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Saturday 12 September 2015

Rarities: Making Lists, Inventories and Guesses

In a recent auction there was a Romania Bull’s Head that I wanted to buy. When I saw the auction catalogue illustration, the first thing I did was consult Fritz Heimbüchler’s Die Ochsenköpfe der Moldau / The Bull’s Head of Moldavia  1858 – 1862 (1994; Supplement 2007). I found an illustration of the stamp I was looking for together with a note telling me when and where it last appeared at auction.

There aren’t many books like Heimbüchler’s, which is fully illustrated, hardback and very expensive.

But making lists of “All Known Copies” is one of the things which experts can and should do.

Heimbüchler  was for many years the German BPP expert for Romania and so got to see many Bulls Heads sent to him for expertising. Most of these were already known copies. A few were previously unrecorded. But to make his Inventory I guess he also had to go through hundreds of old auction catalogues and stamp magazines. Making a serious Inventory is the work of many years.

It can be done by Experts working alone but it can also be done by “Study Groups” – but those are perhaps less common than they used to be. It could be done through dedicated Internet sites, with anyone able to contribute but with editorial control to prevent  forgers getting their work listed as genuine.

There are actually very few stamps ( I  leave out postal history for now) for which we know how many exist. There is probably a number above which it is no longer interesting or practicable to Inventory a stamp.

For example, I assume that thousands (many thousands?)  of copies exist of Russia # 1 and it is not really sensible to try to build an Inventory – too many copies are in collections whose owners would never know an Inventory existed. Likewise, it would be hard to inventory Russia # 3 and #4 because so many of these will be unrecognised as such by their owners ( I once bought a stockbook of miscellaneous Russian stamps which contained five or six of them, completely unrecognised by the seller – and by me, until I got the book home! I have no idea by what route they got there).

In contrast, you could probably get somewhere making an Inventory of Russia # 1 in multiples – pairs, strips of three, blocks do not exist in thousands. It would be easy to create a dedicated website and put up the pictures. Forgeries are fairly difficult to make, though you would need scans of both front and back.

I am surprised that there is not a website housing Inventories of rare Zemstvo stamps. When the Fabergé collection was sold in 1999, an opportunity existed then to make Inventories but the chance was missed – at the time of the sale, no one knew how popular and expensive Zemstvos would soon become! The auction catalogue is very useful but is now, of course, out of print.

My real frustration is in the fact that I often handle stamps which I think are as rare as a Moldavia Bull’s Heads but for which absolutely no public inventory exists or even much intelligent guessing. 

For example, among Russian Civil War period stamps 1918 – 1923 there are many that are rare or rare in used condition or rare on cover – but we never really know how rare.

I will give one example. Soviet Armenia in 1922 – 1923 engaged in absolutely zero philatelic speculation; indeed, it imprisoned at least one philatelic speculator (Melik-Pachaev). The various varieties of overprint were produced with no ulterior motivation.

Some are very rare. Take the overprints on First Yessayan (Michel 142 – 166). Some are in red, and these are generally scarcer than the normal black overprints. But though it is relatively easy to find the 1, 2 and 4 overprints in red, mint or used, the same is not true of the 10 or 15 overprints. In twenty years I have handled maybe half a dozen and there is really no way I can go out and buy them – they are unlikely to turn up as single lots in auction, unlike Russia # 1. My guess is that worldwide less than one hundred copies of each could be found today. In contrast, of the 1, 2 and 4 in red I guess that the worldwide supply comfortably exceeds one thousand of each. But these really are guesses. 

But the chances of making a reliable Inventory are very low. And the same is true for many other stamps or stamps on cover. This is why you so often read in auction catalogues phrases like “only a few are believed to exist”. Such phrases come from Experts, collectors and dealers like myself who can only say “Well, in the last twenty years I have seen only … “ And that is as good as it gets.

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