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Friday, 30 May 2014

Russia in World War One - Prisoners of War

This is another example of Look Inside!

For Russia, First World War Prisoner of War - related correspondence is very common: cards from prisoners,to prisoners, to international organisations involved with prisoners of war. It's possible to build enormous collections at very little cost.

The item illustrated below is relatively unusual. The 1916 Registered letter from WOLMAR [Valmeira] is addressed to the Russian sub-section of an organisation offering help to prisoners of war, based in Neuchâtel. It contains first of all a printed receipt for 3 roubles 60 kop which Madame Birzhall has transferred to the Sub-Section through Crédit Lyonnais in Petrograd. The printed form suggests that many such transfers were being made.

The letter accompanying the receipt,and also written in French, gives the name and address of the Prisoner of War (Jan Birsgal in the Prisoner Camp Heilsberg, Germany) and asks that bread be sent to him twice a week ("je vous prie d'envoyer à mon marie [sic] Jean Birsgal deux pains par semaine". The phrase "deux pains" has been underlined in blue crayon, no doubt in the offices of the sub-section.

It is an entirely reasonable inference that Jan Birsgal is an Officer whose wife is able to write in French and access the appropriate part of Russia's banking system.

Click on Images to Magnify

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Russia OBRAZETS overprints: Genuine or Forged?

Russian OBRAZETS [Specimen] overprints are usually attractive, whether Imperial or Soviet. They are characteristically bold and often printed in a striking vermilion ink. They are not rare and on some issues - for example, Imperial War Charities - they are really quite common. But I always have the feeling that in Auctions, they are far too common and I suspect some of being fakes. Today, I saw something which made me think that I was looking at fakes.

Browsing an auction catalogue I saw a strip of stamps with OBRAZETS in blue. The stamps were rouble value Denikins. I show the strip below. Now, in twenty years I have never seen Specimen overprints on Denikins and I didn't know they existed. So I was a bit suspicious of this strip. Then, in the same catalogue, I noticed some Soviet strips with OBRAZETS overprints, though the colours seemed a bit odd. See below.

Then I noticed something that these strips have in common and which I have never noticed when looking at genuine OBRAZETS strips.

None of these strips has the overprint perfectly horizontal. They are all at a small angle, up or down. This makes me suspicious. First, that they all have this feature. Second, that normally such overprints are applied with great care. And, third, I can easily imagine someone feeding strips into a printer and finding it difficult to keep them exactly straight to take the digital overprint.

As a result of thinking like this, I won't be bidding for any of these strips.

Click on Image to Magnify

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Ukraine 1992 - and still waiting for an Explanation ...

Probably every collector and every dealer has a little group of items, somewhere, which are waiting for an Explanation. What are they? Are they genuine? Is it a known variety? Is it common? Why does it look funny?

The trouble is, most of those items never progress to the Resolved category. Here for example are two covers which I have kept since 1992:

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Back in 1918, the 30 Shahiv Ceres of Ukraine's first General Issue was issued in several shades of blue including one - Prussian Blue - which usually gets a separate catalogue listing (as it does in Michel and Stanley Gibbons). Now here in 1992 are two shades of the new 0.50 Ceres one of which is not the normal shade - it is darker and, well, more like Prussian Blue. (My scanner does not pick up the difference very well but in daylight it's clear)

Now: Is this a regular variety? Or did just a few sheets turn up in Vinnitsa? Or did someone know how to treat the stamp with some chemical to make the blue turn darker? (I have to say, it doesn't look like it)?

And if it's a regular variety, was this a deliberate reference back to the 1918 30 Shahiv Ceres?

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Lesson One: Always Look Inside ...

This is not about Armenia to Zemstvo philately. It's about something which made me laugh ...

Recently, I acquired ( as part of a much larger Lot) about 50 British covers and cards sent from stamp dealers to their clients circa 1890 - 1960. Some pretty items, some rubbish. I went through them a first time and noted the better ones - maybe £5 to £20 each - then I looked through the rejects wondering how to use them. I came to this dirty looking cover from a Strand stamp dealer:

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I was about to throw it in my £1 Box when I realised it felt a bit thicker than a normal envelope. And so I looked inside:

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I laughed. And even more so when I checked the catalogue. In 1932 this stamp cost Monsieur Fontein 35/- (thirty five shillings = £1.75). Today it is catalogued by Stanley Gibbons at £180 for hinged mint.

Obviously, the stamp should stay with the envelope and letter - it would make a nice page in an Iraq collection.

But perhaps I should put it in my £1 Box and see how long it takes for someone to spot it. Well, the stamp has been there since 1932 so maybe another 80 years ....

Friday, 9 May 2014

Imperial Russian Fiscals for Polish Cities

Agathon Fabergé accumulated a very large collection of Imperial Russian fiscals and it passed to his son Oleg who added to it. But it was never written up properly and passed to another Finnish collector (B E Saarinen I believe) who then disposed of it to another collector and a dealer/collector. I bought from both of them, purchases which were several years apart.

The collection included large quantities of scarce stamps - for example, hundreds of Baku Court Fiscal stamps. Nearly all of those now on the market are ex-Fabergé though most of them don't have any identifying pencil notes.

There was also a quantity of Imperial fiscals for the courts in Warsaw and Lublin - more of the Lublin than the Warsaw. Today I looked through what I now have left: 3 Warsaw and 15 Lublin and tried to see what I could learn from these remainders. I have never seen Court Fiscals from other Polish cities.

A key item proved to be this right marginal pair. It also has wide margins at the top and the bottom from which I conclude that the stamps were printed in multiples of  ? x 2. So you would expect all stamps to have at least one wide margin at the top or bottom. This is true of another 9 of my stamps but not true of just 3. However, it is common for clerks to trim imperforate stamps just as it is common for clerks to remove the selvedge of perforated stamps:

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Then I wondered if it was possible to plate these stamps - as it is for the very easy Baku fiscals - but I could not make any progress. However, looking at my Warsaw stamps I concluded that the background network is the same as that on the Lublin stamps - and so was printed from the same plate. The network is a bit complicated but is not perfectly symmetrical - you can see in several places what looks like a W with a crown over it. That means that stamps with inverted backgrounds could exist:

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I asked myself if the frame and value tablets were also from the same plate for both cities with the city name added separately. But on all my copies, the city name shows no variation in position with respect to the frame and value tablet - so I conclude that there were separate plates for the text - a hypothesis supported when you look at the value "30" on the Lublin plate and the Warsaw plate. The "30" of Warsaw is thicker than the "30" of Lublin. And not just that: underneath the "30" of Lublin is the word "KOP" which is absent from the Warsaw stamps of both 10 and 30 denominations ...

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Printing Method? Hmmm.... looking at the backs of the stamps, the outer frame line in solid colour could be typographic, laid down first to guide the printing of the backgrounds and the text. Both of those could be lithographic. But I am not confident about this - and it implies three passes to print the stamps: frame line, background network, text

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Post 1991 Local Issues: Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan

More from the Archives: in 1993 Dzhezkazgan [ now Jezkazgan] issued some local stamps which can be found both mint and on cover, usually and perhaps always philatelic. Here is a xerox sent to me at the time setting out the Post Office's own accounting for the issue - maybe of interest to at least one specialist out there ...

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And here are the stamps, organised according to the List above:

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Friday, 2 May 2014

We Need To Talk About Experts

Collectors and dealers often complain about the shortage of Experts in their specialist fields. I was reminded of the problem when I got my latest copy of Trident-Visnyk which devotes two pages to Experts profiled by the journal Fakes Forgeries Experts over the last dozen years.

Of the five Experts listed, two are dead (Andrew Cronin, Otto Hornung). One is retired - Zbigniew Mikulski has wisely decided to retire with an outstanding reputation for his expertise rather than continue to an age at which he might make mistakes. That leaves two, one of whom acknowledged receipt of some stamps I sent him a couple of years ago and then went silent. That leaves Dr Paul Buchsbayew who is going to be very busy ...

Lots of people have expertise which allows them to evaluate material in their specialist fields - and with a high degree of reliability. But an Expert is someone who claims to be able to evaluate with a very high degree of reliability, such that his or her written Opinions are a good enough guarantee for a buyer who does not know the seller - for example, when the seller is hidden behind an auction catalogue.

How does an Expert know and how does anyone else know that the Expert knows? (That begins to sound like Donald Rumsfeld). Because sometimes Experts don't know but have set themselves up merely to take the money and do as they are asked - sign this! They can continue doing this until people begin to realise that their expensive Opinions are of no more value - and possibly less - than the results of the toss of a coin.

To assess would-be Experts, Germany's BPP (Union of Philatelic Expertisers), asks candidate Experts some very obvious questions, for example, Can we see your collection?

The BPP wants to see stamps and cancellations and it wants to see completeness. This more or less rules out anyone from becoming a BPP Expert for "Russia". No one will have that big a collection. But someone could probably do "Mint stamps of Russia" and under that heading be able to cope with outright forgeries, re-gumming, altered perforations, chemically created shades and so on.

Cancellations pose a big problem - unless you pick a short period and a small area (like Armenia 1917 - 23) there are just too many for anyone to be able to acquire all of them. And yet many forgeries are made by using forged cancellations, either because the used stamp is scarcer than the mint or because it is more valuable on cover.

Common sense and their specialist knowledge allows many collectors and dealers to assess cancellations they haven't seen before. For example, Russian cancellations at any one historical period vary very little in terms of the inks used. Yes, there are black and violet and red - but they are all very similar blacks, violets and reds even in geographically widely separated places. So if you see a cancellation which you haven't seen before AND struck with an ink you haven't seen before, then you worry.

Common sense and a magnifying glass can be supplemented with more powerful equipment which will - for example - detect digital forgeries. Today, a serious would - be Expert will have to acquire such equipment.

But while we are waiting for Experts, there is an awful lot which can be done using the Internet and sharing knowledge. That is one of the things I have been trying to do on this Blog.