29c Legends of the West recalled pane of twenty
Identifying Bill Pickett
The original (error) Legends of the West pane of twenty 29-cent stamps features the infamous misidentification purported to show African-American rodeo performer Bill Pickett (1870-1832) but actually picturing his younger brother Ben.
Designer Mark Hess had several images available for Bill Pickett, one a handsome, youthful man with a coiled lariat standing in front of trees, flowers, and an open gate. Pickett wore a complete cowboy outfit — broad-brimmed hat, shirt, vest, chaps, and cowboy boots. Inscribed on the black and white photo was, "Bill Pickett, famous Negro cowboy. First man bullogger [sic]. Also used his teeth bull dogging instead of hands on horns method used by cowboys today." Six other independent authoritative references identified the same individual as Bill Pickett, and Sheaff, Terrence McCaffrey (USPS project manager), and by the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) approved the image.
Frank Phillips, spokesperson for the Bill Pickett Family Foundation, knew the difference between these brothers. His grandmother, Bessie Pickett Phillips, was a daughter of Bill Pickett. His 79-year-old father, Frank Phillips, Sr., as a young man had seen Bill Pickett almost daily. These family members were convinced that the person identified as Bill Pickett in the widely circulated photograph was actually Ben Pickett.
Unfortunately, research consultants informed the USPS that no Pickett descendants could be located even though Phillips had written the CSAC from 1981 or 1982 until 1993 requesting a stamp for Bill Pickett. This correspondence had been lost in the postal bureaucracy and never brought to the attention of those working of the Legends of the West pane.
Ruth Murphey, collector and dealer of Bill Pickett and Wild West Show memorabilia, identified the mistake in 1993. Murphey received a draft book chapter from PhotoAssist, the firm assembling material for the Legends of the West Commemorative Album being prepared by the USPS. The materials included a picture of Pickett that Murphey immediately identified as incorrect. Murphey, previously aware of the Ben Pickett and Bill Pickett photograph mix-up, had reported this to PhotoAssist. A few days later Murphey received a telephone call from Stamp Services at the USPS that thanked her for the information while informing her that it was too late to revise the stamp.
Jim Etter, a reporter for the Daily Oklahoman, sought a Pickett photo to promote the Legends of the West pane and contacted Glass Negative in Oklahoma, a repository of Old West photographs. He was told that the wrong Pickett was in the stamp design. Etter then contacted Murphey for confirmation. The next day, January 7, 1994, the paper published the story, "Cowboy's Fans Fear Stamp Inaccurate."
Phillips, even thought he had been promoting a Bill Pickett stamp for years, was unaware that it was being considered by the USPS. With this media news, Phillips went to USPS headquarters in Washington to see the Legends of the West pane. "Right away I saw it was the wrong picture," Phillips later testified. "It was the same old mistake again." Phillips showed his evidence to James Tolbert, manager of Stamp Management.
The USPS decided to destroy all the Legend panes and to print a new set with an authentic portrait of Bill Pickett. The USPS instructed Stamp Ventures to halt printing operations. At that time, 5,201,000 panes had been printed and distributed to 137 stamp distribution centers and 330 larger post offices. A recall order was send to these offices.
Recalling and reissuing the Legends of the West panes
Unfortunately, post offices regularly sold stamps prior to their release date. It was first discovered that a full pane was used on a parcel mailed from Bend, Oregon, on December 14, 1993, about three months prior to the stamp's official release date. Other examples of premature sales were soon reported.
Great debate ensued. The cost of the original printing was estimated by the USPS at between $850,000 and $880,000. In addition, after the Postal Inspection Service had completed its recall and inventory, it was determined that 183 panes had been sold to the public from four different post offices. Cleary, with plans to destroy all the stamps at a great financial loss to the USPS, those remaining panes with the "wrong Pickett" would become a modern philatelic rarity.
The 183 panes reached a price of $4,620 for one pane in a public auction. Postmaster General Runyon would not sell the recalled stamps to deflate their market value. He had promised Pickett family.
After much negotiation, on June 6, 1994, Phillips sent this letter to Postmaster General Runyon: "Dear Mr. Runyon: One again, thank you for setting the record straight on Bill Pickett. I recently met with members of your staff who inform me that in the past few months the Postal Service has come under great pressure to release the recalled Legends of the West stamps. The unfortunate sale of the stamps has created a rarity in the stamp-collecting world and collectors are insisting that the Legends sheets bearing the incorrect image be sold in order to complete their collections.
"While I have previously written to you expressing my feelings on this issue, Messrs. Jaffer and Tolbert expressed the possibility of releasing a limited number of stamps through mail order from your fulfillment operation in Kansas City. I understand that these stamps would be displayed in a protective sleeve with a clear message to the collector that they are to be saved and not intended for use. Given the choice, I would prefer that the stamps not be sold, but in light of compromising the worldwide hobby of stamp collecting and unnecessarily inflating the value of the incorrect sheets in the marketplace today, the Postal Service's compromise of releasing a limited number of stamps — not through post offices, but through mail order fulfillment — is a decision I can reluctantly accept.
"I appreciate your firm commitment to destroy the remainder of the incorrect sheets and look forward to joining you at the dedication ceremony of the new Legends of the West stamp later this year."
Finally, on June 9, 1994, J. Sam Winters, chairman of the Postal Service Board of Governors, publically announced that the Postal Service would, "balance the interests of the philatelic community with respect for the interests of the Pickett family" by selling 150,000 original panes. This quantity was determined necessary to satisfy the philatelic community and recoup printing costs if a $2.90 charge was added to the $5.80 face value of each pane. All of the remaining original panes were destroyed.
Kloetzel, James E. ed. 2009 Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers. 87th ed. Sidney, Ohio: Scott Publishing Co. 2008.
Amick, George. Linn's U.S. Stamp Yearbook 1994. Sidney, Ohio: Amos Press, 1994.