Rare Audrey Hepburn stamps at Berlin charity sale

Berlin: A dispute over an Audrey Hepburn stamp in Germany is going to help poor children in Africa.

A mint-condition sheet of 10 stamps portraying Hepburn, a coy smile on her face and a long, black cigarette holder dangling from her lips, is expected to fetch at least Euro 400,000 ($565,000) at a charity auction Saturday in Berlin.

Auctioneer Andreas Schlegel said he`s received interest from four serious bidders. Two-thirds of money raised will go to the Audrey Hepburn Children`s Fund, and one-third to UNICEF Germany.

The sale brings a profitable outcome to a botched stamp series that should have been destroyed years ago — and evokes Hepburn`s starring role in the 1963 thriller ‘Charade’, in which the characters chase a set of rare stamps.

The German postal service printed 14 million of the Hepburn stamps in 2001 showing the Belgian-born actress in her most famous role as the ebullient Holly Golightly in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany`s’.

Only after the stamps were printed was Sean Ferrer, 50, Hepburn`s son and the chair of the Audrey Hepburn Children`s Fund, contacted to grant copyright — but he refused, arguing that the image had been altered.

"In the original photo, she`s got sunglasses hanging from her mouth, but they had flipped the negative and replaced the glasses with the cigarette holder," he told reporters.

Ferrer suggested using either the original photo or an alternative, but the postal service ended up scrapping the stamp and ordering those produced destroyed.

Deutsche Post says it saved only two sheets of the stamps — one for its own archive and one for the German Post Museum. But in 2004, a single stamp with Hepburn smoking, postmarked Berlin, landed on Schlegel`s desk.

"I was obviously very surprised, because they never were supposed to be used as stamps at all," Schlegel said.

Between 2004 and 2009, four other Hepburn stamps turned up and were authenticated. They sold at auction for between Euro 62,500 and Euro 173,000.

After his success selling the fifth stamp, Schlegel contacted Ferrer to suggest asking the German government if they could sell one of the archived stamp sheets for charity. But Ferrer had a better idea, “Why not the pristine sheet Germany sent him in 2001, which he still had?”

"Andreas almost fell backward and had an apoplectic fit when he heard this," Ferrer said.

Ferrer then signed a contract with the German Finance Ministry, securing rights to sell the stamp sheet for charity and ensuring the government would not be able to sell either of its sheets until 2040.

That move helped drive up the price of the auction, said Mercer Bristow, director of stamp authentication for the American Philatelic Society.

"It goes back to supply and demand. It`s the only sheet out there people can bid on and she`s still such a popular actress," he told the AP from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.

Other items being auctioned Saturday include a pair of Hepburn`s black ballet slippers and a portrait of the actress.

Hepburn was a UNICEF ambassador from 1988 until shortly before her death from colon cancer in 1993, and proceeds from the auction will help fund education for children in sub-Saharan Africa.

"My mother always told me, `I didn`t make a perfume or go sell toilet paper. I did something good with my name," Ferrer said.

Bureau Report