Bill Robey was a savvy enough stamp collector to know that he just might be able to parlay his May 14, 1918, once-in-a-lifetime purchase of a $24 sheet of error stamps into serious money. Even as he dodged postal inspectors he started contacting people to help legitimize and publicize his find. He didn’t know if other invert sheets would show up and reduce the value of his, so he wanted to sell the stamps as quickly as possible. Stamp dealer Hamilton Coleman’s offer of $500 was not serious money. Percy Mann’s offer of $10,000 was harder to decline, but by then Robey had decided to go to New York and shop his prize to E.H.R. Green, a wealthy man already legendary for his splurges, and then if necessary to the big firms. Robey could keep Mann's offer as his ace in the hole.
Robey’s Saturday morning trek downtown to Green’s Broadway office and among the Nassau Street dealers was so disappointing that he decided to head home the next day. Before catching the train, he telephoned Mann as promised and told him he would just hold onto the stamps for now, but Mann persuaded him to stop off in Philadelphia en route. They met at the station and Mann took Robey to the home of well-known local dealer Eugene Klein.
While Robey had been showing his prize to Manhattan stamp dealers, Mann had been talking to another Philadelphian, Joseph Steinmetz. Steinmetz was an aviation enthusiast who had helped organize the city’s first day airmail flight festivities, and Mann hoped he would kick in some cash and sweeten his offer to Robey. Instead, Steinmetz suggested they reach out to Klein, whose connections and bank account might produce an offer big enough to change Robey’s mind about holding on to the sheet.
Klein looked over the stamps and got right down to business. He asked Robey to set a price. Robey, who no doubt had been mulling it over for days, later reported, “I told him I would not accept less than $15,000 for it.” Without batting an eye, Klein asked Robey to give him an option on the whole sheet until 3 p.m. the next day.
Robey returned home and fielded phone calls while Klein made one of his own—to E.H.R. Green—apparently reaching him easily. Securing a promise from Green to buy the sheet for $20,000, Klein exercised his option, turning a nice $5,000 profit in less than twenty-four hours. By Tuesday, May 21, the newspapers had the story of Green’s purchase, reporting that he planned to retain part of the sheet for his collection and dispose of the rest among friends. Philatelists predicted that individual copies of the invert could be worth as much as $250. The New York Times editorialized that, “Even for a set of stamps as ‘hard’ as that—to use the word of boy collectors—$20,000 does seem too much.”
Klein got right down to business, running ads in the stamp press with the first appearing May 25, 1918, in Mekeel’s Weekly Stamp News, offering “a few of the remaining copies…for $250” and straight-edge copies for $175. He briefly cancelled the offer with another ad on June 1, perhaps needing time to clarify his arrangement with Green. However, starting with the June issue, he also ran ads in The American Philatelist every month through January 1919, warning that only a few of the remaining copies were available, “Price on application.” On June 29, Green gave one Inverted Jenny to Nassau Street dealer George R. Tuttle to auction for the Red Cross, for which it made $300.
Though he compiled no contemporary account of the sale, Klein did eventually describe an action he took before breaking the sheet apart, famously recounting, “Before I broke up the sheet I numbered each stamp lightly on the back.” Dealers and collectors continue to be grateful for these tiny identification labels.
Bill Robey and his wife, Caroline, eventually used their windfall to buy a new car and a house, something they would be able to mortgage when funds were needed for healthcare when their daughter got polio. Robey also made an effort to use his new celebrity to develop his own dealer business. He soon placed an ad in the St. Mary’s county Beacon, declaring his interest in handling stamps issued before 1900. He would not see an Inverted Jenny again until twenty years later when he met collector Ethel Stewart (later McCoy) who showed him her block of four.
Sources: Material is derived from George Amick’s The Inverted Jenny: Money, Mystery, Mania; Robey’s 1938 personal account, published in the Weekly Philatelic Gossip, and The American Philatelist. Stamp of the Century will be published next spring.