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Wednesday 28 April 2010

Stamps of Georgia 1919 - 1923

I just sent a collector of St George some of the first stamps of Independent Georgia.

I have never understood why they are not more popular. They are nicely designed and printed. There are shade, paper, perforation and gum varieties. There are colour trials and unissued values available at quite modest prices (under 50 euro). Postally used, they are not that hard to find, though a good cover is going to cost over 100 euro - but a good cover from Armenia at this time is going to cost over 1000.

Importantly, there are no recorded reprints or forgeries of the basic stamp. So they can be safely collected even by a novice.

I think one thing which deters collectors is the later stamps of the 1919 - 1923 period which include an array of unattractive rubber handstamp overprints in numerous types and colours. Though these have never been much forged, they are tedious to classify - unless you like that sort of thing. The work of classification has been done by specialists (Ashford, Ceresa) so the collector has a ready - made guide.

Those who dislike messy overprints could stick with the first St George (and Queen Tamara) issues. They provide enough variety to comfortably fill an album or make an exhibit

Thursday 22 April 2010

Stamps of Armenia, Stamps of Azerbaijan, Stamps of Georgia

Quite often, I am asked who can expertise stamps from the 1919 - 1923 period like those listed above.

The short answer, at present, is No One. There are very knowledgeable collectors and dealers who can give reliable opinions, but there are no accredited experts with - for example - AIEP or DBPP status. And because there are no major collector societies uniquely dedicated to these areas, there is some risk that the AIEP or DBPP will end up recognising someone who actually can't do the job properly. It has happened before.

The expert opinions which can be generally relied on are those of dealers or collectors or experts who are dead or retired. None of them can help with the new forgeries which have appeared in the past twenty years, some of which are dangerous and have even been written up in collector journals and given medals. They also appear in serious auctions and not just on ebay.

My own practice is to consult knowledgeable collectors where I am not sure. But when I am sure, I will give my own opinion in writing and, if asked, I will (rather reuluctantly) sign in pencil.

I was lucky as a novice dealer that I was able to acquire much of Tchilingirian's Armenia from Ray Ceresa, who bought it all when it was auctioned at Robson Lowe; much of Ceresa's and Voikhansky's Azerbaijan; and much of Ceresa's Georgia, which included ex - Faberge material. Studying these collections helped me understand what to look for when I was trying to add to my stock.

As a novice dealer, I was also the victim of travelling salesmen selling new forgeries. But I studied them, and I wrote up my findings in the journals. I am more careful now!

Saturday 3 April 2010

Quality Matters - and Why It is Hard to Find

Some years ago, as a novice dealer, I bought in auction a stock of Soviet stamps housed in numerous stockbooks. What I failed to notice was that the owner had used all the top rows in his stockbooks and then exposed them to dust and sunlight. The result? I was the new owner of a stock of unsaleable sets - the quality of the top row material was too degraded to be combined with the material from the other rows.

Over time, most philatelic material has been damaged and its value reduced by the dealers, collectors and beneficiaries of collectors' wills through whose hands it has passed.

Dealers may no longer put hinges on mint stamps, but they still write on any postal history item that comes their way. Rub out the old prices, write on your own. Eventually, it takes its toll. The average piece of Victorian postal stationery has had Higgins and Gage numbers, dimensions,catalogue values and prices written on it so many times as to be virtually worthless. It goes straight into my £1 boxes.

Collectors still put hinges on mint stamps and some still prefer to pick up their stamps by wetting their thumb, as if tweezers had never been invented. Combine enough saliva with the damp cupboards which are a Must Have for many collectors and you soon have a collection foxed from start to finish.

Postal history is at the mercy of another range of collector habits. True, the excitement created by the invention of the red biro has passed as has the enthusiasm for writing the catalogue values of the stamps next to them on the cover - and in ink. Nowadays, covers are more likely to be subject to trimming and refolding.

One should not be too hard on dealers and collectors, however. Only the Experts have thought that the thing to do with a beautiful and rare cover is to sign your name on it - in the case of Italian experts, in a position where you cannot fail to be distracted by it.

Quality matters. It adds value. And it is a commodity in ever-diminishing supply.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Where do you get all your material?

At stamp shows, this is a FAQ. The short answer is, All over the place. By way of an example, here's a true story:

At a London show some years ago, a dealer came up to my Stand, looked it over, and remarked, "You stock funny stuff. Are you interested in Ukraine? I've got a box in the office that's been there for years. It came from a good source. I could sell it to you if you're interested"

So I made a journey round the M25 and the box was placed in front of me. "Have you got a price?" I asked. The dealer had, in low four figures. Then I opened the box. Thousands of stamps in sheets, mostly common; thousands of stamps in glassines; odd bits of postal history; the auction catalogues which identified where the contents of this box came from. They were the unsolds and a big remainder Lot from the 1987 Swiss sale of the Vyroyyj collection.

Eugene Vyrovyj (1889 - 1945) was one of the great pre-1939 collectors of Ukrainian Tridents, especially the Tridents of Podilia. He won numerous medals for his Exhibit collection. He had links to the exile government of Ukraine, and this was probably the source of some of his material. Though he committed suicide in 1945, the collection did not come on the market until the 1987 Swiss sale, at which date I had not yet started dealing.

Yes, Reader, I bought the box.

Q: When is CTO better than Mint?

A: When it's a stamp of Armenia 1919 - 21 ("Dashnak" Armenia).

The single handstamps used in this period to overprint Imperial Russian stamps - the framed Z, unframed Z and the rouble surcharges - were forged from the outset and applied to many,many thousands of Imperial stamps to create packets of "50 Armenia". What could be easier? Most of the forgeries are easily separated out by a specialist collector, but some are harder work to detect.

At the time, many - possibly most - sheets of genuinely overprinted stamps were sold to the handful of dealers operating in Armenia with a cancellation on every stamp, or over a block of 4, or in the corners of the sheet. These cancellations are not so much Cancellations to Order (CTO) as we understand that. Rather, they are authenticating cancels meant to guarantee the overprints.

Some of the cancellations have been forged and some of those forgeries are recent. But most of them are poor imitations and none of them has been applied on a large scale. There was no call for them from the Packet Trade. It's quite hard to put together a collection of these forged cancellations - something which certainly cannot be said about forged overprints!

In addition, only a small number of cancellers were used to authenticate material. Cancellations of Alexandropol on loose stamps are almost certain to be genuine and it is really only the Erivan cancellations which have been forged and applied over forged overprints. And I have only ever seen "CTO" material from one other town, Elenovka, and that in very small quantities. My guess is that the Belgian mining engineer, Gustave Boel (responsible for the "60" and "120" Giryusy / Katarsky Zavod provisionals) passed through Elenovka on his travels and bought some stamps there, possibly of just one face value, which he had authenticated with the Elenovka cancel.

So when I am asked, How should I go about collecting Dashnak Armenia? I would always advise starting from the "CTO" material. Once you have a feel for what the overprints should look like, then start adding the mint material.

What about digital forgeries? Yes, that could become a problem. That's why old collections are a better source of material than some shiny new offering on ebay.