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Wednesday 27 February 2013

Russia: Travelling Post Offices 1914 - 1940

Before the First World War, Russia  developed a very extensive system of Railway Travelling Post Offices (TPOs) which used distinctive oval cancellations. Before World War One, civilians were regular users of the system. Between 1914 and 1921, the system broke down. There were several reasons:

- parts of the railway network were seized by Germany, most obviously in Poland from 1915 on
- military action damaged railway lines and rolling stock
- Russia could not produce and install replacement lines and rolling stock  and imports  were much reduced
- railway lines and trains were taken over by Armies (Imperial, Red, White) for military use

In areas which remained under Russian control, the TPO system never returned to the size it had grown to by 1914. Soviet TPO mail is actually quite scarce and you will not often see an item like the one below, posted in 1928 on the MURMANSK 36 LENINGRAD route:

In contrast, independent Latvia, Estonia and Poland  re-created extensive and widely used TPO systems between the World Wars. Some of these offered Registered Mail services - see the illustration below from 1939 on the RIGA - ZEMGALE route:

During the Civil War period, TPO mail is scarce. In contrast, it is quite common to see Railway Station (Voksal) cancellations: perhaps people walked or rode to the local station thinking it would speed their letters if they posted them there. Mail bags could be loaded onto passing trains even if they had no TPO  facilities.

For Transcaucasia in the 1917 - 23 period, you will occasionally see loose stamps with TPO cancels ( Baku - Batum, Dzhulfa - Tiflis) but covers are  rare. For White Russian areas and Ukraine, the same is true. It is most unusual to see an item like the one below posted in 1918 on the un-numbered KHOLONEVSKAYA - SEMKI route (the Trident is Podillia 8b):

All these items are for sale.

The Trans-Siberian Railway is, as always, another story ...

Monday 25 February 2013

Armenia? Azerbaijan? Georgia? Romania? Russia? Ukraine? ... We Need Experts!

At the back of every Michel catalogue, you will find a list of Experts accredited by the Bundes Philatelischer Prüfer [BPP]. For German stamps alone, there are dozens of Experts - some of them specialists in just a few stamps. For other countries, there is normally at least one Expert. For the countries listed in my title there are none.

There are, of course, some recognised Experts for these areas and others associated with them, including members of the AIEP [International Association of Philatelic Experts]. Mikulski was the most important of these, but he no longer signs because he has sold his Reference collections.

But it's really the BPP which matters. It's the best organised and the most systematically rigorous and reliable, with clear and public rules which you can find in the back of a Michel catalogue. In comparison, some other national organisations which claim to offer expertising services are simply not reliable or reliable only for a few areas. Some of these organisations have been prone to laxness or scandals.

Collectors in the areas in which I specialise should be pleading with the BPP to look for potential Experts and train them for the task. In the case of Ukraine, Dr Seichter, John Bulat and before him Kobylanski were all BPP accredited. Now there is no one. I don't think there has ever been anyone for Transcaucasia. There have been BPP Experts for Poland ( for example, Jungjohann), Russia and Soviet Union (in these cases, not always good choices) but now there are none. Now that Heimbüchler has reached the BPP retirement age, the same is true for Romania.

It does make life difficult for both collectors and dealers. Let me use the example of Ukraine. Here are some stamps I want to sell: a block of 4 mint 10/7 kopeck stamps with an overprint which is "obviously" Podillia and two used 10/7 stamps with overprints which I think are the same. I have put the mint stamps close to the used stamps, but they are not attached to the Money Transfer fragment:

Now in the case of Podillia you have a choice of over 60 handstamp types and sub-types - quite enough work for one dedicated BPP expert! I think that the 10 / 7 stamps are overprinted with Type 13c (Bulat's Type 44). I get to this conclusion by looking at the illustrations in the catalogue and by referring to one stamp I am holding for reference, the 1 kopeck shown at the top. This stamp has XIIIc written on the back in Zelonka's handwriting and Ron Zelonka usually knew what he was doing. Ideally, I would like a block of stamps with 13c so that I could see variations caused by inking and pressure. But I don't have one - other than the 10/7 block shown here. The problem  is that 13c is not a common stamp (see the Bulat listing 2001 - 2013 where only four stamps are priced, all the others being - - cases).

If you ask how I know that the stamps have genuine overprints, then I have to say that it's a lot to do with the ink and the fact that the fragment of Money Transfer and the cancellations on it are pretty clearly genuine.

But there are two reasons I would like to send my 10 / 7 stamps to an Expert.

First, there are several handstamp types very similar to 13c so I would like a second Opinion. It's not always like this - some handstamp types are unambiguous and I am quite happy to judge them - see previous Blogs about Podillia. 

Second, if these stamps are 13c then they have significant catalogue values in Bulat: $35 each for the mint stamps and unpriced - - [rare] for the used stamps. But if I am going to ask clients to pay  a significant amount for this little group - and many others like it for other sub-types - then they should expect something more than my claim that these are indeed 13c's. They deserve an Expert's opinion. Even if these stamps were already signed Dr Seichter BPP or Bulat BPP it would not help very much because neither of those experts routinely pencilled identifications on the backs of stamps when they signed them. The signature indicates the overprint is genuine without saying which overprint it is....

So there you are. Over to the BPP!

Sunday 24 February 2013

Stamps of Ukraine: Valuing and Pricing - Seichter, Bulat and the Future

How much are classic Ukrainian stamps worth and what should we pay for them?

Most serious collectors now start from John Bulat's Catalogue, published in 2003 but based on a manuscript worked on for decades previously. Leave aside the many typographical errors and there are three main areas worth thinking about.

First, the very different treatment of Trident overprints and West Ukraine overprints.

For Tridents, excepting one or two isolated instances which may be mistakes, Bulat goes up to valuations of $300 after which he makes frequent use of the - - system to signal "Too Rare to Call". Bulat's[ $ ]300 is simply Dr Seichter's top value of 600 [ DM ] in his 1966 Sonder-Katalog, divided by two. After that, Seichter also uses the - - system.

But for West Ukraine, Bulat goes up to $30 000 and makes very little use of the - - system.

Now if we simplify and reckon Bulat's lowest price as $1 for both Ukraine and West Ukraine, we have a range for West Ukraine 100 times wider than for the Tridents.(* See footnote) Why? It's certainly not because of rarity: many Tridents are as rare as the rare stamps of West Ukraine. It's certainly not to do with marking down "philatelic" productions - with the exception of the Kolomyia Registration stamps, the stamps of Western Ukraine are all philatelic productions.  It does have a lot to do with prices which can be achieved: Bulat's $30 000 was comfortably exceeded in the Zelonka sale for the stamp to which it relates (Bulat # 65) and no Trident stamp has recently sold in widely-advertised auctions for even 10% of that and very few for more than 1%.

As far as Tridents are concerned, the current position is very much like that for Zemstvos before the Fabergé sale of 1999. Before then, no one would pay more than a few hundred dollars for a single Zemstvo stamp. That ceiling has now been completely removed. The Trident situation will only change when collectors realise that the ranges 1 - 300 and 1 - 30 000 are pretty much self-fulfilling prophecies.

Second, the validity of relative valuations

In valuing Tridents, Bulat closely follows Seichter, generally dividing by two. Now Dr Seichter was valuing Tridents as far back as 1940 when he published his Spezialliste der Briefmarken der Ukrainischen Volksrepublik. Basically, the relative valuations we use were established over 70 years ago. That means that they take no account of (1) destruction and loss, which is never even-handed, whether it results from war, flood, fire or collector carelessness; (2) discoveries in archives or dealer remainder stocks or collector hoards - things which are also not likely to be balanced. As a result, we all have the experience of being able to obtain stamps with high Bulat valuations quite easily and other ones with low valuations with great difficulty. After 70 years, it is time to examine the relative valuations again. To give just one example, though the Zelonka sale has released some onto the market, just try finding the Kyiv 1 Special Types (Bulat 109 - 45) even those with valuations below $10. (And just in case you ask, I have none in stock).

Third, the relation of a Bulat $ to an actual price

Here there seems to be a divergence between Europe and the USA. When we are talking about individual Retail prices (for example, for stamps on a Wants List), American collectors are still hoping to pay about 50 cents for a Bulat dollar and sometimes they may find stamps at that price. Collectors in Europe are willing to pay more - a dollar or sometimes a €uro for a Bulat dollar - and so in Auction they are more likely to take the choice items. In my experience, most of the really common stamps (under 50 cents in Bulat) remain so common that no one should pay more than ten or twenty cents for them. But once you get above something like Bulat $10, there are many hundreds of listed stamps which are actually quite hard to find and where a real dollar for a Bulat dollar is a bargain.

* Bulat goes down to 10 cents for Tridents and 25 cents for Western Ukraine, so technically the range is much wider. (I am struggling with the maths!)

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:

Friday 22 February 2013

Lots of Romania at Corinphila

Next Thursday afternoon 28 February. Corinphila Zürich auctions Part 3 of the "Moldau" collection of Classic Romania (Lots 5001 - 5123 in the Auction). Most of us will just have to look at the pictures :)

But before that on the Thursday morning Corinphila will also sell many other nice items from Romania (Lots 1630 - 1680) ... and then on Friday morning 1 March it will sell what it calls "Collections and Accumulations" with Romania at Lots 2608 - 2632. In fact, many of these "Collections" are small groups of specialised items: stamps with postmark interest, retouches on Prince Carol issues, and so on. For these specialised groups there are no illustrations in the Corinphila catalogue but you will find pictures at The Start prices are in three figures not four or five, so here you have a chance to do more than look a the pictures!

I draw your attention to this material because several Lots in this section 2608 - 2632 are from me :)

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Auction Houses: They Are Not All The Same!

The development of Online Bidding facilities means that any collector, anywhere in the world, can now bid in a large number of Auctions without being physically present and without having to make a  written bid. The development of the software which allows this is itself a remarkable achievement in which some of the big auction houses played a leading role: David Feldman in Geneva, for example.

For me, one of of the most important differences between auction houses is whether they own what they sell. At one end, there are houses which own 100% of what they sell. In this case, the auction catalogue is really a Price List with the option to pay more than the asking price. At the other end, some houses own nothing of what they sell. In this case, their economic success depends very much on the percentage of Lots which they can sell in each auction. This gives them an incentive to keep Start prices low. In between, there are many auction houses which own some of what they sell but get other material from outside vendors.

Among the major auction houses, I do not know any who own everything they sell. I can immediately think of two who own nothing of what they sell (Corinphila, Köhler) and two which own some of what they sell (Raritan, Cherrystone). Both arrangements have advantages. For example, if you want an Estate Lot which has not been sorted and broken down, then you probably need to look in the auctions of houses which do not ever own material. But if you want the chance to buy fine items from big collections, then you will always find them in the catalogues of firms like Raritan and Cherrystone. At the present time, Raritan is doing a very good job making available material from the Seichter-Bulat-Zelonka collection which has never before been offered in small Lot form. This is a valuable service to collectors. Raritan deserves praise for its work (and I am sure it's a lot of work!) But the original big collection was sold by Corinphila.

The next major difference concerns the question of expertise. There are many auction houses, some of them large, which take in anything from any period or any country and describe and price it "in house". They never call on outside expertise. Sometimes they are completely wrong on pricing. Sometimes they offer forged material as genuine because they just do not know how to assess it. For Armenia - a Forgery Rich collecting area - Stefan Berger chronicles how auction houses get things wrong on his website

As an amusing example of what can happen when you don't know what you are doing, quite recently a quite well-known auction house offered as Rare (Really Rare!) an inter-panneau gutter pair of Russia Imperial Arms 14 kopeck stamps with a Start Price of 1000 € ... apparently unaware that all Imperial kopeck value stamps were printed in sheets of 100 divided into panes of 25 with a gutter between  ... Instead, they exclaimed "unlisted in Michel"! (No, it didn't sell).

Other auction houses regularly employ outside Consultants when they take in material they don't really know enough about to describe and price. What surprises me is that they rarely acknowledge this. But it would be really helpful to buyers to be told who had described /priced the material and publication of such information ought to increase trust in the auction process.  I think it would surprise many collectors to know how carefully some auction houses organise the description and pricing of material - and how carelessly others do. The careful auction houses should be more confident in making public the way they work!

A third difference concerns the ability of auction houses to "source" material, to obtain really good things. Here the major houses of course have an advantage. They have people who will fly round the world NOW  if they think they can secure a good consignment. But a small auction house can build up a reputation and relationships which sellers trust. For example, Kaj Hellman in Finland for many years had access to material from the Fabergé collections.

Finally, it used to be the major concern of collectors whether an auction was "honest". In other words, suppose the Start price was 100 and you sent a written Bid for 1000 and there were no other bidders. What  would you pay? It has been one of the pleasant surprises of my career as a Dealer that in most cases, the answer is: 100.

Of course, now we have Online Live Bidding, there is no need to worry. But I think you may still enjoy this story, told to me by Kaj Hellman in relation to his Auction, before the days of online bidding. He has given me permission to repeat it here:

He had a Lot in his Auction with a Start Price of 400 €. He had two written Bids before the start of the Sale: one for 4000 € (my Bid) and one for 32 000 €. Yes, 32 000 (You guessed; this was Zemstvo material). So he started the Room Bidding at 4500 € (correctly). There was a lot of bidding in the Room. When the Room Bid got to 20 000 he began to worry. Suppose the Room Bid stops at say 25 000... Is the Written Bid buyer going to believe that he really ought to pay 26 000 for a Lot with a Start Price of 400? It got worse. The Room Bids got to 28 000 ... Kaj Hellman was now seriously worried. If they stop at 31 000, it's a disaster. The Written Bidder will pay the full 32 000. He will never believe it! When  the Room Bid went to 34 000, Kaj Hellman's relief was enormous. He could have hugged the successful Room bidder!

Sunday 10 February 2013

Warsaw to Constantinople 1916

Click on Image to Magnify

Germany and the Ottoman Empire were allies in World War One - along with Austria - Hungary, they formed the Central Powers. So mail from German Occupied territories to Turkey would have been possible.  But I have never before had an item like the one above in my stock ...

It is an improvised newspaper wrapper (Banderole) addressed from a Warsaw Polish-language Gazeta to a subscriber in Galata who has a Polish name. The address label has been made using one of those machines which preceded office duplicators (I forget what they were called) though the word "Galata" has been overwritten in violet pencil and, separately, underlined in red crayon - something German postal officials did to clarify addresses.

The franking is provided by a 3 Pf Germania overprinted "Russisch Polen" cancelled with a German language WARSCHAU dated (I think) 1916. That the item arrived is shown by the Turkish Censor cachet at the bottom right. The grey pencil mark to the left of it could be a Censor's initial.

Anyway, I show it here just because it strikes me as unusual and unexpected.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Ukraine 1918 - 1921: Stamps on the Move (Part Two)

In response to comments from a fellow member of the Ukraine Philatelic and Numismatic Society, I illustrate a Money Transfer Form  sending just 7 roubles from NEMERCHA POD. 8 3 19 to LITIN POD. 23 3 19. Payment of the minimum charge of 25 kopecks is recorded with  20 and 2 kopeck perforated stamps with Trident type Ia of Podillia (very different looking, in fact) and then by a 3 kopeck imperforate stamp overprinted with Odesa Type 2.

The use of KOPECK value stamps from other Districts seems much less common in Podillia than the use of ROUBLE value stamps - for which there was clearly a greater demand.  That the use of this stamp was not completely random is shown by the use of the same combination of Odesa 2 on 3 kopeck imperforate on a MTF fragment cancelled VAPNIARKA POD. 3 2 19

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: