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 www.filateliapalvelu.com, 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

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Do Bad Stamps Drive Out Good?

Gresham’s Law states that bad money drives out good. The basic idea is simple. Suppose I have two gold coins in my pocket, made of the same quality of gold. But one has been clipped at the edges where someone has taken a little bit of gold off (someone who has done that to lots of coins and so has accumulated a pile of gold). Which coin do I spend first? Gresham’s Law says that I will try to pass on the clipped coin and try to keep hold of the unclipped one for as long as I can. Likewise, if old silver coins circulate alongside cheap alloy ones, then people will start saving the silver ones hoping that the silver will soon be worth more than the face value (it may already be worth more than the face value). Why give away silver when you could give away alloy?

I thought of Gresham’s Law thinking about Russia #1. There are people who collect Russia in mint condition and Russia #1 is a problem. It is rare in mint condition and people used to say to me that it does not exist mint. So there is demand and no supply. As a result, for a very long time, people have taken pen-cancelled copies of #1 and chemically removed the pen cross. They have washed the stamp and, in some cases, they have gummed it. These stamps are then offered as mint copies, and still are, and they sell – basically, as “spacefillers” to mint stamp collectors. In the December David Feldman auctions, you can find two examples:

Lot 41768 described as (*) … very good margins, very good gum, at front some surface rubbing at the positions of slight ink traces, a very presentable example, various sign. incl Th. Lemaire  Estimate 3000 euros

Well, that’s more or less telling you that this was a used copy which has been cleaned and gummed. Before that alchemy was accomplished, the stamp was probably worth 300 euros, since it does have nice margins. But it did not have surface rubbing before it was cleaned. Three thousand euro is a lot to pay for someone’s work cleaning, rubbing, and gumming this stamp. So why not look for something cheaper, for example and next up:

Lot 41769 described as (*) … large margins all around, unused no gum, usual penstroke removing, otherwise excellent fresh example. Estimate 500 euros

The margins aren’t quite so good on this stamp as on the previous one and the alchemist hasn’t bothered to add gum and hasn’t been so successful in removing the ink cross. But forced to choose, someone looking for a space filler might prefer to pay 500 than 3000, the bad stamp trumping the slightly better. Before it was treated, this stamp was probably worth 200 – 250 euros.

But suppose you want the real thing? The real gold coin. Well, then you have to go to Lot 70107 which gets a whole page to itself. There you are offered a stamp which has a * not in brackets and with exceptionally large and even margins - and three certificates stating that the gum on the reverse is original. The estimate is 20 000 – 30 000 euros.

So are you going to buy the good stamp or the bad stamp - which isn't mint in any sense of the word even though it gets a (*) - to fill that annoying space for Russia #1 mint?
On ebay, there are hundreds of stamp issues where bad stamps have really driven out the good and where people looking for spacefillers are quite happy to buy the fakes and forgeries on offer from sellers who seem to make a good living out of it.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Where Can I Buy Genuine Dashnak Armenian Stamps of 1919 - 21?

Well, try


where bidding closes on 1 December. There is a page for Armenia, most of the items from my stock, and separate pages for Azerbaijan and Georgia and, finally, a separate page for Transcaucasia as a whole.

Friday, 10 November 2017

NEW auction in Finland

The next Internet-only auction at www.filateliapalvelu.com (that's Stamps of Finland) closes on 1 December 2017. I have contributed a lot of material to this auction! Not only Baltics, Russia, Transcaucasia, Ukraine but many other countries ...

Please note that in addition to the page for Transcaucasia, there are now separate pages for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Basic Rule of Stamp and Postal History Conservation

Today I was breaking up a collection of Latvian stamps and a collection of pre-philatelic Gibraltar covers. This rather depressing task reminded me of the one basic rule of Conservation:

Aim to pass on your stock or your collection to the next owner in as good a condition as you received it

This rule says nothing about cleaning or repairing; that’s a separate topic. But the rule can be converted to some simple tips, some handy hints, about how to treat stamps and covers.


  Do not put hinges on mint stamps or used stamps
  Always use tweezers to handle stamps
  Store albums and stockbooks upright; don’t lay them flat
  A slip-case helps keep out dust and sunlight. If it doesn’t have a slipcase, then don’t use the top row of a stockbook.
  If you are going to divide a block of imperforate stamps, use a cutting knife and a metal ruler – don’t use scissors
  No damp storage, please!


  Do not write on them, in pencil or ink. Ever. Your scribbles do not add value with the one exception of Agathon Faberge's and then not even all of his. Expect a discount from any dealer who prices by writing on their stock. Do not ask any Expert to sign your cover. Ever. Look what has happened to classic Italian covers.
  Do not use photographic mounting corners. About one in ten will find a way to stick to your cover and when someone removes it from your mounts, the cover will tear.
  Do not use sellotape for any purpose or metal staples (yes, today I was handling a collection full of metal staples)
 Do not trim roughly opened covers, open them up “for display”, or re-fold them. Keep the cover in the state you received it.
Store albums upright and out of sunlight. Don’t lay them flat. Use slipcases.
  Think twice about using black backing to enhance the appearance of your cover; cheap black paper is often acidic
   No damp storage, please!

Well, that’s not a long list. Maybe ten percent of dealers and collectors follow something like those simple rules, which is why so much philatelic material is now damaged beyond repair.