Ken Dargis Sr. believes he holds an exceptionally rare stamp. One so rare, no one else on Earth possesses another like it. If true, his find could disrupt the philatelic industry and bring him untold fame and wealth.
“There are people who would spend $5 million in a heartbeat for this stamp,” says the 76-year-old former DuPont employee.
Dargis need only prove his stamp is real—but that is more easily said than done.
Dargis, of Talleyville, became interested in stamp collecting in 1978. A hot market at the time meant a keen eye and some luck could allow someone like him to keep a decent side hustle going.
Speculation in stamps dried up a few years later, and Dargis lost interest in turning a quick buck as his fascination with the beauty and history of postage grew. Collecting now, he says, is “a venture in discovery.”
Dargis learned, for example, that in the early days, the United States didn’t have the technology to perforate postage for easy separation, so the postmaster would cut them from a sheet with scissors. This uneven process would result in some stamps with clean margins, others turned into a jagged mess. Dargis also discovered that banks used to produce stamps (often ugly and off-centered). Not until the U.S. Department of the Treasury Bureau of Engraving and Printing took over the job in 1894 did the quality improve.
And though Dargis has amassed thousands of stamps and an impressive amount of knowledge over the decades, he still considered himself a “dabbler.” Not until he retired in 2002 did his hobby become a passion.
“I play golf, but you can’t play golf every day of your retirement,” he jokes. “For an old guy, this was an interesting way to pass time away from the links.”
But it was rediscovery of his father’s collection—a box of stamps he bought in 1935 for $10—that truly fueled Dargis’ love. Dargis first saw the stamps with his dad, Stanley, when he was 9. Then, examining the collection again in his golden years, Dargis saw The One.
It was a brown 4-cent stamp that pictured Ulysses S. Grant postmarked Oct. 29, 1907, at 6 p.m. from “West Phil’a,” and it would send his life off in a new direction.
“My belief is I have a unique stamp, and that’s the controversy,” he says. “The experts say, ‘Yours doesn’t exist because nobody else has a stamp like this.’ I’m saying, ‘My stamp exists because it’s sitting right in front of me.’”
Dargis believes he owns an experimental coil stamp produced in the second half of 1907. Coil stamps are sold in rolls, and they have perforated margins (or teeth) on the top and bottom or left and right sides for easy separation by the user. Dargis’ stamp, affixed to a small piece of a light brown paper, has teeth on the left and right and straight sides at the top and bottom.
If the postage is authentic and unique, it would rock the stamp-collecting community and likely generate a multimillion price on the open market. For comparison, the ultra-rare “Inverted Jenny”—the famous 1918 stamp known for its upside-down plane error—fetched more than $1 million at auction in 2016.
To prove his discovery, Dargis sent the 4-cent Grant to the New York City-based Philatelic Foundation and the Bellefonte, Pennsylvania-based American Philatelic Society (APS), the two major expertizing organizations, whose word essentially determines the value of stamps. They are skeptical of the stamp’s authenticity.
“To the best of our knowledge and what we’ve learned in early reports, the government didn’t issue any experimental coils until February 1908, and only in 1-, 2- and 5-cent denominations,” says Lewis Kaufman, consultant curator for the Philatelic Foundation. “This particular stamp was not among the experimental coils produced.”
The Philatelic Foundation’s review of the stamp determined it to be a fake, says Kaufman (quickly adding he does not mean to imply that Dargis did the forgery). The organization believes the stamp in question originally came from a sheet of stamps with perforations on all four sides.
“The perfs were trimmed off at the top and bottom to resemble what a coil would look like,” described Kaufman. He notes that the Philatelic Foundation has examined thousands of purported coils that turned out to be trimmed sheet stamps. “People have been creating fraudulent stamps for over 100 years.”
APS executive director Scott English says his organization came to a similar conclusion. Its experts, too, routinely hear from people who believe they have found rare or stolen stamps.
Both English and Kaufman refuse to speculate on what Dargis’ stamp might be worth. “Those claims can be—and are—used by those who perpetrate fraud,” English says. Kaufman notes, however, that a pair of experimental coils from 1908 could run from $7,500 to $500,000, depending on the rarity and quality.
“Ken is being heard,” English stresses. “As I have repeatedly told him, if he has information that supports his claims, the APS would reopen the evaluation of the stamp. However, absent that information, trying to undermine the work of experts in the field is not going to change the physical evidence indicating the stamp has been altered.”
Dargis won’t be deterred, however, and he has a theory why he owns a piece of postage that shouldn’t even exist. He developed the theory over years of traveling to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., speaking with numerous postal historians and other collectors, and conducting lots of research on the internet.
The story revolves around Arthur Travers, chief clerk to the third assistant postmaster general, who was indicted in 1911 for postal fraud. Travers’ office would tell the Bureau of Engraving and Printing how many stamps to produce and distribute to post offices across the country, Dargis says. Travers’ office also controlled the machines that produced test stamps.
But instead of destroying test stamps as required, Travers would fudge the logs. Then he, along with wealthy industrialist and world-class philatelist Joseph Steinmetz, would sell the stamps to collectors for a healthy profit. Dargis’ 4-cent Grant somehow ended up in Buffalo, New York, where Dargis’ dad bought it as part of a collection.
Travers was indicted for a series of test stamps created in 1909, but documents from the National Archives suggest he started cooking the books as early as 1905, Dargis says.
“I can’t claim that I know he did this with my stamp,” he says. “Logic suggests it, though.”
Neither the APS nor the Philatelic Foundation buys the story, but neither will they close the door on Dargis’ stamp.
“We always accept items for reconsideration, but I haven’t seen anything that would change my mind right now,” Kaufman says. “We simply have a different viewpoint. He believes the stamp is genuine, an experiment. We believe otherwise based on our experience in dealing with situations like these, understanding the history and looking at the physical characteristics of the stamp itself.”
Dargis now considers proving the stamp’s authenticity almost a “crusade.” He has written three research articles on his case published in the Pennsylvania Postal History Society publication. He now hopes to crack through larger postage-related outlets to gain a broader attention.
The father of three also plans to contact stamp clubs and dealers around the country to share his story and, ideally, learn more about his stamp’s past.
Despite the efforts, Dargis acknowledges the experts’ opinions may never change. He puts the odds at only 30 percent that one day he will receive the news he has long sought.
But just in case that time ever comes, Dargis already picked out a special name for his prized possession.
“I would call it the Stanley Dargis Memorial Stamp in honor of my dad,” he says. “Hope springs eternal.”