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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.