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Friday, 21 February 2020

March 2020 Kaj Hellman Auction now online

The March 2020 Kaj Hellman auction is now online. I have contributed about 100 Lots most of them in the sections for Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Transcaucasia, Ukraine. Here is the link to the auction

Sunday, 16 February 2020

From Odessa to Constantinople and Mont Athos: the Christou Collection

The text which follows is my Introduction to the Christou Collection which will be sold at Heinrich Koehler, Wiesbaden, on 24 March 2020 as Lots 507 - 643. To view the Lots go to

There has been a Russian Orthodox religious presence on Mont Athos for a thousand years, of which the great monastery of St Panteleimon was and remains the centre. But in the nineteenth century, especially from the 1840s onwards, successive Tsarist governments supported financially and diplomatically the creation and expansion of newer institutions, technically inferior to monasteries but in practice coming to exceed in the size of their estates and the number of monks they housed the old ruling monasteries. Three institutions stand out: the Skete [ monastic community] of the Prophet Elijah (Ilinski Sikt), a dependency of the Greek Orthodox monastery of Pantokrator but housing first Ukrainian and then Russian monks; the Kellion [cell] of St John Chrysostomom (Ioanna Zlatousta), a dependency of the Serbian Orthodox monastery of Hilandar; and the Skete of St Andrew (Andreeveski Sikt and sometimes called Serail), a dependency of the Greek Orthodox monastery of Vatopedi.

Until 1912, Mont Athos was part of the Ottoman Empire with a Turkish governor in residence and Ottoman customs, immigration and postal agencies located in the port of Daphne and the small administrative town of Karyes. In addition, and as elsewhere in the Levant, the Russian company ROPiT maintained a shipping agency and a post office on Athos with significant autonomy from Turkish control. For example, mail from Russia could travel by ROPiT ship from Odessa direct to Athos and be distributed to the Russian communities by Russian postal officials. But Russian mail could also be transferred to the Ottoman system in Constantinople for onward transmission, and some was.

Spiritual  authority over the monasteries rested (and still rests) with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. When secular authority over Athos passed to Greece in 1912, the spiritual arrangements remained unchanged.

From 1912 on, the Russian Orthodox communities suffered a succession of blows from which they did not recover.

First, in 1913 the Imperial Russian government responded to perceived heretical tendencies among the monastic communities by sending in gunboats and troops and, after violet clashes, forcibly deporting about eight hundred monks who were returned to Russia, tried, defrocked and internally exiled. The number of monks was thereby reduced by somewhere between a third and a half.

Second, the First World War led to a reduction in contacts and financing from Russia. 

Third, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 cut the remaining contacts almost to nil. 

The Russian communities went into long term decline and by the 1960s the few remaining elderly monks were completely unable to maintain the vast properties which they occupied. The significant library of the Andreevski Skete was destroyed by fire in 1958; the last  monk there died in 1971 and the Andreevski estate reverted to the Greek monastery of Vatopedi. Even though it was re-occupied by Greek monks in the 1990s, modern photographs show the skete’s original pharmacy, candle factory and photographic studio untouched except by the mice and the weather.  

As recently as 2017, online photographs of the Kellion of St John show a ruined building with administrative offices from which furniture has been removed but where the paperwork has been left in heaps to rot on the floors.

At some point in the 1970s, in an attempt to raise funds, monks on Mont Athos packed up old and unwanted administrative papers into suitcases and travelled to Thessaloniki and elsewhere attempting to sell them to collectors and dealers. They had only limited success and most of the old paperwork was left to rot (as shown by the St John photographs already mentioned) or was used for fire lighting in communities which still had no access to electricity. 

Just one collector appears to have taken a serious interest in what the monks were offering, the late Stavros Christou, and it is his collection of Athos-related material which is offered in this sale. The collection includes material from many other sources, but at its core is what was offered to Mr Christou in the 1970s. It is dominated by material from the period 1840s - 1913 which was the hey-day of Russian monasticism on Mont Athos when ships arrived almost daily, mail came in sackfuls, and goods needed by the monastic communities arrived not only from Odessa but from suppliers across Russia.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Just Published: Trevor Pateman, Philatelic Case Studies from Ukraine's First Independence Period

Now available as a full-colour paperback:

Philatelic Case Studies from Ukraine’s First Independence Period
by Trevor Pateman
ISBN  978 1 734 52222 0 4

Glenn Stefanovics in Connecticut has edited my Blog posts about Ukrainian philately into a beautiful 140 page full-colour book with all my original illustrations and  an Index which makes it much more readily useable than this Blog.  It is now available. The book has been printed in the USA and will be distributed from there though I will service individual orders for some countries in order to reduce postage costs.

The book is priced at $20 plus postage.To obtain a copy for despatch within the USA or to Canada email Glenn at giving your name and address. You will be able to pay by bank to bank transfer, by PayPal, or in the USA by cheque. He will quote you the postage charge, currently about $8. 

To order a copy for despatch within the UK, Europe or Australasia, email me at I will quote you a price based on actual postage costs and offer the choice of paying into a UK sterling or German €uro denominated bank account. 

For all other destinations, contact Glenn for a quote.

The book is published by Glenn’s Morea Research Group and with an ISBN - which ensures that copies can appear on Amazon. It is already available in the USA  on

Glenn plans to recycle revenues from sales of this Ukraine volume into the production of a second volume assembling some of  my Blog posts about Russian philately.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Brave Philatelists: Zbigniew Bokiewicz and Giulio Bolaffi

I can’t think of a novel in which a philatelist appears as a positive character, and certainly not a brave one. If you can think of any, please let me know by sending me an email at

When I started stamp dealing in the 1990s, one of the first dealers I met was Zbigniew Bokiewicz who had a shop in London’s Strand, directly opposite Stanley Gibbons in what was called The Strand Stamp Centre. He was born in Warsaw in 1923, so he was around seventy when I met him, very white haired.  He was happy to talk but was always very modest and quiet in his manner. 

Later, after he stopped trading in the Strand, I visited him at his home in Chiswick, met his wife, and bought material from his stock which he was now selling off. Later still, he used to come to what was called the Strand Stamp Fair, which was held monthly but no longer in the Strand - by then it had moved to a hotel just off Russell Square. He continued to sell me small quantities of material which he brought to the stamp fair in a small, battered briefcase. By this time, he had bought an apartment in Warsaw;  eventually he moved back to the city where he was born. On one of the last occasions when I met him he showed me a photograph, recently taken, in which he was receiving an award from the Polish president. He died in 2016.

In 1939, Mr Bokiewicz (as he was always called) was a sixteen year old schoolboy and boy scout. His academically prestigious school was shut down early in the period of German occupation (Poles were to be limited to primary and technical schooling) and Bokiewicz turned to black market dealing and then, with friends, opened a stamp shop in Warsaw. 

At the same time as he ran the stamp shop, he was a member of the Polish Home Army, received military training, used the stamp shop as a contact point, and by the time of the Warsaw Uprising had officer status which meant that when captured, he was sent to an officer prisoner of war camp, Oflag VIIA - Murnau. By the time the camp was liberated by American forces, Bokiewciz’s weight had dropped to 42 kilos. But he went on to join the army of General Anders and was sent to fight in Italy.  At the end of the war, he  was able to make his home in England. His knowledge of languages (Polish, German, Italian, French) helped him get a job with Thomas Cook, the travel agents, but in due course he established Continental Stamp Supplies Ltd.

If you Google “Zbigniew Bokiewicz” you will find many records of interviews that he gave late in life in both Polish and English. There are video recordings, a sound recording for the Imperial War Museum but very late in his life (2014) and less informative than the interviews transcribed into various books, for  example this one which appears unabridged on Google:


21852.tif - Enlarge image with lightbox

Every year in Italy since 1989, a marathon takes place in honour of Giulio Bolaffi (1902- 1987). But it is not because he was an internationally famous philatelist. The marathon follows a path in the Valle de Susa, east of Torino and close to the French border. The path was once used by Italian partisans in the Second World War who belonged to division IV GL, the  Stellina, commanded by Bolaffi. Stellina eventually grew to number six hundred partisans (partigiani) and Bolaffi  led them until June 1945, when he returned to civilian life. The website of today’s  Bolaffi company shows Giulio in partisan uniform:

Bolaffi was Jewish. Confronted by Italian racial laws which progressively limited the activities of Jewish businesses, Giulio’s brothers Dante and Roberto emigrated. Giulio stayed and left his family behind to join the resistance. His wife died in 1943 during his absence but his children Stella (hence Stellina) and Alberto (named after Giulio’s father) survived the war.

There is a summary of Giulio Bolaffi’s career on Wikipedia. Notably, Bolaffi kept nine war diaries and these have been published in a 500 page book:

(Acknowledgement: For research assistance with Bolaffi's career, I am grateful to Giada Santana)

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Free Frank mail from Imperial Russia to Mont Athos

This is a continuation of the Blog post of  27 December 2019

I illustrate here two Free Frank letters sent from Russia to Mont Athos. They require explanation, not least because they are going outside the territory of Imperial Russia into the territory of the Ottoman Empire, though a part which enjoyed internal administrative autonomy. Nonetheless, there was an international frontier at the port of Daphne, the harbour of Mont Athos , and it was under Ottoman control until 1912-13 when control passed to Greece.

Free Frank privileges are common enough and have always been subject to abuse. In Great Britain, Members of Parliament enjoyed Free Frank privileges and thoroughly abused them before the advent of Penny Postage. With postage rates maybe ten or twenty times greater than one penny, you could do favours by posting other people’s mail - and all that was required of you was your signature on the outside of the letter and use of the House of Commons mail box.

In Imperial Russia, Free Frank privileges were extensive but subject to requirements designed to enable accounting and reduce fraud. So on the front of a letter a cachet and a number was required - the number entered into an accounting book. And on the back a seal was required which asserted the right to the Free Frank privilege. The seal could be wax, paper or the impression of another rubber or metal handstamp.

But Free Frank privilege cannot normally extend beyond the frontier unless as part of some convention or agreement with another state or within an Empire - in the British Empire, Free Frank privilege could carry an O H M S letter from a colony to London.

So how did these Free Frank letters get from Russia to Ottoman Athos without any charge being raised? The simple answer is that they travelled to their destination without passing out of Russian hands. At Odessa, Russian postal officials handed over them to Russian agents of the R O P i T shipping line. 

The R O P i T boat sailed to Athos where the Russian ship was subject to Ottoman quarantine rules. But the bags of mail were handed directly to agents of the R O P i T post office on Mont Athos without Ottoman intervention. The post office then handed them to monks from the appropriate monasteries - the bags were I believe already pre-sorted by monastery. There were really only four possible destinations, two of them represented by my letters: the skete of St Andrew and the skete of the Prophet Elijah. (The other destinations were the monastery of Panteleimon and the Kellion of St John Chrystostom).

These Free Frank letters are not common but more will be on offer in the Heinrich Koehler sale of a large collection of Mont Athos material, scheduled for March 2020.

Click On Images to Enlarge

Click on Images to Enlarge

Friday, 27 December 2019

Imperial Russian Money Letters to Mont Athos

Any collector of Imperial Russian postal history who has gone through dealer boxes will at some point have come across money letters from Russia to Mont Athos, one of the peninsulas south of Thessaloniki and at the time part of the Ottoman Empire. They will be dated between the early 1870s and the early 1900s, after which the postal money transfer (Perevod) method replaced them.

The money letters will be addressed to three possible destinations: the skete [monastery] of St Andrew (Andreeveski Sikt/Skete), the kellion [cell] of St John Chrystostomos [Kellio St. Ioanna Zlatousta], and perhaps less frequently to the skete of the Prophet Elijah [Ilinksi Sikt/skete]. These were all Russian Orthodox establishments, recently created with extensive support from the Imperial Russian government. It is unlikely that any money letters will be found addressed to the centuries-older Panteleimon Monastery, also Russian Orthodox. 

The reason is simple: the first three institutions closed in the 1960s and 1970s as the last monks died off. The Panteleimon still exists and in recent years has been restored and expanded with fairly massive support from the Russian government and Russian oligarchs. Mont Athos has been part of Greece since 1912-13 but still enjoys considerable autonomy; for example, it is exempt from EU free movement rules and if you want to visit you need a visa and to get a visa you need to be, at least, male. Access is by boat from Thessaloniki; there is no land route and that has always been the case. There is a small port (Daphne) and landing facilities at the Panteleimon monastery.

When the three other monasteries finally closed after decades of decline, monks from the senior monasteries on which they depended (The Greek Orthodox Vatopedi, the Serbian Hilandar) tried to raise funds by selling off secular archive material. Documents and objects of religious significance were removed to other monasteries, but secular papers were taken by the sackful or suitcase full to Thessaloniki and Athens. The task was not easy - there were no roads only paths on Athos, no electricity, and moving stuff around wasn’t easy. The monks eventually gave up on the project. Here is a link to photographs of the administrative offices of one of the three Russian institutions,  taken in the past five years by a visitor to Mont Athos. They show the remains of an archive in a room which is now open to both winds and rain; just keep scrolling down through the images

The money letters themselves look like this and I want to propose two theories about them.

Click on Images to Enlarge

First theory. The letters normally have a despatch cancel and a transit cancel of Odessa. The long and complicated addresses nearly always contain a routing “via Odessa”. But only in a very, very small number of cases is there an arrival mark. There was a Russian ROPIT post office on Athos, mail arrived in Russian ROPIT boats and given the nature of the letters, one would expect to see an arrival mark. So why is it normally missing?

 My theory is this. When the very numerous money letters arrived in Odessa, they were sorted according to their final destinations, of which there were in reality only four likely ones. So a bag would be created for St Andrew, another for St John, and so on. Then the bags would be sealed and would arrive sealed in Athos where the ROPIT post office would simply hand them over to monks from the monasteries whose job it was to collect their mail. The very small number of letters with ROPIT AFON arrival marks would have been those put in a late bag, unsorted, or put into it because they had unclear addresses. In addition, some may have been later handed back to the ROPIT office on Athos by monastery monks because they had been mis-sorted in Odessa.

The system of making up the bags in Odessa may help explain why the routing “via Odessa” appears to be obligatory. But there may be another reason:

Second theory: a lot of money got sent to Mont Athos in the sixty years from the 1840s to 1914. It was always accompanied by some kind of letter indicating what the money was for: prayers, candles, and so on. But on Athos itself the money was fairly useless. The monks had to import most of what they needed for both secular and religious purposes. They grew some food locally and had pharmacies, printing presses, candle making factories, and even photographic studios - but all the equipment and raw material had to be imported:  from Odessa, from Taganrog, from Kerch, from Constantinople. That generated a very large number of bills to be paid.

In the March 2020 Heinrich Koehler Wiesbaden auction, many hundreds of invoices addressed to Mont Athos will be included in the sale of a large collection of Athos material. How were those invoices paid? There are several possibilities: monks went down to the port of Daphne with a sack of money and paid the captain of the boat which was making a delivery; monks travelled to Odessa and so on with cash in a bag and went around paying bills; the monks sent money letters out from Mont Athos to all the firms to which they owed money. And so on.

There is another possibility. The money letters were opened in the Odessa post office and the money removed, under the supervision of local agents of the Athos monasteries. The money was then banked locally and bills were settled via the banking system or by monks who came to Odessa and  took money from the bank there and then went around paying bills. The amount of money removed was carefully noted and the money letter envelopes were sent on to Athos with the letters inside which indicated the uses for which the money was intended: the prayers and candles and so on. Other material in the Koehler auction indicates that the monasteries were involved in major use of the banking system in Odessa and Constantinople. Someone may be able to test my very speculative theory by piecing together the history. An obvious alternative theory would say that the money really did go to Athos and that monks there were then tasked with taking it off Athos to Odessa and Constantinople and banking it there for future use in paying bills.

Added 27 December 2019: Howard Weinert provides the following very interesting information:

 The following excerpt is from the official government newspaper Pravitelstvenny Vestnik.

Issue of 13 August 1894: According to the old ROPiT treaty of 1872, money and declared value packets addressed to Afon were opened at the Odessa post office, and the enclosed money was handed over to a ROPiT agent for transmission to Afon by ROPiT ship. The addressee had to pay a fee on delivery. According to the new ROPiT treaty effective 1 Sept. 1894, all fees will be collected when the mail is posted and no mail will be opened.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Review: Edward Klempka, Foreign Military Activity in the Russian Civil War 1917-1923

Click on Image to Enlarge

This impressive 380 page, full colour book is jointly published by the auction house David Feldman (Geneva) and the British Society of Russian Philately. The well-known collector, Edward Klempka, illustrates material from more foreign forces  than most of us supposed existed. So we not only have the Americans and the British, the French and the Germans but also Italians and  Poles,  Turks and Yugoslavs. And ten more in addition.The profuse illustrations include many of rare and unexpected items. Any collector who is puzzled over an item which looks as if it might have to do with some foreign intervention in Russia could turn to this book and expect enlightenment.

The book has an ISBN and on the website of is priced at £50 plus postage. For more information follow the link: