Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Stefan Berger, New BPP Bundespruefer for Armenia

Stefan Berger from Jena - well-known for his Blog and for his "Short Opinions" on classic Armenia stamps - has been elected as Bundespruefer for classic Armenia by the Bund Philatelistischer Pruefer E.V. (BPP)

The BPP is probably the world's most respected expertising organisation, with rigorous tests. Candidates are examined on such things as their ability to recognise repairs, re-gumming, printing method, etc as well as their ability to recognise forgeries. BPP experts are expected to hold extensive collections of genuine and forged material and to keep systematic records of their work as an expertiser. For an example of what a BPP expert's office looks like, see my Blog here of 30 April 2012.

One of Stefan's first tasks will be to revise the Michel catalogue listings for Armenia. About twenty years ago, Michel made the good decision to bases their listing on Christoper Zakiyan's archive - based researches.Unfortunately, someone made a mistake in translating Zakiyan's Russian text. Zakiyan found in the Archives an inventory of stamps remaining in the Yerevan post office when the Bolsheviks took power at the end of 1920 - beginning of 1921. But Michel thought it showed issue numbers and so gave very high pries to common stamps like the Dashnak 10 rouble surcharge on 35 kopek perforated stamp. See my Blog of 4 July 2010.

With Stefan Berger at BPP and a revised Michel a sound basis will be created for serious collecting of classic Armenia. At the moment, the collecting area suffers a great deal from ebay forgeries and bad catalogues - from Artar to Yvert with many in between.

Best wishes, Stefan!

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

New Internet Auction from

Now open: the latest Internet sale from the excellent Turku-based auction house
This time, I have contributed extensive offers of material from Russia, Transcaucasia and Ukraine including scarce and rare material. 

Have a look and bid now at! will also get you to the auction :)

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

ISKOLAT: Executive Committee of the Workers, Soldiers and Landless in Latvia 1917 - 18

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I illustrated this cover some time ago but could not explain it. It was sent from Cyrillic ZELZAVA LIFL[and] 17 1 18 addressed in Cyrillic with a Cyrillic STOMERSEE LIFL [and] 17 1 18. It's registered and franked at 45 kopeks, which probably represents 15 kop for postage and 30 kop for Registation - not an RSFSR rate. Both the postmark towns are in the district of Madona on the Plavinas - Vecgulbene railway.

The most notable feature of the cover is the presence of an Imperial style Registration but one which is bi-lingual with both Cyrillic and a Latvian  SELSAWA [ a variant - other possibilities are Dzelsawa and Dzelzava and German Selsau ]. This label is the only internal bi-lingual Registration label I have ever seen before they were introduced and became common in the 1920s in various Soviet republics.

Now I have the explanation. As early as 29 July 1917 an Executive Committee of the Workers, Soldiers and Landless in Latvia [ISKOLAT] was established in Riga. Russia at this time was under the Provisional Government. German forces advanced on Riga capturing it on 3 September 1917. The ISKOLAT then moved to Cesis [Wenden] and then to the Valka [ Walk ] district. When the Germans renewed their offensive in February 1918 [ Operation Faustschlag] the ISKOLAT moved to Moscow. But for a brief period at the very end of 1917 and into early 1918, following the German-Bolshevik Armistice of December 1917, there were some areas of Lifland under accepted Bolshevik rather than German control.

I think the above cover is an example of mail from a Bolshevik-controlled  area of Lifland, and I think the Registration label is a locally-produced post-Imperial effort opening up an acknowledgment of the linguistic character of the area.

This cover is for sale.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Guest Blog by Howard Weinert: Captain Prince at the American Embassy in Vologda 1918

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The envelope shown above is stationery of the Office of the Military Attaché, American Embassy, Petrograd. The enclosed letter, typewritten in Vologda on 14 April 1918, is embossed with the Great Seal and “Embassy of the United States of America”. Sent via diplomatic pouch and postmarked in Washington in August. The sender, Eugene Prince, affixed 21 kopecks in postage stamps to pay the 20 kopeck international letter rate, but the rate had increased to 30 kopecks on 10 March. Inscribed “Capt. E. Prince U.S.A.” on front and “Captain E. Prince. U.S.N.A., Asst. to Amer. Military Attaché Petrograd” on back. Fearing that the Germans would occupy Petrograd, the American Embassy left the city on 27 Feb. and moved to Vologda.

Prince [1890 – 1981] was born in St. Petersburg to an American father and a Russian mother. In 1911 he was working in the Moscow sales office of International Harvester Co. In that year he went to the USA to study manufacturing methods at International Harvester in Chicago and Milwaukee. He returned to Russia in 1913 as IH representative, came back to the USA in 1916, and returned to Russia in August 1916 as representative of Willys-Overland an American automobile and jeep manufacturer. In 1917 he served as interpreter for the Root Mission, sent by President Wilson after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas, and the Stevens Railway Mission, and then was appointed Captain with the American Military Mission and Asst. Military Attaché at the American Embassy in Petrograd. He returned to the USA in 1919, and afterward continued to represent Willys-Overland in Europe. He was a member of the Rossica Society.

In his letter, Prince says, “When we left Petrograd we had fairly good hopes of going straight on to Vladivostok and then to Japan and the States, but now I am certain it will be quite some time before we get home. The situation here is getting all the time more and more complicated. As usual I am in the thick of most everything. When I shall see you again I shall be able to tell you a lot of interesting incidents, of which now I have to be silent. Vologda where we are now is a dirty small town, it is continuously raining and the mud on the streets is so deep, it is impossible to walk”.

Prince was in charge of identifying routes of Allied occupation and getting copies of German and Bolshevik battle plans. He worked to sabotage property taken over by the Germans and to funnel money to the Czechs fighting the Reds along the Trans-Siberian railway.

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Thursday, 13 April 2017

Review: Jay Caplan, Postal Culture in Europe 1500 - 1800

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Jay Caplan is a Professor of French at Amherst College in the USA with a special interest in eighteenth century literary history. Struck by the constant references to the workings of the post in French writers like Voltaire and Rousseau, he became interested in the development and organisation of the postal service itself and this short book is the result. It is clearly written, lively and accessible to a non-specialist reader though the text does sometimes lose the battle with the footnotes; the solution is to ignore the footnotes.

Except in Venice, it is only from the sixteenth century on that “the public” began to get access to what previously had been the private courier and messenger services of kings and princes. Opening up and expanding the post proved a significant source of revenue for those kings and princes and, in addition, made it possible to spy on those who made use of the expanded postal services. The development of the post goes hand in hand with the development of secret offices dedicated to opening people’s letters, especially the letters of dissidents like Voltaire and Rousseau. Caplan devotes a chapter to the “Black Cabinets” which did the work of opening and reading letters and tries to assemble what is known about how (specifically in France) they worked. Many aspects of their operations remain unclear.

He focusses on the posts of Thurn and Taxis, France and Great Britain, noting in passing in the case of the latter how Queen Elizabeth the First opted to discourage the development of communication among her subjects, opposing herself to better roads and posts. He looks at how the posts were managed, how they were supervised, how work was divided between those who accepted and delivered letters and those who transported them from post to post – the horse relays which allowed the mails to speed along at a few kilometers per hour. He notes that it was the posts between big cities across the continent of Europe which developed first, the city and town posts for local correspondence - things like la petite poste in Paris and Dockwra in London - coming later. Governments were generally keen to preserve postal monopolies, even if they sold leases to operate services to “farmers”.

Caplan points out several features of the dominant practice of requiring the recipient to pay for a letter, not the sender. For example, it gave an incentive to these for-profit postal services to actually deliver the mail because only then did they get paid. I had never thought of that before! But for someone like Voltaire or Rousseau, receiving sackfuls of fan mail, the fact that the recipient paid for the fan mail was a financial disaster and both Voltaire and Rousseau ended up posting public notices that they would only accept mail from correspondents know to them. It didn’t solve the problem.

Caplan does not mention the interesting practice which allowed poor servant girls or apprentice boys living far from home to  send empty letters to their parents who would then refuse to pay for the letter, but would know from the fact of it being sent that their children were at least alive.

The postal service and letter writing develop in symbiotic relationship and, at first, being able to write to someone a long way away was as novel as was being able to telephone them or Skype them was at later dates. Caplan quotes very interesting passages from Madame de Sevigné which indicate how the development of a frequent and reliable letter service altered daily life, habits and expectations so that something like impatience became most clearly illustrated by the feeling one had waiting for a letter. An etiquette to letter-writing developed, even written out in Handbooks of how to do it, and covered such things as when to use a single sheet (what we now call entire letters) for both correspondence and address, and when to wrap the letter sheet in a separate sheet, the enveloppe.

Conventions developed about folding the paper and tucking in flaps. It was not until the 19th century that the technology for machine folding envelopes was perfected. Sealing was also an important matter and there was some obvious etiquette, like black seals for mourning letters. Interestingly, the spies who opened letters had to deal with the problem of repairing the broken wax seal and it occurred to me reading Caplan that we probably don’t look out for censor-repaired or replaced wax seals in the same way as we look out for other signs of later perlustration.

This is a book which will have considerable interest for collectors of pre-philatelic letters. Unfortunately, the 210 page paperback is priced at £60

J.Caplan, Postal Culture in Europe 1500 – 1800. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation 2016) ISSN 0435-2866

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Brexit Sale of My Stock

For the next two years, businesses like mine based in the UK will probably still have access to the European Union single market. After that, who knows.

I have decided to sell as much of my existing stock as I can and not to replace it during this 2017 - 2019 period. I hope to make most of my sales through European auctions in Finland and Germany. If by some miracle, the UK ends up still in the single market after March 2019, then I may start up in business again - I do have a stand booked at the London 2020 International Exhibition but, in the worst case scenario, a London show in 2020 might end up as accessible as a show in Pyongyang.

I will continue to supply with material for their Internet sales and for their Kaj Hellman auctions. I may also offer more material through

I will not take on new Approval clients during the 2017 - 2019 period. However, collectors and dealers who are already known to me are welcome to ask  if I have material that is of interest to them. 

UK-based dealers who are interested in buying  bulk cheap (under £5 per item) material and who are willing to come and take it away may like to know that I have a very big cupboard of such things and not just from my specialist areas ....

Monday, 27 March 2017

Wilfried Nagl

Wilfried Nagl, the well-known Russia specialist from Bamberg in Germany, has died at the age of 76. His funeral is on 27 3 2017. For many years, he produced auction catalogues to a very high standard with detailed descriptions of specialist material.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Early Bolshevik Russia 1917 - 1921 - Unsold Lots at Heinrich Koehler

The unsold lots from my Early Bolshevik Russia collection are now available at Heinrich Koehler. I have authorised sale at 20% below the Ausruf prices. Take a look! Some "White" mail at the end.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Something Is Always Missing: Podolia / Podilia 1917 -21

Something is always missing. If you try to reconstruct the postal history of a place or period, there will always be gaps. Only some archives have survived. Some got burnt, some got bombed, some fell into the hands of stamp dealers who soaked the stamps off. Sometimes, you end up with a very unrepresentative picture of what went on in the post offices of some place at some time.

I have accumulated material from the Podolia / Podilia government of Ukraine over many years. Most of the material is concentrated in the 1917 – 21 period. I have a lot of Money Transfer Forms and Parcel Cards, the things you most often see. My assumption is that when the government of the Ukrainian Republic moved into exile through Podilia, they took the post office archives with them. A great deal ended up in the well-documented collection of Eugene Vyrovyj before 1939. 

Then I have Registered letters addressed to Kamenetz Podolsk court which have appeared much more recently on the market. After that, there is very little in the collection.

Private correspondence is remarkably scarce. I don’t think this reflects a high level of illiteracy. I think it just means that during the Holodomor of the 1930s and the Holocaust of the second world war, a great deal was destroyed, sometimes simply burnt for fuel or used as cigarette paper.

Then there are the Remittances from the USA. Migrants to the USA, mostly Jewish, sent money back to Imperial Russia. The Advice cards for these money transfers are common, usually with the addresses for the Russo Asiatic Bank in Petrograd and M.I.Blitzstein and Co in Philadelphia. These cards can be found up to and including the period of the Provisional Government in 1917 but then they stop and do not resume until 1923/ 24 when the Russian Commercial Bank in Moscow now sends out the advice cards. Here it seems likely not that cards from the 1917 – 23 period were destroyed,but that there was no service available.

Railway cancellations in the 1917 – 21 period are rarities. In the 1918 period of Austro-German occupation, this may be explained by the use of railways for military purposes. After that, there was no period of stability in which railway post offices could resume normal service. But here was surely some railway post in the 1917 -21 period. But the most I can show is one General Issue stamp with a ZHMERINKA VOKSAL cancel for 30 10 18.

Podolia / Podilia had a large, literate Jewish population, living in the many small towns which cover the map of Podilia with dots. Their names can be found on Money Transfers and Parcel Cards. But as part of the general lack of personal correspondence, there is simply no surviving Jewish correspondence whether written in Yiddish or in a Roman or Cyrillic script which shows that it is written by someone more familiar with Hebrew script. But when you get into the 1920s, some Jewish correspondence re-appears, but not sent locally. It is mail going abroad to the USA or to Dr Brender in Berlin and so escaped whatever happened to local correspondence in the 1930s and 1940s.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Esperanto in early Bolshevik Russia

As would-be world revolutionaries, the early Bolsheviks were sympathetic to Esperanto. It provided a means of international communication before the hegemony of English was established. Since Esperanto is basically a Romance language with a Roman alphabet, Russians who used it were making a bigger effort than those they were writing to. In any case, as Leninism turned to Stalinism, Esperanto fell out of favour as did any kind of private international communication even through authorised channels. This can be seen for example, in the decline of Philatelic Exchange letters in the 1930s. Private individuals were simply too afraid to send them.

The card below caught my attention first because of its date. It was sent from Petrograd to Switzerland in May 1921 and arrived the same month - the receiver mark is on the picture side. So it was sent within the scarce 1920 - 21 period when foreign mail services had just re-started. They were all suspended in January 1919 and resumed in June 1920. It's a registered  postcard and as seems to be normally the case, it is franked at the registered letter rate of 10 roubles using a 10 kop stamp revlaued according to the March 1920 x 100 revaluations.

But then I looked at the Esperanto Star and Flag printed in pale ink on the card and realised that this is in fact an old Imperial formular card which has been recycled with these symbols on the address side and Zamenhof's picture on the correspondence side. All Imperial postal stationeries with a face value were invalidated on 1 January 1919 but continued in use as blanks, as did formulars without a face value.There were huge quantities available and the practice of overprinting them was common in the early Soviet period. The dealer Tarasoff did it in Archangel and the Soviet Philatelic Association did it in Moscow. You could probably make an interesting collection of all the different overprints, say from 1917 through to 1925 or so.

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I have taken the following from the Comments section below:

The sender of this card is of interest to me. S.N.Podkaminer (1901-1982) was an aircraft engineer by profession, He also worked as a college lecturer. As a Red Army volunteer he took part in the civil and Great Patriotic wars. Having learned Esperanto in 1920, the young Semyon Podkaminer immediately became active in the movement. He took part in the 3rd Russian Congress of Esperanto, at which the Soviet Esperanto Union (SEU) was founded, then he led their youth section, and was repeatedly elected as a member of the Central Committee of the SEU. In 1926 he was secretary of the 6th Congress of a left-wing body called SAT in Leningrad, when special stamps were published. When in the late 30's Stalin undertook purges against speakers of Esperanto, he was fortunate enough to avoid arrest, but was expelled from the Communist Party.

This card was sent when he was 20 years old and relatively new to the language. In it he appeals for people who want to correspond with him about political and other matters.

The original card was oprobably produced in 1912 on the 25th anniversary of Esperanto.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Women on Stamps: Armenia

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I am sure one of my readers can answer this question to which I don't know the answer:

When and where was the first stamp issued which showed a woman who was not a queen, princess, president or mythical figure? Maybe someone famous, maybe an ordinary person ...

And then maybe a second question:

When and where for a stamp showing a woman doing an ordinary job as on the stamp above?

In the United Kingdom, a woman who wasn't the Queen did not appear until 1968 when the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst appeared on a stamp. In contrast, Turkey had put suffragettes on stamps as far back as 1934, the year in which all Turkish women got the vote. The Soviet Union depicted a female worker and peasant in two of the designs for the 1929 definitive series - earlier definitives showed only male workers, soldiers and sailors (Correct?).

I like the Armenian stamp and think it's a pity it was never issued. It exists in both slate and red as do all the stamps in the series. But another value in the set was issued, with a surcharge and this shows a woman carrying water:

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The stamps are all from the 1921 Second Yessayan series printed by the Armenian firm of Yessayan (or Essayan) in what was still Constantinople. The stamps were ordered by the new Armenian Soviet government and the designer was Sarkis Khachaturian. Yessayan had fairly recently printed the Wrangel Refugee overprints and the Levant ship fantasies which did not stop him getting the Soviet order.

Part of the original printing of the Second Yessayan stamps was on a porous, yellowish paper rather than the usual white and non-porous paper. The 100r above is on the yellowish paper but both of the 1000r are on the normal white paper. The stamps on the yellowish paper are normally in an ink which is nearly black rather than grey and they are sometimes mistaken for proofs. All the reprints of the slate colour of this stamp are a paler grey and the red stamps a paler red, and only the forgery uses a yellowish paper - but then the paper is not porous and the yellow gum is laid on thick. The unissued 100r stamp above is really quite scarce but the issued stamps with surcharges are not so hard to find.

It would be interesting to know the source of Khachaturian's designs - he also has a shepherd boy, for example, and a train leaving Yerevan station (popular with Thematic collectors). Did he have photographs of the woman spinning and the woman carrying water? Or did he make a sketch? Note that the woman fetching water appears to be barefoot.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Guest Blog: Howard Weinert on Money Letters

Postal Rate Chronology for Russian Money Letters 1872-1917

Compiled by Howard L. Weinert

1 January 1872: A unit weight fee of 10 kopecks*, an insurance fee, and 5 kopecks for a receipt. The insurance fee was determined as follows: a) for a declared value of 1 ruble up to 100 rubles – 1 %, b) for a value above 100 rubles up to 400 rubles - ½ % plus 50 kopecks, c) for a value above 400 rubles up to 1600 rubles – ¼ % plus 1.5 rubles, d) for a value above 1600 rubles – 1/8 % plus 3.5 rubles. Values expressed in rubles and kopecks are rounded up to the next ruble before the insurance fee is calculated. A full kopeck is collected for any part of a kopeck. No postage stamps are used on money letters. *The weight fee for money letters sent abroad varied by destination.

20 March 1879: A new unit weight fee of 7 kopecks for all money letters. New insurance rates as follows: a) for a declared value of 1 ruble up to 600 rubles – ½ %, b) for a value above 600 rubles up to 1600 rubles – ¼ % plus 1.5 rubles, c) for a value above 1600 rubles – 1/8 % plus 3.5 rubles. Money letters now had to be registered for a fee of 7 kopecks, but the fee for the receipt was discontinued.

1 April 1889: For international money letters, the unit weight fee and the registration fee were both increased to 10 kopecks.

            1 June 1893: New international insurance rates: 3 kopecks for each 75 rubles of declared value for countries bordering Russia (Germany, Austria, Rumania, Turkey, Sweden, Norway), and 7 kopecks for all other countries.

            20 December 1898: New international insurance rates: for each 112.5 rubles of declared value - 4 kopecks for countries bordering Russia and 10 kopecks for all others, with a 4 kopeck supplement for sea transit.

            1 January 1903: New domestic insurance rates: a) for declared values up to 600 rubles - ¼ %, b) for a value above 600 rubles up to 1600 rubles, 1/8 % plus 75 kopecks, c) for a value above 1600 rubles - 1/16 % plus 1.75 rubles.

            1 July 1904: Henceforth, all money letter fees will be paid for with postage stamps.

            1 August 1904: Instead of clerks writing serial numbers by hand on money letters, a blue-bordered printed label will be affixed, showing the serial number and the post office name.

            1 January 1905: New domestic insurance rates: 10 kopecks for declared values up to 10 rubles, 25 kopecks for values above 10 rubles and up to 100 rubles. For values above 100 rubles, the rate was 25 kopecks plus 15 kopecks for each additional 100 rubles or part thereof. The fees for registration and sealing wax** were eliminated for domestic money letters.

            1 May 1909: New international insurance rates which varied on the destination – from 4 kopecks (Germany) to 22 kopecks (Somaliland) for each 112.5 rubles of declared value.

            21 September 1914: For domestic money letters, the unit weight fee and the registration fee were both increased to 10 kopecks.

            15 August 1917: New domestic insurance rates: 15 kopecks for declared values up to 10 rubles, 30 kopecks for values above 10 rubles and up to 100 rubles. For values above 100 rubles, the rate was 30 kopecks plus 30 kopecks for each additional 100 rubles or part thereof. These insurance rates remained unchanged until 28 February 1918 (new style).

**Each money letter has either official wax seals or those of the sender or some combination of both. The number can vary from two to six or more, but is usually five. The sender could use his own wax or purchase it from the post office. Based on empirical evidence, the cost of wax was one kopeck for five seals before May 1898, and 1 kopeck per seal after March 1901. The price change happened sometime between 1898 and 1901.

Below are some fine examples of Money Letters for the period 1876 - 1913, from Howard Weinert's Collection and with his descriptions. Thank you, Howard, for providing this very informative Blog - TP

1876 money letter enclosing 83 silver rubles sent from Bolkhovskoye to Constantinople for transmission to a Russian monastery on Mt. Athos in Turkey. The total postage was 1 ruble, 8 kopecks (20 kopecks for double-weight, 83 kopecks for the 1% insurance fee, and 5 kopecks for the receipt).

1885 money letter (stationery of the Imperial Russian Technical Society) enclosing 50 rubles (equivalent to 200 francs) sent from St. Petersburg to the director of the Berlin Trade School. The total postage was 46 kopecks (14 kopecks for double-weight, 25 kopecks for the ½% insurance fee, and 7 kopecks for registration).

1891 money letter enclosing 1060 rubles (equivalent to 4240 francs) sent from St. Petersburg to Vevey, Switzerland. The total postage was 4.65 rubles (40 kopecks for quadruple-weight, 4.15 rubles for the insurance fee [1.5 rubles plus ¼% of the insured value], and 10 kopecks for registration).

1896 money letter enclosing 5 rubles (equivalent to 20 francs) sent from Sochi to Berlin. Total postage was 24 kopecks (10 kopecks for weight, 3 kopecks for insurance, 10 kopecks for registration, and one kopeck for sealing wax).

1904 money letter enclosing 5 rubles sent from Vorontsovskoe-Aleksandrovskoe to Worms, Germany, then forwarded to Speyer. The total postage was 29 kopecks (10 kopecks for weight, 4 kopecks for insurance, 10 kopecks for registration, and 5 kopecks for sealing wax).

1905 money letter enclosing 100 rubles sent from the fieldpost office of the First Siberian Army Corps in Manchuria to Borga, Finland. Total postage was 39 kopecks (14 kopecks for double-weight and 25 kopecks for insurance).

1913 money letter enclosing 5 rubles (equivalent to 131/3 francs) sent by the Kiev provincial prison inspector to the Hachette publishing house in Paris. The total postage was 26 kopecks (10 kopecks for weight, 6 kopecks for insurance, and 10 kopecks for registration).

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Visit London Stampex while the Single Market lasts ...

Visa-tree travel, no Customs paperwork, some pointless queues at Border Control it's true. But until 2019 you will still be able to visit the UK as if it was a nearly-normal country. And enjoy a favourable Exchange Rate on your dollars or euros! (Advice: Most dealers will accept dollars and euros and accept them at the actual Bank rate of exchange, so don't lose money by buying sterling before you arrive). Maybe just as important: roaming charges on EU mobile phones brought into the UK will also stay regulated until 2019. 

London STAMPEX runs from 15 to 18 February 2017. Find my stand up in the gallery close to the very good cafe and restaurant. Full details at

I will be selling from my specialised stocks of Russia and related areas, Baltics, Finland, Transcaucasia, Ukraine. I also have stocks for Poland, Romania, Hungary, some Germany, and a very big stock of  Latin America. Other dealers offer GB and British Commonwealth and, really, All World. 

After 2019? I am glad I am not organising LONDON 2020. 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Imperial Russia: Official Mail and Free Frank Privileges

I guess that most countries had and still have special arrangements for charging official mail handled by public postal services rather than by official couriers. In Imperial Russia and then in Soviet Russia, there were three basic features of the arrangements:

1.Official correspondence sent as ordinary mail did not need to be franked; it had "Free Frank" privilege. Bur if the mail was Registered, then the registration fee had to be paid at the post office counter and postage stamps applied. The post office could be financially compensated by central government for carrying Free Frank mail, based on volume of mail and so on.

2. Free Frank privilege extended only to Inland mail. Foreign mail, ordinary or registered, had to be paid for and franked with stamps to cover the cost of the foreign part of the journey.

3. Free frank privilege was claimed by means of a Seal applied on the reverse of the item of mail and by means of a Registry number written at bottom left on the front of an item. Seals could be paper seals, wax seals or could be applied with a handstamp. The Registry book ensured accountability and was an anti-fraud measure.I don't think I have ever seen a Free Frank item charged Postage Due for improper use of the system.
The paper seals have from time to time been popular with  collectors and occasionally they have been passed off as official stamps. Early Zemstvo catalogues listed the pretty seals of Ananiev Zemstvo as Official Stamps and Agathon Faberge had a fine mint collection of them.

The Free Frank cover shown below has a Registry number on the front, "No. 403" - for some reason these numbers are always prefaced by Roman "No" rather than a Cyrillic equivalent. On the back there is a paper seal, fairly typical in being unreadable except for the key word "PAKETOV" which is always present on seals.

The interesting thing about this 1902 cover is where it is going. It starts off in MISHKIN YAROSL[AVL] with a 27 May strike on the front and a 28 May strike on the back.It transits in Odessa on 2 June and arrives at ROPIT AFON on 9 June.

Now Mount Athos was Ottoman Turkish territory but Free Frank privilege has worked all the way there, presumably because the cover has been handled throughout by Russian mail services. This was not always the case: ships from Odessa would drop off mail to Mont Athos in Constantinople and the ROPIT CONSTANTINOPLE office would pass them to the Ottoman post office for overland delivery. In this case, I guess that a ship dropped off mail at Mont Athos itself but I would need to do more research to insist that was the case.

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Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Collecting, Dealing, Investing in 2017

Happy New Year! Enjoy it now while it lasts.

As a dealer, I don't expect 2017 to be the year in which I finally make a lot of money. All the economic and political indicators are against that happening. So I will just try to enjoy doing things I enjoy doing and just try to keep my bank accounts positive. I say this even though I will be selling part of an Early Bolshevik Russia collection I have formed over a number of years in the Spring sale at Heinrich Koehler in Wiesbaden. If I don't sell it in the anniversary year 2017, when will I sell it?

I think that those who invest in stamps rarely - if ever - make money. Very few people seem able to beat the market, and if they do, it is more by luck than judgement. In this, they are no different to investment funds most of which fail to outperform the market - whatever their promises. When their fees are taken into account, they offer poor returns to private investors who thought that investment funds were Experts in something or other.

I once met someone who had collected over many years New Issues of the People's Republic of China from the beginning through the 1980s - in complete, mint sheets. He showed me them, housed in specially-made large format albums. I rather doubt that he had done this as an investment decision and as a collecting interest it seemed to me a bit limited. It was hardly more than an eccentric choice. But if in recent years he needed money - well, he would have been very nicely surprised I am sure. There would have been no nice surprise at all if instead he had collected complete mint sheets of Liechtenstein.

Very few collectors are able to say that their collection will sell for more than what they paid for it. The exceptions are those collectors who got interested in something fairly obscure and neglected, collected it seriously, and then have the luck that one day other people with a lot of money to spend suddenly become interested in those obscure and neglected things. In recent years, Dr Raymond Casey's collection of Russian Post Offices in China, sold by David Feldman in Geneva, is the stand-out example of a collection which made the collector a lot of money. But Dr Casey did not collect expecting that to happen; he collected what interested him and did it seriously and very knowledgeably.

Anyone who collects with the idea that one day they will sell - maybe sell just to start a new collection - should bear one thing in mind. It is really only likely that you will sell for more than you paid if you have collected items which can be offered as single lots in auctions where other collectors will buy them. Since the gap between what the buyer pays and the seller receives is around 30% - 35% you don't have much chance of making money except in a rising market - and  right now we don't have a rising market. The only way anyone is likely to bridge that gap is to have found underpriced items in dealers' boxes at stamp exhibitions - and to have done so regularly over many years.

That way of collecting has a low-budget variant. I am impressed by collectors who go through the Cheap Boxes which most dealers have and manage to build interesting collections around themes which not many people have thought about. You may then end up with a collection which is more valuable than the sum of its parts just because someone else can see the theme you have worked with and say Ah ha! That's interesting! You are then getting credit for your intelligence and knowledge which in this case has outperformed your budget.