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Friday, 5 January 2018

Neglected collecting fields

There is not much fun in collecting if there is nothing to collect. So most collectors choose a collecting field where material is available and at prices they can afford. If you like browsing dealer boxes at collector fairs but don’t want to spend any money, all you need to do is pick a field of interest where you will never find anything. Letters from Russian Alaska to Russia would be a good idea.

Collectors don’t try to converge on the same interests, but many do, and a side effect is that some things which could be collected never are or only by two people, one in Iceland and one in New Zealand. These are then the neglected collecting fields.

When I try to think of things which are neglected, some are quite general, others specific to my own broad areas of interest. At a general level, the neglect of large format items is really quite extraordinary. It is explained by not much more than the reluctance of most collectors to spend money on the necessary albums or holders, things which would hold complete sheets, fiscal documents or very large envelopes. But, for example, large envelopes are the most likely location of high frankings, multiple frankings, and so on. They should be sought after for that!

In relation to my own areas of interest, it always surprises me that more attention is not paid to local and postmaster perforations. These are not always rare – for Estonia in the period 1918 – 1920 they are quite common. And they are perhaps more common than is realised because quite often they are to be found, unnoticed, in stockbooks of loose stamps. This is true for late Russian Imperial stamps issued imperforate but perforated in 1917 -1918 by postmasters and private commercial firms. I have even found postmaster perforations unnoticed in accumulations of other Civil War period stamps like the Denikin issues of South Russia. The same is true for other countries: I found local perforations recently unnoticed in an old stock of Colombia.

Collectors generally pay premiums for multiple frankings and four-colour frankings, but in some times and places it is the single frankings at the correct tariff which are scarce. This is especially true in periods of inflation when the face value of stamp issues does not keep pace with the increase in postal tariffs. But no one wants to pay a premium for a single franking.

In France and Germany, it is common to collect your home town or some other place with which you are associated. But it seems less common in Russia and the old eastern Europe to make Heimat collections. It is even less common for a collector in another country to pick a small city or a large town in another country as the field for a collection. But an interest in history ought to lead more collectors than it does to places which have always been in the news: fought over, occupied, devastated by famine or earthquake. Some of the larger cities do get attention but the smaller ones much less so. But the stamps and postal history of places like Archangel, Berdichev, Dnepropetrovsk, Ekaterinburg, Fergana, Grozny…. right through the alphabet… well, there are fascinating histories everywhere. And material exists: in the case of Grozny, for example, the activities of the Nobel Brothers leave a trace in dealer boxes. [And see now the cover below].

No doubt my readers can add other neglected fields:

Howard Weinert contributes this splendid cover from Grozny to Minsk. Click on the images to magnify.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

London Stampex 14 - 17 February: Cheap Travel from Europe

Eurostar offer: London from €34*

I will have a stand up in the Gallery at London STAMPEX from 14 to 17 February. I was emailed this offer from Belgian railways which is valid for travel until 28 March. It looks very cheap to me. Why not take advantage and visit London STAMPEX?

The London Eurostar terminus at Kings Cross /St Pancras is a short distance from the Stampex venue in the Business Design Centre, Upper Street, Islington. You could even visit as a day trip ...

Friday, 29 December 2017

New Internet Auction Now Online

Auction 107 from Suomenfilatelia palvelu is now online with a closing date of 19 January. As usual, I have contributed to the large sections of Armenia, Russia (all periods), and Ukraine. I see very good Latvian material from another seller. In total, there are about 1000 lots in the not-Finland section and about 700 in the Finland section.

Note that ARMENIA, AZERBAIJAN and GEORGIA now have separate sections. A general section for TRANSCAUCASIA remains designed for mixed lots as well as Federation issues.

I now sell nearly all my better, single lot material in this auction. Take a look! Go to

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Blog Number 500

According to my dashboard, this is Blog Number 500, so I will use it to wish my readers a happy end to 2017 and good health and good collecting in 2018.

In 2018, I will continue to offer material at and also in the Spring auction of Heinrich Koehler, Wiesbaden.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

History is What Survives: A Fact about Postal History

History is what survives, and what survives is not always the common or the typical. Collectors of postal history depend mostly on archives which, for one reason or another, have escaped the bonfire, the flood, the bombing raid, the mission to search and destroy, human carelessness, and much more. 

For many years, I have collected – accumulated, really – material from Podolia / Podilia in west Ukraine. It is an agriculturally rich region and has been much fought over. In the 1930s and 1940s, Stalin’s collectivisation campaign there turned into mass starvation and German occupation turned into mass liquidation. One result is that though the region historically had a large Jewish population, part of it scattered across scores or hundreds of shtetls which dotted old maps and another part established in the larger towns, very little evidence of this Jewish presence now turns up in the postal history available. It is rare to see postcards with text in Hebrew or Yiddish and also rare to see envelopes addressed in a Cyrillic script with the distinctive style of someone who learnt first to write in Hebrew script.

The letter below is interesting for several reasons. First, it is going from Kamenetz / Kamyanets Podolsk across the border into Romania, to Iasi / Yassy; there is a routing instruction for it go via Novoselitz[ia]. Second, it has a quite scarce pre-philatelic double-ring cancel of Cyrillic KAMENETZ PODOLSK dated 1858. Third, inside there is a long business letter from a business which uses an embossed handstamp in German, near the postmark, and reading SALOMON RABINOWITZ / KAMENETZ PODOLSK / RUSSLAND. The letter is written in German, double-dated for Julian and Gregorian calendars, and in a script which suggests the writer had his education in a German-directed school. This is a script which defeats me ...But it is signed at the bottom by M.Feldstein on behalf of (pp) Salomon Rabinowicz [now with a Polish spelling at the end – cz instead of the –TZ of the seal]. The script is that of someone who is not at ease in Roman letters, and I guess was more at home writing in Russian or in Hebrew/Yiddish. But either way this is a letter from a Jewish business in Kamenetz. I cannot read the first part of the addressee’s name which has J. as a middle letter and Wechsler as a Jewish surname which seems to have been common in Iasi.

Click on Image to Magnify

Click on Image to Magnify

Friday, 1 December 2017

Thinking About Auction Houses Again

Auctions were traditionally places where dead collectors met living ones. Here is the best story I ever heard about this traditional role:

A widow walks into a stamp shop and says that she wishes to sell her late husband’s collection. She has bought the albums with her and they are examined. Yes, says the dealer, it is good material and I would be happy to buy it. But the widow says. Ah, no, I know it is good material and I want to sell it by auction! And the dealer replies, We also sell collections by auction. If you consign the collection to us, we will send you a catalogue and later your payment. It will take a few months. The widow agrees and in due course she gets a catalogue and later a cheque. But how many catalogues were printed? Well, one for the widow and one for the dealer.

Small provincial auction houses still exist exclusively to take in collections from widows and large auction houses also welcome them, though they also rely now on living collectors and on living dealers who want to sell. The living are more impatient than the dead. It’s obvious that some rare items pass more time going from auction to auction than they do in anybody’s collection. I’ve only been in business twenty-five years but in that period the top Russian rarities seem to have re-appeared twenty five times.

In the world, the internet has vastly changed the auction world. In Europe, the single market and the single currency have also effected large changes. Nowadays, ordinary collectors in Europe are no longer obliged to buy locally and, for example, French and Italian collectors can often buy better and cheaper in Germany than they can at home and many now do. The ease and cheapness of online bank transfers in the Single European Payments Area means that for most collectors, bank add on-costs are now very low.

Local laws do still make some difference. You can’t really run an international auction house in Poland or Russia because of state laws, held over from Soviet times,  limiting the export of objects classed as cultural heritage. In France and Italy, excessive bureaucratic regulation seems to limit the auction market. The UK now suffers from a currency barrier and, as part of its ongoing madness, plans to add back Customs controls on trade with the real Europe. 

Curiously, auctions thrive in Switzerland where regulation is tight and the currency different. I think it must have something to do with the presence in Switzerland itself of major collections and also of money looking for investment outlets. There is also a tradition of philatelic expertise, like that you find in Germany. In both countries, auction houses have highly competent members of staff who are AIEP or BPP accredited.

In the past, most auction houses owned nothing they sold and made their money from their commissions. Some big auction houses still follow this tradition. It usually means that starting prices are kept as low as the vendor will permit since the auctioneer makes money only on sales and the more sales the better. Auction days are very expensive things to run – staff costs, viewing facilities, and so on. Auctioneers want to see 75% + selling. When the late Kaj Hellman was alive, he built up a very successful auction in Helsinki simply on the basis of using ridiculously low start prices which attracted everyone’s attention. Sometimes, he would get close to 100% of lots sold.

It is a bit of a problem that some auction houses now own a large part of what they offer for sale. At worst, the catalogue is simply a dealer’s retail price list. From the dealer’s point of view, the prices can only go up. If the dealer takes the same material to a stamp exhibition, prices can only go down because basic collector vocabulary in any language is headed by the word Discount. It’s a no brainer to print a price list and call it an auction catalogue. From my point of view, when I know that an auction house owns much of the material it sells, then it is less interesting. Lots of catalogues I am sent go straight into the waste bin.

Some of the old fashioned auction houses had little philatelic expertise. They took in a collection and broke it up into lots which could be easily carried away directly after the sale. They estimated every box in the same range (maybe 100 - 300) and left it to bidders in the auction room to settle the final price. It still happens and not only here in the UK. 

Another story from around the year 2000:

A well-known collector had died and instructed that his big collection go to a major auction house. The house planned to make a major catalogue out of the major collection; they took the sale very seriously. But there was also a side-line collection of Russian Civil War period material which came along with the main consignment. The auction house did not have the expertise or the time to study it seriously and in terms of value it was surely unimportant. So they put it all in one big box and stuck 1000 on it. I viewed it. The quantity of material was enormous and there were nice things in it which I had not seen before. I decided I would bid 8000 which I think is all the money I had at the time. I left the bid with an auction agent who telephoned me after the sale, very pleased: You got it for 2000. I got most of that 2000 back on just one element of the collection. The box contained the unissued 1919 Belarus National Republic stamps of Bulak-Bulakovich in large complete sheets, perforated and imperforate, in very nice condition because they had been rolled into a tube which stuck out of the box.  I had never seen sheets before and I knew collectors who wanted them. 

And the rest of that box? Well, today I was preparing for sale some of the very nice Ukraine which it contained in quantity and which reminded me of my purchase nearly twenty years ago. I am afraid I am one of those dealers who sells slower than they buy. I measure my turn around time in years rather than days or ( in the case of at least one dealer I know) minutes.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Why Stamps In Multiples Are A Good Idea

I have been preparing small groups of Ukraine tridents to send to auction at, mostly from districts (Odesa, Podilia, Poltava) which used single handstamps. It reminded me that multiples are often preferable to singles for purposes of stamp identification. This is true not only for single handstamp overprints. For a regular stamp printed by typography or lithography even, a small multiple will quite often enable identification of a particular printing. This may be because clich├ęs have been moved or repaired, or because the setting has changed – distance between stamps may have been altered and a multiple will make that clear. For overprints from a plate rather than a single handstamp, a small multiple allows plating and that may be a very good test of whether or not the overprint is genuine. Very few forgers have had the resources to reproduce plating varieties in the right positions in a sheet. They may have had no access to a whole sheet and certainly neither the time or money to carefully reproduce plate faults. Digital forgeries can do that, but then they are detectable as digital. And, of course, even a pair of stamps can be definitive evidence that a stamp is genuinely imperforate and not just a cut-down perforated stamp.

One-of-each collectors working with album spaces lose out heavily on such helpful collecting possibilities. In the past they lost out even more: when miniature sheets were first issued, spaces for them in albums were often smaller than the sheet so collectors cut down the sheets to fit the spaces. This happened to early Poland mini-sheets, for example. It’s a good job that art collectors have never used one-size fits all frames.

Expense is one factor which encourages one-of-each collecting but the expense of upgrading from a single common Trident stamp to a block of four or a strip of five may be of the order of one or two euros, one or two dollars. It’s silly not to take the opportunity, especially in an area like Podilia tridents where sub-types which are hard to distinguish from single stamps become easily visible in a strip or block.

But it’s also sometimes the case that a group of single stamps if brought together can be used to identify each other, as in the example below. The 7 rouble imperforate with Podilia Trident is always a scarce stamp, regardless of sub-type of overprint. The group below all have type 12b (which Bulat values at $75 each) but it is only when they are grouped together that one can be sure of the identification. It helps that this group were all used at Kamenets and that they may be from the same transfer form or, at least, the same sheet. Note things like the way the handstamp is tilted and the greyish colour of the ink which is paler than most Podilia inks and may represent a late batch of work. So these stamps will go to auction as one lot because it's then very clear what you have in front of you. Of course, it's only because over a twenty five year period I have bought Ukrainian stamps in thousands that I have been able to assemble groups like this. These four stamps have been in different collections since they were first used in 1919 as can be inferred from the pencil notes etc on the back of them:

Click on Image to Magnify