In the world of stamp collecting, few finds are as exhilarating to philatelists as stamps harboring a printing error; something that the United States Postal Service has traditionally strived to avoid.

But last year’s $16 billion loss is forcing the agency to get creative; with that in mind, they have intentionally misprinted a handful of stamps in an effort to spark the public’s excitement about a relic from the past: the postage stamp.

The new “instant stamp rarity” is an homage to one of the world’s most esteemed stamp errors, the country’s first airmail stamp.

The original 24-cent airmail stamp was to be used for trial runs of airmail, which ran between Washington and New York. One day in 1918, collector William T. Robey bought some stamps from his local post office and essentially won the stamp lottery: a full sheet of 100 stamps displaying a Curtiss JN-4 biplane, or a “Jenny,” printed upside down. The stamps are now known to collectors as Inverted Jennys.

At the time, Robey sold the sheet to a dealer and purchased a house with the proceeds. Save for that single pane, no other Inverted Jennys were ever discovered; now when one of the inverts is offered for sale, it generally delivers a stunning six-figures, verging on seven. In 2005, a block of four Inverted Jennys was sold at auction for $2.7 million.

And so in honor of the opening of the William H. Gross stamp gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington, the post office took an uncharacteristically whimsical approach and decided to reissue the Inverted Jenny; this version with a face value of $2. They even used the original dyes as a basis for the design and they were printed with the same engraving process used for the originals.

But then the Postal Service turned the whole “print error” thing on its head when they included some intentional “errors” amongst the run of more than two million stamps.

“We thought, wouldn’t it be funny if some of the inverts came out wrong, and actually got printed right side up?” the postmaster general, Patrick R. Donahoe, said in an interview. “And we started thinking, what a great way to recreate the excitement Robey must have felt when he found that first sheet.”

As a result, 100 of the new sheets show the airplane flying not upside down as in the Inverted Jenny, but upright, to create a new “error.” Since each sheet is individually wrapped, the prize within remains a secret, much like the golden ticket tucked into a chocolate bar in Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” A note is included with the rarities, alerting buyers that they have something special on their hands.

Although the Postal Service generally toes a strict line and tries to avoid errors at all costs, Donahoe said that this time, the service’s main concern was to let the public “have some fun” with stamps.

The Postal Service has grown a sense of humor, and collectors, as well as the general public, are going nuts for it.

“The last time we had a stamp issue everybody got excited about was the Elvis stamp, 20 years ago,” Donahoe said.

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Post Office intentionally screws up stamp to incite a Willy Wonka-like frenzy
In reprinting an inverted stamp to commemorate a famous mistake, the Postal Service has included a handful of right-side-up ones.