Two Mississippi

On the morning of June 24, 1998, Dr. Sander Diamond, a professor of history at Keuka College and a man of intense enthusiasms, sat in his home office adjacent to the campus. Although other parts of the house offer views of Keuka Lake, one of the famous Finger Lakes of upstate New York, on which the college is set, Diamond’s office is a small, windowless room, which he likens to Raskolnikov’s cell. There this tall, dapper man, whose downstate accent has never given way to upstate nasality, can focus his energy on one of the various pursuits for which he is widely known. In addition to his classroom teaching—in 1997, he was named Keuka’s Professor of the Year—for the last quarter-century he has organized and led tours for students and local community members to such places as Israel, Jordan, France, Italy, Germany, Finland, Poland and the former U.S.S.R.

Diamond’s national reputation rests on his scholarly studies of the Nazi movement in America and of the Holocaust. He has written fast-paced thrillers that derive their feel of authenticity from his ability to register and record detail during his extensive travels and at home. And on the morning in question, it was Diamond’s attentive-ness to detail that suddenly brought him to a discovery he had waited an entire lifetime to make.

When my wife, Ann, and I arrived for dinner at the Diamonds’ we were quickly briefed on the special character of the day. Diamond told us he had made an exciting find and that for hours he had been waiting for a return call that might now come at any time and would, he hoped, validate his discovery. Then he took us to his study and, before giving us a chance for independent observation, revealed his discovery of a lifetime. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing had made a mistake. No, they had not mailed him a million dollars, but it did seem that they had sent him a winning lottery ticket. They had made a mistake in the printing of a much-awaited set of postage stamps, and he had found it. More important to a stamp collector than any monetary value the mistake might hold, Diamond made it clear, was the thrill of such a discovery for its own sake. “To be sure,” he said, “our government has made its share of mistakes, but given the billions of stamps printed since it issued our first postage stamp in 1847, remarkably few have had anything to do with philately.”

From a shelf that housed his huge collection of United States stamps, Diamond took down an album devoted to commemoratives—stamps that since 1892 have commemorated the lives of our citizens and the events that shaped them. He turned quickly to the Trans-Mississippi series, the first stamp of which was issued on June 10, 1898, as a tribute to the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska. The Exposition had celebrated the closing of the Western frontier. “America came of age at the doorstep of the 20th century,” Diamond told us, “and these stamps tell the story with the beauty of miniatures. Most collectors agree that this set is the most finely engraved of all commemoratives ever issued—the definitive series.”

The 1-cent stamp depicts “Marquette on the Mississippi”; the 2-cent shows “Farming in the West”; the 4-cent, an “Indian Hunting Buffalo”; the 5-cent, “Fremont on Rocky Mountains”; the 8-cent, “Troops Guarding Train.” The 10-cent stamp portrays “Hardships of Emigration” (the father of a family of pioneers looks down helplessly at a prostrate mule, one of the two that have been pulling their covered wagon). The 50-cent stamp, “Western Mining Prospector,” is the only one missing from Diamond’s album. A fine used copy is worth hundreds of dollars. He has the magnificent $1 stamp, “Western Cattle in Storm,” and the $2 “Mississippi River Bridge.”

Diamond’s interest of the morning had been to compare the engraving of the original issue with the “1998 Bi-Color Re-Issue of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Stamp Designs,” as the two new commemorative sheets are captioned. Original dies were used in creating the reissue. The first sheet reproduces one copy of each of the nine denominations in the set. The second sheet contains nine copies of the $1 stamp. Diamond had just bought the stamps that day at the regional post office in Canandaigua, N.Y. They had been issued on June 18 (though not in Omaha, as tradition would dictate) and eagerly purchased by collectors who waited for hours in line at the Postage Stamp Mega-Event show in Anaheim, Calif., but this was Diamond’s first opportunity to get acquainted with them.

Suddenly Diamond had been jolted from the microscopic level of his comparison when he observed that the new 2-cent stamp did not show the horse-drawn plows he expected to see; it showed the bridge, which belonged on the 2-dollar stamp! The farming and bridge scenes, with their legends, had been transposed between the two denominations. Aside from the color changes of the plate, which were an obvious way to differentiate the new stamps from the monochromatic originals, he noticed no other alterations.

Like most people who collect stamps, Diamond had formed the habit of staying alert to a possible error in the printing process. “What kid,” he asked, “does not know about the biplane flying upside down on some copies of the 24-cent airmail issued in 1918? Few have been found, and a copy can bring as much as $125,000. An invert is a major error. In the printing of the Pan-American Exposition designs of 1901, the 1-cent Ship, 2-cent Train, 3-cent Electric Car and 4- cent Bridge over Niagara Falls were inverted, and some slipped through at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. At a forthcoming mail auction, the asking bid for the 1-cent is $13,500.”

Along with Sander and Susan, Ann and I quickly suggested possible interpretations of the mistake in the Trans-Mississippi reissue and possible official responses to it. The first hypothesis was that the mistake was an intolerable one and that the edition would have to be withdrawn. That was Diamond’s belief. It was the reason he was waiting for a telephone call. If a recall were to occur immediately, before many stamps had been sold (whether or not the set were to be reissued yet again, with all of the pictures and their legends correctly placed with regard to denomination), then few persons would hold the “winning tickets,” and the stamps might have high value. But might not the Postal Service, before an eventual recall, first sell so many of the faulty sheets that the pot would be split many ways? Or might the government assert that the mistake was not a mistake at all? Or that it was of little importance—nothing to merit a revised reissue?

In philatelic history, there is precedent for all of these hypothetical outcomes. In 1962 when a collector noticed that the yellow background of a U.S. stamp honoring Dag Hammarskjöld was inverted, the U.S. Postal Service effectively destroyed the value of the error by printing more than 40 million of the errors—about a quarter of all the Hammarskjöld stamps issued. The decision by Postmaster General J. Edward Day was dubbed “Day’s Folly” by collectors dazed at what he had done to their hobby. When the Canal Zone Postal Service that same year released a bridge stamp that in 200 instances lacked the bridge, it decided to follow the lead of the U.S. Postal Service and sell 100,000 of the missing-bridge stamps to collectors at face value. H.E. Harris, founder of the venerable stamp dealership that bears his name, was able to sue successfully (in Washington, D.C., where the stamps had been printed by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing) to prevent this from happening. The case set the precedent that a postal entity cannot intentionally reprint stamps with errors in order to destroy their value. The Canal Zone stamps now are in museums or listed for sale at a catalog value of thousands of dollars each.

“In 1994,” Diamond said, “the Postal Service issued a sheet of stamps, each worth 29 cents, to commemorate ‘Legends of the West.’ On one of the stamps, the image of the African-American cowboy Bill Pickett appeared. When the pane of 20 hit the post offices of America, the descendants of Bill hit the roof. Apparently, it was Bill’s brother’s face that appeared on the stamp. The stamps were withdrawn, and all but 100,000 were destroyed. In the new issue, the right Pickett was on the stamp. As for the 100,000, a national lottery was held, and 100,000 lucky collectors were notified that they had won their bid to own the error. The pane now sells for about $400.”

There may also be minor errors in the printing process: color shifts, incorrect perforation, or a nick on a printing plate that causes a slight mark on the final product. Some of these add value to the stamp, but some arouse little interest.

Mistakes like depicting the wrong Pickett can be corrected, ignored or even flaunted. French stamps first issued in 1903 show a female figure sowing grain against the wind (its direction is shown by the billowing of the woman’s skirt). Despite that acknowledged mistake, they were distributed until 1938 and later even reissued.

The phone call for which Sander was still waiting when we left the Diamonds’ and returned home late in the evening was one from Jacques C. Schiff Jr., a champion of philately, who was expected at his home in New Jersey, where Diamond had left a message. He was returning from a trip to California. (Whether he had been at the show in Anaheim, Diamond did not know.) Schiff Jr., whose father was not a stamp dealer, has been in business for 51 years—since his early teens—and is the most famous dealer to specialize in U.S. errors. It was Schiff who defended his purchase of stamps depicting an inverted candlestick, a valuable error, against a government lawsuit seeking to regain possession of them. As Diamond told us the story, an employee of the CIA in Langley, Virg., had, while on her lunch hour, purchased the stamps for the office and noticed the error. When she was guided to get in touch with Schiff, he flew to Virginia in a private plane to see and, ultimately, to purchase the stamps. The government claimed ownership, but the claim was rejected in court. “This,” said Diamond, “is the stuff of philatelic legend.”

Diamond, gambling on the potential value of his discovery—but pointing out that, in any event, the stamps would be worth at least their purchase price!—had already sent his son in New York City and a cadre of colleagues throughout the boroughs to buy up the commemoratives. The post office in New York City had decided to restrict their sales—no more than four sheets to a customer—because they were in short supply Another posse of purchasers was at work in Ohio, and his stampfinders were scouring Philadelphia as well.

Sander Diamond is a charismatic man; Ann and I were caught up in his excitement. Though Ann had not collected stamps since her childhood, and I had not collected for over 40 years, we decided we would join in the project he had so generously shared with us.

When we went to bed, Ann set the clock, announcing that she would be at our local post office in Penn Yan when it opened in the morning. Had we admitted it, we were almost counting the seconds. One Mississippi, two Mississippi …

Neither of us got a good night’s sleep. Ann kept thinking of friends who could really use the money the stamps might provide and was making plans to call them as soon as it was appropriate. And at 5:30 a.m., I found myself moving in a long line toward a distant window, stage left. Then the window slammed shut, and we were redirected to another, stage right. As we ran I sensed how it all would end and did the only thing one can do in such a situation: I woke up.

It was raining. There was thunder, which Ann hates. The power went off, as it so often does in our rural location. My dream clung to my mind. The day was not starting well.

Although I have retired from the practice of neurology and had no patients to see, our morning schedule had one fixed obligation— to take Ann’s cats to the veterinarian for their shots. We decided to combine our trip to the post office with the cats’ appointment and, without injury to ourselves or the cats, loaded them into carriers and set out. The morning thunderstorm had passed, and we felt that the omens were now more auspicious.

Our visit to the post office indeed paid off. There were five sheets of the full set available, and we bought all of them, at $3.80 each. We also bought a couple of the sheets that contain nine copies of the $1 stamp. There were no mistakes on those, and we knew they would either merely retain their face value or rise slowly in worth, in a fashion commensurate with other once-abundant items that people continue to value as the slow attrition of years— “the silent artillery of time,” to quote Diamond quoting Clinton quoting Lincoln—takes its toll on the supply.

As we left the post office, Ann uncharacteristically slapped me five. We were on our way.

We should have been on our way to the veterinarian. Instead I thought we had time for a detour to Gorham and Stanley, two rural post offices, where we learned that the commemoratives either were not coming (Gorham) or had not yet arrived (Stanley). All well and good—better that not every hamlet in America had the stamps for sale. But things were not all well and good in the back seat. By then Frisky and Snickers, the 16-year-old and the 8-year-old, unprepared by prior experience for the long, swerving ride through the rolling countryside, had defiled their separate carriers in all the ways possible, and we were nearly overcome by the time we delivered them into the hands of our incredibly understanding friend, Dr. Fahnestock, who regarded the cleanup as all in a day’s work. (I recalled with thankfulness that I had been able to spend my own medical career in something other than gastroenterology.)

After visits to two more small post offices, in Hall and Bellona— no Trans-Mississippis—we took the cats home, cleaned them further, readied ourselves, and went over to Keuka Park to see our friend. The news was not good. Although the call from Jacques Schiff Jr. still had not arrived, Diamond had telephoned a dealer in Rochester, who said that “the mistake was not an error.” Although that statement sounds as if no translation into English would do it justice, the implication seemed to be that even if there was no reason for having done what it did, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing would stand by its product and had no reason to recall it. Not yet defeated, Diamond next called a major stamp dealer in New York City, famous among collectors. While we waited, Diamond gathered further details. The error—mistake, I mean—had been discovered by the first day of issue or perhaps even before that. The decision had been made, somewhere, that the stamps would be sold without an attempt to make them conform to their prototypes.

End of adventure? Where was the crusading spirit of Jacques Schiff Jr.? When he called, if he called, was there any chance that Diamond could reawaken in him the sense of mission that had carried him to previous success? A new victory would have to be defined in terms of philately versus bureaucracy rather than in monetary terms, since by that time, if I had actually been counting the seconds since the stamps were first offered for sale, I would have reached well over one million. The odds that my stamps still had great value would have to be less than one in a million. I don’t buy lottery tickets; those are not odds I think are good.

The principle, though, was worth defending. Collectors should be able to influence the decision about how to handle this error (as I still thought of it, despite having heard an alternative interpretation). After all, it was primarily for stamp collectors, not for the general public, that the Trans-Mississippi stamps had been reissued. If collectors and dealers could convince the government that errors are errors and should be dealt with appropriately, then I could still hope to find a fabulously valuable error some day and fulfill the dream that sustained me in boyhood—the dream that collectors like Sander Diamond are trying to keep alive.

Having indulged myself in armchair musings about the sorry state of philatelic affairs, I decided to show at least a little chutzpah: I called Jacques Schiff Jr. He was not in his office but was expected in the afternoon and, I was assured, would speak with me on the subject of my interest, which I described to the woman who answered the phone. Now I really did count the seconds. My afternoon call was rewarded but not in the way I had expected. Jacques (he pronounced it “Jack,” but I didn’t have the nerve to call him that) told me that there was no error in the reissue. There was historical precedent both for the transposition of the 2-cent and $2 centers with their legends in the reissue and for the change in color. The 1998 reissue looked, he said, the way the original of 1898 was intended to look. Somewhere between the planning stage and the actual production of the stamps a century ago, the bridge and harvesting scenes had been transposed. Additionally, the bicolor printing that had been planned had had to be abandoned for technical reasons, and the stamps had therefore been printed in one color. “With regard to the transposition,” Schiff reiterated, “there was no error. It was deliberate.”

I didn’t have the courage to go on asking the additional questions I had written out in advance when I learned that I was one of many who had called for the same reason. That was why Schiff had decided not to respond to such calls. I was grateful that he had taken mine. I did confirm that, even among those who attended the show in California that featured the sale of the new Trans-Mississippis, the historical precedent for the transposition was not generally known. There had been some advance notice of the change, but it had evidently escaped many dealers and serious collectors. When I told Diamond what Schiff had said about the deliberate transposition, he commented, “I think that’s a cover story.” Was that a philatelist’s pun? Again I decided not to ask.

I could understand then why the caption of the new stamps described them as a reissue of the designs. That had certainly been too subtle for me. Then Diamond wrote to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and received in reply a photocopy of an article in Linn’s Stamp News that further elucidated the differences between the 1898 and 1998 issues. The stamps as actually printed in 1898 differed in several ways from the designs for them that had been created as steel dies, to be printed in two colors, one for the frame that bore the legend for each stamp, another for the vignette, or central picture.

The outbreak of the Spanish-American War caused the intricate project as originally conceived to be abandoned in favor of the rapid production of the Trans-Mississippis as we know them today. The postal committee decided to put the farming scene on a stamp that would be used more often than the $2 stamp, hence the transposition of 2-cent and $2 denominations. The committee also corrected an error in the original design. The scene on what was now the 2-cent stamp was one of plowing, not of harvesting, as the legend on the frame of the design had labeled it. Therefore, the 2-cent stamp in Diamond’s album, issued in 1898, bears the legend “Farming in the West,” whereas the legend on the $2 stamp that he, his minions, Ann and I had so eagerly snatched up is “Harvesting in the West.” (That is admittedly not subtle, either, but we had missed it.)

In finding a use in 1998 for the original steel dies, the Postal Service resurrected a 19th-century goof (call it what you will) that had been caught and corrected a century before. If I have been able to tell this story with any clarity at all, you must by now have ceased to believe that there is a clear distinction between an error and a mistake, but I can place a personal interpretation on the difference. Those who decided to bring out the reissue of the designs might not have made an error, but they certainly made a mistake from two points of view: that of stamp dealers, who will have to invest even more time and energy before they all get the story straight and can enlighten their patrons, and that of the many serious collectors who saw their hopes of a “find” dashed (stamped?) to pieces. Still, how about amateur fortune-hunters like Ann and me? Even if we didn’t get rich, didn’t we have an exciting time? Wasn’t it worth it for us? I’d like to say yes—but then I remember the cat shit.

About the Author

David Goldblatt

David Goldblatt, M.D., is Professor Emeritus of Neurology and the Medical Humanities at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. He has retired from the practice of neurology but is active as a member of the Ethics, Law and Humanities Committee of the American Academy of Neurology.

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