US Stamps

Confirmed count from new CIA Invert pane jumps to 20

May 15, 2023, 9 PM


By Wayne L. Youngblood

Linn’s Stamp News’ breaking story about the plate number block from a newly discovered pane of 100 of the United States 1979 $1 Rush Lamp and Candle Holder from the Americana series with the engraved brown inverted (Scott 1610c) first appeared on Linn’s website May 1. The story was published on page 1 of the May 22 print edition of Linn’s.

Within hours of that article’s publication, more information began to unfold.

Linn’s has confirmed the existence of an intact vertical plate strip of 20 from which that plate block was taken, as shown here, courtesy of error dealer Jack Nalbandian.

In addition, the existence of a second error pane has been known to some since at least 2018 and quite probably much longer than that.

The error is popularly known as the CIA Invert because it was first discovered by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency.

This story, like all great philatelic lore, continues to evolve and deepen almost daily. As mentioned, the story broke May 1 on Linn’s website ( and then later in the May 22 print edition.

At that time, Linn’s discovered that the plate block had appeared April 26 on the online marketplace eBay for an asking price of $199,000, with no hint of its significance. The plate block was offered by Mark Eastzer of Markest Stamp Co. of Lynbrook, N.Y.

That listing was pulled down without explanation on April 28, then reappeared a few days later with an asking price of $225,000 for the plate block.

As of mid-May, the plate block is still available as a “Buy it Now” item. However, for those (including this writer) who have it on their “Watch” list, it was offered for $199,000 as of May 13. That offer was set to expire May 15.

The white (unprinted) vertical line on the left two stamps is the giveaway that the recently discovered plate block is from a newly discovered pane. This wouldn’t have been possible for the plate block from the original pane even if it hadn’t been destroyed.

A horizontal strip of five stamps, including the plate number in the selvage, was removed from the pane before it was sold to employees of the CIA in 1986.

The so-called white stripe was found on the opposite, narrow-margin side of the pane from where the plate number would have appeared, as evidenced by the right margin single of the CIA Invert shown above, courtesy of Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries.

As can be seen, the white stripe on the newly discovered plate strip is much wider than the one found on the original discovery pane.

Based on the evidence thus far, calling the second CIA Invert pane a new discovery is not entirely accurate. As it turns out, the existence of additional inverts has been known since at least 2018, when the complete plate strip of 20 was offered to at least one collector for $500,000 during the 2018 American Philatelic Society/American Topical Association Stampshow in Columbus, Ohio.

Harry Olivar, who calls himself a “wide-eyed collector,” gazed in awe at the strip when it was offered at the 2018 show. He supplied Linn’s with a photo that was obviously taken with a cell phone (as opposed to a scan), now one of only two known images of the intact plate number strip of 20.

Olivar was unwilling to tell Linn’s who offered it to him, but dealer Gary Posner has since confirmed to Linn’s that he offered Olivar the strip.

What is not yet confirmed is whether the entire second pane survived or just the plate strip. Given the pristine nature of the plate strip, it is possible that the remaining 80 stamps also survived. If someone knew enough to save an entire post-office fresh plate strip, they likely also knew it was a major error.

It is possible that several singles from the second pane have already been sold at auction over the past few years.

When the CIA Invert first appeared, I attempted to track the position of each example sold, when it sold and by what auction house, on the assumption that another pane might surface someday.

Four panes of the $1 Rush Lamp and Candle Holder were printed from a 400-subject printing plate by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The BEP and the U.S. Postal Service were never able to locate another pane, despite an extensive search.

Because these stamps were processed on an L perforator, the perforation pattern of each stamp is identifiable, providing positive identification as to which pane any given invert originated, as well as its position.

I had saved and enlarged the only known image of the 85-stamp partial pane as sold to Jacques Schiff. Therefore, determining the position of each error stamp was a reasonably simple exercise.

If any new examples turned up, they would have been easily identified as having come from a different pane. I finally, but unfortunately (and apparently prematurely), gave up this pursuit several years ago.

Posner revealed to Linn’s on May 8 that he had owned the plate block and sold it to an unnamed collector (not Olivar) who consigned it to Eastzer.

The trail eventually led back to error dealer Nalbandian, who had owned the plate strip of 20. Nalbandian is now in assisted living and couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Linn’s contacted Nalbandian’s longtime associate and son-in-law Bob Dowoit, who revealed that Nalbandian had owned the plate strip from the second pane for some time.

According to Dowoit, Nalbandian possibly obtained the plate strip from Schiff’s stock sometime during the late 1990s, thus setting the clock for awareness of the second pane back another 20 years from 2018.

If that is the case, then Schiff might have been in possession of the second pane at some point, and he might have sold several examples from the second pane, with buyers perhaps believing they came from the CIA pane.

Many of the principal characters involved with this story are no longer alive or are unable to remember, so the origin of the second pane’s discovery might remain a mystery.

It is a long-accepted and somewhat willfully overlooked fact that many, but far from all, major errors are not strictly sold over post office counters. Post office clerks aren’t blind, and some may be open to making a slight profit from their discoveries that would have to be kept quiet in order to avoid violating USPS rules.

As such, sometimes these clerks may have an intermediary offer the error to a stamp dealer; others contacted Schiff and other error dealers directly over the years.

After Linn’s 1987 story connecting the CIA with the inverts broke, the BEP conducted an internal investigation and attempted to trace (without plate number) the approximate time and distribution of the error panes.

It was known at that time that the partial CIA Invert pane of 95 had been sold through the McLean, Va., substation, which was served by the Merrifield, Va., post office. Therefore, it makes sense that the other three panes of 100 from the error sheet of 400 might have been sold along the East Coast, although USPS distribution protocols don’t always keep plate numbers and pane positions together.

It is possible that Schiff was contacted by an employee of another Washington, D.C., area post office, who discovered one of the error panes. If Schiff then bought the second pane, perhaps he might have been attempting to control the flow of this major error.

How did the plate strip of 20 get to the 2018 Stampshow in Columbus? Dowoit told Linn’s that neither he nor Nalbandian was at that show, but that Posner had the strip “on note” (consignment) for a time. Posner told Linn’s he offered the strip to Olivar at the 2018 show.

How many CIA Inverts are out there? It is now known that at least two of the four panes escaped destruction, and that there are at least 115 still in existence: 95 from the first pane and 20 from the second pane. No inverts were ever confirmed located or destroyed by the BEP.

Given the fact this partial second pane has shown up, it’s not entirely inconceivable that one or both of the remaining panes might be safely tucked away in a vault, awaiting someone’s retirement or inheritance.

As mentioned in Linn’s May 22 story, I received many unverified reports of other finds for several years. Some were simply brushed off, but others were more intriguing. It’s also possible that all the stamps from the missing error panes went unnoticed and were simply used and then destroyed.

No matter the explanation, there is now another fascinating chapter to add to the ongoing saga of the CIA Invert. Stay tuned — there might be more to come.