September 29, 2023

Economix: The Price of Printing Bad Stamps

Stamps Previous Statue of Liberty stamps, clockwise from top left: 1923, 1971 and 1979.

The United States Postal Service admitted this week that its Lady Liberty stamp actually doesn’t show the famous statue in New York Harbor, but a half-size copy standing in front of a Las Vegas casino. But the post office’s assurances that it likes the design anyway may have less to do with aesthetics and more to do with the potential cost of replacing the billions of stamps already printed by three different firms — to say nothing of making instant collector’s items out of the uncounted number already used on mail.

What are the postal service’s options? The Lady Liberty stamps are printed by three different private firms, and The New York Post reported Saturday that the Postal Service has spent $880 million so far on this issue — “a very significant press run,” according to a spokesman, Roy Betts. Since so many have already been bought and used, the stamps will never be rare or valuable.

Stamp errors happen from time to time, with postal officials taking various approaches over the years.

stampBenjamin K. Miller Collection, The New York Public Library, via/Associated Press The 1918 “Inverted Jenny” that has a Curtiss “Jenny” airmail plane printed upside down.

Some famous mistakes, like the 1918 stamp with the airplane flying upside down, resulted from a printing accident and were released in very small numbers. At the time, postal inspectors tried to persuade the buyer of the first sheet to return his misprints for destruction, but since he had bought them legally at a post office in Washington, D.C., he stood his ground. His 100 examples turned out to be the only ones that surfaced, and collectors these days gladly pay six figures for one.

When a 1961 stamp honoring the late United Nations secretary general Dag Hammarskjold showed up with its yellow background inverted, the post office took the opposite tack. Officials deliberately reprinted the mistake in large numbers, so every collector could have one and no one could profit from the error.

But production errors are one thing. Design and factual errors tend to be more embarrassing. In 1999, a stamp inscribed “Grand Canyon, Colorado” was quickly replaced with a corrected version locating the landmark in Arizona. Millions of the goof-ups were reportedly destroyed, and only an advance publicity image was ever seen.

A similar near-miss happened on a 1913 2-cent stamp commemorating the imminent Panama Canal. Early photographs of the canal proved unsuitable for a stamp design, so officials instead photographed a scale model at the War Department, filling it with toy boats. The stamp’s engraver added little palm trees and a mountain range. When a sharp eye noticed that the scene was not the Gatun Locks, as per the stamp’s inscription, but rather the San Pedro Miguel Locks on the far side, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing scrapped all 16 printing plates plus the 20 million stamps already run off (.pdf, see page 20) and hurried out a new version, simply labeled “Panama Canal.” The bad stamps never saw the light of day, though a few proofs from the original steel die exist in collector hands.

Postal officials were less lucky with a 1993 stamp depicting a cowboy named Bill Pickett, one of a sheet of 20 different designs titled “Legends of the West.” Unfortunately, the guy on the stamp was really Bill’s brother Ben. Attempts to withdraw the erroneous stamps faltered when it became clear some had already been released to the public.

The postal service substituted the right man and reprinted the sheets. Then, to avoid creating a rarity, they opted to release the bad sheets anyway, through a lottery. In spite of a lawsuit by collectors seeking to safeguard the value of the few error stamps they had luckily acquired, about 150,000 sheets were ultimately sold. Today, they trade for $120 to $150 each.

In 1991, postal officials scrapped and reprinted 300 million stamps showing Hubert Humphrey because the sheet margins had him taking office in the wrong year. The cost of doing this, over a half-million dollars, was not borne by taxpayers because the Postal Service was self-funded.

How will the current brouhaha over Lady Liberty play out? Will the post office stick by its version and do nothing — or will the stamp be reissued showing the real deal? Philatelists, not to mention New Yorkers, await.

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