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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In New York it's the first day of a three-day stamp auction, including the most famous rare American stamp, the Inverted Jenny. It's happening at the largest stamp auction house in the country, Robert A. Siegel Auction Gallery. Just to be clear, the gallery is owned by no relation of mine. But just the same, NPR's Margot Adler takes us there.

MARGOT ADLER: It's quiet in the Robert Siegel Auction Galleries, like a library.

Unidentified Man: This is the entire Hansen sale which fits into...

ADLER: Each person sits near a lamp, holding a magnifying glass, peering at a little black book filled with stamps. Dealer Richard Sachs is looking at a stamp of an upside-down train.

Mr. RICHARD SACHS (Stamp Dealer): This is an 1869 pictorial invert, a three-cent value. They're the first United States stamps that didn't just have boring president's heads on them. They were the first ones that actually had pictures. And this was of a locomotive.

ADLER: He started collecting stamps as a kid and seriously collecting in high school. The most expensive stamp being auctioned here is the first U.S. postage stamp ever printed. Scott Trepel is president of the Robert Siegel Auction Galleries.

Mr. SCOTT TREPEL (President, Robert Siegel Auction Galleries): It's a five-cent stamp in a very rich shade of brown that pictures Benjamin Franklin who was a colonial postmaster and also the first American postmaster general.

ADLER: The four-stamp block might go for between half a million and a million dollars. Why so much? Stamps like these, says Trepel...

Mr. TREPEL: They often rise to new and much higher levels because the people who collect them are very wealthy. They are very determined.

ADLER: So the competition between wealthy collectors drives the price higher. The most famous stamp being auctioned here is the "Inverted Jenny." It was in 1918 that William Robey, a collector, went to the post office in Washington, D.C., to buy a sheet of the first ever airmail stamp. Scott Trepel...

Mr. TREPEL: When he went to the post office window, and you know, put down his $24 for a sheet of 100 airmail stamps, he was handed a sheet of inverts, and it was an instant windfall.

ADLER: The "Inverted Jenny," which is red and blue and depicts the Curtiss JN-4H airplane upside down, is so well-known it's even been in movies. A year ago, the auction house sold a perfect "Inverted Jenny" for close to a million dollars. This one might go for a third of that, says Trepel, since it's not as perfect. He says it's unclear how the economy will influence price in the future. If there's inflation, the value of stamps and coins could go up. If there's less money to spend, prices could go down. Why do you care about all this, I asked dealer Richard Sachs?

Mr. SACHS: I think the hobby attracts people with obsessive personalities. And I think there's just a certain mentality that collectors have that people who don't collect can't quite understand. And it's kind of like a bug. You either have it or you don't.

Unidentified Auctioneer: $4,250 on the telephone. All right, $4,250 bid now. On the telephone at $4,250.

ADLER: The auction began this morning and ends Thursday. For those of us who don't have the bug, perhaps collecting stamps is like finding a four-leaf clover, just a lot more pricey. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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