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Friday 27 December 2019

Imperial Russian Money Letters to Mont Athos

Any collector of Imperial Russian postal history who has gone through dealer boxes will at some point have come across money letters from Russia to Mont Athos, one of the peninsulas south of Thessaloniki and at the time part of the Ottoman Empire. They will be dated between the early 1870s and the early 1900s, after which the postal money transfer (Perevod) method replaced them.

The money letters will be addressed to three possible destinations: the skete [monastery] of St Andrew (Andreeveski Sikt/Skete), the kellion [cell] of St John Chrystostomos [Kellio St. Ioanna Zlatousta], and perhaps less frequently to the skete of the Prophet Elijah [Ilinksi Sikt/skete]. These were all Russian Orthodox establishments, recently created with extensive support from the Imperial Russian government. It is unlikely that any money letters will be found addressed to the centuries-older Panteleimon Monastery, also Russian Orthodox. 

The reason is simple: the first three institutions closed in the 1960s and 1970s as the last monks died off. The Panteleimon still exists and in recent years has been restored and expanded with fairly massive support from the Russian government and Russian oligarchs. Mont Athos has been part of Greece since 1912-13 but still enjoys considerable autonomy; for example, it is exempt from EU free movement rules and if you want to visit you need a visa and to get a visa you need to be, at least, male. Access is by boat from Thessaloniki; there is no land route and that has always been the case. There is a small port (Daphne) and landing facilities at the Panteleimon monastery.

When the three other monasteries finally closed after decades of decline, monks from the senior monasteries on which they depended (The Greek Orthodox Vatopedi, the Serbian Hilandar) tried to raise funds by selling off secular archive material. Documents and objects of religious significance were removed to other monasteries, but secular papers were taken by the sackful or suitcase full to Thessaloniki and Athens. The task was not easy - there were no roads only paths on Athos, no electricity, and moving stuff around wasn’t easy. The monks eventually gave up on the project. Here is a link to photographs of the administrative offices of one of the three Russian institutions,  taken in the past five years by a visitor to Mont Athos. They show the remains of an archive in a room which is now open to both winds and rain; just keep scrolling down through the images

The money letters themselves look like this and I want to propose two theories about them.

Click on Images to Enlarge

First theory. The letters normally have a despatch cancel and a transit cancel of Odessa. The long and complicated addresses nearly always contain a routing “via Odessa”. But only in a very, very small number of cases is there an arrival mark. There was a Russian ROPIT post office on Athos, mail arrived in Russian ROPIT boats and given the nature of the letters, one would expect to see an arrival mark. So why is it normally missing?

 My theory is this. When the very numerous money letters arrived in Odessa, they were sorted according to their final destinations, of which there were in reality only four likely ones. So a bag would be created for St Andrew, another for St John, and so on. Then the bags would be sealed and would arrive sealed in Athos where the ROPIT post office would simply hand them over to monks from the monasteries whose job it was to collect their mail. The very small number of letters with ROPIT AFON arrival marks would have been those put in a late bag, unsorted, or put into it because they had unclear addresses. In addition, some may have been later handed back to the ROPIT office on Athos by monastery monks because they had been mis-sorted in Odessa.

The system of making up the bags in Odessa may help explain why the routing “via Odessa” appears to be obligatory. But there may be another reason:

Second theory: a lot of money got sent to Mont Athos in the sixty years from the 1840s to 1914. It was always accompanied by some kind of letter indicating what the money was for: prayers, candles, and so on. But on Athos itself the money was fairly useless. The monks had to import most of what they needed for both secular and religious purposes. They grew some food locally and had pharmacies, printing presses, candle making factories, and even photographic studios - but all the equipment and raw material had to be imported:  from Odessa, from Taganrog, from Kerch, from Constantinople. That generated a very large number of bills to be paid.

In the March 2020 Heinrich Koehler Wiesbaden auction, many hundreds of invoices addressed to Mont Athos will be included in the sale of a large collection of Athos material. How were those invoices paid? There are several possibilities: monks went down to the port of Daphne with a sack of money and paid the captain of the boat which was making a delivery; monks travelled to Odessa and so on with cash in a bag and went around paying bills; the monks sent money letters out from Mont Athos to all the firms to which they owed money. And so on.

There is another possibility. The money letters were opened in the Odessa post office and the money removed, under the supervision of local agents of the Athos monasteries. The money was then banked locally and bills were settled via the banking system or by monks who came to Odessa and  took money from the bank there and then went around paying bills. The amount of money removed was carefully noted and the money letter envelopes were sent on to Athos with the letters inside which indicated the uses for which the money was intended: the prayers and candles and so on. Other material in the Koehler auction indicates that the monasteries were involved in major use of the banking system in Odessa and Constantinople. Someone may be able to test my very speculative theory by piecing together the history. An obvious alternative theory would say that the money really did go to Athos and that monks there were then tasked with taking it off Athos to Odessa and Constantinople and banking it there for future use in paying bills.

Added 27 December 2019: Howard Weinert provides the following very interesting information:

 The following excerpt is from the official government newspaper Pravitelstvenny Vestnik.

Issue of 13 August 1894: According to the old ROPiT treaty of 1872, money and declared value packets addressed to Afon were opened at the Odessa post office, and the enclosed money was handed over to a ROPiT agent for transmission to Afon by ROPiT ship. The addressee had to pay a fee on delivery. According to the new ROPiT treaty effective 1 Sept. 1894, all fees will be collected when the mail is posted and no mail will be opened.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Review: Edward Klempka, Foreign Military Activity in the Russian Civil War 1917-1923

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This impressive 380 page, full colour book is jointly published by the auction house David Feldman (Geneva) and the British Society of Russian Philately. The well-known collector, Edward Klempka, illustrates material from more foreign forces  than most of us supposed existed. So we not only have the Americans and the British, the French and the Germans but also Italians and  Poles,  Turks and Yugoslavs. And ten more in addition.The profuse illustrations include many of rare and unexpected items. Any collector who is puzzled over an item which looks as if it might have to do with some foreign intervention in Russia could turn to this book and expect enlightenment.

The book has an ISBN and on the website of is priced at £50 plus postage. For more information follow the link:

Monday 12 August 2019

Ukraine Trident Overprints: Inverted Varieties

Most 1918 Ukraine Trident overprints were applied by hand. Machine printed Tridents were applied to make Kiev/Kyiv type 3 and Odessa/Odesa types 1, 2 and 3. Since Ukraine was a big country even in 1918 (population between 25 and 30 million) dozens of clerks were kept busy overprinting sheets of Imperial stamps. It must have been very boring, the boredom perhaps relieved by alcohol when it could be obtained or at least tea and tobacco.

But inverted overprints from handstamps are really very uncommon. This is surprising. I think there may be three explanations:

1.      If a clerk started overprinting with the handstamp held upside down, he (always he, I suspect) would probably notice and correct the error. It would require real carelessness to work through a whole sheet using the handstamp upside down. It’s true that in poor light, some stamps don’t obviously self-identify as the right way up, so if the sheet , not the handstamp, was upside down this might be missed. The pale yellow of 1 kopek is the most obvious example of a stamp which does not shout out when it is the wrong way up and it’s true that inverted overprints on the 1 kopek are generally more common than on other values.

2.      The work of individual clerks was supervised and checked. This may explain the use of “correcting handstamps” applied over poor examples of a trident overprint or onto stamps which had somehow missed an overprint. Correcting handstamps are found, for example, on stamps of Poltava.

3.      Dealers and speculators of the time no doubt wanted to have inverted overprints to sell at a premium. Asked for such varieties, postal officials may not have been as co-operative as they sometimes are. The Trident was a symbol of new independence and national pride. To apply it upside down at this early stage of a political revolution may have been thought disloyal or, at least, lacking in seriousness. In contrast, varying the colour of the ink may have been more acceptable. So-called Svenson varieties on things like Kiev 2gg are ink varieties; inverted overprints are still not common on these varieties. Only for Odessa/Odesa ( a very Russian city) do you get lots of inverted overprints, clearly made to order. In addition, it may be that handstamps were taken away from post office premises and used by dealers like Trachtenberg who did their own work and created their own varieties.

Catalogue listings of the inverted overprints are not systematic. Dr Seichter tends to give a general guide, suggesting premiums on the normal valuation. Bulat lists some inverts but not others, as I was reminded when I looked up this little group of Kharkov/Kharkiv I. Bulat lists several values with inverted overprints but not this one, even though these postally-used stamps (ex the Schmidt collection) have very old UPV guarantee marks. It seems likely that they are all from the same sheet and with cancellations of what I read as BOGODUKHOV KHARK - now the small Ukrainian town of Bohodukhiv. 

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:

Thursday 18 July 2019

A Rarity from 1923 Georgia

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Most collectors have the experience of never seeing a stamp which is listed in the catalogue they are using - not a RRRR stamp but a stamp which might be catalogued at 1 or 10  or 20 or 100. Sometimes, the problem is simply a typographical error in the catalogue - it says 3 cents red but should say 5 cents red. Sometimes, it is because of some unreliable information the catalogue editor was given either by a collector or a speculator. This is why editors of the better catalogues insist on seeing any stamp before they list it.

Over the years, I have handled thousands of stamps of Georgia for the period 1919 - 1923. They are well-studied and not very complex, except for some of the handstamp surcharges. But I had never seen one particular stamp, listed in the main catalogues: the 1923 machine overprint with Soviet arms and numeral of value, 300 000 on 20 kopek Imperial Arms perforated, but the overprint in blue instead of black. I did look carefully - blue and black are sometimes hard to distinguish on a blue stamp and maybe my eyes aren’t so good now.  I never found a blue overprint.

Then last week I was viewing the Dr Hans Grigoleit collection of Transcaucasia and there it was. Not only the stamp but on cover. The stamp exists and is not some philatelic variety - here are two copies on a clearly commercial cover from Suram / Surami to Tiflis / Tbilisi with a manuscript Registration cachet and a Tiflis / Tbilisi receiver (Ashford type 15). The letter is addressed in Georgian script and both despatch and arrival cancels are in Georgian, but the registration cachet has been written in Cyrillic as SURAM - the Georgian name is Surami.

So if you don’t have the blue overprint variety in your collection, keep on looking. It exists. As for this cover, it will be included in the Heinrich Koehler auction of Dr Grigoleit’s collection in September 2019. (I am grateful to Heinrich Koehler for letting me preview it here)

To view Lots in the September 2019 Koehler auction, it is easiest to view by country at

Friday 28 June 2019

Salvage Philately 3: Problems with Roulettes

There is a good rule to follow when collecting rouletted stamps: Don’t

I apologise to collectors of classic Finland, but I am sure they will understand why I say that. Rouletting, whether of the fancy Finnish kind or the regular straight cut kind, may be all right for raffle tickets, cloakroom tickets, printed on thin paper without gum and where only rough separation is needed. But for small size stamps on paper thickened by gum, rouletting does not work.

Here are some of the problems we have inherited:

1.      Post office clerks who tried and failed to separate rouletted stamps cleanly often gave up and started to use scissors. Many classic rouletted issues were supposed to be an improvement on previous imperforate stamps, but the clerks decided otherwise. This creates confusion now because some rouletted stamps will look like imperforate ones thanks to what the clerks did at the time.

2.      Collectors in the past thought that the rouletted stamps they were soaking off covers looked untidy, so they tidied them up by trimming off the roulettes. Where scarce imperforate versions of the rouletted stamps existed, they sometimes cut down a rouletted stamp to produce a spacefiller and a fake imperforate. Dealers also did this and the result now is that the world is full of faked imperforate stamps which were originally rouletted stamps.

3.      Though catalogues confidently give spacing sizes for roulettes ( roul 8,roul 11, and so on), it is very hard to measure roulettes unless you have a multiple which makes things easier. Indeed, if you insist on collecting roulettes, my suggestion is that you collect multiples.

South Australia is notorious for both poorly perforated and poorly rouletted stamps. It would seem that the workers who did the job had access to unlimited quantities of rum. The work was so unsatisfactory that some rouletted stamps were subsequently perforated in order to try to get a better result. Badly perforated sheets were also removed from post office stocks for overprinting to make what are known as "Departmentals", an interesting group of stamps used on Official mail.

Between 1855 and 1868, the first design for South Australian stamps appeared imperforate, rouletted, perforated, perforated over roulette, and perforated x rouletted. So a serious collector has to try to illustrate all these possibilities, as well as shades. Fortunately the watermark remains constant.

Take a look at this group of 2d stamps in a variety of shades. All  have traces of roulettes even the one which looks as if it has been seriously cut down. But then ask, Which copies here are good examples of South Australian rouletting? Some are clearly better than others but compared to the kind of clarity which perforation usually permits, none of these stand out as just what a collector needs …

Most of the stamps here are almost certainly SG 25 and 26 and so have a catalogue value of only two or three pounds each. For purposes of writing this Blog post, I have washed them but would not otherwise have bothered.

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Salvage Philately 2: Stamp or Cover? That Is The Question ...

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Unless the UK descends into complete chaos or the grim reaper decides that my time is up,  I will be at the LONDON 2020 international stamp exhibition in May 2020. I have booked two stands: on one, I will sit with my specialist stocks; on the other, I will try to sell off all the bin ends, bits and pieces, mistakes, and so on from my time as a dealer. There will be just two prices on this second stand: £5 and £2, and the aim is to offer good value for those prices.

As a dealer, I try to use my time well but like many dealers I fail. The simple pricing system - either it goes in a £5 box or into a £2 box - does save time, but only if I don’t think too much about what I am doing. In relation to stamps, it most definitely does not make sense to check perforations or watermarks or even postmarks unless they are very obviously significant. Nor does it make sense to clean up used stamps by soaking off old hinges and so on.

Collectors have a different set of problems. Take a look at the fragment of a cover illustrated above. It actually shows a lot of information of interest to a postal historian: (1) dated Sydney despatch cancel for 27 March 1868; (2) dated London arrival marks for 21 May 1868, as a result of which we know the total journey time taken by what was this letter; (3) a one shilling stamp which could have been the entire franking - I don’t know what the tariff was but a specialist will and will thus know if the franking is still complete.


The fragment - though it is without pencil notes or hinges - has been badly affected by water and quite possibly by water which was not very clean when it encountered the cover. The stamp has been affected.

A stamp collector might look at this fragment and decide to wash the stamp off . There will be no hinges on the back of the stamp, no thins, and when thoroughly washed the overall appearance might be really quite good and it will be easier to verify which stamp is actually on this piece. I measure the perforations at 13 and so the stamp is either SG 168 (rose-carmine, cat £8) or 169 (carmine, cat £8.50).

Well, at those values it is hardly worth the effort - you could buy a better looking loose stamp from a dealer for half cat. or less.


My decision as a dealer is to leave the stamp on the piece and put the piece in my £5 box without comment. If it doesn’t sell there, then in due course it can go down to the £2 box. Of course, I  made the decision in two seconds - and before I started to study the fragment to write this Blog post.

Oh, and I forgot something: for the social philatelist there is a lot more information on this fragment: “…Woodward Esq    8 Parliament St     London” is enough to Google with even if you have to play around a bit to get results (there are results).

Friday 7 June 2019

Social Philately

All museums and all collecting hobbies started out by removing things from their context. I can’t think of an exception. This was very evident in early “cabinets of curiosities” which were no more than magpie hoards of this, that and the other. Likewise, the Vatican drawers, created for the purpose, were full of the detached relics of saints but contained no actual saints.

When stamps were introduced in 1840, it was the job of post office clerks to remove them from the sheets - which provided their initial context - so that they could be stuck onto envelopes. Early collectors promptly removed them from this context of use, the envelopes onto which they were stuck. Only later did collectors begin to show an interest in sheets (to which were later added booklets and coils) and an interest in covers, out of which has developed the hobby of postal history collecting.

What is now called “Social philately” is simply an expansion of the context into which collectors place their stamps or covers and it has been greatly enabled by the ability we all now have to google something, to find out who wrote a card, who was the addressee, what a town was like one hundred years ago, and so on. Likewise, serious stamp collectors have long been interested in stamp printers, the machinery they used, the inks they sourced, the ways in which they marketed their services, the scams in which they were involved.

 In these ways, stamps and covers are placed in an ever enlarged context of social and economic relations. But “Social philately” is really a matter of degree rather than of type. Anyone who ever googles to find out who wrote or received a letter is engaged in social philately, even if it is not the main focus of their interest. On this Blog, see this post as an example of what might be involved:

The potential of  social philately is well-illustrated by the collection held by Boston University where Professor Thomas Glick amassed several thousand stationery cards from the archives of a pre - 1914 Romanian grain dealer. The cards allowed the way in which business was done to be reconstructed from the written texts on the cards and the places from which they were despatched. They also show a business being conducted in two languages, Romanian and Yiddish. 

Many other correspondences exist which were originally in commercial, family or state archives and which allow similar reconstruction projects to be undertaken, though often the archives are quickly dispersed before anyone has the chance to buy them up intact. Similarly, printers’ archives have been broken up and individual items often command prices which make any thought of reconstructing the whole archive unrealistic. But it is entirely possible to reconstruct from a limited set of examples how, for example,  a nineteenth century stamp printer worked.

Thursday 2 May 2019

Salvage Philately

Recently, I attended a provincial auction which specialises in putting into boxes the collections of dead collectors and offering them at a low price, leaving it to those who look through the box to work out its value to them. If the auction house sells a box for fifty or a hundred pounds then that’s a good enough result.

Many of these boxes do not contain collections in the usual sense; they are hoards accumulated often over many years with no system, no attempt at conservation, and so on. Most are almost worthless.

Every day since that day in May 1840 when the Penny Black went on sale, the world supply of mint and used postage stamps (and covers and cards - but I will use “postage stamps” as a general term) which are potentially available to collectors has increased EVERY DAY. Wars, floods, fires, and despatch to the municipal rubbish dump have never done much to slow the growth in supply. Even now, with so much mail being sent electronically, there are around 200 postal administrations in the world producing stamps and selling them every day, though a significant proportion of those administrations do not expect more than a tiny percentage to be used for sending mail. What percentage of  stamps issued by Pitcairn Island get to be postally used?

There may have been a time when there were enough dealers and collectors to handle the quantity of material available and the daily additions to it. That is no longer true and may have ceased to be true well before 1900. There is now a very, very large inventory of stamps which are not being collected in the ordinary sense, just moved in bulk from one temporary holder to the next. Think of old bundleware which was tied with cotton thread into bundles maybe one hundred years ago and which comes to auction still unopened. 

These stamps are a bit like the water in bottled water. The water costs nothing; the bottling, the transport and the selling costs money. Buy in sufficient bulk and the cost to you of a stamp drops to some tiny fraction of a cent - maybe there is a world record; maybe someone somewhere has already bought 5 000 000 stamps for something like 0.000001 per stamp.

In my view, all this creates the possibility for a very interesting hobby which I will call Salvage Philately. Salvage philately is about going through these vast inventories and picking out things worth having - rare classic stamps in really, really bad condition but which will look a bit better if they are washed; very unpleasant looking covers from which a stamp worth having can be soaked off; pre 1914 multiples of MNH ** stamps which have somehow survived in dead stocks and which can be used to upgrade spaces in old printed albums; occasional postmark interest stamps which have never been noticed.

Traditionally, all this has been called Things To Do on a winter evening. But salvage philately is really a hobby in its own right.

Tuesday 9 April 2019

The Mathematics of Rarity Pricing.

This is a post for those who are better at mathematics than I am. I am just going to set out the basic idea which explains rarity pricing.

Suppose that country A (now dead) issued 100 stamps. Ninety nine of these are very common (millions of them) and can be bought for one peso each in any currency. But one is very, very rare - only a few dozen are believed to exist.

Suppose there are 1000 collectors of this dead country. Most are prepared to budget 1000 pesos to form a collection and they are very happy to find that they can achieve 99% completion for just 99 pesos. A few are prepared to budget more than 1000 pesos. All would like to have the 100th stamp which will complete the collection and most will bid in auction when one of these rare stamps appears. The sale price will be determined by those with bigger budgets and of one thing you can be sure: it will exceed 901 pesos which is how much most collectors are prepared to budget to complete a collection of country A.

Now turn to country B (also dead) which also issued 100 stamps. Of these 50 are very common (millions of them) and can be bought for one peso each in any currency. But fifty are very, very rare - only a few dozen of each are believed to exist.

There are also 1000 collectors for this dead country and most are prepared to budget 1000 pesos and a few prepared to budget more.

Now everyone can achieve 50% completion for 50 pesos, leaving a minimum of 950 pesos in their budgets. But what should they do when one of the rare stamps appears at auction? How much of their remaining budget should they allocate to one stamp when they know that there are 49 more just as scarce and still to be bought? It is more than likely that they will bid low because a different rare stamp might appear next week. Probably they will bid more than the baseline average of 19 pesos which they would be able to pay for the missing 50 stamps and still stay within budget (19 x 50 = 950). However, there are also the guys with the bigger budgets. But they will have to make a similar calculation:  what is my budget for the remaining 50 stamps and how much of it would I risk on just one rare stamp now knowing a different one will come up next week. 

What is probable is that they will risk less than the 901 pesos which provided a clear rarity baseline figure for country A collectors.

In other words, if someone aims to collect a series in which there are rare stamps to be found, the greater the number of rarities in the series the lower the price which each, on average, will command - just because collectors are trying to stay within a budget, however notional and flexible it may be. The absolute rarity (in terms of numbers) of the stamp is not the critical issue; nor is it entirely a question of how popular a collecting area is.

So it is that rarities of Russian Civil War philately - from Armenia and Ukraine, for example, sell for small sums. There are just so many rarities and you can’t have them all if you spend all your money on one!

Sunday 7 April 2019

Could You Make a Living from Stamp Dealing?

Could you make a living from stamp dealing? 

I will start by supposing that you are modest and that a “living” is as little as £25000 per year, before tax. That’s 30 000 euro or 32 500 USD. To achieve that you will probably need to achieve sales (turnover) of the order of £100 000 (120000 euro, 130000 USD). I arrive at that figure by assuming that you achieve a 100% gross mark-up on sales, so that you get back £100000 on stock which cost you £50000. But there are costs to running a business. There are the costs of acquiring stock - travelling to auctions, visiting the homes of dead collectors, etc. There are the costs of selling it - taking tables at fairs, running a shop (forget it!), advertising, paying commissions on sales on ebay or at auction, travel and hotel costs, postage and stationery - I include postage and packing costs within the gross turnover. There are the more or less fixed overhead costs of websites, telephones, office space, an accountant to sort out VAT and digital tax returns, insurance if you are so inclined. In my experience, it will be impossible to get all those costs below about a quarter of turnover, so £25000 - which then leaves the £25000 pre-tax profit I set as the lower threshold.

So if your working year extends to 50 weeks, you have to sell, on average, £2000 worth of material each week, every week. If you work a 40 hour work, then you need to be selling £400 every day, £50 every hour of your working week. How is that possible? Leave aside for the moment working 60 hours each week…. working 40 hours, you are earning for your time and effort the grand sum of £12.50 per hour, before tax. It's easy to reduce that hourly rate, harder to increase it.

In the UK there are dealers who travel around the country attending small stamp fairs. Table costs are often low (£25 - £100) but so is turnover - £500 might be acceptable to someone with a small stock and the cheapest table; a bigger table and £1000 would be rather better but still implies two fairs each week, every week - and an awful lot of travelling and bad food.

An online shop would need to show a very big range online to turn over £2000 each week, which is why most online shops offer more expensive material to cut down the number of transactions needed to achieve the sales target.

Buying in bulk and breaking down for resale at auction is another possibility but requires enough capital to contemplate large purchases and confidence that they can be profitably broken down, one way or another.

And so on. I think you will get the picture; it’s not going to be easy to make a living from stamp dealing even if your “living” is as little as £25000. 

I am lucky that I started up as a full-time stamp dealer when I already had a pension from past employment. When I got to 65 and added to that a state pension, I took the opportunity to reduce the scale of my business. In the UK, there is a very high registration threshold for VAT - currently with turnover under £85000, your business is exempt from VAT; you neither claim it back or pay it. So I scaled back to under the threshold (which, remarkably, has gone up every year since I scaled back). 

It does mean that I cannot make a “living” from what I now do, but I don’t have to. But I still work long hours to achieve the turnover I aim at.

The stimulus to writing this Blog post was the fact that the UK tax year has just ended - it runs from April to March, not January to December - and I have just assembled my draft calculations to pass to the accountant who does the fine tuning which tells me in due course how much net profit I have made and how much tax I will have to pay on it. I already know that it wouldn't be enough to live on.

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Stamps Expertisation: Past and Present

In the past, dealers and experts guaranteed stamps by signing them on the reverse, sometimes by hand and sometimes with a handstamp. 
This method had a number of disadvantages.
 First, it was unclear what the signature was meant to claim. 
Second, it was open to abuse: you could get an expert to sign a relatively common stamp and then you could later add a rare overprint and point to the signature as a guarantee. To try to stop this abuse, experts sometimes signed twice when given an overprinted stamp - once for the stamp, once for the overprint. 
Third, handstamp ink often penetrated to the front of the stamp, causing an immediate reduction in value. 
Fourth, over time collectors forgot who the experts were especially when they signed with initials or a symbol. 
Fifth, when someone got it wrong, the mark on the back either had to be crossed out or otherwise commented upon. I have several stamps in my stock where an expert has written FAKE or FORGERY or FALSCH and has later changed their mind and crossed it out and signed again. These stamps are not saleable.

Modern photographic, scanning and computer print technology allows a much better way of doing things. At no great cost, an expert can now link a stamp to a printed document and not sign the stamp at all. This is now standard procedure for most experts, including anyone who is a Verbandspruefer of the German Bund Philatelisticher Pruefer e. V. Here’s an example. 

Note how both the back and front of the stamp are photographed, in high resolution, and how the “Attest” format allows for comment and explanation. Even twenty years ago, to produce a document to this standard would have been quite expensive; nowadays, a desktop computer and scanner are all that is needed apart from the security-printed “Attest” formular.

Click on Images to Magnify

Monday 28 January 2019

New Catalog: Joseph Geyfman, Specialized Catalog Local Stamps, Provisionals, 1918 -1922; 1931

This is a very impressive catalog. With 450 high-gloss full-colour pages it makes full use of the possibilities provided by modern print technologies to organise a reasoned listing of very difficult stamps, clear and detailed enough to make it possible for even non--specialists to see what they should be looking for in Russian local stamps, by which is most often meant the Postmaster Provisionals of 1920 - 22. Cross-listings at the end make it possible for the user to start from the stamp rather than an overprint, from the ink colour of the overprint, as well as from the precise form of the overprint, for example p 1 p (which, incidentally, yields a unique result). The author is cautious in his assessments and if he is not convinced that a supposed local type  is genuine, even though others have listed it, then he indicates this with a ? or ??

What more can one ask for? I think there would be little point in illustrating the numerous forgeries produced with a child’s printing outfit, mostly on mint stamps - which simply don’t exist for the majority of provisional issues. The important thing is to study what the genuine items look like and what kinds of cancellations they should show. The catalog allows us to do both those things. I did think that the author could have mentioned the small number of signatures which are reliable on 1920 provisionals. My own list would include Dr Jem, Krynine, Mikulski, Pohl, Vinner. But “reliable” here does not mean 100% reliable. 

The only provisional I don’t find here but would have included is the use of the 20 / 14 kop Romanov in Tomsk guberniya, revalued x 100 in 1920 and put into use on Money Transfers and Parcel Cards well after the invalidation of Romanov stamps. I believe that this use would have required local authorisation; a counter clerk would not have taken the initiative to use an invalid Romanov at this late date.

I have blogged several times about the 1920 provisionals - 9 December 2010, 10 Feb 2011, 8 March 2011, 18 August 2014, 17 November 2014, 18 November 2014, 4 June 2017.

My main belief is that we only have Postmaster Provisionals / Local postmaster stamps to collect because the early Soviet Philatelic Association was alert enough and powerful enough to obtain the relevant post office archived money transfers and parcel cards for 1920. I think they started with many thousands of items and studied them fairly carefully. It would be interesting to know exactly who was involved in the work (Krynine? Vinner? …) and how the material was then marketed. Apart from Michel Lipschutz, who else before, say, the 1950s, formed large collections of this material?

Monday 14 January 2019

New Book: Tobie Mathew, Greetings from the Barricades

Click on Image to Magnify

This extraordinary hardback book has 478 pages which include several hundred full-colour illustrations as well as a long, detailed text. The focus is on the years 1905 - 1906.

The UK publisher, Four Corners Books, has given it a cover price of £20 which looks like a mistake for £200 but isn't. It really is £20. Buy it while stocks last (ISBN 978 1 909829 12 1). It's available  direct from the publisher  which may be the cheapest and most reliable method of obtaining it:

The author is a UK-based writer who was previously an Associated Press correspondent in Moscow. Much of the archival work for this project was undertaken in Russia.

Review to follow ...