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Doomed Flight

'Stamp' found in sock drawer reopens 1927 intrigue.
Sells at Toronto auction for $10,000; exposes banker to new world

This article, written by Brett Popplewell, Business Reporter, appeared on the front page of the Toronto Sunday Star on Jan 11, 2009.

This is a story about a failed first flight, a vanished shipment of air mail, a midnight robbery, and a 'stamp' - lost to the world for 81 years - that fetched $10,000 last month in a Toronto auction.

The story begins in the summer of 1927.

Charles Lindbergh has just completed the first solo flight from New York to Paris.

A series of distance-stretching transatlantic adventures ensue, some successful, others not.

Among those sponsoring the expansion in aviation is a small London, Ont., brewery offering $25,000 to fly from London, Ont., to London, England. 

The flight of The Sir John Carling (named for that local brewery) takes off in late summer, piloted by a Canadian veteran of World War I, Capt. Terrance Tully, and his navigator, James Medcalf.

Laden with a light shipment of commemorative airmail and enough fuel to cross the North Atlantic, the fixed-wing six-seat air­ craft takes off into bad weather on a perilous journey into history.

Waiting for The Sir John Carling in England: A tickertape parade and the $25,000 reward.

But Tully and Medcalf never make it. They disappear into a heavy fog off the coast of Newfoundland. The pilots, the plane and the airmail are never seen again.

Eighty-one years later, a relic of the event, the only known printer's proof of the commemorative stamp - the same stamps on the mail on board the flight - is discovered in the sock drawer of a Bay St. banker.

It was a gift, given to the banker by his father who had inherited it years earlier from a friend who had gotten it directly from the printer who had cast it on paper in London, Ontario, or so the story goes.

"People told my father it was worth something," says John Harding Jr., of the Royal Bank of Canada. "He kept it in a box in his attic for the better part of 40 years. Then he gave it to me and said: 'See what you can get for it someday.' "

"It didn't mean anything to me." One night, curiosity gets the better of the banker. Not knowing what he has, Harding puts it up for auction on eBay.

When he returns to his computer he has an email waiting for him from a collector in Toronto.

Meet me downtown, it reads. I'll pay a substantial sum of cash.

Intrigued, the banker takes it to John H. Talman Ltd. Stamp Auctions & Sales on Yonge St.

"I knew what it was as soon as I saw it;' recalls Talman, a 70-year­ old stamp dealer who evaluates such relics using a small monocle­ like magnifier.

Then and there, Talman, a long­ time dealer in rare coins and stamps, retells the story of the failed flight and explains to Harding the significance of his stamp.

It is a proof, a test stamp made by the printer before printing some 100 of the semi-official 25 cent stamps for the flight. Those stamps - made from blue and yellow die cast on white paper - show the framed portraits of Tully and Med­ calf on either side of the globe along with an image of The Sir John Carling flying the Atlantic. They are worth a lot of money.

"Only nine of the stamps are known to have survived," Talman says. Most of them went down with the plane, the others survived by fluke or by mischief.

Four of the stamps are thought to have been given to Tully's wife be­ fore the plane took off. Folklore tells of a break-in the night of the plane crash, in which the stamps were stolen while the soon-to-be widow was out for supper.

No one knows what happened to those stamps, he says. But of the nine that have surfaced in the de­ cades since the crash, some are in private hands, others are in the British Library's stamp collection while a mint copy of one of the semi-official labels is on display in the Smithsonian.

"The market on this stuff hasn't gone down. This isn't like your stocks," Talman says.

The banker agrees to sell the piece at auction. Talman releases a catalogue announcing the sale and suddenly Harding starts getting emails from stamp dealers, collectors and auctioneers from around the world.

The more emails he receives, the more uneasy he becomes about his possession. Auction houses in Lon­ don and New York are challenging its authenticity. The Smithsonian is interested, but doesn't want to pay, and collectors are contacting him for more details.

With one robbery already recorded in the stamp's folklore and having learned that one of the nine known stamps was sold in 2004 for

$126,000, the banker grows even more uneasy.

"There's this little stamp world full of intrigue where everyone knows everyone else. Everyone knows what each other has," Harding says.

"We were afraid some villain might break in and steal it like in a James Bond movie. One night I woke up in a sweat thinking this is Da Vinci Code stuff and my wife says to me, 'Get that thing out of my house.'

"So I brought it to my office and locked it in a drawer because I didn't want anyone to get to it."

By auction day, worries aside, Harding thinks maybe he should buy the stamp proof himself to pre­ vent a dealer from getting it for far less than its value. He braves a winter storm to attend the auction. Once there, he gets into a bidding war with a number of interested parties. But in the end, the hammer drops and the stamp proof is sold over the phone to an anonymous American collector for $10,000.

"It's one of those stories that I've actually sat around the table with people and it's a pretty long story and they sit there on the edge of their seats," says Harding.

He has yet to receive payment. It has first to be authenticated, a process expected to take several weeks.

"This whole world has intrigued me so much that I think I might use the money to become a stamp collector myself;' says the banker.

But first things first: "Let's see if it's authentic."