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Rare Stamp Returned to Owners 61 Years After Theft, FBI Says

By Kathleen Culliton | June 2, 2016 5:54pm
 The return of an
The return of an "Inverted Jenny" stamp from 1918 will be announced at the World Stamp Show at the Javits Center.
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United States Post Office Department

MANHATTAN — A rare stamp called the “Inverted Jenny” was returned to its owner after it was stolen 61 years ago.

The 24-cent stamp with the image of an upside-down Curtiss JN-4HM airplane, also known as the "Jenny," was handed over to the American Philatelic Research Library at the World Stamp Show, which is currently happening at the  Jacob Javits Convention Center.

"It's with great pleasure that we return this Jenny from the block," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, referencing the popular Jennifer Lopez single, "First worth a little, now it's worth a lot." 

The 1918 stamp is one from a block of four, belonging to collector Ethel McCoy, that were secreted away from their display case during an exhibition at the American Philatelic Research Library convention in 1955, according to federal prosecutors.

"There were no witnesses, no suspects and little evidence to pursue," said FBI Art Crime assistant director in charge Diego Rodriguez. 

The FBI Art Crime team recovered two stolen of McCoy's Inverted Jennies in the 1970s and 1980s. The Jennies were returned to the library since McCoy had donated the block of stamps to them in 1979, according to an agreement drafted by federal prosecutors. 

The third Inverted Jenny was handed over this April by Keelin O’Neill, a man who had received the stamp from his grandfather, who had purchased the stamp at a car boot, or yard sale, in Ireland. 

"Oh my god," said O'Neill, who received a $50,000 reward for relinquishing his claim to the stamp, "It's been a rollercoaster ride ever since it happened."

Neither O'Neill nor his grandfather are suspected of being involved in the heist of the the third Jenny, which American Philatelic executive director Scott English to be worth about $170,000.  

The Inverted Jenny has been featured in movies and television: in the 1985 Richard Pryor film, "Brewster's Millions," Pryor's character uses an Inverted Jenny to mail a postcard. And The Simpson's own Homer trades away a block of the priceless stamps at a swap meet.  

The return of the third recovered Inverted Jenny to the library occurred just two days after another of McCoy’s stolen stamps was auctioned off at the Javits Center and sold for more than $1 million. 

The stamp was not returned in its original condition. The perforations were altered on the left side and the gum on the back was removed. Investigators believe the alterations were meant to mask the stamp's identity.

Stamp enthusiast Sherri Jennings traveled from Colorado to see the hand-off at the Javits Center atrium. She called the day a historic event but expressed outrage that the stamp had been altered to hide its identity.

"It would be painting over the Mona Lisa to disguise it," said Jennings. "Or taking the Venus de Milo and putting arms on it."