By STACY FINZ
San Francisco Chronicle
February 10, 2006
For years, collectors assumed the envelope, or cover, as it's known in the stamp world, had been destroyed sometime after it was stolen from a home in Indianapolis in 1967. Then, a month ago, a couple casually walked it into a Chicago stamp shop, and ever since, collectors have been salivating at the prospect of getting their hands on the artifact.
A San Jose, Calif., attorney, who has one of the most comprehensive assemblages of 1869 postal history, says he believes he has a guarantee dating back nearly three decades that would grant him first dibs. The problem is that his proof is Duane Garrett, a Democratic political strategist who threw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge more than 10 years ago.
At stake in the looming struggle between attorney Jeffrey Forster and his fellow wealthy collectors is nothing less than the ultimate bragging rights in the stamp world.
"No collection of the 1869 series can be complete without that cover. The person who owns it will be king," said Rob Haeseler, director of administration at the American Philatelic Society in Bellefonte, Pa.
Stamp experts say the "Ice House" envelope, so named because it was mailed in 1873 to James H. Bancroft in care of a Calcutta ice house, could fetch more than a million dollars. Last year, Los Angeles collector Bill Gross traded stamps valued at $3 million for a rare, 1868 1-cent Z-grill, a stamp with grills incorporated into the back so it could better absorb the postmark ink. Unlike the one-of-a-kind 1869 cover, the 1-cent stamp has a second known copy, which is housed at the New York Public Library.
"Anyone who owns (the Ice House cover) will have something no other collector has, and that's what collectors want," said Michael Laurence, retired editor of Linn's Stamp News, a weekly trade newspaper for collectors. "Imagine if the Mona Lisa was stolen and showed up 38 years later."
The Lincoln stamp was part of the first series to be issued by the post office with two colors. Besides the recently assassinated president, the 1869 stamps depicted trains, boats and other modes of transportation.
The public didn't like them, so the post office stopped making the stamps in early 1870. Collectors now consider them to be among the most picturesque postage stamps ever produced in this country.
The 90-cent stamp was used only on heavy packages and on letters going overseas. Historians believe that the used stamps either were removed from their envelopes and traded or destroyed over the years, and now the one sent in 1873 to Bancroft in India is the only such cover in existence.
For years it was in the collection of J. David Baker of Indianapolis. On Dec. 10, 1967, burglars broke into Baker's home and made off with 250 covers, including the Ice House.
Baker's insurance company, Aetna, paid out an $86,000 claim sometime after it was stolen, according to the FBI. Historians soon gave up the Ice House as lost, assuming that the thieves had tried to soak the Lincoln stamp off of its envelope so they could sell it and in the process had destroyed it.
The cover was already fragile. When it was brought to the United States from India in a seaman's sack, the cover was torn, a 10-cent Thomas Jefferson stamp was missing and the 90-cent Lincoln was detached from the envelope and separated into two pieces, according to a history of the Ice House published in Linn's Stamp News. The only postage on the envelope still intact was a 12-cent Henry Clay stamp.
A seaport dealer who purchased the cover had it and the Lincoln stamp repaired. The trade paper wrote that the dealer had also replaced the 10-cent stamp with another from the same era.
So when a husband and wife walked into the Stamp King shop in Chicago with the cover on Jan. 4, the philatelic world was floored.
They apparently didn't know what they had, said Charles Berg, the store's owner. The couple said they had found a few historical envelopes while sorting through a dead friend's estate and wanted to know whether they were worth anything.
"At the outset, I didn't now exactly what it was," Berg said of the Ice House. "But I knew it had value. So I pulled out the catalog, but there was no listing for the 90-cent on the cover."
Berg called a local postal historian, James Lee, and described the cover. Lee thought it might be the Ice House and e-mailed Berg a photograph of the famous envelope for comparison. Berg couldn't believe his eyes.
"I'm sitting at the counter with the couple across from me, and Jim asks me if I'd called the police," Berg remembered. "I replied, 'I'm not able to do that - could you please?' "
The police called in the FBI, but the statute of limitations on the 1967 theft had expired, so no criminal investigation is pending. The world may never know where the envelope has been these past 38 years.
Wendy Osborne, spokeswoman for the Indianapolis FBI, said the bureau is having trouble determining whom the cover should be returned to - Baker's heirs, the insurance company or San Jose collector Forster. She said it may take some time to settle.
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