purchase? The chance was mine, this once and once only.

Leaving the Roundstone newsagent’s on the morning of May 17, I returned to the post office to buy stamps for my new three self-addressed letters and to see them into the mail. The time was approaching when Walter in his van would be making his return trip to Galway, the single pickup of the day, and I wanted the letters to get off before too much interest in them was aroused.

Equal in significance to the first-day cover aspect was the fact of their use as stamps. Without a country of origin or a value printed on the stamp, they might someday need the buttressing of actual acceptance in an Irish post office and transmission through the mail system.

To avoid breaking my block of 10 stamps, I asked for eight more, three for my letters and five to add to my exclusive collection. Again Mrs. Keane did her figures in the margin: 15 multiplied by eight yielded 1.20.

I was distraught by the freedom she took to write anywhere she seemed to please. But how–why–should I forestall her? To her the margins of her sheets of stamps were useless, short-lived pieces of blank writing space. On other occasions I have seen the margins of sheets licked and stuck onto the pages of her book–so that the sheets would not fall out.

Well-Canceled Error

Mrs. Keane apparently had some experience with summer tourists’ requests that Irish stamps on their cards and letters should receive a medium-dark and well-placed datestamp cancellation. She knew what I meant when I asked for such a cancellation. She took the letters, showed me her datestamp on them from a distance, and put them with the batch of outgoing mail.

First day cover

I didn’t ask to see them up close; I entrusted them into the hands of the same providence that had first brought them before my eyes. They were on their way to Toronto and that was that.

Leaving the post office, I was very happy. I now had 15 mint copies and three first-day covers of a stamp that might prove rare enough to be valuable.

On the bicycle ride home, the two miles on an uphill grade into a facing wind gave me time to reconsider some of my actions.

My exuberance returned on rushing into the house, where I began to give Maura a fast course in the little philately that I knew. She knew nothing about stamps except what she had read in Robert Graves’ Antigua, Penny, Puce–hardly a heart-warming introduction to advanced philately.

My instinct was to buy the rest of the sheet and she came up with reasons for and against. By the middle of the afternoon I had to try for further information.

The house we were renting had had a telephone several years before, and a few of the old directories were still around. I found a six-year-old volume of golden Pages and looked under Stamp Dealers. I figured that by the afternoon of the first day of issue, if anything spectacular were occurring in the rest of the country, the Dublin stamp dealers would know something about it.

Of course, I knew even less about Irish stamp dealers than I knew about Irish stamps, so I would have to judge from the ads themselves.

The first and by far largest was by Feldman, David Ltd., Postage Stamps of the World, The Specialists in Irish Philately. That sounded impressive. Of course, since the directory was six years old, I couldn’t be sure the firm was still there or at that number.

The white–pages directory was more up-to-date–only four years old. In it, this dealer’s telephone number and address were the same. I wrote down the number and went to the neighbours, who had a coin-box telephone in their home.

A Few Questions

I still wanted to avoid drawing attention to myself at the local post office, so I asked my neighbour to place the call to Dublin for me. The postal clerk in Roundstone, who was also the telephone operator, would recognize my voice, which I wanted to avoid.

Ellie Conneely obliged me in my strange request and the call went through fairly quickly. The connection was clear but distant-sounding, and I asked my carefully-phrased question of the first voice on the line: “Have you heard of any irregularities in the printing of the new American Bicentennial issue?”

“Just a moment, please, I’ll give you to someone else.”

I repeated my question to the man who came on the line and he said that he hadn’t. “What kind of irregularities?” he asked.

I had to give some answer, although I wanted to avoid being too specific. “The face value and the name of the country, on the 15p stamp,” I said. It was too hard to hold back, as I wanted information. I added: “I have seen a sheet in which the silver failed to print, so there is no value or country on the stamp.”

He acknowledged that this was interesting. (On Irish long-distance calls, you frequently have to shout, with the result that subtleties of intonation and modulation are entirely lost.) I couldn’t read consuming interest or cool disinterest in his response to my inquiry. I wanted to keep talking. “How long does it take for irregularities of this sort to show up?”

“At least several days, perhaps weeks.”

Then he asked me a question which I could both answer and not answer: “Where are you calling from?”

“Connemara.”

“Oh.”

I didn’t dare give the name of the village, although his question was a legitimate one. Connemara is a region large enough to discourage much inquiry, but specific enough to let him know my distance from him.

He said that he’d like to see the sheet if I’d bring it by, and I acquiesced generally without committing myself. We hung up and again and I wasn’t much the wiser.

Next morning I was first up and ready to go back for the remaining stamps; it was just a case of the conscious mind accepting a deeper decision. When I was sure that the morning papers should have arrived in the village, I took to the bicycle again and headed for Roundstone. First to the newagent’s, to see if anything was in the Irish Times. Nothing. So my hunch would have to be self-supporting.

My second visit to the post office, 24 hours after the fist, was more decisive. I told the clerk that I would like to buy the rest of the 15p Ben Franklin stamps, and she got out her book. I would soon know how popular the issue had been yesterday.

Carmel Keane still had most of the sheet. In fact, it turned out that she had sold only three more beyond my 18 on Monday, May 17. At the moment she didn’t say who bought them, but I would learn that eventually.

Carmel counted up the stamps on the sheet–79. Again in the right margin of the sheet she multiplied 15 times 79. Her writing got dangerously close to the precious control box in the lower right margin. Again I couldn’t say, “Please don’t do that,” but again I thought it, only with more anxiety this time. The product of her multiplication was 11.85 pounds and I paid her.

Then she said: “You know, my daughter Ann collectors stamps and she always gets one of each of the new ones. Would you mind if I kept one of these for her?”

A Memorable Sale

I hadn’t the slightest objection. Ann was a great girl, 12 years old, and I was pleased that her stamp collection would have a stamp of more than ordinary interest. With 96 of my own, I had enough to be satisfied with. So within a minute of completing the purchase of 97 of the 100 stamps, I sold one for 15 pence.

All of Roundstone had had the same opportunity I did for a full 24 hours, so I didn’t feel that I was hastily depriving anyone of a chance at the stamps.

The statistically improbable had happened to me and this alone was exciting. The stamps were at least worth 15p each as stamps–provided we could write 93 letters to Canada or the States in the three weeks we planned to remain in Roundstone. Anywhere else in the world the stamps were possibly worthless.

Then again, they might be worth something. For every $10 each was worth, the whole sheet was worth $1,000.

Since we planned to buy a house in Toronto on our return from Ireland, the more the stamps were worth the better.

Contintue to Part 4