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Friday 31 December 2010

Happy New Year! Keep collecting in 2011!

Happy New Year to all my Readers!

The future of philately is in your hands!

I hope you will make a Philatelic New Year's Resolution.

Here are mine:

1. To start a new collection focussed on the postal history of one Russian town or city. I will count as "Russian" anywhere that was Russian before 1917 but I will continue after 1917 regardless of whether it remained in the Soviet Union. I have a couple of cities in mind but I would prefer somewhere a bit smaller ....

2. To study in depth one issue about which I currently know very little. Not necessarily a big issue - it could be something as small as Armenia's # 1 about which I blogged the other day.

3. To go to some stamp shows just as a visitor, not as a dealer with a stand

4. To get a decent magnifying glass.

Wednesday 29 December 2010

Armenia 1919: "k 60 k" overprints

Armenia declared its national independence in May 1918 with Yerevan as its capital. Distinctive postage stamps did not appear until over a year later - July 1919 is the date usually given for the appearance of the first "k 60 k" overprints on 1 kopeck Russian stamps.

So this is Armenia's Number 1, celebrated 75 years later on a stamp of the modern Republic of Armenia.

We still know very little about it.

1. We do not know how many physically (numerically) separate handstamps were in use and whether they were (all or some) made individually or (all or some) made from moulds.

The core problem here is that some of the time it is not clear if one is looking at variations due to wear, ink or handstamping style of a clerk or looking at impressions from a different handstamp. I have a couple of hundred overprinted stamps in my stockbook and the variation among those I believe genuine is considerable ...

2. We do not know for sure how many post offices were open to despatch mail in the second half of 1919 and how many of them received or made a supply of "k 60 k" stamps

3. We do not know precisely what was the relation between centrally and locally produced overprints.

It is clear that at Katarsky Zavod - the Zangezur copper mines - there were locally produced handstamps in two denominations (60 and 120) and probably only two handstamps to make these famous local issues.

From the 2010 Artar catalog (page 16) it looks as if a Manuscript "60" surcharge was locally produced at Nizhnie Akhty - and if there, then possibly elsewhere, since there was a central directive regarding the uprating of 1 kopeck stamps to 60 kopecks. [ Correction: As Stefan Berger points out to me, the Nizhnie Akhty cancellation has a date of 30 3 1 ..This is not compatible with the "60" having been applied in response to a directive in July 1919. This suggests that the "60" in manuscript is a fake. The only other possibilities are that the Mss was an independent initiative prior to the official decision or that the "3" in the date stamp (March) is a slipped date ]

According to Ceresa (1978), there was a handstamp used locally at Elenovka (Yelenovka) which because of its similarities to the standard Erivan type (k 60 k without stops) could have been produced from a mould and sent from Erivan to Elenovka ... Ceresa illustrates a cover from his collection (Plate 1) part of which is better illustrated in the Artar catalog (page 16) - I believe the cover to be in a Moscow collection - but Artar does not regard the stamps on this cover as other than examples of the standard Erivan "k 60 k" without stops

The "k 60 k" without stops and with the "6" and "0" close together and apparently from a metal handstamp is associated with Alexandropol and generally attributed to that city in catalogues but which is also found with Erivan cancellations. It seems likely that this handstamp was indeed located in the Alexandropol post office and may have been made in the city rather than sent from Yerevan. At a later date, remainders of the issue may have been sent off to Yerevan for overprinting with framed and unframed "Z". But since stamps with Yerevan-style overprints are found with Alexandropol cancels, it seems there was also a central distribution of stamps from Yerevan.

Finally, at least one "k.60.k" handstamp was in use in Yerevan. I say at least one because Zakiyan provides two different illustrations of this surcharge, though calling both of them "Type II". (Zakiyan also shows two illustrations of "Type I" without dots, but these are the Erivan type ( space between "6" and "0") and the Alexandropol type (no space).

It would be nice to clear up what should be a relatively simple story. The most important fact to bear in mind is that the central directive was implemented with a mix of central and local initiatives - at a time when the desperate state of the country made everyday life very difficult to sustain


Postscript: ELENOVKA. I have only seen CTO Dashnak material from one place apart from ERIVAN and ALEXANDRPOL and that place is ELENOVKA ERIV. I believe that this is because the Belgian mining engineer and philatelist, Boel ( of Katarsky Zavodi fame) visited Elenovka - the Ceresa cover mentioned above is a Boel cover. I don't know why he visited Elenovka (now called Sevan and located on Lake Sevan).
Elenovka was a Russian settlement founded in the middle of the 19th century and home to religious dissidents - principally Dukhobors - though many left for Canada around 1900.
Elenovka post office was open in the Dashnak period - as is evident from the CTO material and the Boel cover - and it remained open in the early Soviet period, though the cancellation is rare on 1922 - 23 issues.
Boel probably stopped at Elenovka because it was on the old post road from Yerevan to Tiflis - trains may not have been running when he needed one. In 1901. Esther Lancraft Hovey published an article in The National Geographic on "The Old Post Road from Tiflis to Erivan". This contains photographs of Elenovka, some of which are reproduced in Nicholas B. Breyfogle, Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia's Empire in the South Caucasus (Cornell University Press 1905)

Note added 30 March 2014: Boel also visited the copper mines at Allaverdi in Tiflis guberniya and there is Boel-related correspondence from Allaverdi. He may have used the Erivan - Tiflis post road to get to Allaverdi

Sunday 19 December 2010

Georgia, Soviet Issues 1922 - 23: A Discovery!

Today I was tidying up my stockbook of Soviet Georgia 1922 - 23. I was turning over stamps in order to separate ** from * stamps. I turned over a block of 4 of a 1923 stamp: the 10 000 pyb machine surcharge on the 1000 pyb brown (the Sower): Michel 53A and Gibbons 42. Somethng wasn't quite right: the paper seemed thin and a bit brittle. Then I realised:

The basic stamp of 1922 (Michel 32A and Gibbons 29) is supposed to be on horizontally laid paper (gestreiftem Papier). This paper is quite distinctive - it reminds me of expensive notepaper - and the horizontal laid lines are almost always easy to see - the stamps have quite wide margins and you can look in the margins to see the lines.

My stamps were on ordinary wove paper with the stamp design and overprint showing through.

What was I looking at? My stamps are not Forgeries - the scarce Forgery type is on wove paper for all values but it has design differences and for the 1000r stamp the colour is quite different: a very pale brown. Think of cheap and nasty chocolate!

Then I looked at the Gibbons Part 10, 2008 note for the original, unsurcharged 1922 issue; " The 500, 1000 and 5000r are on horizontally laid paper and the 2000 and 3000r on opaque wove paper. It is believed that occasionally sheets were printed on the incorrect paper"

So, if Gibbons is right, I am looking at examples of "incorrect paper" - perhaps these stamps were originally held back for that reason and only later used up when the machine overprints were being made.

Of course, if these stamps were from Great Britain or Russia we would have a Major Catalog Variety - but, unfortunately, it's Georgia so I am not suddenly a rich man

I found a few more of this Variety in my stock - probably from the same source.

Now I suppose I should go through all the other stamps in the stockbook looking for more examples of "incorrect paper" on other values and with other surcharges ....

If I do, I will report back in due course.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Armenia 1921 : Second Yessayan

This is a curious and rather beautiful set (Michel IIIa - IIIr) prepared by the (Y)essayan Printing Works in Constantinople at the same time as the First Yessayan set. The series was intended for use as Obligatory Tax stamps for Famine Relief, along the same lines as those issued in Azerbaijan and Georgia.

There were 16 stamps - eight different designs, each one printed both in grey and in red. As with the First Yessayan set, only some were issued and then only with surcharges.

For these stamps I have only one stockbook, since in all forms they are relatively scarce:

1. Unoverprinted stamps from the Original printing in which there was one sheet for each value. You will normally only find Originals for the stamps which were NOT issued and even then they are scarce. Unoverprinted examples of the issued stamps are rarities and I currently have none in stock. The Michel pricings only make sense as prices for reprints and even then they are low. I sell Reprints at 10 euro each if they are in nice ** condition. But I ask 100 euro for a ** Original, when I can find one. Michel has 2 euro 50 cents ....

2. Stamps with genuine overprints. Of necessity, genuine overprints are only found on stamps of the original printing. Some mint values are reasonably common, notably the "20" surcharge on 5000 r grey. Correspondingly, this stamp in used condition is rare - at least as rare as the "15" on 5000 r red to which Michel gives the highest used valuation

3. First Reprints. Made by Yessayan by re-setting the 8 values onto just two sheets

4. Second Reprints. Made by Yessayan by re-setting all values a second time onto just one sheet

The fact that there are two distinct sets of Reprints explains why there is not just a gradual deterioration in print quality. In addition, First Reprints are on a white paper which is either without gum (about 50%) or with a good white gum. Second Reprints are always gummed and the gum is yellowish, giving the paper a yellowish appearance.

You rarely find se-tenant examples of different reprint values. This is because the sheets were cut up by packet makers in the 1920s and 1930s. I guess it annoyed them that Yessayan did not put equal numbers of each value onto his reprint sheets!

For pictures of the two distinct Reprints in sheets, see Stefan Berger's article in Deutsche Zeitschrift fuer Russland-Philatelie, # 93, November 2010. Each Reprint was made for BOTH grey and red values. I think the print run of the first Reprint was probably bigger than that for the second.

Any surcharge on a Reprint is going to be a Forgery. It's that simple. In a rational world there would be NO forged surcharges on Original stamps, since the Originals without surcharge are much much scarcer than with surcharge. However, people are sometimes badly informed (look at the Michel prices) and there may be Forged surcharges on genuine Original stamps.

5. The Forgery. There is only one recorded Forgery type which is so bad that it seems likely it was made from catalogue illustrations in the 1920s. The gum is really thick and brown and the paper grey brown. These Forgeries should not trouble any serious collector. Curiously, the red forgeries are RARE! Maybe the printer did not have enough red ink to print a decent quantity ...

Sunday 12 December 2010

Armenia 1921 First Yessayan: Quantity and Quality

Collectors who exhibit in order to win medals have to search for Quality and that usually means rare stamps and rare covers.

This may be one reason why basic philatelic research is sometimes neglected. Old fashioned research almost inevitably involves accumulating in quantity - just to see what's out there and to classify and evaluate it.

Soviet Armenia's first set of pictorials consists of 17 values, prepared imperforate and perforated (Michel II a - s). That's 34 stamps to kick off, to which has to be added Proofs and Colour Trials.

Only some stamps were issued and always with handstamped or handwritten surcharges in a variety of styles and in two colours (black and red). Collect one of each and you are heading towards a hundred stamps.

To deal in this issue, one of my "Specialities", I look at my shelves and realise that over the years I have accumulated five large stockbooks:

1. Genuine stamps from the Original printing carried out at the [Y]essayan Printing Works in Constantinople. A very unbalanced stockbook now. Perforated stamps are generally scarcer and the 25 000 in brown perforated is rare. I don't have one but I have hundreds of others in this book.

2. Genuine overprints, which have to be on stamps of the Original printing, in red and black. Red are generally scarcer (except for the 1 on 1) but some black surcharges are very scarce - the 35 on 20 000 and the 3 on 20 000, for example. There are varieties not listed in Michel (you will find them in Zakiyan). None of them are philatelic - the Armenian Bolsheviks has no time for stamp dealers, and even imprisoned one of them (Melik - Pacher / Pachaev).

3. The common Forgery on bright, brittle paper with shiny gum. So common that they are sometimes classed as Reprints, but actually they just don't seem like Yessayan's work especially if you compare with the Reprints he undoubtedly did make of the Second Yessayan series. A very fat stockbook of little value, but with annoying gaps. You would expect the numbers to be more equally distributed than they are in this bulging stockbook, worth no more than a couple of hundred (pounds, euros, dollars).

4. The scarcer forgeries, of which there are at least two types, on paper and sometimes with gum much closer to the Originals but with much poorer quality printing. Much less common, though I picked up an old Italian dealer's stock of them years ago, including part sheets which you rarely see because most were cut up to fill packets.

5. Forged overprints, generally on forged stamps but sometimes on genuine stamps - and these are usually good ones. Blue-black ink instead of black ink is a common feature of these well-executed forgeries which are often seen in auctions. An interesting stockbook which has involved me in many hours work: assessing "1" and "3" overprints on genuine basic stamps is not easy! An interesting book, yes, but - of course - of virtually no retail value.

In all the many years I have accumulated and traded from this stock, NO collector has ever approached me saying, "I want to research this issue. Have you got a big accumulation that I could study? I'll take thousands if you have got them".

Stefan Berger in Germany ( ) has got his own accumulation, but whether there is anyone else out there with enough stamps to really assess this issue in all its aspects, I don't know. Anyone?

Thursday 9 December 2010

RSFSR Postmaster Provisionals (rouble revaluations) are easy

Yes, it's true

For years I have put these stamps aside thinking Too Difficult, Too Easily Forged.
Now when I study them I realise:

1. For a few issues, there were remainders which were recycled by the Soviet Philatelic Agency. These are the issues for which Michel gives prices for mint * copies. For all the other issues Michel gives mint * prices of - - . These issues are rare, very rare, or simply non-existent mint. If you think you have mint copies, there is a 99% probability that they are fakes. Stop looking at them. Move on ...

2. Postal services in 1920 Russia were still much reduced. Recovery is only really obvious in 1922. Now consider that the MAJORITY of 1920 Postmaster Provisionals are from out-of-the-way places you have probably never heard of. Suppose you are a forger planning to put "p" on used stamps to turn them into Postmaster Provisionals. Your chances of finding stamps with the right cancels at the right date are no greater than finding stamps which ALREADY have "p" on them! That is why forgers end up putting their "p"s on stamps with cancels of the wrong places (Petrograd, Moscow ...) at the wrong time (1915 ...). And it is easy work to eliminate such stamps as forgeries. Move on ...

3. Furthermore, most of the Postmaster Provisionals appear to have been used on Money Transfer Forms and Parcel Cards, where they generally received clear cancellations.

4. CONCLUSION: if the place name is right on the cancellation and the date is 1920, then the "p" or "pyb" that goes with it is almost certainly GENUINE.

5. It could have been even easier BUT: the people who first got their hands on Parcel and Transfer cards franked with Postmaster Provisionals decided that the way to make money was to (a) peel or soak off stamps on the back of the card to sell separately (b) cut up the card to produce single stamps on piece taken from the front (often with clipped perfs from splitting multiples) .... The result is that you frequently find two things of help in assessing a Postmaster Provsional: (1) stamps with pink or brown paper adhering on the back may well have been peeled off the back of a card (2) stamps on small fragments cut very close at top and bottom are the result of cutting up multiples. It's a great pity because it means you only get part of a postmark to study. But often it's enough and the clipped perfs are a clue that you are on to something.

6. SIGNATURES? There are some useful signatures. Mikulski signed these things, so did Pohl and Dr Jem. A useful one to look out for is KRYNINE which I think is reliable. But not a lot of the material appears to be signed, so you have to use my method ...

... and using it you can form a Postmaster Provisional collection even if you cannot afford the four-figure prices which complete Transfer and Parcel Cards obtain in auction.

Problem solved. No charge for my services because there wasn't much of a problem in the first place :)

Saturday 4 December 2010

CMT overprints

Added February 2020: Most of my Ukraine-related Blog posts are now available in full colour book form. To find out more follow the link:

Today, I am looking at CMT overprints

During and especially after World War One, army officers became addicted to occupying bits of other people's territory in order to issue Occupation stamps. They were nice little earners. They cannot be written off, however, because most of them had not only official legitimation but also some legitimate actual use.

This is true of the CMT overprints from the 1919 Romanian Occupation of Pokutia (the district of Kolomya in what was Austria-Hungary, then in what was briefly Western Ukraine, subsequently in Poland and now in Ukraine via the Soviet Union). Pokutia really was the back of beyond and the local occupation issue was the work of just two people, the Romanian Major Turbatu of the occupying forces and Ivan Cherniavsky, a prominent lawyer in Kolomya - and philatelist (though very much a collector rather than a dealer).

When you read the documentation they left behind, you get the feeling that they were both unusually honest and conscientious in their approach. The issue they prepared was simple, comprising just thirteen stamps, and it was distributed to 6 of the 8 post offices under temporary Romanian control, and largely used up. They clearly did themselves a few favours - just eight copies of the #1 stamp which they would have been crazy not to have bought up on the spot. But as things went at the time, this seems modest.

Cherniavsky's real perk, in due course, was to get the secretaries in the Kolomya district court [he was in charge] to let him have envelopes arriving at the court. He was a cover collector and the CMT stamps distributed across the District came back to the Court on envelopes sent in by small town lawyers.

Except from Lanczyn, where it seems [from my research] that a local philatelist bought up the CMT stamps and stuck them for cancellation on blank covers. So they did not travel back to Kolomya - Cherniavsky observed in 1928 that he did not have covers from Lanczyn in his collection and this is probably the reason why!

Indeed, the modest and undemonstrative way Turbatu and Cherniavsky went about things clearly annoyed stamp dealers and even collectors across the borders in Romania and Austria when they got to hear about what was going on. Here were these people issuing stamps and they hadn't been offered any!

The Major and the lawyer seemed oblivious of the kind of demand for these things which existed at the time. Dealers in Vienna could shift tens of thousands of provisional stamps. They weren't interested in covers which had been genuinely used to the District Court.

Eventually, the dealers and at least one collector got their way - presumably by paying to get it - and the Romanians furnished them with new editions of the CMT overprints, using the original handstamps and even the same ink pads, but applied to a much larger range of basic adhesives - around 50 different basic stamps. They also got "Proofs" in red [which I have seen] and blue [which I haven't] in suitably small quantities.[ Turbatu and Cherniavsky seem not to have even thought of making Proofs ].

As far as I can tell, it is generally impossible to distinguish between mint copies of Turbatu - Cherniavsky originals and mint Second Editions which were produced outside Pokutia at Cernauti, like the Originals, but never taken inside Pokutia.

Used stamps from the Original printing will have a very limited range of cancels - probably from just the six offices which received the stamps - from a limited period (14 June 1919 - 20 August 1919). Reprints which have been cancelled will fail this cancellation test.

There is one small complication to this story. A small part of the fresh overprints were done for a Cernauti Professor, Gronich, and applied to stamps he had taken into Pokutia and had CTOd in Kolomya during the period of the Romanian occupation. These overprints were applied [ acccording to my research which still needs further corroboration] in a very watery violet ink, perhaps to disguise the fact that they were being applied to stamps which had already been CTOd. But the CTO dates, at the beginning of August, are within the right time period for legitimate use and with the cancellation then in use at Kolomya.

Does any reader have further information?

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Stop the Scribblers!

I was just sent an Italian auction catalogue. Very lavish. But I couldn't buy any of the stuff on offer. It's all been scribbled on. Experts who not only put their signatures on the cover but right next to the interesting bits. Dreadful. Who do they think they are? It's not even as if they don't make mistakes. They do. Sometimes big ones.

Worse, is often unclear what is being signed. The stamp? The overprint? The cancellation?

I have seen relatively common stamps which have ben signed by an expert as genuine. At a later date, some forger has added a rare overprint. It's easy to suppose that it's the overprint which has been signed for.

Colour photocopies are cheap and accurate. The thing to do is to attach one to a Certificate or Short Opinion (Kurzbefund) and then record what it is you are signing off as Genuine. Ambiguity is removed when you tick the various boxes: Stamp: OK Overprint: OK Cancellation: OK. You can leave a space for comments too, like "Repaired" or "Cleaned".

It's time to kill off signatures, whether on stamps or covers. They are unnecessary. They devalue an artefact, except in very unusual circumstances: Agathon Faberge's pencilled acquisition notes often provide valuable information as well as an indication of provenance.

At the same time, it's time for collectors to tell dealers they don't want to buy something with twenty five pencilled prices rubbed out and a twenty sixth one written in. All covers should be sold in a plastic protector and the place for the price is on the protector. That is, unless you are selling all your covers at one price, in which case you just need one placard to announce the fact. Full stop end of story.

Unmounted mint stamps command a premium over mounted mint, often a large one. Covers which have not been scribbled on ought also to command a premium.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Doing Mental Arithmetic

I am working my way through a heap of Russian covers and cards from 1921 - 23, a period of high inflation. Postal tariffs were frequently changing, for much of the period gathering noughts. Supplies of appropriate stamps lagged behind the tariffs, leading to multiple frankings and revaluations - and the revaluations were sometimes complex (revalue your kopeck stamps upwards x 100; leave your rouble stamps unchanged)

The task is apparently simple: identify the tariff period and then check to see if the correct postage has been applied, and if not, whether postage due was raised. It involves a lot of adding and multiplying (and as currency is revalued, dividing). It can be fun.

More than that, you realise things like this. (1) Faced with a tariff for which they had no obvious combination of adhesives, clerks applied an approximate franking. (2) News did not necessarily travel fast. The Circular announcing new tariffs may not have arrived or, if it had arrived, hadn't been read and passed on to the front line clerks. So old tariffs continue to be used past their sell by date. (3) There were zealots who without a calculator, and probably working in poor light and a stuffy room, but clearly with a taste for mental arithmetic, managed to spot a deficiency and slap on Postage Due.

Thursday 21 October 2010

British Society of Russian Philately

I am down to present a display at the annual meeting of the British Society of Russian Phlately in London on 23 - 24 October.

It's a display largely made up of material you would find in dealers' boxes rather than in serious auctions: 1917 - 1919 Russian covers and cards franked with Imperial Arms stamps in the IMPERFORATE versions issued by the Provisional (Kerensky) government in 1917 and later by the Soviets.

I am looking only at the period in which these stamps are used at face value. Some of them, like the 4 kopeck, are more common used at the later period (1920 - 22)when they were revalued into roubles.

Most of the exhibit comes from other dealers' boxes, a few have been pulled from large auction lots of mixed covers and cards, and just one item was bought as a single lot in an auction - a cover which shows imperforate stamps locally perforated. I got this from Cherrystone.

Anyone reading this with stuff to sell in this category, then I am interested :) The exhibit is only the beginning of what I hope will be a larger project.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

How (Some) Modern Forgers Work

There are different kinds of forgers.

There used to be things called "Packet Maker Forgeries" which, as the name suggests, were forgeries (often of basic stamps, not just overprints)designed to fill sixpenny packets in Woolworths. Sometimes these forgeries were printed in very large quantities and the quality could be really very good. Such forgeries are normally encountered as single stamps, since sheets were separated for the packets. Occasionally, one comes across packet makers' remainders which allow one to see, for example, how sheet format is sometimes wrong.

I doubt many forgeries of this kind are now produced, since the packet market hardly exists any more and there are plenty of stamps otherwise available to fill packets.

Then there are bespoke forgers, who make forgeries to serve specific markets. The advent of the Internet has made it easier for such forgers to target very specific markets and even single individuals. They can respond swiftly to changing demand.

There are plenty of well-off but gullible collectors, sometimes elderly, and I have seen whole collections put together from "made to order" fakes, bought on ebay or offered directly on scans attached to personal emails.

This does little harm (except to the collector's bank balance) until such forgeries are presented in serious collector journals as new discoveries or find their way into catalogues. It is especially easy to be fooled when the material is from an exotic or under-researched collecting area. So in recent years I have seen articles, profusely illustrated with fakes, announcing new discoveries of Armenian revenues, Zemstvo usages, and Ukrainian overprints. And I can think of one catalogue whose well-intentioned editor had fakes or fantasy issues slipped past him and given catalogue status.

If it is happening in the areas with which I am reasonably familiar, it is presumably happening in many other areas. It just adds to the work serious collectors and dealers have to undertake.

The work is generally not that difficult; I call it "elementary forensics". You start by looking at the stuff, comparing it to other material you have, setting it in context (dates, places), assessing it for probability. You don't need microscopes or carbon dating equipment. A pair of spectacles is much more useful. When it comes to covers or documents, you jeed to ask the question: how could a basic item worth X dollars get transformed into one worth X + Y dollars for a lot less than the difference between X and Y.

I will give one example. Postcard markets are full of picture postcards which at some point have had the adhesive peeled off. Collectors sometimes stick an adhesive back on - but that's easy enough to spot UNLESS a larger adhesive is chosen and you tinker around with the cancellation (or entirely refresh it). Of course, you are then making a fake.

In Russian philately, old postacrds which once had ordinary 3 kopeck stamps on them now come with larger 3 kopeck Romanov stamps in their place - or even Zemstvo stamps. It's amazing what this permits, especially if the forger is knowledgeable enough to find a card with a roughly appropriate date and address. It's so convincing that you can fill pages of collector journals with such stuff.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Ukraine Provisional stamps 1992 - Assessing status

I dealt extensively in post Soviet material in the 1990s. Here are a few things that I learnt:

1. Postal supervision was weak after the collepse of the Soviet Union. You could stick anything on a letter, put it in a box and expect it to be cancelled and the letter delivered. Frankings were rarely if ever challenged and Postage Due marks are rare. I once went through a batch of ten thousand Russian commercial covers, post 1991. I picked out about a hundred franked with used stamps, CTO stamps, foreign stamps and home made stamps. The foreign stamps were amusing: it looked like the senders had raided their childhood stamp collections and picked stamps with lots of zeros, in line with Russian inflation. They were not philatelists; just hard up people wanting to send a letter to a radio station.

Why did I trawl through those 10 000 letters? I was looking for local provisionals and for postal forgeries - proper forgeries of current Russian definitive stamps. I found a few.

But the moral of my research is this: that an ordinary letter has gone through the post and the stamp on it has been cancelled proves nothing about the status of the stamp. A stamp from Upper Volta on a post - 1991 Russian cover does not oblige us to create a category "Upper Volta Used Abroad". Nor does the presence of some supposed post-1991 Provisional guarantee it as a stamp sold over the post office counter.

2. What about registered letters? Well, it is always possible to pre-frank a Registered letter and hand it over the counter. Post-1991, if the clerk did not like the stamps (maybe you had made them that morning), you could offer to pay the full franking cost in cash and even a premium on top. The clerk would then obligingly register the letter, cancel the stamps and put the envelope in the bag. Well worth doing if you were a stamp creator seeking to establish credibility for your domestic productions.

3. The best evidence for the genuineness of a local provisional issue comes from mail going to obviously non-philatelic organisations from private individuals or companies, preferably in large quantities. In the case of Ukraine, there are large archives of material addressed to such organisations as BUNAC or Chessington Zoo or SOON which show local provisional issues in use, sometimes in quite regular and persistent use. These archives have the additional value that they can be used to confront denials: a local postmaster in trouble with national authorities for issuing local stamps might plead that he or she never did such a thing. The archival mail proves otherwise.

Statements form the Ukrainian Ministry of Posts at this time are worthless. The clear fact is that mail franked with local provisionals travelled unchallenged both in the case of internal mail and in the case of international mail. You never see a Postage Due mark.

4. It is normally possible to identify mail going from one philatelist to another in a different city. Addresses, handwriting, PO Box numbers are repetitive. Such mail has very little evidential status.

5. Some covers with bogus stamps, fake registration cachets and fake cancellations nonetheless have genuine backstamps [ receiver cancels]. How come?

Well, you sit at home in Kyiv or Vilnius or wherever making your covers from scratch. Then you walk down to the local post office and a clerk obliges you by backstamping them all. Alternatively, you have received 100 fabricated covers in a parcel from your friend in another city. He has addressed them to you. You open the parcel and again take the covers down to the post office for backstamping.

6. My own contribution in the 1990s was to buy all the envelopes received at the Gas Analyser Plant in Voru, Estonia.This had been an all-Union factory in Soviet times, and post-1991 continued to receive mail from most of the new republics. The envelopes were sent on to me, unpicked. I sold this material as it arrived, something I now regret. But when you see a cover addressed to 59 Kreutzwaldi in Voru, you can be sure it was originally marketed by me.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Collect Transcaucasian Federation Stamps!

I am sure that some collectors avoid the areas I specialise in just because there are so many fakes and forgeries. And I have been Blogging a lot about fakes and forgeries.

If you want to collect something in my area where there are few or no forgeries, try the neglected Transcaucasian Federation pictorial issues of 1923. Just 17 stamps in the Stanley Gibbons listing.

There are no forgeries of the basic stamps or (to my knowledge) of the two overprints, since the overprints are on basic stamps which are at least as scarce without overprints as with.

I haven't yet seen a forged cancellation, presumably because there is no stamp which is really common mint and really scarce used.

However, there are challenges. Not all the stamps are equally common. Some are very scarce mint (for example the 3 kopeck) and some are quite scarce used (for example the 40 000 rouble or the 1 kopeck).

There are imperforates, ungummed, from remainder stocks but these turn up in very unequal quantities - making the three sets is hard!

Finding stamps with Georgian and Azerbaijan postmarks is easy; with Armenian cancellations, it's much harder - here a forger might be tempted. But Georgian cancellations are almost always of TIFLIS/TBILISI in Cyrillic or Georgian script and Azerbaijan cancels are 90% + BAKU. So there is a challenge in finding and identifying other cancellations. There is NO favour cancelled (CTO) material. The Bolsheviks were hostile to the idea at this period, associating it with speculation.

Covers will cost you 100 euro upwards and often look attractive. There are virtually no philatelically-inspired covers.

Sound attractive? Well, I have decided to bring my entire Transcaucasian stock to London STAMPEX where you will find me up in the Gallery area from 15 to 18 September inclusive. Or you can email me:

Thursday 19 August 2010

Podolia Tridents / Podillia Tridents - help please

A dozen years ago, I had far too large a stock of the Tridents of Podilia / Podolia, most of it from remainder lots of the Vyrovyj collection. In addition, I had some Podolian postal history material from the 1915-18 period and the 1921 - 25 period. So while my younger daughter sat and revised for her school examinations, I sat and constructed two large collections: one of Podolia trident sub-types; one of Podolian postmarks 1915 - 25. The latter collection showed cancellations from about 140 offices.

I recently examined the postmark collection in order to establish the date around which Tridents came into use in Podillia. I have no examples of postmarks on Podilian tridents earlier than 7th September 1918 - and that cancellation, from MICHALPOL, is on a favour cancelled block. I then have postally used examples on the 12th (VINNITSA ZABUSHE), 16th (BRASLAV),ZHMERINKA (20th), KRIVOI ROG (26th) and SNITKOV (28th).

Unoverprinted stamps clearly continued in use for a while alongside trident-overprinted stamps. The last example I have is from SHATAVA on 21st September,and t the penultimate use of unoverprinted stamps is at DUNAEVTSI on the 8th. These late uses are of stamps on Money Transfers or fragments of them, so they are not examples of private individuals using up stamps.

So I conclude that in Podolia / Podillia trident-overprinted stamps came into use in September 1918 and by the end of the month had largely replaced non-overprinted stamps.

Am I right? Does any reader of this Blog have a clear cancel on a Podillia / Podolia trident before the beginning of September? You can scan me a copy at Thanks in advance!

POSTSCRIPT 23 AUGUST 2010: In his Ukraine Handbook for Podolia, Dr Ceresa illustrates two Money Transfer Forms sent from LETICHEV POD. on 27.8.18 with mixed frankings of overprinted and unoverprinted stamps. This pushes back the date for introduction of Podilian Tridents into August 1918. That is coherent with the August date given for Trident introduction by Bulat in his catalog for several other districts: Kyiv (page 7), Kharkiv (page 38), Katerynoslav (page 46), Poltava (page 74). He does not give a date for Odesa or Podillia.

Monday 16 August 2010

A Very Big Job for Serious Russian - area Philatelists...

The break up of the Soviet Union transformed the philatelic world. Large quantities of material became available in Western Europe and America, as well as in the former Soviet Union itself, much of it never seen before or never in such quantities. But much of what is now coming out - or being recycled from the USA onto ebay - is newly faked but using as the basis genuine stamps, covers and documents which themselves only became recently available. Alongside this material, old fakes have been given a new lease of life: on his new website [see link at bottom of this Blog] Stefan Berger illustrates the quite extraordinary prices being achieved on ebay for dreadful, amateurish old Armenian fakes. Goodness knows what people will pay for the new and better ones!

It is a big challenge for the collector journals. Unfortunately, not all of them realise how serious is the challenge they face. I have now seen articles in three of the heavyweight "academic" collector journals (all of them North American, as it happens) promoting as "discoveries" doubtful or downright forged material. It is precisely because these enthusiastic articles are profusely illustrated that one can reasonably suspect that something is very wrong.

Everyone likes to make a discovery and everyone can think they have made a discovery when they have simply been duped. We shouldn't be too hard on the collectors. But the Editors of the journals need to be much more alert to the current range of problems. "Discoveries" have to be properly researched, put into context, assessed for probability and plausibility. In some cases, very simple "forensic" tests will demolish a "discovery"; the date is wrong, the cancellation does not stand up to comparison with other known examples, the basic stamp is wrong for that overprint, there is a hinge on the back of this rare stamp on this cover .... Those forensic tests are simply not being conducted and it shows.

We need more dedicated sites like Stefan Berger's, which address just one country and one period. We need one for Zemstvos. We need one for Ukraine. We need many for the old Soviet Union!

Thursday 12 August 2010

ARTAR or Zakiyan? Armenian revenue overprints

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.

Some of those documents were subsequently "enhanced" by the addition of fiscal stamps, sometimes genuine stamps, sometimes fakes. For example, I have seen a fake fiscal overprint on a 10 rouble Chassepot REPRINT attached to an authentic document. Such a pity: a nice document and a crude fake!

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Armenia again - the ARTAR catalog

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 "b". 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 "b", 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 "b" 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

From this brief survey, I exclude the item on page 153 which requires separate discussion. But if you want to use your eyes, try looking at the enlargement of the 50r stamp and find the Karaklis cancellation under the Alexandropol cancellation of 9 5 23. Then compare the two strikes of the 9 5 23 cancellation with the apparently identical 8 5 23 cancellation. There is a rather important difference.I'll give you a clue: you'll be star-struck.....

To be continued ....

Monday 9 August 2010

Good News for Armenia Collectors!

There is a new website
This is the work of a serious collector who has read the serious books and is now providing well-grounded guidance on Forgery detection and other aspects of classical Armenian philately.
Bookmark this site!

Saturday 7 August 2010

Dealers and Experts

A client, new to the hobby, once queried my identification of some material I had sent him. I laughed, since the material was in one of the two or three areas where I count myself a specialist - and pretty straightforward material, too. I have no idea what books or comparison material he had in his hand when looking at my approvals.

But how are people supposed to know that I have specialist knowledge for two or three areas - Transcaucasia and Ukraine being the ones I would be confident to claim.

I belong to specialist societies; I occasionally contribute articles to their journals; I am on a List at the Royal Philatelic Society in London which means that I occasionally get asked to give my Opinion on an item submitted to it for just such an Opinion. I co-operate and discuss with knowledgeable clients: I ask their opinion and they ask mine. I have clients who will not buy from another source without running the item they want past me. In all of this, money doesn't change hands. It is all done in a spirit of philatelic co-operation.

Perhaps just as important, I hold stocks for Transcaucasia and Ukraine which are almost certainly the largest dealer stocks in Europe and which have been "sourced" (as your restaurant would say) from major collections, including the collections of those who have written the Handbooks we have to rely on ( Tchilingirian, Voikhansky, Seichter to name just three). It's a Gourmet stock and a lot of it isn't cheap. If I routinely got my identifications wrong, I would have no client base.

Dealers are self-appointed. So are most of the experts selling Certificates, some of them worthless.

Some years ago I bought in an Italian auction an Imperial Russian 3r50 without thunderbolts backed with one of those fancy Italian certificates. When I looked at it, the cancellation reminded me of something ....ah, yes, it was one of the standard Fournier forgery cancellations applied to a Fournier forgery stamp. I didn't ask for my money back; I just learnt a lesson about Italian certificates.

In contrast, there are the Certificates provided by members of the German BPP [Bund Philatelistischen Prüfer], who are recognised by that organisation precisely for their expertise and who issue their Certificates in a carefully prescribed and standardised manner. Hoorah! In general, BPP signatures can be relied on. The worst one can say is that some BPP experts do not actually have collections extensive enough to fully discharge their role.

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Lubotyn / Lubotin: rare stamps for £1?

Added February 2020: Most of my Ukraine-related Blog posts are now available in full colour book form. To find out more follow the link:

This Blog is a response to some questions asked by a client in Australia, Mark Kornitschuk, about the Special or Local Trident type of Lubotin (Seichter's spelling) or Lubotyn (Bulat's spelling). He had been reading Seichter, Bulat and Ceresa - all referred to below. I have added a further reference at the end.

In his 1966 catalog of Ukrainian Trident overprints, Dr Seichter lists a local Trident type VIII for Charkow /Kharkiv and in brackets links it to the town of Lubotin. He lists it on 9 values, one of which he records as ONLY known in used condition on the old 3r50 rouble black and grey and gives a - - value, which means "too rare to call". One value he records known both mint and used, and seven values only known mint. These mint stamps he values at 350 or 360 Deutschmarks each which is high: Seichter does not use a number over 500, after that it becomes - -.

In his posthumous 2003 catalog of Ukrainian Tridents, John Bulat expands the list of known values to 10 and expands the number for which the Trident is known in used condition to 4. He also records the 3r50 as known mint and values it at - -. He puts a number on 8 of the values in mint condition, $200 each, and on 2 values used, for which the number is $250. Bulat comments "Type 8 is known only from the town of Lubotyn"

In between, Dr Ceresa in his 1987 Handbook devoted to the Special Trident Issues (Parts 20 / 23 of his Ukraine volume) consigns the Liubotyn Tridents to his Category III: Bogus Types (page 390), and values them all at £1 each, mint or used (page 425).

Why? Ceresa illustrates an album page from Seichter's collection at Plate DXIII and comments that all except one of the stamps illustrated is mint. He queries the used stamp because it appears to have a 1922 postmark and he adds that the four or five "used" Liubotyn stamps he has seen have had the Trident on top of the postmark. If this is true and if the Trident is the genuine type of Lubotin (and not a forgery of the Trident), then this is fatal to the idea that we are looking at an authentic issue

Seichter's album page no longer exists: the next owner of the Seichter collection re-mounted it. Ceresa's illustration shows a page of 13 stamps with the comment "Nur wenige Stücke bekannt" - only a few copies known. Seichter also refers at the bottom of his page to two unillustrated stamps: "Noch bekannt je eine 10/7 Kop ungebr. und 1: 3,50 Rub. alt gebr" - "Also known one mint 10/7 and one 3 rouble 50 used"

So if you are interested in rarities, here's an overprint where - - in the Ukraine catalogs means "one known" !

The stamp I want to see is the 3r50 used and Seichter does not illustrate this. The small remainders of this high value but obsolete stamp were used up in post offices to frank Money Transfer Forms with Trident-overprinted stamps. When they are found used, they often have security punch holes. Because of the large size of the stamp, it is often possible to read the postmark. So if we are going to find a readable Lubotin / Lubotyn / Liubotyn postmark it is going to be on this stamp.

So where is this stamp? A thought occurred to me. In 1960 Dr Seichter published a booklet on the Tridents of Kharkiv (Soltau, 1960). I found my copy. He illustrates the Type VIII Trident only once on a mint copy of the 1 kopeck (Tafel XI). But in the text, he says this "Von dieser seltenem und als fraglich angesehenen Typen wurden mit einige Stücke aus Amerika zur Prüfung übersandt, darunter von Herrn Bulat dies bisher unbekannten Werte 10/7 und 20/14 Kop., ungebraucht, sowie aus der Yakowliw -Sammlung eine 3, 1/2 Rubel alt auf kleinem Postanweisungs-Stück. Hier bleibt offen, ob der Aufdruck vielleicht nachträglich aufgesetzt wurde" (page 7). I translate: "Of this scarce and questionable Type, a few copies were sent to me from America for expertising, among them from Mr Bulat the previously unrecorded values 10/7 and 20/14 kopeck, mint, as also from the Jakovliv collection an old 3 1/2 rouble on a small piece of Money Transfer Form. Here it remains open whether the overprint was applied later" - presumably because the cancellation did not tie the Trident.

But it would still be good to see this stamp. So where is the Jakovliv / Jakovlev Collection?

As a dealer, I have handled 4 copies of the Lubotyn Trident, all mint, in twenty years. Three were sold by Corinphila in 2008 (Sale 156, Lot 5274). Of these, one was originally on the Seichter album page illustrated in Ceresa's handbook and one was signed by Dr Seichter. My final copy was sold recently.

Monday 26 July 2010

Georgia 1919 - 1921 : the "Freak" varieties

Anyone who collects Transcaucasia seriously has no doubt seen some of the "freak" varieties deliberately inserted into late printings of the St George and Tamara issue.
Some are rarely seen;others turn up more frequently. Normally they are seen in pairs or blocks of four. Larger multiples are quite rare.
Recently, examining complete sheets containing the freak varieties I was reminded both how few must have been created and how easy they are to miss.
On the kopeck values, the freaks are found once in the sheet of 255 stamps - that's a big sheet and the freaks are buried in the middle rather than conveniently at the sheet margins. In their book Georgia (1983), John Barefoot and Andrew Hall give the sheet positions for each variety. But some of them - like the riderless horse on the 40 kopeck simply do not leap to the eye. Only the freak "bisect" on the 6o kopeck jumps out.
On the rouble values, the sheets are smaller - between 144 and 210 stamps. The 3r and 5r freaks are printed marginally, so they are easier to cut out. I don't think I have ever seen the 1 rouble freak inveretd rider whereas I have seen quite a number of the inverted "5" for "3" on the 3 rouble. So my guess is that the freaks were not produced in equal numbers.
If you come across blocks of imperforate St George and Tamaras it is always worth having a look to see if there are any Freaks which have been missed by previous dealers and collectors.

Sunday 4 July 2010

Catalogues and Collections: the case of Armenia

Someone beginning a new collection will almost always start with a general catalogue in hand. After all, they are supposed to know, aren't they?

Suppose you are going to collect classic Armenia (1919 - 23). If you start with Yvert et Tellier in hand, your chances of forming a decent collection are immediately reduced.

Last time I looked, they had converted all the illustrations to colour. It made it easier for me to see that the the pictures were taken from forgeries, but a novice collector won't see that. In addition, the novice will start looking for stamps which don't exist but which Yvert catalogues and gives prices for. For example, the 1922 First Yessayan series of 17 values was not (except for one stamp) issued without surcharges. Moreover,such was the hostility in Armenia at this time to philatelic speculators that you do not find CTO copies of the unsurcharged stamps. None of this stops Yvert from giving prices for Used copies. I suppose it helps sell stamps with forged cancellations.

In contrast, if you start with Michel in hand, you have a catalogue which is based on modern research by philatelists - specifically, on the work of Professor Zakiyan in Yerevan. The illustrations are good, the listing rational, and the omissions motivated. Notably, on the basis of what Zakiyan says - basing himself on official documents - Michel lists only stamps with officially authorised overprints. The other combinations of stamp and overprint also produced in large numbers at the counters of Yerevan's Dashnak - period post office for hungry stamp dealers are excluded from the Michel listing.

So far so good. But there is one BIG mistake in the Michel listing. Zakiyan found a document in the archives listing the stock of Dashnak period stamps available when the Bolsheviks took power. Michel misreads the list and thinks that it gives numbers issued. As a result, it give high valuations to stamps of which few were left. But most of these had been issued in large quantities and some are common. For example, the 10 rouble on 35 kopeck perforated (Michel 66) is valued in Michel at 750€uro. You can buy one from me for 10 €uro and it will be genuine.

This little group of mistakes is a pity. Much of the Michel pricing is sensible, though not for the Second Yessayan IIIa - IIIr which exist as Originals, First Reprints and Second Reprints. Michel has 2.50 €uro for any stamp in the set. I would be asking you for a minimum of 100 €uro for an Original and 10 €uro for a ** Reprint.

Finally, if you start with Stanley Gibbons you have a catalogue based on the researches of Tchilingirian, a very careful collector and writer. Here you will find all the philatelic counter-surcharges from the Dashnak period listed and this can be justified. These stamps were valid for postage and were used postally - they occur, for example, on the postcards which Souren Serebrakian (1900 - 1990) sent to his brother in Tiflis. You can see a couple of nice examples, correctly franked to the 50kopeck tariff, in the 21- 22 July 2010 Cherrystone sale.

Gibbons is much weaker than Michel on stamps of the Soviet period, with inadequate illustrations and distinctions, but the general problem with Gibbons just lies in the pricing. Multiply by three or five and you are in the right ball park.

Monday 28 June 2010

Nothing is Ever Lost in the Post

Nothing is Ever Lost in the Post.

How come then that on a daily basis I get "Alerts" from the Philatelic Traders' Society and others telling me that such-and-such a consignment of stamps was lost in the post between A and B?

The consignment has either been delayed - the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland did disrupt mail deliveries - or, more likely, it has been stolen. If it has been stolen, either it has been stolen in transit by someone responsible for its handling or by someone at the destination who has picked it out from a batch of communal office or domestic mail. This may sometimes include the person to whom it was addressed...

Dealers and auction houses encourage theft by two methods.

First, to save a few pennies, they use "Postage" making up colourful frankings from old commemorative stamps and such like. This helpfully indicates to anyone looking to steal from the mail that inside this small and lightweight package there are stamps or covers, and possibly valuable ones.

Dealers and auction houses who use "Postage" are a nuisance. "Postage" is fine for sending out catalogues and lists, but not for sending out valuables.

Second, and more controversially perhaps, senders' make the mistake of using Premium Rate services - Signed For, Registered, Insured. The most important fact about these expensive services is that the mail so labelled generally receives no special handling or, if it does, the handling increases the risk that it will be stolen. To begin with, it has to be handed over a Post Office counter and not dropped in a box. But that is also true for a second class letter handed over the counter and dropped in the bag.

It may be taken out of the stream for "tracking".

At the end of its journey it comes out of the general stream when a signature is requested. From start to finish, the labelling indicates to anyone who handles it that the envelope or package contains something of value.

Put together "Postage" and "Signed For"/ "Registered" and you are just asking for trouble. Someone, somewhere may well pick up the message you are sending out. "Steal Me!"

PS. A Return Address often signals that your letter contains something of value. If the return address is "Valuable Stamps Company Ltd" you could not make it clearer. And, for goodness sake, what are you doing sending stuff in the mail if you are not sure that you have got the right address for the recipient? If you are sure you have got the right address, what is the return address for? Are you covering yourself against the eventuality that the Post Office might need to return it marked "Deceased"?

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Classic Romania: stamps and cancellations

Yesterday I wanted to spend a quiet day at home. So I re-organised my stock of Classic Romania. Maybe not everyone's idea of a quiet day, but there you are ...

Two or three years ago, several large Romania collections came on the market at David Feldman, Corinphila and so on. I bid on the small accumulations which were left once the top items had been pulled out to be offered singly. Because these were very good (Gold medal level) collections, the material in the accumulations was nearly all of excellent quality. I spent a lot of money.

Dr Fritz Heimbüchler, the BPP expert for Romania, was kind enough to look over the bulk of my acquisitions on my Stands at the Briefmarkenmesse in München and then Sindelfingen and pulled out many items to sign or provide certificates for. We binned a handful of forgeries, but the nature of the collections meant that they weren't a major problem.

Re-organised, the material looks better and the stamps for each Michel number easier to compare. I start at Number 6 and stop at Number 34. The stock still runs to hundreds of stamps.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Two Collecting Tips

I am always forming small collections which I then show at Club meetings (normally the annual meeting of the British Society of Russian Philately). Sometimes these collections are put together from my dealer stock, sometimes they are quite separate. After a few years, or less, I normally break them up.

The kind of collection you are making determines where you should best look for material - on ebay, in auctions, by post from dealers, at stamp fairs and exhibitions. Some collectors are always looking in the wrong place. If your wants are very limited or very highly specialised, a general stamp fair is unlikely to yield very much. So my first Collecting Tip is this: Look in the Right Places.

Since I spend a lot of time in stamp fairs, I try to form collections from material which can be found in general dealer boxes - which is to say, anything involving modestly priced postal history. Choose the topic right, and the collection builds up quite quickly.

My second Tip is this: Always work on (at least) two collections at once. Maybe one more specialised and expensive, and one less so and maybe just for fun. This way, if going to a Fair or studying an Auction catalogue or a trawl through ebay yields nothing for one collection, it may at least yield something for the other. So your time is not wasted.

I have two collections - projects, really - in hand at present. I am collecting examples of the lowest tariffs in Imperial Russia - 1 , 2, 3, 4 and 5 kopeck frankings. You will rarely see these in auction catalogues, which concentrate on high value frankings (some of which are over valued in my opinion), but you will find them in dealer boxes.

And while I am going through the boxes looking for these, I also look out for anything with a 1917 cancellation - very easy to find and usually very cheap since they rarely look pretty. I don't know yet what I will do with these, but eventually an idea or two will emerge and I will then mount the material

Thursday 27 May 2010

Russian Occupation of Latvia, 1919

Stamp collectors often have a pocket notebook containing their Wants List - carry it everywhere and you will never have to hesitate over a possible purchase, "I may already have that".
Postal historians likewise carry around lists of tariffs or cancellations.
Not so often seen are lists of dates. If I was better organised, I would carry a notebook containing key dates for the Russian revolutionary period 1917 - 1923. It would be enormously complicated: I think it was Kyiv (Kiev) which changed hands twelve times in that period.
It was also a period in which the calendar changed, but not everywhere at the same time, so that you can sometimes find letters which arrived before they were despatched.
Recently, I realised that it is quite easy to miss the Russian Occupation of Latvia in the first half of 1919. The Bolsheviks entered from the east through the rail junction of Dvinsk (Daugavpils) at the very end of 1918 and captured Riga in early January, holding it until May.
You occasionally see philatelic items from the Occupation, most commonly blank envelopes cancelled with Latin "Riga" over 35 kopeck and / or 70 kopeck Kerensky Chainbreaker stamps (designed by the Latvian Zarins[h] who had earlier worked on the Romanov set and later designed Latvian stamps as well as the unissued stamps of the Belarus National Republic ....An interesting history).
Commercial mail is scarce and boringly franked by Imperial arms stamps. So unless you note the cancellation and its date, you won't realise that these are Occupation usages.
Recently, I looked despairingly at two 1919 Money Transfer Forms where the adhesives (including Postal Savings Bank stamps)had been clipped with unusual brutality as an anti-fraud measure. Then I cheered up: both the cards were going from Russia to Riga in the Spring of 1919, with arrival cancellations and a Riga post office seal. I had never seen examples before. It's just a pity that anti-corruptuion zeal was so strong in the Bolshevik Riga post office.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Ukraine Tridents

I acquired most of my long-term stock of Ukraine tridents over a dozen years ago, when I was able to purchase part of Dr Seichter's collection and then part of Vyrovj's collection. I still have thousands of stamps and postal history items from these collections.

But I need new material to fill gaps, especially scarcer material. Recently, I travelled to Germany to view half a dozen auction lots of Ukraine which turned up in a provincial auction. As is often the case, they were poorly estimated: auctioneers just don't have the knowledge for these issues.

A banal collection of common stamps in large quantitites was estimated at several thousand euros just because the owner had gone to the trouble of getting Expert Certificates for much of the collection. The certificates must have cost considerably more than the stamps were worth. I did not bid on this lot.

In contrast, an old and sparse collection in several albums was estimated at only a few hundred euro but contained at least ten very scarce stamps, in nice condition and with decent signatures. They were all genuine. So I was able to bid twice the estimate on this lot.

Browsing other Lots I found an exhibit collection of Polish issues for Upper Silesia. There was a lot of material with proofs, essays, specimens, multiples and a bit of postal history. I don't know much about this material so I had to guess. I guessed three times the start price and got the Lot for a bit less. Now I will have to study it properly.

The trip was worthwhile because I got all five Lots for which I left bids. One of the frustrations of auction viewing is that you can devote two or three days to a trip and to viewing and still end up empty-handed.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Stamps of Georgia 1919 - 1923

I just sent a collector of St George some of the first stamps of Independent Georgia.

I have never understood why they are not more popular. They are nicely designed and printed. There are shade, paper, perforation and gum varieties. There are colour trials and unissued values available at quite modest prices (under 50 euro). Postally used, they are not that hard to find, though a good cover is going to cost over 100 euro - but a good cover from Armenia at this time is going to cost over 1000.

Importantly, there are no recorded reprints or forgeries of the basic stamp. So they can be safely collected even by a novice.

I think one thing which deters collectors is the later stamps of the 1919 - 1923 period which include an array of unattractive rubber handstamp overprints in numerous types and colours. Though these have never been much forged, they are tedious to classify - unless you like that sort of thing. The work of classification has been done by specialists (Ashford, Ceresa) so the collector has a ready - made guide.

Those who dislike messy overprints could stick with the first St George (and Queen Tamara) issues. They provide enough variety to comfortably fill an album or make an exhibit

Thursday 22 April 2010

Stamps of Armenia, Stamps of Azerbaijan, Stamps of Georgia

Quite often, I am asked who can expertise stamps from the 1919 - 1923 period like those listed above.

The short answer, at present, is No One. There are very knowledgeable collectors and dealers who can give reliable opinions, but there are no accredited experts with - for example - AIEP or DBPP status. And because there are no major collector societies uniquely dedicated to these areas, there is some risk that the AIEP or DBPP will end up recognising someone who actually can't do the job properly. It has happened before.

The expert opinions which can be generally relied on are those of dealers or collectors or experts who are dead or retired. None of them can help with the new forgeries which have appeared in the past twenty years, some of which are dangerous and have even been written up in collector journals and given medals. They also appear in serious auctions and not just on ebay.

My own practice is to consult knowledgeable collectors where I am not sure. But when I am sure, I will give my own opinion in writing and, if asked, I will (rather reuluctantly) sign in pencil.

I was lucky as a novice dealer that I was able to acquire much of Tchilingirian's Armenia from Ray Ceresa, who bought it all when it was auctioned at Robson Lowe; much of Ceresa's and Voikhansky's Azerbaijan; and much of Ceresa's Georgia, which included ex - Faberge material. Studying these collections helped me understand what to look for when I was trying to add to my stock.

As a novice dealer, I was also the victim of travelling salesmen selling new forgeries. But I studied them, and I wrote up my findings in the journals. I am more careful now!

Saturday 3 April 2010

Quality Matters - and Why It is Hard to Find

Some years ago, as a novice dealer, I bought in auction a stock of Soviet stamps housed in numerous stockbooks. What I failed to notice was that the owner had used all the top rows in his stockbooks and then exposed them to dust and sunlight. The result? I was the new owner of a stock of unsaleable sets - the quality of the top row material was too degraded to be combined with the material from the other rows.

Over time, most philatelic material has been damaged and its value reduced by the dealers, collectors and beneficiaries of collectors' wills through whose hands it has passed.

Dealers may no longer put hinges on mint stamps, but they still write on any postal history item that comes their way. Rub out the old prices, write on your own. Eventually, it takes its toll. The average piece of Victorian postal stationery has had Higgins and Gage numbers, dimensions,catalogue values and prices written on it so many times as to be virtually worthless. It goes straight into my £1 boxes.

Collectors still put hinges on mint stamps and some still prefer to pick up their stamps by wetting their thumb, as if tweezers had never been invented. Combine enough saliva with the damp cupboards which are a Must Have for many collectors and you soon have a collection foxed from start to finish.

Postal history is at the mercy of another range of collector habits. True, the excitement created by the invention of the red biro has passed as has the enthusiasm for writing the catalogue values of the stamps next to them on the cover - and in ink. Nowadays, covers are more likely to be subject to trimming and refolding.

One should not be too hard on dealers and collectors, however. Only the Experts have thought that the thing to do with a beautiful and rare cover is to sign your name on it - in the case of Italian experts, in a position where you cannot fail to be distracted by it.

Quality matters. It adds value. And it is a commodity in ever-diminishing supply.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Where do you get all your material?

At stamp shows, this is a FAQ. The short answer is, All over the place. By way of an example, here's a true story:

At a London show some years ago, a dealer came up to my Stand, looked it over, and remarked, "You stock funny stuff. Are you interested in Ukraine? I've got a box in the office that's been there for years. It came from a good source. I could sell it to you if you're interested"

So I made a journey round the M25 and the box was placed in front of me. "Have you got a price?" I asked. The dealer had, in low four figures. Then I opened the box. Thousands of stamps in sheets, mostly common; thousands of stamps in glassines; odd bits of postal history; the auction catalogues which identified where the contents of this box came from. They were the unsolds and a big remainder Lot from the 1987 Swiss sale of the Vyroyyj collection.

Eugene Vyrovyj (1889 - 1945) was one of the great pre-1939 collectors of Ukrainian Tridents, especially the Tridents of Podilia. He won numerous medals for his Exhibit collection. He had links to the exile government of Ukraine, and this was probably the source of some of his material. Though he committed suicide in 1945, the collection did not come on the market until the 1987 Swiss sale, at which date I had not yet started dealing.

Yes, Reader, I bought the box.

Q: When is CTO better than Mint?

A: When it's a stamp of Armenia 1919 - 21 ("Dashnak" Armenia).

The single handstamps used in this period to overprint Imperial Russian stamps - the framed Z, unframed Z and the rouble surcharges - were forged from the outset and applied to many,many thousands of Imperial stamps to create packets of "50 Armenia". What could be easier? Most of the forgeries are easily separated out by a specialist collector, but some are harder work to detect.

At the time, many - possibly most - sheets of genuinely overprinted stamps were sold to the handful of dealers operating in Armenia with a cancellation on every stamp, or over a block of 4, or in the corners of the sheet. These cancellations are not so much Cancellations to Order (CTO) as we understand that. Rather, they are authenticating cancels meant to guarantee the overprints.

Some of the cancellations have been forged and some of those forgeries are recent. But most of them are poor imitations and none of them has been applied on a large scale. There was no call for them from the Packet Trade. It's quite hard to put together a collection of these forged cancellations - something which certainly cannot be said about forged overprints!

In addition, only a small number of cancellers were used to authenticate material. Cancellations of Alexandropol on loose stamps are almost certain to be genuine and it is really only the Erivan cancellations which have been forged and applied over forged overprints. And I have only ever seen "CTO" material from one other town, Elenovka, and that in very small quantities. My guess is that the Belgian mining engineer, Gustave Boel (responsible for the "60" and "120" Giryusy / Katarsky Zavod provisionals) passed through Elenovka on his travels and bought some stamps there, possibly of just one face value, which he had authenticated with the Elenovka cancel.

So when I am asked, How should I go about collecting Dashnak Armenia? I would always advise starting from the "CTO" material. Once you have a feel for what the overprints should look like, then start adding the mint material.

What about digital forgeries? Yes, that could become a problem. That's why old collections are a better source of material than some shiny new offering on ebay.

Wednesday 31 March 2010

Fabergé's Fiscal Collection

It is not widely known that Agathon Fabergé began collecting Russian fiscals around 1900 and that Oleg Fabergé continued the collection. It was never properly written up or exhibited but it was vast. At some point, much or all of it passed to the Finnish collector B.-E. Saarinen. From him, a prominent English collector obtained a great deal of material and the remainders appear to have passed to one Finnish collector.

Recently, I have been able to acquire quantities of this Fabergé material from both the English and the Finnish collector. As with the Fabergés' better-known Zemstvo collections, there is both common material in abundance and rarities - sometimes also in abundance. Agathon clearly enjoyed privileged access to state offices and, as a result, scattered through the collection there are mint (gummed) copies of revenue stamps which were not on sale to the public as well as ungummed copies which may well have been taken from proof sheets.

Agathon's pencilled notes on the stamps start around 1900 and the names of his suppliers overlap with those of his Zemstvo suppliers: Withy, Peto, Roussin and so on.

I will have some of this material with me at ANTVERPIA 2010 and again in May at PHILATEX EXTRA in London.

Forging a Postmark: How Not to Do It

Recently I examined an exhibit collection of Russian "For the Postman" stamps and court covers. I did not like the look of one item. Supposedly, it showed a rare (unique?) example of the 15 kopeck general Fiscal with the red "For the Postman" overprint omitted. But the cancellation looked wrong. The ink was too lacquer-like for a Russian cancellation of the period, as was obvious from the adjoining cancellation on a regular 7 kopeck Imperial adhesive. When I removed the cover from its plastic holder, I needed no more proof: a complete purple impression of the doubtful postmark had transferred to the plastic! The forger's ink had never even dried properly!

It's not always that easy!


I have been a specialist dealer for Russian and East European Philately since the early 1990s. I started out selling New Issues of the new republics which emerged from the former Soviet Union, including locals and provisionals, but since then I have moved back in time and now handle very little post - 1950s material.

This Blog will allow me to post comments on topics of current interest: auctions, exhibitions, forgeries, new additions to my own stock. Let's see what happens!