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Original paintings by ©Mark Hess for the US Postal Service.
This project was a great pleasure, yet not without it's trouble. Almost two years in the making, the 'Legends' series was the first in a new format the Postal Service wanted to create entitled 'Classic Collections'. Issued twice a year, the series was to consist of multiple stamps with a different related subject matter and a header. To further the educational value of the series, each stamp would also be printed on the obverse with a concise history of the subject. We started with eight stamps, then sixteen, and finally settled on twenty to give ourselves enough space to tell a more complete story (actually 24 paintings were made, but four were edited out).
THE CONTROVERSY part 1-Bill or Ben?
Finally the paintings were complete, millions of the stamps were printed and a release date was set. Anticipation and media hype was high when the unthinkable happened. Just weeks before release a distant relative of Bill Pickett, one of the stamp subjects, came forward with a claim that the image used for the painting was not Bill at all, but his brother Ben! After much effort to verify the truth (which to my knowledge was never absolutely confirmed) the Postal Service made the unprecedented decision to recall the whole series, which by now had been shipped to post offices all across the country. They did not want there to be any doubt about the identity of anyone honored on a US postage stamp, and preferred to err on the side of historical accuracy by having a new portrait painted with an uncontested photo of Bill and reissuing the whole series.
THE CONTROVERSY part 2-Lottery Fever
So the stamps were recalled, but not before some had mysteriously and illegally fallen into the hands of collectors. Well, error stamps can be quite valuable and this was the first time in some 125 years of US Postal history that a suspected wrong person image had appeared on a US stamp. Initial prices for the error stamps were in the thousands of dollars. To help collectors feel less 'cheated', the Postal Service decided to hold a lottery to allow other people to purchase the error stamps, but at face value ($5.80). 150,000 lucky recipients were drawn from millions who wanted a set. The lottery then led to a law suit by the original owners of the ill-gotten error stamps against the Postal Service for devaluing their stamps. They ultimately lost. At present the error stamps sell for $150-$200.
THE CONTROVERSY part 3-Brinkley Strikes
David Brinkley is a revered legend in the television news field. His Sunday morning talk show on ABC was the highest rated, most watched show at the time the 'Legends of the West' controversy first broke. He took great glee one morning in announcing that the artist of the 'Legends' series had made a huge mistake and portrayed the wrong person on the stamp. The only problem was that it wasn't the artists mistake. For over sixty-five years the photo used for the error stamp had been identified as Bill Pickett. Publishers such as The National Geographic, Harper & Row, Doubleday, etc. had all published that photo as Bill Pickett. So had the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Wyoming. And it wasn't just a slip-up that led to Mr. Brinkley putting the blame at the artist's door; the press release used to prepare his comments clearly stated that the mistake had taken place years before the artist was born! After many letters back and forth, David Brinkley finally made a rare on-air apology for incorrectly blaming the artist for the now famous Bill Pickett error stamp.
In the end the stamps were a huge success and the Postal Service had the next Classic Collection (the Civil War) painted by Mark Hess.
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