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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

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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:

Monday, 12 August 2019

Ukraine Trident Overprints: Inverted Varieties

Most 1918 Ukraine Trident overprints were applied by hand. Machine printed Tridents were applied to make Kiev/Kyiv type 3 and Odessa/Odesa types 1, 2 and 3. Since Ukraine was a big country even in 1918 (population between 25 and 30 million) dozens of clerks were kept busy overprinting sheets of Imperial stamps. It must have been very boring, the boredom perhaps relieved by alcohol when it could be obtained or at least tea and tobacco.

But inverted overprints from handstamps are really very uncommon. This is surprising. I think there may be three explanations:

1.      If a clerk started overprinting with the handstamp held upside down, he (always he, I suspect) would probably notice and correct the error. It would require real carelessness to work through a whole sheet using the handstamp upside down. It’s true that in poor light, some stamps don’t obviously self-identify as the right way up, so if the sheet , not the handstamp, was upside down this might be missed. The pale yellow of 1 kopek is the most obvious example of a stamp which does not shout out when it is the wrong way up and it’s true that inverted overprints on the 1 kopek are generally more common than on other values.

2.      The work of individual clerks was supervised and checked. This may explain the use of “correcting handstamps” applied over poor examples of a trident overprint or onto stamps which had somehow missed an overprint. Correcting handstamps are found, for example, on stamps of Poltava.

3.      Dealers and speculators of the time no doubt wanted to have inverted overprints to sell at a premium. Asked for such varieties, postal officials may not have been as co-operative as they sometimes are. The Trident was a symbol of new independence and national pride. To apply it upside down at this early stage of a political revolution may have been thought disloyal or, at least, lacking in seriousness. In contrast, varying the colour of the ink may have been more acceptable. So-called Svenson varieties on things like Kiev 2gg are ink varieties; inverted overprints are still not common on these varieties. Only for Odessa/Odesa ( a very Russian city) do you get lots of inverted overprints, clearly made to order. In addition, it may be that handstamps were taken away from post office premises and used by dealers like Trachtenberg who did their own work and created their own varieties.

Catalogue listings of the inverted overprints are not systematic. Dr Seichter tends to give a general guide, suggesting premiums on the normal valuation. Bulat lists some inverts but not others, as I was reminded when I looked up this little group of Kharkov/Kharkiv I. Bulat lists several values with inverted overprints but not this one, even though these postally-used stamps (ex the Schmidt collection) have very old UPV guarantee marks. It seems likely that they are all from the same sheet and with cancellations of what I read as BOGODUKHOV KHARK - now the small Ukrainian town of Bohodukhiv. 

Thursday, 18 July 2019

A Rarity from 1923 Georgia

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Most collectors have the experience of never seeing a stamp which is listed in the catalogue they are using - not a RRRR stamp but a stamp which might be catalogued at 1 or 10  or 20 or 100. Sometimes, the problem is simply a typographical error in the catalogue - it says 3 cents red but should say 5 cents red. Sometimes, it is because of some unreliable information the catalogue editor was given either by a collector or a speculator. This is why editors of the better catalogues insist on seeing any stamp before they list it.

Over the years, I have handled thousands of stamps of Georgia for the period 1919 - 1923. They are well-studied and not very complex, except for some of the handstamp surcharges. But I had never seen one particular stamp, listed in the main catalogues: the 1923 machine overprint with Soviet arms and numeral of value, 300 000 on 20 kopek Imperial Arms perforated, but the overprint in blue instead of black. I did look carefully - blue and black are sometimes hard to distinguish on a blue stamp and maybe my eyes aren’t so good now.  I never found a blue overprint.

Then last week I was viewing the Dr Hans Grigoleit collection of Transcaucasia and there it was. Not only the stamp but on cover. The stamp exists and is not some philatelic variety - here are two copies on a clearly commercial cover from Suram / Surami to Tiflis / Tbilisi with a manuscript Registration cachet and a Tiflis / Tbilisi receiver (Ashford type 15). The letter is addressed in Georgian script and both despatch and arrival cancels are in Georgian, but the registration cachet has been written in Cyrillic as SURAM - the Georgian name is Surami.

So if you don’t have the blue overprint variety in your collection, keep on looking. It exists. As for this cover, it will be included in the Heinrich Koehler auction of Dr Grigoleit’s collection in September 2019. (I am grateful to Heinrich Koehler for letting me preview it here)

To view Lots in the September 2019 Koehler auction, it is easiest to view by country at

Friday, 28 June 2019

Salvage Philately 3: Problems with Roulettes

There is a good rule to follow when collecting rouletted stamps: Don’t

I apologise to collectors of classic Finland, but I am sure they will understand why I say that. Rouletting, whether of the fancy Finnish kind or the regular straight cut kind, may be all right for raffle tickets, cloakroom tickets, printed on thin paper without gum and where only rough separation is needed. But for small size stamps on paper thickened by gum, rouletting does not work.

Here are some of the problems we have inherited:

1.      Post office clerks who tried and failed to separate rouletted stamps cleanly often gave up and started to use scissors. Many classic rouletted issues were supposed to be an improvement on previous imperforate stamps, but the clerks decided otherwise. This creates confusion now because some rouletted stamps will look like imperforate ones thanks to what the clerks did at the time.

2.      Collectors in the past thought that the rouletted stamps they were soaking off covers looked untidy, so they tidied them up by trimming off the roulettes. Where scarce imperforate versions of the rouletted stamps existed, they sometimes cut down a rouletted stamp to produce a spacefiller and a fake imperforate. Dealers also did this and the result now is that the world is full of faked imperforate stamps which were originally rouletted stamps.

3.      Though catalogues confidently give spacing sizes for roulettes ( roul 8,roul 11, and so on), it is very hard to measure roulettes unless you have a multiple which makes things easier. Indeed, if you insist on collecting roulettes, my suggestion is that you collect multiples.

South Australia is notorious for both poorly perforated and poorly rouletted stamps. It would seem that the workers who did the job had access to unlimited quantities of rum. The work was so unsatisfactory that some rouletted stamps were subsequently perforated in order to try to get a better result. Badly perforated sheets were also removed from post office stocks for overprinting to make what are known as "Departmentals", an interesting group of stamps used on Official mail.

Between 1855 and 1868, the first design for South Australian stamps appeared imperforate, rouletted, perforated, perforated over roulette, and perforated x rouletted. So a serious collector has to try to illustrate all these possibilities, as well as shades. Fortunately the watermark remains constant.

Take a look at this group of 2d stamps in a variety of shades. All  have traces of roulettes even the one which looks as if it has been seriously cut down. But then ask, Which copies here are good examples of South Australian rouletting? Some are clearly better than others but compared to the kind of clarity which perforation usually permits, none of these stand out as just what a collector needs …

Most of the stamps here are almost certainly SG 25 and 26 and so have a catalogue value of only two or three pounds each. For purposes of writing this Blog post, I have washed them but would not otherwise have bothered.

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Salvage Philately 2: Stamp or Cover? That Is The Question ...

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Unless the UK descends into complete chaos or the grim reaper decides that my time is up,  I will be at the LONDON 2020 international stamp exhibition in May 2020. I have booked two stands: on one, I will sit with my specialist stocks; on the other, I will try to sell off all the bin ends, bits and pieces, mistakes, and so on from my time as a dealer. There will be just two prices on this second stand: £5 and £2, and the aim is to offer good value for those prices.

As a dealer, I try to use my time well but like many dealers I fail. The simple pricing system - either it goes in a £5 box or into a £2 box - does save time, but only if I don’t think too much about what I am doing. In relation to stamps, it most definitely does not make sense to check perforations or watermarks or even postmarks unless they are very obviously significant. Nor does it make sense to clean up used stamps by soaking off old hinges and so on.

Collectors have a different set of problems. Take a look at the fragment of a cover illustrated above. It actually shows a lot of information of interest to a postal historian: (1) dated Sydney despatch cancel for 27 March 1868; (2) dated London arrival marks for 21 May 1868, as a result of which we know the total journey time taken by what was this letter; (3) a one shilling stamp which could have been the entire franking - I don’t know what the tariff was but a specialist will and will thus know if the franking is still complete.


The fragment - though it is without pencil notes or hinges - has been badly affected by water and quite possibly by water which was not very clean when it encountered the cover. The stamp has been affected.

A stamp collector might look at this fragment and decide to wash the stamp off . There will be no hinges on the back of the stamp, no thins, and when thoroughly washed the overall appearance might be really quite good and it will be easier to verify which stamp is actually on this piece. I measure the perforations at 13 and so the stamp is either SG 168 (rose-carmine, cat £8) or 169 (carmine, cat £8.50).

Well, at those values it is hardly worth the effort - you could buy a better looking loose stamp from a dealer for half cat. or less.


My decision as a dealer is to leave the stamp on the piece and put the piece in my £5 box without comment. If it doesn’t sell there, then in due course it can go down to the £2 box. Of course, I  made the decision in two seconds - and before I started to study the fragment to write this Blog post.

Oh, and I forgot something: for the social philatelist there is a lot more information on this fragment: “…Woodward Esq    8 Parliament St     London” is enough to Google with even if you have to play around a bit to get results (there are results).