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Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Was There A Post Office?

In my areas of philatelic specialism the question is often asked, Were these stamps really issued?
To answer this, you need answers to several other questions:

Was there a post office or post offices?

Were these stamps “available at the counter” – even if only for a short period of time – and would they have been used to frank mail brought in by “an ordinary member of the public”?

What did the post office/s do with the letters franked with the stamps? Did they have the ability to put them into a mail delivery system – and was that system local, regional, national or international?

A key part of this set of questions is played by the “ordinary member of the public”. If the stamps will only be brought out for known philatelists (dealers or collectors) or, say, for the local military commander who has ordered their production, then in the ordinary sense of the word, they are not a regular issue. They are stamps produced by or for favours. On the other hand, the stamps may have franking validity and may succeed in getting a letter carried from A to B in which case one might say that they had a “limited issue”.

For many stamp issues, the vast majority of used stamps are found on (obviously) philatelic mail. The British Empire used to control many small and remote islands – still does – and issued stamps for them. But in some cases as many as 99% of all covers now existing are philatelic.

But what counts is the 1% of non-philatelic mail – the same stamps were available to “ordinary members of the public” (maybe there were just two of them) as well as philatelists.

That is why the 1% (or even the 0.1%) is so important. For example, it is the 1% or less which shows that the stamps of the Northern Army and the North West Army were issued. There clearly exist cards and covers which were not sent for philatelic motives. It’s true that the distances they travelled are mostly quite limited – backwards into Estonia, most notably. But a few made it as far as Finland and in that case you have an even stronger case for saying that the stamps were issued and served to get mail put into a mail distribution system. Similarly, though their period of use in December-January 1918-19 was very short, the original map stamps of Latvia saw limited non-philatelic postal use, both on internal mail and on mail to Germany.

The really difficult questions arise with stamps which appear to have been issued but for which evidence of ordinary postal use is now missing. In some cases, there are not even philatelic covers. There are undoubtedly stamps which were officially prepared and would have had postal validity if used but which went straight from post office counter to waiting philatelists who bought everything for onward sale as mint stamps, none even stuck on philatelic covers. This would be true of an unknown proportion of the combinations of stamp and overprint  issued by Dashnak Armenia which could have been used but weren't.

The only really clever guy in the confusing postal history in which I specialise was Dr Ivan Cherniavsky who produced the 1919 CMT overprints of Kolomea in co-operation with the occupying Romanian military commander. Cherniavsky required that quantities of the stamps be distributed to the post offices which the Romanian authorities controlled. These post offices actually served very few people in a widely illiterate countryside. But they did serve local lawyers who were always sending petitions to the district court in Kolomea, and the stamps got used on their registered mail.

Dr Cherniavsky was in charge of the district court in Kolomea. His clerks simply passed to him the one hundred percent genuine commercially used envelopes which brought petitions to the court. Cherniavsky was an unusual collector. He was interested in ordinary commercial mail.... He took a chance that no one out in those small towns and villages would spot the opportunity to buy the CMT stamps for onward sale. As far as I know, only at one office did some other collector/dealer get to secure part of the issue. Elsewhere, it seems that everything went to the lawyers and back to Kolomea, as Cherniavasky intended.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018


Hellman Auction # 111 now online at



I contributed a great deal of material across the sale notably Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia (including Fiscals and Russian local issues of 1920), Transcaucasia and Ukraine. 

There is also Baltic and Latin American material from my stock. 

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Review: Ahto Tanner, Postage Due & Postal Markings in Estonia 1918 - 1944

Click on Image to Magnify

Ahto Tanner sent me a copy of his 57 page A4 Handbook. It’s very clearly written and presented. It feels easy to use and I think the author is to be congratulated. To obtain a copy, contact Ahto at

I was very interested by the short account (pages 12-13) of the Estonian Venemaalt [ From Russia] markings of 1920 – 21. When Bolshevik Russia re-introduced a foreign mail service in June 1920, the new Foreign Tariff schedule provided for Free Post on unregistered mail going abroad. Registered mail had to be franked. This arrangement was identical to that applied to domestic letters. However, the new schedule was replaced by a new foreign Tariff on 30 September 1920 which required all mail going abroad to be franked.

So there was a three month period when unfranked ordinary mail leaving Russia would not attract any internal Postage Due marking because there were no charges due. But nor were there any payments scheduled to the postal administrations of foreign countries. Ah.

The Estonian authorities did not really want to deliver Russian mail for free. But rather than charge the usual  x 2 the postage deficiency, they decided to apply the ordinary inland Estonian rate to incoming Russian mail. This is the origin of the Venemaalt markings. Ahto Tanner illustrates a very nice item at page 12.

In the early period June – September 1920 it’s likely that anyone in Russia who could afford to register mail would do so. Unfranked foreign mail is now very hard to find – no doubt also because people were more likely to throw away cards and letters without stamps.

After the external free post tariff ended, there were people who did not realise that things had changed or who had no money to frank mail anyway. They continued to send mail unfranked, which explains why the Estonian Venemaalt markings continue in use until 1921.

Most of the research on this topic is due to Alexander Epstein.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Transcaucasian Federation 1923: First Star Overprint Issue (Michel 1 onwards)

Towards the end of his life, the late Dr R J Ceresa accumulated a large quantity of stamps from the first Star overprint issue of the Transcaucasian Federation, together with examples of their use (mostly on Money Transfer Forms). I bought some of this material at the London auction of his collections this week.

Some preliminary conclusions:

- The Star overprint on Imperial 10 kopek is by far the commonest stamp of this issue (#1 in most catalogues); this stamp also exists in mint remainders and is the most likely stamp to turn up in a mint multiple. It’s a pity since the dark background of the  10 kop stamp makes it difficult to study the overprint.

- The 50 kopek is the second most common stamp

- The 1 ruble perforated is by far the scarcest of the basic set, except for the unissued overprint on 3 rubel 50 perforated (my 2007 Michel catalogue mistakenly gives this as an imperforate stamp).

- Of the listed varieties, I have never seen the 25 kopek with Armenian overprint under the later Star overprint; and I have only once seen the Armenian 5r overprint on the 10 kopek and under the Star – that copy was in the Voikhansky collection. Neither variety was in the stockbook of 1000 stamps which I bought. Big rarities.

- The 50 kopek with Star over unframed Armenian Z is quite scarce but definitely not rare, though mint copies are almost never seen. In contrast, the Star in violet instead of black (which Michel lists) is rare. There were three copies in the stockbook, one a copy I had previously sold to Dr Ceresa. One of the two new copies had a legible cancel of AKSTAFA ELIS[avetpol] and is the most violet of the three. I have never seen a mint copy of this variety which I do not think had any philatelic motivation. You need to work under good light to spot this variety.

- The 1 rubel perforated is the only stamp I have seen with Armenian framed Z under the Star. This combination is very scarce.

- Forgeries are not common and most are badly done. The commonest forgery has curved lines making the rays of the star; on genuine stamps the lines are always dead straight. Other forgeries are in the wrong inks – there is consistency in the genuine overprint inks which is very obvious when you look at a large quantity of used, genuine stamps. Though Dr Ceresa collected forgeries, there were only a small number in the 1000 stamp stockbook. Below I show most of them, and most are obviously pathetic. Note that many involve combinations of Armenian and Star overprints.

Click on Image to Magnify

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Dashnak Armenia: A Small Reward for Looking Closely

Click on Image to Magnify

Tidying up my stock the other day, I came across these three stamps in a packet. I was about to add them to a section of common 5r Dashnak Armenian overprints when I realised they were not quite right. They are, in fact, overprinted centrally with a 3r handstamp and its accompanying monogram above. So that suggests they are “counter surcharges” – unofficial combinations of stamps and overprint done as a favour to a collector or dealer. For Dashnak Armenia, Michel does not list these counter surcharges but Gibbons does and so does Ceresa in his handbooks. Both are following the listings in Tchilingirian and Ashford’s books ( now over sixty years old).

But then I noticed something else. On all three stamps, you can find part of a “5r” overprint above and to one side of the 3r overprint. But you cannot find more than a trace of a 5r monogram. What is going on?

I think this is a case where a clerk may have made a genuine mistake and tried to correct it. So these are corrected surcharges, not counter surcharges. To avoid the mess of two monograms, he tilted the 5r handstamp so that the monogram does not print. But this also meant that the 5r does not print properly either. On the dark background, it’s not clear what has happened. Whatever has happened the reuslt is a mess and from a practical point of view, a failure.

All three stamps are from the same sheet – they are all off-centre in the same way. All were signed by Theodore Champion, a careful Paris dealer of the time, and all were later signed RJC [ Dr Ceresa’s first handstamp]. But Ceresa does not list this variety in his Armenia handbook. Perhaps he also put these stamps into a packet and forgot about them.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Armenia: the ARTAR catalog again

One of the frustrations of my job is that I have to work with unsatisfactory catalogues. So for Ukraine I use the Bulat catalogue because it has numbers (unlike Dr Seichter's handbooks)  and is in English and in one volume (unlike, say, Dr Ceresa's Handbooks). It is easy to obtain. But it is littered with typographical errors which make it impossible to sell some stamps because they have been omitted altogether, don't have numbers, or have misprinted prices. The illustrations are pretty useless.

For Armenia, Michel is good because it bases itself closely on Zakiyan's work but it omits philatelic counter productions. Gibbons is quite good because it bases itself on Tchilingirian's work which does list counter productions but Tchilingirian's research was done over fifty years ago. Zakiyan has good illustrations, it's usefully in Armenian, Russian and English but it does not give valuations. The presentation is not helpful. Equally, it's true that Michel's numbering system drives everyone crazy.

I was browsing Philasearch today and noticed that Raritan Stamps, a serious specialised auction house, is using the Artar catalog for Armenia. I think this is a bad idea. The problems with the Artar catalog are many but important ones are internal to the catalog itself. I reproduce below my two long reviews of Artar,  first published here in 2010. More up to date relevant discussions can be found on Stefan Berger's website


I just acquired my first copy of the ARTAR Stamps of Armenia catalog; $100 from Loral Stamps. It's the work of a lifelong, dedicated collector

One of the things I learnt early on in my career as a dealer is that most collectors do not look at their stamps. That is why most collections - in the areas in which I specialise in - are full of fakes. As someone once said, when you buy one of these collections in auction, you know that somewhere in it there will be a genuine stamp.

You know that there is going to be a problem with the ARTAR catalog when you look at the cover. Ten stamps from the 1919- 23 period of classic Armenian philately are illustrated, in colour. If I was looking at these in an auction catalog, I would count at least one as a fake.

Inside the catalog, there are beautiful illustrations of fascinating material, well presented. But the high quality of the production also allows you to see much that is doubtful or bad. Two examples:

The most common Armenian cancellation of the 1919 - 23 period is ERIVAN "d". It came into use some years before and it remained in use until 1924 - 25. Not surprisingly it has been forged: Tchilingirian and Ashford illustrate four different forgeries, Ceresa lists six. Since they wrote their books, new forgeries have been made.

The ARTAR catalog contains at least 25 colour illustrations which include strikes of ERIVAN "d", the first ones on page 9 and the last on page 183. I count 11 illustrations which show genuine examples of this cancellation; 7 which show forged cancellations; and 7 which I would not want to determine on the basis of a visual inspection of the catalog page - some are cancellations on dark stamps and so on. Some of the faked cancels I have seen before, outside the pages of this catalog.

If you want to see how I am doing it, compare the cancellation shown on page 12 with that shown as a receiver cancellation on page 49. Pay espcial attention to how the serial "d" is formed (I am sorry; I do not have Cyrillic on Blogger). The item on page 12 is the one with a forged cancellation. The item on page 49 shows an example of the genuine cancellation.

In my view, the author of a specialist catalog - someone with over 40 years' collecting experience - ought to have weeded out most of these fake cancels - they are not so hard to detect.

It is even easier to detect the faked ALEXANDROPOL "zhe" cancellation which seems to be of just one recent type and which I have seen before outside the pages of this catalog. I count at least 7 illustrations showing ALEXANDROPOL "zhe", of which 2 are genuine, 4 are fakes, and 1 not possible to determine.

Go to page 17 to see a very clear example of the fake, and page 166 to see a clear example of the genuine item on a lovely piece. Look at the serial "zhe" ; on the fake, this is a very poor copy indeed and its thin and elongated form has nothing to do with ageing or inking. The shape is completely wrong.

I use the word "fake" partly because I have been able in the past to carefully examine examples of actual faked cancellations rather than just illustrations and have been able to discuss with other collectors and dealers the provenance of such material. I have written about this in such articles as "Is this cover genuine in all respects?" (British Journal of Russian Philately, number 87, December 2001, pages 38 - 42; "The Sad Fate of Armenia's Archives", Rossica, No 137, Fall 2001, pages 8 - 13 where due to an editorial mix-up Figure 5 is labelled "genuine" when it should be labelled "Fake" ...). If I was working from the ARTAR illustrations alone, I should probably use the word "doubtful" pending the actual examination of the material, though in most cases the illustrations are clear enough for a verdict to be given.

I have always believed that when the Paris printers Chassepot prepared the first pictorial stamps of Armenia in 1920, they despatched only the low values in the Eagle design to Yerevan. By the time they got to print the high values in two colours, the Dashnak regime had collapsed. The high value stamps were remaindered from Paris, which is why they are more common in Europe than the low values, many of which had been despatched to Yerevan. (For the later crude Reprints, all values are equally common).

This story would explain why Christopher Zakiyan, in his book Armenia: Postage Stamps, Fiscal Stamps, Postage Cancels (Yerevan 2003, pages 63ff) lists Soviet fiscal overprints on only the 1,5,10 and 15 rouble Chassepot stamps, which are also the only values which appear on the documents he illustrates (There is an unexplained mystery about what happened to the 3 rouble Chassepot stamp).

In the ARTAR catalog, it seems that the same account is going to be accepted from the text on page 126, but then on page 132, we are shown fiscal overprints on all the high value stamps with accompanying high valuations (minimum $450). But if the conventional wisdom is correct, these high value stamps were not available for overprinting because they had not been sent to Yerevan. So any fiscal overprint on these stamps, whether Originals or Reprints, must be a fake. (On page 131, ARTAR also lists the 3 rouble with fiscal overprint and also gives it a $450 valuation).

These overprints on high values were first announced to the philatelic world in an article by Joseph Ross ("Armenian Revenue Stamps and their Uses", The Post-Rider, No 41, 1997, pages 40 - 48). I replied in issue 49 of the same journal (November 2001, page 111). By this time I had seen actual examples of the overprints on the high values, all of which were identical in terms of frame line breaks and so on. From this I concluded that they had been digitally produced on the basis of a scan from just one stamp. Examples I saw included ones on reprints, so necessarily fakes. These stamps had all come from one source in the USA. All were mint, as are all those illustrated by both Joseph Ross and ARTAR.

The conservative and, I believe correct, position is this: there is no good evidence for the existence of fiscal overprints on the Chassepot high values. The best information we have is against the possibility. The stamps listed at page 132 of ARTAR must be fakes. The listing given by Zakiyan in his 2003 book should be retained.

As a general point: Armenian revenue stamps of this 1918 - 23 period are actually more common on documents than as loose stamps. Mint stamps are rare. This is because most examples remained locked in Armenian archives until around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time, quite large quantities of documents became available in Europe and America.

[Added 31 August 2018: Not so long ago, the stockbooks of the American dealer who distributed some of the modern Armenian fakes appeared in auction at David Feldman, Geneva. It was possible to see supposedly rare stamps in fine quality and great quantity: June 2017 Lot 20419 and others]

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Auction Sale of the Dr R J Ceresa collections

Click on Image to Magnify

The residual collections of the late Dr R J Ceresa will be auctioned in London on 20 September 2018. The sale is being conducted by Grosvenor whose offices are above the Strand stamp shop of Stanley Gibbons. I use the word "residual" for two reasons.  First, Dr Ceresa repeatedly sold material once he had written a handbook on it. That means, for example, that he sold all of the Tchilingirian collection of Armenia which he had bought as one lot after Tchilingirian's death (he liked to say that he outbid Mikulski). Second, his main forgery reference collections have been given to the Royal Philatelic Society of London and will be available for consultation.

At the time of his death, Dr Ceresa was making a new collection of  1923 Transcaucasian Federation Star overprints and these are well-represented in the sale. Other lots are nearly all 1917- 1923 material including accumulations in which genuine and forged material has not been sorted out. I am partly responsible for the lotting and descriptions.

The online catalogue can be viewed at and the Ceresa material begins at Lot 1843.