US Stamps

Stamps from second CIA Invert pane found

May 1, 2023, 2 PM

By Wayne L. Youngblood

After more than 35 years, a plate block of the United States 1979 $1 Rush Lamp and Candle Holder of the Americana series with the engraved brown inverted (Scott 1610c) has finally emerged, deepening the mystery of this iconic error stamp and confirming some long-held speculation about the existence of more than one pane.

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

The CIA Invert plate block, shown here in the only image currently available to Linn’s Stamp News, quietly appeared on the eBay internet commerce site on April 26 with a $199,000 asking price. Then, just as mysteriously, the plate block’s listing was pulled down on April 28. On May 1, the plate block was relisted with an asking price of $225,000.

Stranger still, this is definitely not the missing plate block from the original partial pane of 95 error stamps found by CIA employees in 1986. Had it survived, the plate block of the 1986 pane would have been in an upper right position, with no white stripe on any of the stamps. The Figure 1 plate block is an upper left position, with a large unprinted stripe at left and tan printers’ guide markings in the left selvage. I will discuss the white stripe later in this article.

Because four panes of 100 were printed from the 400-stamp printing plate, the existence of this new plate block confirms speculation that more than one pane of CIA Inverts may have escaped the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which printed the stamp.

However, this leaves wide open the question of how many inverts from this second pane of 100 survived or, for that matter, how many may already have been quietly sold. There’s no question the potential doubling of quantity would affect the value of what was until now an error scarcer than the famed U.S. 1918 Jenny Invert (Scott C3a).

The new CIA Invert plate block is being offered on eBay by Mark Eastzer of Markest Stamp Co. of Lynbrook, N.Y., and is described as “1610 C Inverted One Dollar Candle Stick Plate Block of Four Mint NH UNIQUE.”

Linn’s contacted Eastzer before the listing ended April 28. At that time, he said the block was “on note” (consignment) from a “collector,” and that he didn’t know anything further about it. When questioned about the plate block coming from a new pane, he wouldn’t specifically comment.

Eastzer did not provide Linn’s any additional information after he relisted the plate block on May 1.

Like any story that takes decades to tease out, the CIA Invert tale has taken many turns, with no small amount of misinformation along the way, beginning with the story of the error’s origin.

The original story was broken in the Aug. 11, 1986, Linn’s Stamp News by Fred Boughner, and it was stated the errors had been bought by a small business in Fairfax, Va.

While this was certainly a major news story in the stamp world, it wasn’t such a big deal for corporate media until Linn’s broke the story more than a year later in its Sept. 7, 1987, issue that the stamps had actually been purchased by CIA employees.

This discovery was made when Don Sundman, president of Mystic Stamp Co. (and purchaser of 50 inverts), filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the BEP, which then disclosed the CIA connection.

The story then became international news, with Linn’s at the center. Eventually, it was discovered that a partial pane of error stamps (95, as it turned out) was purchased at the McClean, Va., substation on March 27, 1986, by Steve Lambert, then an employee of the CIA. Five stamps, including the plate number, had already been removed and presumably sold to other patrons and subsequently used and destroyed.

One stamp was badly damaged by a CIA employee who happened to notice the invert. He alerted Lambert and several other employees (nine altogether, seven men and two women) who bought fresh stamps and substituted them for the inverts. Each employee kept a single stamp.

After contacting local stamp dealer Ike Snyder, the group was referred to New Jersey error dealer Jacques C. Schiff Jr., who urged them to “get here fast!” and even offered to pay airfare.

When pressed for an amount by Schiff, the group asked $100,000 for the partial pane, to which Schiff reportedly retorted, “That’s way out of line; I’ll give you $25,000.” The representative of the group who visited Schiff’s Ridgefield, N.J., office on April 2, 1986, reluctantly accepted the offer, on the condition Schiff wouldn’t reveal the source.

Schiff wrote nine separate checks for $2,777.78 each for the purchase of the partial pane of 85, thinking he had the entire supply. The damaged 86th stamp was presented to Schiff as a gift. For years, Schiff denied ownership of the pane.

Despite the U.S. Department of Justice twice finding no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the nine employees, the CIA sought to reclaim the nine singles and threatened the employees with termination if they did not surrender their stamps.

Four employees, including Lambert, were eventually fired for insubordination for not surrendering their inverts. One stated he “lost the stamp” and was retained, and the remaining four (including both women) surrendered their stamps, which were eventually turned over to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum via a Nov. 1, 1990, government transfer. The museum already had one example that had been donated by Sundman.

Initially, the price realizations of CIA Inverts that were auctioned were dampened a bit by the potential of unclear ownership. But when it became apparent the owners had a clear title to the errors and the likelihood of more turning up dimmed, values stabilized over the years.

The stamp has a current Scott catalog value of $17,000. The value appears in italics to indicate an item that trades infrequently in the philatelic marketplace.

Not Cutting Corners

Ironically, the CIA Invert occurred because the BEP, in an effort to cut corners, stopped cutting corners.

After the disastrous invert error of the 1962 4¢ Dag Hammarskjold commemorative that resulted in an intentional printing to destroy the value, the BEP began cutting corners of press sheets for sheetfed multicolor stamps that had to travel through the press more than once.

During the inspection process, it’s easy to pick up a sheet, examine it and unconsciously place it back in the pile inverted. Cut corners on press sheets make this type of careless mistake virtually impossible.

However, in June 1985, an unauthorized BEP official, in an effort to save money and apparently not remembering the 1962 debacle, asked the paper supplier to stop cutting corners on paper (in this case LT-46 paper) destined for sheetfed presses. The effect, of course, soon became apparent.

The $1 Rush Lamp and Candle Holder was a combination print job. The background tan, as well as the yellow and orange flame, were all printed by offset lithography on a sheetfed Miller press and were the first colors laid down. The line-engraved brown (the candleholder and inscriptions) was the second stage, which required a second pass, face down, through a sheetfed I-8 currency press.

Because the paper-cutting and perforating process was aligned to the engraved image, the perforating appears normal, but the offset colors exhibit a slight shift because of the inversion, leaving the so-called white stripe, as seen at left on the illustrated plate block.

On the discovery pane, this stripe, which represents the unprinted gutter between panes, appears as a narrow white vertical band near the right edge of the pane, with the tan appearing at the right edge of the stamps in the 10th column and continuing into the narrow selvage. A single white stripe variety from the discovery pane is pictured in Figure 2.

On the Figure 1 plate block from the new error pane, the stripe appears as a wide continuous band that extends into the wide selvage margin at left.

Now that we finally know which intaglio plate number was involved — 40971 — we can positively trace the production date of the error to somewhere between Nov. 4 and Dec. 5, 1985.

Over the years, I have received a number of reports from individuals who supposedly possessed one of the missing panes of stamps. Arguably, the most credible (and persistent) of these came from a source who claimed to have it safely stored in a Las Vegas, Nev., facility but was locked out of it for an indeterminate time.

The BEP was never able to confirm specifically whether it had destroyed any panes of inverts, but no additional examples have turned up in the philatelic marketplace — until now. Will a third or fourth pane eventually show up? It’s impossible to know, but each passing year lessens the likelihood of that happening.

Hopefully, over time, we will be able to uncover more information about quantities involved with this second pane of inverts. But for now, we can say that the second pane was likely saved intact, and that the number of available inverts has been slightly more than doubled. In any event, the plate block is an amazing and visually stunning showpiece.

Connect with Linn’s Stamp News: 

    Sign up for our newsletter
    Like us on Facebook
    Follow us on Twitter