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Rare Proofs Surface in First Round
of USPS eBay Auctions

by Matthew Liebson

Six rare “die” proofs from the Postmaster General’s Philatelic Collection were included among press sheets and other philatelic products in the first group of auction items recently offered by the United States Postal Service on eBay. The auctions, which ran from September 16 to September 23, realized thousands of dollars for the cash-strapped USPS, but more importantly released several previously unknown philatelic items into the collecting community.

Die proofs – traditionally an impression from the original engraved die used to create transfer rolls (which were then used to create printing plates) – are used to check final designs and to approve colors for printing, as well as for presentation purposes. Modern “die” proofs, while not necessarily impressed from an original die or original source material in the case of non-engraved stamps, nonetheless continue to serve as a method for a printer to show the appearance of a final product for approval by the Postmaster General’s office.

Die proofs of classic United States stamps – many of which are actually less expensive than the issued stamps – are a common feature in many major stamp auctions. Twentieth century proofs are much less common, with most examples after the 1930s being unique. A major holding of 1940s and 1950s proofs emerged in the 2005 sale of the Livingston collection. Most previously cataloged proof material after the early 1960s was obtained from the files of the American Banknote Company; proofs are known for only a relative handful of issues. Proofs are listed in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps, with catalog values (frequently reaching hundreds and even thousands of dollars) befitting their scarcity.

The USPS offering attracted strong realizations, with five of the six proof items selling for over $1,000 apiece. The highest realization was for an imperforate proof of the $2.40 Moon Landing issue of 1989 (Scott 2419), mounted on card. The proof of the Chris Calle-designed stamp, identified as one of three in the USPS collection, sold for $2,850 to gold-medal exhibitor of this issue Charles O'Brien III.

"I had guessed correctly that it might sell in the high 2K's," O'Brien told The Virtual Stamp Club. "The proof will fit nicely into my 'The Eagle had Landed' exhibit. This issue was my first stamp exhibit and my first Americover Grand Award winner (in 1993). More recently, the exhibit won the Most Popular Championship at AmeriStamp Expo in 2012."

A similarly imperforate card-mounted proof of the 32 cent POW/MIA issue of 1995 (Scott 2966), supposedly one of two such proofs in the USPS collection, was the bargain of the group, selling for just $307.55. The oldest item in the grouping was a large proof of the 8-cent Antarctic Treaty issue of 1971 (Scott 1431), mounted on card and bearing the signature of then-Postmaster General Winton M. Blount. Described as one of two from the Postmaster General’s Philatelic Collection holding, the proof sold for $1009.99. Remaining items included an imperforate card-mounted proof of the 45-cent French Revolution Bicentennial Airmail issue of 1989 (C120), one of two proofs from the USPS collection, sold for $1,240.54 and a signed proof of the 1945 World War II souvenir block of 10 (Scott 2981), one of two from the collection, which sold for $1,237.65.

The final item in the grouping of proofs stands out as unusual due to its status as a trial color proof – a die proof in a color other than that in which the stamp was actually issued. The large card-mounted die proof of the 1986 22-cent Statue of Liberty Centennial issue (Scott 2224) was printed in green instead of the issued scarlet and dark blue and sold for $1,285.00. The USPS auction listing indicated that the proof was one of two from the USPS collection, but did not note the difference between the color of the proof and that of the issued stamp.

The prices realized appear to recognize the scarcity of the items, which are likely to remain the only examples of these proofs available for private ownership, as well as the particular topical interest of the proofs selected for the first group of auctions. Interestingly, the USPS appears to have underestimated the value of most of the proofs, placing reserves on the auctions at levels ranging from $200 to $300 apiece. It remains to be seen what other gems may be offered from the Postmaster General’s Philatelic Collection and made available to the hobby.

Our original story and the USPS pre-sale press release are here.

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