In 2001, the government printed 14 million Audrey Hepburn stamps as part of a series featuring movie stars including Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo. The print run was destroyed after Hepburn's son, Sean Ferrer, objected to the cigarette holder dangling from the actress' mouth and refused to grant copyright.
But the Finance Ministry had already delivered advance copies of the Hepburn stamps to Deutsche Post for approval. Thirty of these proof copies escaped destruction when an unknown employee pocketed them and used them to send letters postmarked from Berlin.
A minimum bid of euro30,000 (US$41,959) has been set for the stamp - of which only five copies are known to exist - at its auction Tuesday at Berlin's Kempinski Hotel Bristol.
"We can only guess that whoever took the Hepburn stamps from Deutsche Post didn't realize their value, thought they would save 55 cents and just used them on normal letters," auctioneer Andreas Schlegel told The Associated Press.
The latest find is the fifth Hepburn stamp to surface since 2004. Schlegel said the rest probably ended up where most stamps do: in the trash can.
One of the four other Hepburn stamps fetched euro53,000 at an auction in Duesseldorf in 2005.
Ferrer said he hoped the collector would use proceeds from the auction to support cancer research or anti-smoking campaigns. His movie star mother died of colon cancer in 1993.
The collector has received so many sheets of stamps as presents that he can't pinpoint where the Hepburn stamp came from, and prefers to remain anonymous.
"He's worried that if his picture is printed in the newspaper his friends will come to him and say, 'hey, you got that stamp from me,'" Schlegel said.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.