Tuesday, 20 June 2017

A Comedy of RRRRs

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This is just the first act of the comedy.To see the rest of this enjoyable farce, go to Christoph Gaertner's June sale, Lot 21778

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Review: Kaj Hellman and Jeffrey C Stone, Agathon Faberge

This remarkable book closes with two complimentary remarks made by contemporaries speaking about Agathon Fabergé; one described him as “a charming gentleman” and another as “a great philatelic scholar”. Those remarks could be applied to the co-author of this book, Kaj Hellman, who died shortly before it was completed. His fellow author, Dr Jeffrey Stone, has carried through the work to a splendid completion assisted by Kaj Hellman’s son, Oskari, and Kaarina Martilla who are responsible for an exceptionally well designed and illustrated book produced to a very high standard.

Agathon Fabergé (1876 – 1951) was one of the sons of the Imperial Russian court jeweller Peter Carl Fabergé. As a young man, he both worked for the family firm as a gemologist and became an avid collector of stamps and many other things besides. He had the resources to spend lavishly. The war and the revolutions closed the family business, resulted in the confiscation of many of his collections, put him in to a Bolshevik prison and - no doubt to survive - obliged him to work for the Soviet GOKHRAN organisation describing and evaluating Imperial jewels for later sale – in the end, it was the USA which would provide the market for them. It was not until December 1927 that Agathon escaped from Russia to Finland where he settled for the rest of his life.

My guess is that his decade in revolutionary Russia was traumatic. He never took employment after he left but also found it hard to downsize his lifestyle. He became a gentleman philatelist in constant financial difficulty, taking out loans against his collections and then losing them because he could not repay. Much of this is documented in this book. Kaj Hellman once told me that Agathon’s son, Oleg, on his father’s death had found his father’s office desk heaped with unopened letters, many containing bills long overdue.

Agathon Fabergé applied himself to his stamp collections in a spirit of scholarship making many discoveries which he simply noted for his own use and never published. This book retrieves some of that scholarship and makes it available. It also reconstructs many aspects of the ways in which “top end” philately was conducted in the first half of the twentieth century. We are introduced to a world of dealers who have very considerable financial resources to commit, to collectors who network extensively and exchange material privately, of international exhibitions, of personal feuds. Some of this reconstruction is enabled by Fabergé’s well-known habit of annotating his purchases, recording on stamps and covers who he had got them from, when and for how much. Hellman and Stone have made a big start on constructing a modern database of the annotations and this strikes me as an important piece of philatelic work. The Appendices to the text also contain valuable research material, notably in Appendix 2 which reconstructs Fabergé’s 1933 WIPA exhibits and Appendix 4 which is an inventory of known 1846 – 1851 Moscow postal stationery envelopes.

I would have welcomed a brief discussion of how Agathon’s collection was continued by his son, Oleg, who like his father periodically disposed of material ( Imperial Russian fiscals, Transcaucasia 1917 – 23) but also mounted up an extraordinary Zemstvo collection, which after his death was sold by Corinphila (1999) in what was the last remarkable auction of the twentieth century.

The book has been carefully proof-read, is surprisingly readable, and strikes me as a major contribution to the history of philately.

Kaj Hellman and Jeffrey C. Stone, Agathon Fabergé, published by Oy Hellman-Huutokaupat 2017, hardback, 370 pages, price 50 €

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Dr R J Ceresa

Dr Raymond J  Ceresa, who was best known for his encyclopaedic series of Handbooks on 1917 - 23 Russian area stamps and postal history, died on 10 June 2017. Ray Ceresa who was born in 1929 had been ill for some months. He is survived by his wife June and their three children. A fuller notice will appear here in due course, but readers who wish to post Comments can do so here.

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Sunday, 4 June 2017

Is the SPhA a Reliable Partner?

After the creation of the Soviet Union, all stamp issues previously in use were quite rapidly withdrawn from sale. Imperial stamps at last disappeared, except when overprinted as Philatelic Exchange stamps, and so too did the issues of the Far Eastern Republic, Ukraine, and the Transcaucasian republics. At the same time, the Soviet Philatelic Association (SPhA) was attempting - with some success - to establish itself as a commercially important entity, able to generate foreign exchange from stamp sales, but also able to control private philatelic speculation through the use of philatelic exchange controls.

In both contexts, the SPhA sought to centralise all the remainder stamp stocks and associated material which were scattered across the Soviet Union. I think there were just three centres: Moscow, Kharkiv and Baku – though over time I think everything gravitated to Moscow. According to C Zakiyan and S.Saltikov in their 1988 book Post and Postage Stamps of Armenia, a Soviet delegation arrived in Yerevan in September 1924 and took away some of the handstamps used in the period 1919 – 23 and still lying around in the post office. I have no doubt that they also organised the transfer to Baku and/or Moscow of very large quantities of remaindered stamps and that they did the same when they visited Tbilisi. The SPhA outpost in Baku was manned by S.Kusovkin who owed his appointment directly to Chuchin (I once owned the appointment letter ex the Voikhansky collection). Kusovkin is known to have organised the AzVoka reprints of Azerbaijan overprinted stamps, taking the opportunity to create new varieties from the old handstamps and it’s therefore possible that he did the same if he was entrusted with any Armenian handstamps.

There has, for example, long been a suspicion that the SPhA created varieties of overprint colour on the 1923 Yerevan pictorial issue. It does seem that though some values of this set acquired red overprints in Yerevan which then went into normal postal use not all values were overprinted in red. It does seem that if for no other reason than to please those who like things in Sets, the SPhA did fill in the missing combinations of value + red, but in very small quantities so that they are rare. The alternative explanation is that those overprints were created in Yerevan as trials or proofs and not put into use so that they were all available for transfer to Baku or Moscow in nice MNH ** condition. Either way, there is a small group of value + red combinations which did not see postal use.

This centralisation put the SPhA in a strong commercial position but, as far as both domestic and especially, foreign sales were concerned, catalogues of what was in stock were also needed. These were duly provided under the editorship of the energetic F.Chuchin and those catalogues continue to have an influence since the 1920s holdings of the SPhA provided the largest assembly of many Russian stamp issues, especially those of the Civil War period.

But were the catalogues reliable? The SPhA certainly had qualified philatelists on its staff who knew how to go about things and, for example, the clearly understood a great deal about the 1920 Postmaster Provisionals which they catalogued. But I think there were also temptations which were created by the fact that the SPhA had also acquired at least some handstamps which had been used to create overprinted issues and this I have already suggested in relation to the work of Kusovkin in Baku.

This is one reason why it is extremely difficult to make sense of what happened in the Armenian post office in 1921. For most of that year, letters were paid for in cash (not that there were many) – a claim for which Zakiyan and Saltikov found archival evidence. At the same time, various trials were going on in the back room aiming to turn the very large stamp stock (about two million stamps) inherited by the new Bolshevik regime into properly Sovietised issues. These trials were messy, improvised and inconclusive. At the end of the day, there was an awful lot of material put in a cupboard and just 200 sets of 10 stamps handed over to S Khatchaturian and G.Babaian to see what they could sell them for in Constantinople, where the young painter Khatchaturian (1886 – 1947) would also have chance to discuss with the printer his stamp designs for the forthcoming First and Second Yessayan issues which would provide a decisive break with the past of messy overprinting.

We only have a sketchy idea what those 200 sets of 10 looked like because we somehow have to locate them behind a much longer listing in the 1926 Chuchin catalogue and an even longer one in 1960 Tchilingirian and Ashford. Basically, the set of 10 has got submerged into all that went into the cupboard in Yerevan and – possibly  - all that Kusovkin or the Moscow SPhA added to the stock by way of new combinations of overprint. Zakiyan and Saltikov try to separate  out the set of 10 but provide no illustrations to help the matter.

In this context, it is interesting to see how a distinguished Soviet philatelist, Ustinovky (author of a big handbook on Tannu Tuva), went about the matter in the 1980s. See the page from his collection shown below. He is still trying to do it with Chuchin numbers and the simple truth of the matter is that for most of his stamps, the forgers have got their first – they have made the stamps which are otherwise impossible or almost impossible to find.  In this case, I don’t think we are looking at things from the Yerevan cupboard or even at old SPhA  material made from genuine handstamps. I think we are looking at modern forgeries using fresh MNH** clean Imperial stamps and newly-made handstamps. 

But when you turn over the stamps, as I have done in the second illustration, you see that some of them have old signatures notably VINNER (who is known to have been familiar and reliable with Postmaster Provisional handstamps ) and a BH which I have yet to identify [See now note at end of this piece]. These stamps are also not so pristine – they have been in other collections as you would expect. Ustinovsky seems to have made this little collection in the 1980s and mentions Zakiyan and Saltikov's book in his notes. But he is relying on Chuchin.

It is on the copies with old handstamps that I will focus my attention as I continue to try to work out what did happen in the back room of Yerevan post office in 1921.

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Note added: Philippe Gueniot suggests V.N.Ustinovksy as the user of the handstamp BH which can be seen to include an extended "Y" to make three Cyrillic initials BHY:


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Saturday, 3 June 2017

Stamps Which Don't Exist

This would make an interesting Exhibit. Here are some categories of stamps which don't exist:

(1) Stamps which did once exist but of which all copies have been lost or destroyed and only descriptions or photographs remain. You can always hope ...

(2) Typographical errors in catalogues which tell collectors to look for a 1 Dollar Blue when they should be looking for a 10 Dollar Blue. Dealers who accept Wants Lists soon discover these catalogue errors.

(3) Chinese Whispers. In the past, not every stamp issuing authority had a philatelic bureau or even answered the telephone. Collector A is looking at a set (?) of stamps in the same design and with values 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,9,10. Puzzled, A asks B Is there an 8? Says B, Probably. So A asks the local stamp dealer for a copy of the 8. Is there one? says the stamp dealer. Oh, I think so, says A. The dealer does work for a stamp magazine, helping list New Issues and so includes in the next list sent off a set containing  1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 values.

(4) The Fraudsters. In the old days, you could send stamps to weekly magazines or catalogue makers, giving details and they would get listed. So you could write:

Dear Philatelic Paper,

I enclose four stamps which have just been issued here. In addition to the 5, 10, 20 and 50 overprints on the old stamps, there are also overprints of 100 and 200 which I could not afford to buy but the details of which are these ....

When the Philatelic Paper duly prints the details, the fraudster starts to produce the 100 and 200 high values which everyone will now be looking for. Similar scams still occur. In the 1990s, fraudsters (in California, I think) noted that four values of the 1920 unissued set of Chassepot stamps of Armenia were overprinted in 1923 for fiscal use. The fraudsters saw an opportunity: they decided that all ten values of the set had been overprinted and set about producing the missing scarce values for gullible collectors. It's really that simple.

(5) Catalogue Fraudsters. This is the one that interests me at the moment. Suppose you are a company or  organisation which both produces catalogues and sells stamps. Why not insert a few extra stamps into the sets you are listing, and in particular ones which you could easily produce using surplus stock and even handstamps which have found their way into your offices? I have a suspicion that something very much like this occurred in the Soviet Philatelic Association in the 1920s and 1930s, with or without official sanction. More on this in a future Blog ....

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Postally Used or CTO?

For many stamp issues, there is an important question which can be asked: Was this issue available at post office counters for regular postal use? This is not a new question. You can ask it, for example, about the first issue of Honduras. But it is not a simple question.

For example, we probably have an image of a post office counter. Anyone can walk in off the street, present a letter and ask for a stamp to put on it. If Christmas is coming, they can ask for a Christmas stamp if such things are issued. They don’t have to be a stamp collector to ask for that.

But some post office counters are inside exhibitions and congresses where you have to pay to get in or be a delegate to get in. There are sometimes stamp issues which are only available behind a ticket wall. You won’t find them at regular post office counters. But it’s quite possible that someone with real business to transact needs to post a letter at a Congress counter and gets handed the special stamps on sale. So you do get “genuine postal use” even in these circumstances.

In the field of Russian area philately, there are plenty of “issues” where it is not entirely clear if and when and where the issue was available. The matter is complicated by the existence of cancelled to order material. Some CTO material is easy to spot but not all of it. In some times and places, stamp dealers have broken up sheets of stamps and put them one by one on plain sheets of paper and got each stamp neatly cancelled at a post office counter. Maybe they borrowed a canceller for the purpose or maybe one clerk had the job of dealing with the dealers. In this case, it is often the case that just one canceller gets used for CTO material and other cancellers for regular letters taken across the counter or brought in from post boxes. So the CTO material can be distinguished. Of course, if sheets are cancelled then if the gum is not washed off it is easy to see that you are dealing with CTO material. But there are more complicated cases. 

In the case of issues like those of the Northern, North West and Western Armies in 1919 it is really hard to get a sense of how much ordinary business was being transacted at the post office counter and whether these stamps were freely available there. The same is true of some Ukrainian Trident issues and many Armenian Dashnak issues. In contrast, the issues of Azerbaijan and Georgia all seem to have been freely available.

The problem of assessing the availability of a stamp is made worse by the fact that at the time – say the 1920s -  it was relatively unusual to keep ordinary private or commercial covers – everyone just tore the stamps off. So you may have plenty of what look like used copies but few or no covers, which creates the suspicion that all the “used” copies may actually be CTO.

In this situation, it is worth while spending a bit of time on forensic approaches which may help determine whether a loose stamp is CTO or postally used. Consider a simple example.

Below is a pair of fairly common Armenian stamps with ERIVAN “b” 11 3 20 cancellation. This cancel is very common on CTO material and March 1920 is within the period for which we know there is CTO material. However, the CTO cancel was normally applied either to each stamp individually (“socked on the nose”) or applied in the centre of a block of four stamps, a very common CTO practice. But here the cancel is over two stamps. It is also not as clear as those normally seen on CTO material. Could this pair be postally used? If it is, we gain quite useful information – it suggests that Erivan post office was open on this date and that this stamp was available at the counter. Will anything settle the matter?

Well, if we turn over the pair there is a very small amount of paper adhesion and, more importantly, the outline of what could be an envelope flap. So it seems possible that this pair sealed an envelope flap  a common practice. My scan does not really help establish this, but I can make the point more clearly from a different item, the strip of three which follows. In the case of the strip of three, I originally thought this might be fiscally used. But the evidence on the back is that it is from a letter. The small framed Z placed at top left of the stamp is an early style of overprint and so this strip could date from late 1919 or very early 1920 and from outside the two main cities, Erivan and Alexandropol. Beyond that I don’t want to speculate! But it gives every appearance of having been genuinely used to frank a letter.

Part of the interest of these items is in the fact that they are from an old English collection with some internal evidence that the collector got material from either Tchilingirian or Ashford. 

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Monday, 29 May 2017

Travelling Post Offices in Early Soviet Russia

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The postal history of Imperial Russia's Railway Travelling Post Offices is well understood and there are very informative reference books and articles, notably those authored by Anatoly Kiryushkin and Philip Robinson and now also by Valentin Levandovsky. Other collectors are undertaking very detailed researches to expand on the knowledge base we already have.

The first world war and then the civil war in Russia was a catastrophe for the country's railways. Rail lines were physically destroyed, rolling stock was also destroyed or became unusable, there were repeated fuel shortages. The army, civil war armies and even bandits took over trains. As a result, the range of TPO services available greatly declined from 1914 onwards. I don't think it ever recovered.

So it is quite unusual to find in  a dealer's box an item like that shown above. Here we have a new  post-Imperial cancel for POSHT 68 VAG 30 4 24 - Postal Wagon 68 - operating a short time after the creation of the Soviet Union. The letter, franked at 20 kop is addressed to Mr J [ or possibly I] Brodsky, 48 Reynolds Ave, Provedence [sic] R.I [Rhode Island], America. But there are no transits or arrival markings. At some point, the well-worn envelope has been folded in half centrally perhaps to be sent within another envelope.

I have no idea of the route on which Postal Wagon 68 operated or for how long. So it is over to my readers ... who have very rapidly obliged - see the Comments posted below by Howard Weinert and Ivo Steijn. Thanks to both of them!