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Saturday, 25 January 2020
I can’t think of a novel in which a philatelist appears as a positive character, and certainly not a brave one. If you can think of any, please let me know by sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
When I started stamp dealing in the 1990s, one of the first dealers I met was Zbigniew Bokiewicz who had a shop in London’s Strand, directly opposite Stanley Gibbons in what was called The Strand Stamp Centre. He was born in Warsaw in 1923, so he was around seventy when I met him, very white haired. He was happy to talk but was always very modest and quiet in his manner.
Later, after he stopped trading in the Strand, I visited him at his home in Chiswick, met his wife, and bought material from his stock which he was now selling off. Later still, he used to come to what was called the Strand Stamp Fair, which was held monthly but no longer in the Strand - by then it had moved to a hotel just off Russell Square. He continued to sell me small quantities of material which he brought to the stamp fair in a small, battered briefcase. By this time, he had bought an apartment in Warsaw; eventually he moved back to the city where he was born. On one of the last occasions when I met him he showed me a photograph, recently taken, in which he was receiving an award from the Polish president. He died in 2016.
In 1939, Mr Bokiewicz (as he was always called) was a sixteen year old schoolboy and boy scout. His academically prestigious school was shut down early in the period of German occupation (Poles were to be limited to primary and technical schooling) and Bokiewicz turned to black market dealing and then, with friends, opened a stamp shop in Warsaw.
At the same time as he ran the stamp shop, he was a member of the Polish Home Army, received military training, used the stamp shop as a contact point, and by the time of the Warsaw Uprising had officer status which meant that when captured, he was sent to an officer prisoner of war camp, Oflag VIIA - Murnau. By the time the camp was liberated by American forces, Bokiewciz’s weight had dropped to 42 kilos. But he went on to join the army of General Anders and was sent to fight in Italy. At the end of the war, he was able to make his home in England. His knowledge of languages (Polish, German, Italian, French) helped him get a job with Thomas Cook, the travel agents, but in due course he established Continental Stamp Supplies Ltd.
If you Google “Zbigniew Bokiewicz” you will find many records of interviews that he gave late in life in both Polish and English. There are video recordings, a sound recording for the Imperial War Museum but very late in his life (2014) and less informative than the interviews transcribed into various books, for example this one which appears unabridged on Google:
Every year in Italy since 1989, a marathon takes place in honour of Giulio Bolaffi (1902- 1987). But it is not because he was an internationally famous philatelist. The marathon follows a path in the Valle de Susa, east of Torino and close to the French border. The path was once used by Italian partisans in the Second World War who belonged to division IV GL, the Stellina, commanded by Bolaffi. Stellina eventually grew to number six hundred partisans (partigiani) and Bolaffi led them until June 1945, when he returned to civilian life. The website of today’s Bolaffi company shows Giulio in partisan uniform:
Bolaffi was Jewish. Confronted by Italian racial laws which progressively limited the activities of Jewish businesses, Giulio’s brothers Dante and Roberto emigrated. Giulio stayed and left his family behind to join the resistance. His wife died in 1943 during his absence but his children Stella (hence Stellina) and Alberto (named after Giulio’s father) survived the war.
There is a summary of Giulio Bolaffi’s career on Wikipedia. Notably, Bolaffi kept nine war diaries and these have been published in a 500 page book:
(Acknowledgement: For research assistance with Bolaffi's career, I am grateful to Giada Santana)
Sunday, 12 January 2020
This is a continuation of the Blog post of 27 December 2019
I illustrate here two Free Frank letters sent from Russia to Mont Athos. They require explanation, not least because they are going outside the territory of Imperial Russia into the territory of the Ottoman Empire, though a part which enjoyed internal administrative autonomy. Nonetheless, there was an international frontier at the port of Daphne, the harbour of Mont Athos , and it was under Ottoman control until 1912-13 when control passed to Greece.
Free Frank privileges are common enough and have always been subject to abuse. In Great Britain, Members of Parliament enjoyed Free Frank privileges and thoroughly abused them before the advent of Penny Postage. With postage rates maybe ten or twenty times greater than one penny, you could do favours by posting other people’s mail - and all that was required of you was your signature on the outside of the letter and use of the House of Commons mail box.
In Imperial Russia, Free Frank privileges were extensive but subject to requirements designed to enable accounting and reduce fraud. So on the front of a letter a cachet and a number was required - the number entered into an accounting book. And on the back a seal was required which asserted the right to the Free Frank privilege. The seal could be wax, paper or the impression of another rubber or metal handstamp.
But Free Frank privilege cannot normally extend beyond the frontier unless as part of some convention or agreement with another state or within an Empire - in the British Empire, Free Frank privilege could carry an O H M S letter from a colony to London.
So how did these Free Frank letters get from Russia to Ottoman Athos without any charge being raised? The simple answer is that they travelled to their destination without passing out of Russian hands. At Odessa, Russian postal officials handed over them to Russian agents of the R O P i T shipping line.
The R O P i T boat sailed to Athos where the Russian ship was subject to Ottoman quarantine rules. But the bags of mail were handed directly to agents of the R O P i T post office on Mont Athos without Ottoman intervention. The post office then handed them to monks from the appropriate monasteries - the bags were I believe already pre-sorted by monastery. There were really only four possible destinations, two of them represented by my letters: the skete of St Andrew and the skete of the Prophet Elijah. (The other destinations were the monastery of Panteleimon and the Kellion of St John Chrystostom).
These Free Frank letters are not common but more will be on offer in the Heinrich Koehler sale of a large collection of Mont Athos material, scheduled for March 2020.
Click On Images to Enlarge
Click on Images to Enlarge