Neat Stamp Stories

The Z Grill – U.S. #85A

The 1868 1¢ Z Grill

Did you know the 1868 1¢ Z Grill (Scott 85A) is America’s rarest stamp?  One of the legends of philately, this Z Grill was purchased by Mystic in October 1998 for $935,000 – setting a record price for a U.S. stamp.

Currently valued at $3 million, the stamp is the finest One-Cent Z Grill known and the only one available to collectors.  (Only one other exists and it’s permanently locked into the New York Public Library’s Miller Collection.)

The Z grill is one of several embossed grill patterns used to break the fibers of certain early U.S. stamps.  Ink was absorbed into the grill when the stamp was cancelled, making removal of the cancel and reuse of the stamp impossible.

The Z grill pattern is approximately 11 millimeters by 14 millimeters (13 to 14 x 18 grill points.)  This pattern is unique due to the horizontal orientation of the tiny grid projections.

Charles F. Steele introduced the practice of grilling stamps, which was used for only a few years during the late 1860s. The classification system for grills was developed in the early 1900s by William L. Stevenson and is still in use today.

For several years, Mystic featured the Z Grill in our advertising and as a sort of ambassador at stamp shows, displaying it for the benefit of collectors.  In 2005, Mystic traded its Z Grill for the unique 1918 Jenny Invert Plate-Number Block, which is America’s Greatest Stamp Rarity.  The one-for-one trade of two legendary U.S. stamp treasures with a combined value of $6 million generated international headlines and interest in our hobby.

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Stamps and the Norwegian Spy

Collectors sometimes “lift” stamps on covers to see what kind of paper the stamp was printed on. “Lifting stamps once helped save the free world from Adolf Hitler’s evil empire. Here’s a neat story about stamps, espionage and a 200-mile race across snowy mountains…

Germany invaded Norway in the spring of 1940. Sven Somme, a marine biologist, and his brother Iacob joined the underground resistance movement. Iacob plotted to sabotage the hydro plant in Telemark, where Germans were building a nuclear bomb. He was caught and executed in 1944.

In spite of the risk, Sven continued. His assignment was mapping strategic German military bases and photographing their military torpedo batteries and submarine bases along Norway’s west coast. Sven then mailed the intelligence to his Allied handlers on microfilm – hidden underneath the stamp on the envelope!

Click here to see images of Sven and one of the letters he hid beneath a stamp.

The plan worked until German soldiers spotted the sun glinting off his camera lens as Sven snapped pictures of a U-boat base on the island of Otteroy. He hid his camera under a rock as the Germans ran toward him, firing shots. Sven told them he was bird watching. His cover fell apart when the soldiers found his camera before he could get off the island.

Sven was taken to the mainland by boat and confined to the vessel overnight to await his execution. When his guard fell asleep, he slipped off his handcuffs and walked casually past five armed soldiers, who mistook him for a civilian. Sven fled into the countryside.

About an hour later, the Germans realized he was gone and sent 900 soldiers and a pack of hounds after him. By now Sven had crossed streams in his light shoes and was climbing up snowy mountains, where frostbite was a real possibility. With the Germans in pursuit, he sometimes swung from one pine tree to another to avoid leaving footprints in the snow. A family sheltered him and exchanged a pair of boots for his shoes. Sven made it to a safe house, where he hid for five weeks while false papers were made for him. He walked across the border into Sweden and arrived in Great Britain for a private audience with the exiled King of Norway. Sven had walked more than 200 miles in brutal conditions during the two-month escape.

Sven married an English wife and had three children before dying of cancer in 1961. After the death of his wife, his daughters found an archive of secret documents – envelopes with tiny maps hidden under the stamps, instructions from the resistance written in invisible ink, a map used during his escape and a Nazi warrant ordering Sven’s arrest and execution. Amazingly, the family that sheltered him was found – and they had kept his shoes, preserving even more of this 70-year old story.

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French Spy Stamps

Cloaks, Daggers and Stamps

Most collectors know stamps have played their part in shaping history. They’ve started wars and celebrated peace; they’ve turned hostilities into bloodbaths, ridiculed political leaders and been used as propaganda. Some, like the French “spy” stamp have been used as a weapon of war. The story goes like this…

The Nazis overran France in the early days of World War II. A French underground, known as the Maquis, formed to stop the Germans. Life for the Maquis was extremely hazardous because the efficient Germans had an excellent counter-espionage system. One of their favorite and most successful techniques for uncovering the Maquis was to send a suspected spy a message, like “Be under the Rhone Bridge Tuesday for dynamiting.” A Frenchman loyal to the Germans would ignore the message or take it to the German authorities. Anyone who acted on the message was automatically assumed to be guilty and executed.

The Nazis were especially brutal and losses of French partisans were staggering. So too were the loses of British and allied soldiers who parachuted in to help the resistance or to gather military information.

British Intelligence realized their problem was unsecured communications. Since reliable communications were vital for effective resistance, they couldn’t stop communicating. What they needed was a foolproof way to tell friend from foe. Taking a page from history, an operator remembered that the British had reproduced German postage stamps to mail anti-German propaganda inside Germany during World War I. Why not try a variation on the theme?

M4675 #361 french spy fake copy

Forgery - notice highlights on the nose and eye socket

361 french spy genuine copy

Genuine France #361 stamp

The British chose the 1939 French Mercury stamp, changing it just enough so that those in the know would recognize it immediately while those uninformed would not become suspicious. Namely, more prominent highlights appeared on the left cheekbone, on the neck and over and around the left eye socket of the forgery.

A letter franked with a British-made stamp was to be regarded as official instructions while letters with authentic French stamps would be realized as German traps. If it worked, the underground would be able to communicate effectively with the French post office delivering the letters right under the noses of the Germans – and after they were censored by the Nazis!

The plan was one of the most closely-guarded secrets of the war. Only a handful of people – and only those who absolutely needed to know – realized the stamps were being dropped by parachute along with weapons and supplies. The Germans and the French collaborators never caught on, even though they must have wondered why their traps suddenly produced no victims. In their arrogance, they may have believed they had eliminated most of the resistance movement’s spies. One thing’s for sure, few gave any thought to stamps or stamp collecting during the war.

Ironically, the Roman god Mercury – the fleet-footed messenger of the gods, the god of roads and travel, and the god of crafty, deceptive trickery ­– is the image on the stamp chosen to pull the wool over the Nazi’s eyes. The entwined snakes around his winged staff protected him on his travels just as the counterfeited French Mercury stamp protected the Maquis and vital wartime messages.

Because the resistance could never be sure when the scheme was uncovered, correspondence was to be destroyed immediately. Mint French spy stamps are scarce and used examples, especially on cover, are extremely rare.

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CIA Inverts


U.S. #1610C Invert


U.S. #1610

In 1985, news of a newly discovered U.S. invert stamp rocked the philatelic world. It was the first major inverted stamp in 66 years and said to be rarer than the coveted Jenny inverts. But the details were cloaked in secrecy, hidden in a maze of deception that took two years to unravel.

The story began when an auctioneer specializing in U.S. error stamps announced the discovery of 85 inverted 1979 $1 Rush Lamp stamps. The stamps had been discovered by a “business in northern Virginia” and the finder wished to remain anonymous. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing launched an internal investigation and found that there were no indications of impropriety by its employees.

A few months later, Mystic Stamp Company joined with two partners and purchased 50 of the inverts. Curious about their origin, Mystic President Don Sundman filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Months passed. When the report finally arrived, it was accompanied by a cover letter – from the Central Intelligence Agency! Names were blocked out in the 35-page report, but Sundman was able gather enough information to trace the stamps back to the C.I.A.

Sundman discovered that an on-duty C.I.A. employee had purchased the partial sheet of 95 inverted stamps at a small post office near McLean, Virginia. When he and his co-workers realized what they had, they pooled their money and substituted non-error $1 Rush Lamp stamps for the inverts. Each of the nine co-workers kept a stamp. The remaining 86 stamps, including one that was damaged, were quietly sold to the auctioneer.

The story made headlines across the nation and was featured on every major television network. The CIA launched an ethics investigation and demanded that the co-workers surrender their inverts or face 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine for conversion of government property for personal gain. Five employees returned their stamps, one claimed his had been lost, and three people resigned.

The CIA donated the recovered inverts to the National Postal Museum, where they joined a copy donated earlier by Mystic. Investigations conducted by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving and Justice Department cleared the co-workers of any wrongdoing.

Twenty years later, the employee who purchased the sheet and later claimed to have lost his copy offered to sell the stamp to Mystic. Today these neat error stamps, bearing the words “America’s Light Fueled By Truth and Reason,” retail for $15,000 each.

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The Jenny Invert Plate-Number Block

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Discover America’s Greatest Stamp Rarity With Mystic’s Exclusive Booklet

The Jenny Invert Plate-Number Block is America’s greatest stamp rarity.  It has always been the most sought-after and valuable of the six inverted Jenny blocks.  It’s the only Plate-Number Block from the legendary 1918 24¢ Airmail stamp error sheet, which makes it unique.

The Jenny Invert Plate-Number Block was auctioned in 2005 for $2.97 million, setting a record for a U.S. philatelic item.  Less than two weeks later, it was in the news again – traded to Mystic President Don Sundman for the unique 1868 1¢ Z Grill.  Now you can learn the story of the Jenny Invert PNB and the historic one-for-one stamp trade in our free booklet.  Just click here.

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Mystery of the Grinnell Missionaries

The story of the Grinnell Hawaiian Missionaries reads like a mystery, but it’s a true story, full of real-life drama.  For nearly 100 years, their genuineness has been debated.  Are they really scarce Hawaiian Missionary stamps… or some of the greatest forgeries ever created?

The saga of the Grinnell Missionary stamps is a long and dramatic one.  From the pages of an old prayer book locked away in a battered trunk to a courtroom filled with witnesses for the prosecution and a judge’s verdict of “forgeries” to a high-tech laboratory in the UK, the Grinnells have journeyed a very long way.  And many believe they had already survived an even longer journey – one that began over 150 years ago in the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Now you can explore the Grinnell Missionary stamps in Mystic’s series of booklets.  Then watch David Beech, Curator of the British Library Philatelic Collections, deliver his presentation about the Grinnells during the National Postal Museum’s 2003 Maynard Sundman Lecture.

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In The Grinnell Missionaries, you’ll discover the history of the Hawaiian Islands, the role the missionaries played in it, and how the kingdom’s postal service began.  Then you’ll read George Grinnell’s story of how he found the stamps and read articles from both sides of the case.



Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 12.46.57 PMThe Case for the Grinnell Missionary Stamps presents the facts gathered by the descendants of the original players, who have spent a lifetime believing in the stamps’ authenticity.  You’ll learn little-known details about the stamps, their discovery, and the research that has been ongoing for nearly a century.


Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 3.10.28 PMResponse to the 2004 Royal Philatelic Society Opinion on the Grinnell Missionaries refutes the findings of that organization by presenting rational and logical counter-arguments.  Patrick Culhane, great-great grandson of the original owner, also wrote the response in the hopes it would foster further research on the stamps’ genuineness.



And finally, watch as David Beech of the British Library Philatelic Collections discusses the Grinnell Missionaries. Will all of this evidence help you solve one of philately’s greatest mysteries?  Probably not, but you’ll sure enjoy trying!

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