Famous FBI Cases of Stolen Stamp Collections

Many people around the world collect stamps. It is a relaxing hobby for some and a heroic quest for others, as they seek to find that perfect stamp to finish their collection. But countless people may not consider the value of stamp collections. Unbeknownst to them, some collections are so valuable that the authorities must summon the FBI to help investigate significant thefts.

The FBI and Investigation of Art Crimes

In 2004, the FBI launched their Art Crime Team. This elite team consists of only 16 special agents, each responsible for art crimes in certain geographical areas. Coordinated through the Art Theft Program of the FBI, the Art Crime Team is located at the headquarters of the FBI in Washington, D.C. The special agents in this group receive training in art investigations and work with law enforcement agencies around the world. Additionally, the Department of Justice coordinates with the FBI to have their attorneys assist with the prosecution of art crimes.

To date, the Art Crime Team has recovered over 2,000 items for a value of about $150 million. In addition to recovering valuable stamp collections, the FBI has recovered the following items:

  • Over 100 pre-Columbian artifacts that had been brought to the U.S. from Panama
  • Two 15th century maps which were stolen from the National Library in Spain
  • 700 pre-Columbian artifacts recovered from Miami in a joint effort with Ecuadorian authorities
  • Three paintings by German painter Heinrich Buerkel. Agents recovered these paintings, stolen at the end of World War II, from an auction house in Philadelphia in 2005.
  • Paintings stolen from the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm in 2000. These paintings were Rembrandt’s Self Portrait and Renoir’s The Young Parisian.
  • 100 paintings stolen from an art storage facility in Florida. This collection, including pieces by Picasso, Matisse and Rothko, was scattered across Chicago, New York and Tokyo.

Famous FBI Cases

In 1977, there was a theft of 82 postage stamps from the New York Public Library. The stamps, valued at over half a million dollars, were recovered six years later. In total, there were a little over 150 stamps stolen by the same thief. Benjamin K. Miller, a lawyer from Minneapolis, gave the stamps to the library in 1925.

When Miller donated the stamps, he did so under the stipulation that their display would always be open to the public. The library had them encased in glass that was supposed to be tamper proof. However, during that weekend in 1977, its theorized that someone must have remained behind in the library and used a special torch to cut through the glass that held the stamps and steal them.

The Inverted Jenny

The theft occurred when the library closed for the night. The stamps were removed from their panels, which were in oak cabinets stored near the information counter. Two significant stamps that went missing were an airmail stamp called an “inverted Jenny”  and an embossed orange stamp issued in 1867.

Tracing stolen stamps is not an easy task. Fortunately, the FBI was able to get a lead in 1982, when they found another inverted Jenny that disappeared almost thirty years before from a stamp show in Virginia. These particular stamps, issued in 1918, received their nicknames because the biplanes on them were inadvertently printed upside down. Estimated to have a value of around $150,000, the inverted Jennies are quite the collector’s trophies.

This stamp was traced to a Pennsylvanian stamp dealer, Lambert Gerber, and from him to other stamp auction houses. After subpoenaing the estate of Mr. Gerber in 1983, the FBI was able to recover 69 valuable stamps. This number grew as they subpoenaed additional stamp dealers. The Federal District Court in Manhattan had the task of determining who would retain custody of the stamps.

The FBI could not seek an indictment in the case because the five-year statute of limitations had expired. The ownership of the stamps had to be determined in civil court. The court had to settle on whether the rightful owners were the Gerber’s stamp estate, the persons who purchased the stamps from Gerber, the insurance companies who covered the quarter of a million-dollar loss for the library or the New York Public Library.

Ironically, Gerber was a stamp dealer with an outstanding reputation. He had even sold stamps to President Roosevelt. The day after the theft from the New York Public Library, a person using an alias came to Gerber’s home and offered to sell him two stamps from the Miller collection. Gerber, who had no idea of their origin, paid $60,000 for the stamps.

Gerber ended up possessing 82 of the 153 stamps that the thief took from the library. His otherwise pristine career as a stamp collector was unblemished by any sense of impropriety or theft. Other dealers have echoed the sentiment that they don’t believe that Gerber realized that the stamps were stolen.

Of the 82 stamps that had been in possession of Gerber’s at one time, only 69 remained in 1983. The FBI took those stamps and was able to determine that the other 13 stamps, including the Inverted Jenny, had been sold. Washington dealer John Kaufmann bought the Air Mail stamp, later selling it to Massachusetts dealer Lawrence Bustillo for $51,700. Bustillo gave the stamp up to law enforcement, and it is now worth over $100,000.

Unfortunately, Gerber died before the cases were clear and he could defend his reputation as an honest stamp dealer. His daughter, Judi Gerber Barnisky, believes that her father didn’t know the stamps were stolen. She thinks that the thief came to her father’s home in Tamaqua the day after the robbery, before the story made the news. She asserts that her father never would have advertised the stamps in his catalogs if he had believed them illicitly acquired, thereby incriminating himself.

Barnisky points out that her father was a victim of theft as well when he was in Tampa, Florida. While staying in a hotel there, he had $35,000 worth of stamps stolen from his room. The stamps, hidden in a briefcase in a dresser drawer, disappeared as he had breakfast on one of the last days of the Philatelic Americans Convention.

Barnisky’s assertions that her father didn’t know the stamps were stolen are affirmed by the fact that many dealers who sell rather than collect stamps really don’t know whether the stamps have been altered. Sometimes thieves alter them to try to hide the fact that the sheets have been broken up, when originally they were all together.

Ethel McCoy was the original owner of a block of four stamps that went missing from a stamp show in the 1950s. A philatelist, McCoy was the daughter of one of the founders of Dow Jones & Co. and bought her four Jenny stamps from Spencer Anderson in 1936 for the cost of $16,000.

Unfortunately, Ms. McCoy was unable to get her stamps back. Though one of them was found prior to her death in 1980, the FBI couldn’t determine if the value of the single stamp was at least $5,000 which was the minimum for a theft which they would investigate.

When the holder of that stamp attempted to sell it 20 years later, Ms. McCoy was unable to recover it. She couldn’t recall the name of the insurance company insuring the stamps, even though they had agreed to pay for the recovery of the stamps if they should be found. The second of the four missing stamps surfaced in 1982, two years after Ms. McCoy’s death.

As recently as April 2016, another inverted Jenny popped up after disappearing along with three others of the same block from a convention display case in 1955. The American Philatelic Research Library was an assignee of the original owner, Ethel McCoy, and thus took possession of the stamp. The changing of hands took place during a special ceremony at the International Stamp Show held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City in June 2016.

The man who possessed the stamp upon it’s discovery in April 2016 was Keelin O’Neill of Ireland. He didn’t know much about the stamp, having inherited it from his grandfather. After bringing the stamp to an auction house in New York to sell, officials shipped the stamp to the Philatelic Foundation in New York. O’Neill worked with law enforcement to have the stamp returned to the American Philatelic Research Library. O’Neill received a $50,000 reward for returning the stamp. Neither O’Neill or his grandfather are suspects in the theft of the stamp which has an estimated value of around $170,000.

Officials knew the locations of two of the stamps  prior to the third in 2016. The provenance of the inverted Jenny stamps is rather unusual. William Robey, a Washington, D.C. stamp collector, tried to purchase the airmail stamps. After paying $24 to buy 100 of the stamps, he received the sheet that contained the aircraft that was upside down. Apparently, this was the only sheet of its kind. Robey’s $24 purchase created quite a windfall for him. He later sold that sheet of stamps for $15,000 to Philadelphian stamp dealer Eugene Klein. Klein then sold the stamps to H.R. Green, who broke up the collection of four stamps and sold them individually.

The inverted Jenny is so famous, it’s even been featured in movies and television. In a 1985 film starring Richard Pryor, he inadvertently mails a postcard using the inverted Jenny stamp. In addition, in an episode of The Simpson’s, Homer trades a block of the inverted Jenny stamps at a swap meet.

Florida Stamp Collector Assists FBI

Another of the FBI’s famous cases resulted from a tip from a stamp collector who was perusing eBay. Fort Lauderdale resident Michael Perlman was very familiar with the stamp collection of Charles J. Starnes, as it had unique pen marks and imperfections.

Perlman tipped the FBI off after recognizing the collection from black and white photographs. He made a bid over $11,000 after contacting law enforcement officials, who then got in touch with the FBI. Perlman traveled to Tampa with an FBI agent, knowing that he was risking the possible loss of $11,000 in cash. The seller of the stamp collection was surprised to learn of the stamps origin, but also that they could be worth approximately $1 million.

The collection, which belonged to Starnes, vanished during a period of time when he was hospitalized for severe arthritis. His rare collection consisted of over 400 covers which are envelopes that have stamps on them with unique markings.

While theft of a stamp collection isn’t a likely event and even more unlikely if your collection isn’t very valuable, the American Philatelic Society (APS) has some recommendations to keep in mind in the event of a stamp heist. They recommend that if you’ve been burgled, you should report it to law enforcement authorities right away. If you are a victim of stamp theft, you will also want to call the American Philatelic Society Stamp Theft Committee. This team can help all victims of stamp theft, not just those who are members of the society.

To assist in the investigation of your stolen stamps, the committee will gather from you some essential information. This includes the exact circumstances of the theft, where and when it took place and other relevant logistics. After the committee has gathered that information, they will send you a form on which you will have to provide an inventor of your loss. The Committee will then determine whether your loss was significant enough to warrant the involvement of the FBI.

The APS has some essential tips in order to prevent stamp theft:

  • Install a security system in the building where you keep your stamps.
  • Consider purchasing a home safe, or store your stamps securely in a safe deposit box at your bank.
  • Document your stamp collection by cataloging it with photographs. Store these photographs in a secure location kept separate from the stamp collection itself.
  • Consider purchasing insurance from the APS, available to members at a nominal cost.

Though security of your collection should be a consideration for a valuable collection, it is only one small part of this very rewarding hobby. Not only is stamp collecting a fun hobby that’s enjoyed by young and old alike, it can be treasured for years to come. In addition, it’s been proven to be one of the rare hobbies where the collections can greatly increase in value. The quest for valuable and rare stamps is challenging, and gives an unparalleled rush when one discovers the stamp that they have been seeking for years.

There are numerous nonprofit organizations supporting the hobby of stamp collecting. These dedicated organizations have a worldwide membership of about 30,000 members. 

Organizations such as the American Philatelic Society and American Philatelic Research Library make their home in American Philatelic Center in Bellefonte, Centre County, Pennsylvania.

For more information about purchasing stamps, to learn how to start your own collection and to review the investment value of stamps, check out Apfelbaum, Inc. Apfelbaum has all the information you need to know about the thriving art of stamp collecting.

Contact us today!

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