Don cracks the case of the Famous CIA Invert Stamp…

in the Stamp Story of the 1980s!

In 1986, news of a newly discovered US invert stamp rocked the philatelic world. Invert stamps are some of the most valuable and sought-after stamps in the world. This was the first major inverted stamp rarity in 68 years. But the details were cloaked in secrecy, hidden in a maze of deception… that took nearly two years to unravel…

Rush Lamp Invert – Acquired from the very CIA Agent who purchased the original error sheet

One of the most fascinating stamp stories of the 20th century

In 1985, Mystic Stamp Company president Don Sundman acquired 50 $1 Candleholder Invert Error stamps.  Curious about the origin of these stamps with their candleholder and lettering printed upside down, he submitted a Freedom of Information Request with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.  Little did he know then that what he uncovered would lead to the biggest stamp story in years – one that would make the front page of the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and many other news media across the country! 

The story began when an auctioneer specializing in U.S. error stamps announced the discovery of 85 inverted 1979 $1 Candleholder stamps.  The stamps had been discovered by two office workers buying stamps for their employer. 

After discovering the sheet of 95 stamps were scarce inverts, the employees who purchased them kept them for themselves and their seven office mates.  They replaced the stamps with non-error copies.  Each of the nine co-workers kept one stamp for themselves and sold the rest to stamp dealer Jacques Schiff, who auctioned them off in 1985. 

Don Uncovers CIA Involvement

Later in 1986, Don filed a Freedom of Information request to find out the full story behind the $1 candleholder invert. Imagine his surprise when the report finally arrived after several delays (and being told it would need to be cleared by the CIA) to see numerous names and words had been blacked out!

The discovery, which Don broke in Linn’s Stamp News uncovered the story of the nine employees and their actions. The story made headlines across the nation and was featured on every major television network, CBS radio, and even in Time magazine. CIA involvement made the story a feast for the imagination! It became known as the “Candleholder Invert Caper.”

As a result of Don’s inquiry, the CIA launched an ethics investigation and demanded the employees surrender their inverts or face 10 years in prison and a 10-year prison term for conversion of government property for personal gain. Five returned their stamp, one claimed to have lost it, and was fired, and three workers resigned. Later, the co-workers were cleared by the Justice department of any wrongdoing. The Bureau of Printing and Engraving investigated internally and found no collusion on the part of its employees with the people who purchased the inverted stamps.

The CIA donated the recovered inverts to the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., where it joined an invert earlier donated by Don Sundman.

Don donates a Rush Lamp Invert to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum

The CIA Invert Error was created in an odd and unlikely series of events

The Candleholder stamp was printed on two separate printing presses in different buildings.  Sheets came off the first press with the image of the printed flame face down, gum side up.  The mill that manufactured the paper had traditionally delivered it in rectangular sheets with a triangle cut off the bottom left corner.  This allowed an inverted sheet to stick out and easily be caught by quality control… but after six years of printing the candlestick design, a batch of paper was delivered to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing without the bottom corner cut off.  The Bureau stated the sheet was “inadvertently reversed” by a BEP employee due to the lack of the corner cut, which had been discontinued a few months earlier. 

This was the batch from which the error was printed and distributed to the public.  The error sheet happened to be delivered to a post office near McLean, Virginia, leading to the rare error’s discovery by CIA employees.  It’s only thanks to Mystic Stamp Company President Don Sundman’s filing of a Freedom of Information Act request with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing that this fascinating story is known today at all!

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2 Comments

  1. A very interesting read. This occurred nearly 40 years ago and i am left with more questions as to why the C.I.A got involved at all. To me the stamp is rather odd in its design but it seems the only thing that is inverted is the little lit candle at the top left is on the bottom right as the rest of the stamp was printed on top of that stamp sheet.

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