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Sunday 25 March 2018

Former Soviet Union: Postmaster Provisionals of the 1990s.

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A lot of work has been done on the Postmaster Provisionals which appeared across the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. I have not tried to keep up with this work. For me, there is just one central question which has to be answered about each supposed issue:

If you [meaning anyone] walked into your local post office to send a letter, would the post office clerk  use (or sell you) a stamp of that issue?

It does not matter if the idea for the issue had come from a local collector or printer. It does not matter if 50% of the issue had been allocated to that person to sell abroad. It does not matter that money may have changed hands. All that matters is that an ordinary person who wanted to send a letter would be sold the stamps in question at the post office counter.

On this test, there are many issues which clearly Pass including ones which look incredibly philatelic like the Fauna issues of Bukovina. Those stamps can be found all over private and commercial mail going abroad. At the same time, a small group of people were busy selling them to dealers and collectors outside Ukraine, an improvised Bukovina philatelic bureau if you like. That's irrelevant. Anyone would be sold these stamps when they went to post a letter. That's all that matters.

A genuine post office cancel on a stamp is not a guarantee that the stamp was on sale at the post office. It’s clear that you could walk into a post office with a hundred or a thousand covers franked with your home-made fantasy and pay a clerk to cancel them all. Similarly, it is quite clear that when and where conditions were chaotic, you could put any stamp you liked onto an ordinary letter which went into a mail box and got machine cancelled. You could put on a stamp of Equatorial Guinea if it took your fancy. In most cases, no one was checking the mail and applying Postage Due. That is what "chaotic conditions" means.

For this and other reasons, forensic examination of covers can only take us so far. What we really need in every case is an (honest) account by a participant of what happened. I don’t mean one of those official-looking documents which solemnly record Numbers Issued and so on. I mean a collector or a printer or a postmaster simply telling the story: This is what we did. Only in this way are we ever going to make sense of items like the one at the top of this Blog which has a machine cancel of Nizhni-Tagil (out in the Urals) for 29 12 92. I have no doubt the machine cancel is genuine and that it is over the OPLACHENO  and the 60, but what is the status of those? Someone has to tell us! (Maybe they have and if you know the story, please tell it here).

It’s long enough ago for no one really to mind that it was sometimes all a scam or done in breach of regulations or despite warnings from higher up not to do it.

Back in the 1990s, when I got sent all kinds of strange stamps, I would sometimes stick copies on a blank Soviet-era envelope, add my address, send it off to wherever (say, Birobidjan) with a polite note asking the local postmaster to send back the cover. Sometimes it did come back, through the post, but then I realised it still didn't solve my problem. Maybe life was boring in Birobidjan and it just made the day a bit more interesting when you got a letter from England and an envelope inside which was plastered with labels you had never seen before. No harm in being friendly and sending it back as the tovarisch requested.

Sunday 18 March 2018

Wanted: An Expert on Green Crayon Used in Constantinople 1920

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In previous Blogs, I have written about the (White) Russian Post in Constantinople which existed before the evacuation of Crimea at the end of 1920 and which facilitated the delivery and onward despatch of mail from White controlled south Russia and Ukraine which came to Constantinople from the Black Sea ports. This Russian Post was clearly facilitated by the Allies who had Occupation forces in Turkey after the end of World War One. This Russian Post was the basis of the idea for a Refugee Post which never, however, translated into a real postal service.

The opened out cover above is addressed to Alexander Sredinsky [his name spelt wrongly on the cover] who was Postmaster both of the Russian Post and later the would-be Refugee Post. The letter started out in BELGRADE  3 XII 20, arrived in Turksih GALATA 14 1 21, and was sent on to Turkish HALKI. All this information is on the reverse.

It was common at this period for postal officials to clarify an address by underlining the important bit in crayon. For example, on mail from Russia to Germany and German-controlled areas in 1918, officials used blue crayon to underline town names. This blue crayon was probably applied in the Koenigsberg transit office.

On this cover, the destination “Ile de Halki” has been underlined in green crayon, just the kind of thing a Galata arrival office clerk would have done faced with a messy address. It’s enough to get the letter into the bag destined for Halki. But in the same green crayon, there is written “POSTE RUSSE”.

Now the interesting question is this: Did a Turkish clerk in Galata use this green crayon, adding the words “POSTE RUSSE” to clarify the destination still more, or did Sredinsky enhance the cover by doing the green crayon work himself? In the same way, it would have been Sredinsky who applied the 16 JAN 1921 KHALKI  receiver cancellation of the RUSSKAYAR POCHTA – normally associated with Refugee Post covers.

The letter is non-philatelic and simply an item of personal mail addressed to Sredinsky who enhanced it with the Russian Post cancel of Khalki. But maybe the green crayon is Turkish and shows that postal officials were aware of who Sredinsky was and what he was doing.

So: does anyone have clearly Turkish green crayon from 1920?

Moscow Police fiscal stamps of 1861

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Above is an old Xerox copy of a page from the Emile Marcovich collection of Russian fiscal stamps. It shows the 1861 Moscow Police issue. I have copies of all the stamps except the last, perforated, one and I have never seen an example of the perforated stamp.

The problem with a stamp like this is the possibility that someone has created a variety by perforating an imperforate stamp. True, the perforation is high quality. On the other hand, did Moscow police in the 1860s or even after have access to good perforating machines? And if Moscow perforated , why did St Petersburg not do so for the equivalent 1860 issue of police stamps?

In the absence of archive documentation, to establish the credentials of a stamp like this we really need to see an example used on a dated fragment of a document – we know what the documents should look like because plenty exist. We also need to see more examples of the stamp itself. Any offers?

Saturday 3 March 2018

The Aesthetics of Album Pages

A popular way of collecting is to devote one album page to each stamp issued by some postal authority. At the top of the page, you put an example of the mint stamp and underneath you put a card or cover showing postal use, perhaps as a single franking. Then you provide the necessary written description.

There are two problems with this approach. In many cases, either the mint stamp or the postal item will be very hard to find and very expensive if and when you do find it. So if you are collecting Central Lithuania, it is easy to create a set of pages with an example of each stamp issued at the top. But the postal items? They are scarce and I actually doubt that they exist for some stamps supposedly issued. You will find CTO stamps but even loose postally used ones will be rare or non-existent. So you will end up with a lot of more or less blank album pages.

There is a second problem. If you put a single mint stamp above a nice cover, your page will look unbalanced. Aesthetically, you could improve it by showing a mint multiple rather than a single stamp – maybe a corner block or plate block; or for lithographed stamps, a transfer block. If the transfer block is quite small, as it is for Batum Tree stamps, then you may be able to make rapid progress.

But like Central Lithuania covers, mint multiples are not always easy to find and in some cases probably don’t exist. If you are collecting Imperial Russia, you can buy for four figures a copy of #1 on cover. But, I am afraid I have to tell you, you can forget about a mint block of four.

If I was starting out again as a dealer, I would be tempted to specialise as follows: I would buy old dealer stocks which included mint multiples and part sheets which had never got separated into single stamps. And I would try to create a stock of small blocks, strips and so on for stamps issued say before 1940. They would be MNH** with full gum. As time passes, it will be harder and harder to find those old dealer stocks but even twenty years ago I could have made a lot of progress.