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Friday 23 October 2015

Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic 1918 - 1920

Most regimes, however short-lived, make it into the stamp catalogues. The Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic (LSSR) of 1918 - 1920, despite lasting for 13 months, does not. It issued no stamps. But it operated most of the postal services one would expect for the time: ordinary and registered letters and postcards; money transfers; parcel delivery. It does not seem to have offered telegraphic money transfer services and could only distribute mail within the areas of Latvia it controlled - extensive for a brief period from January to May 1919 - and to the RSFSR and areas controlled by the Soviets, like eastern Ukraine. Like the RSFSR in the same period, it offered no foreign mail service. Like the RSFSR (from 1 January 1919), it offered Free Post delivery of ordinary letters and cards. In Riga, it also operated a Philatelic Counter using just one of the many cancellation devices available in the post office. Philatelists fabricated covers with Kerensky Chainbreakers and Romanov Currency stamps and the post office obligingly cancelled them.

Recently, I spent a lot of money on a large accumulation of LSSR material. In it, I found I had 12 Money Transfer forms similar to this one, all addressed to Riga during the period of Soviet control in that city (January - May 1919):

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The transfer here is for a small amount ( 3 roubles) and so it is on the other 11 cards, never transferring more than 12 roubles. All are franked at 25 kopecks, so I concluded that this is the minimum fee for any Money Transfer. In every case, the stamps are severely clipped or punched with a diamond shaped device, so I concluded that the Riga post office official responsible for preventing Postal Fraud took his job very seriously - so seriously that he could not see that the chances of these stamps being fraudulently re-used was almost zero anyway. But he had a job to do and, boy, did he do it.

This particular card originated in Salisburg (Latvian, Mazsalaca) on 31 March 1919 and shows three strikes of a provisional cancellation - not really visible on the stamps but it is there. Harry von Hofmann illustrates this cancellation and the manuscript style of the clerk in his book Lettland: Die Stempel und Postanstalten 1918 - 1940 at page 43.

Then I noticed that 11 of the 12 cards were to the same address in Elisavetes iela in Riga; the one exception was addressed to [Karl] Liebknecht iela - the same place but re-named by the Soviet after the murdered German Spartacist leader. All the cards were addressed to periodicals: Zhina (10 cards), Nasha Pravda (1) and Die Rote Fahne (1). These were much easier to Google than I expected: Zhinafounded in 1904, had become the newspaper of the Latvian Communists and was published in Latvian; Nasha Pravda was its sister paper published in Russian; and Die Rote Fahne having been the journal of the Spartacist League in Germany was now the newspaper of the German Communist Party. Latvia at this time was a tri-lingual country; even the Money Transfer Form above uses two languages - for example, "Riga" is in Cyrillic but "Elisabetes iela" in Latvian - and though it is in Cyrillic "Salisburg" is the German place name.

So all these 12 Money Transfers were sending in small sums, possibly as donations but much more likely, as newspaper subscriptions - the senders would have written their home addresses on the coupons cut off and given to the person collecting the money from the post office in Riga. In that case, we can conclude that the postal service was also distributing newspapers

Great, interesting. And very lucky. Because these 12 cards are all that remained of many more. The rest had fallen in to the hands of postmark collectors:

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In my accumulation, I found over 30 fragments like these, all with stamps clipped Riga-style and all with 25 kopeck frankings. The majority - maybe all - would have been from Money Transfers sending money to the Communist newspapers. I have temporarily mounted them up like this giving the von Hofmann numbers to the cancellations which have been harvested from the Money Transfer Forms. Some have pencilled prices on the back.

If all had gone to plan, the intact card at the top would have been cut into at least three pieces to produce three saleable examples of the provisional cancellation. In addition, a transit cancel of VOLMAR  and arrival cancel of RIGA on the back could have been separately harvested since they don't overlap the markings on the front - thus, five saleable items instead of one!

Philatelists should read more detective novels. You soon learn that when you arrive at a crime scene you don't touch it until Forensics arrives. The little history I have re-constructed from the intact form could not be re-constructed from these silly little fragments.

Added 24 October: Ivo Steijn tells me that the material I have shown above is from the Jan Poulie collection, first illustrated in Yamschik / The Post Rider 1990. The complete collection can be seen at

Sunday 18 October 2015

Russia 1917 Imperforate Arms Stamps - Do OBRAZETS overprints exist?

I have a collection of 1917 Russia Imperial Arms Imperforate stamps, mainly designed to show the earliest dates and place of use - these were stamps without a First Day of Issue. I have Blogged about this before on this site.

In yesterday's Kaj Hellman auction and in a previous Cherrystone auction, mint blocks of ten with OBRAZETS overprints have been offered and sold (at good prices). In every case, I looked at the blocks and a ??? came into my mind because all the overprints were slightly mis-aligned (not perfectly level). Normally, great care was taken with OBRAZETS overprints - they are always perfectly level, parallel to the base line of the stamp.

A ??? also came into my mind because the imperforates were not really a stamp issue, but simply the result of a decision taken in 1917 to release unfinished stamps to post offices because of practical difficulties in completing the perforation process.

So I wonder if OBRAZETS overprints were really made on these stamps. Do readers have any opinions or evidence? Overprints should be typographed, though the careful application of the overprint may mean that the normal indentation on the reverse is not easy to see. But it will be there.

Friday 9 October 2015

"Roughly Opened" - That's Good News!

Auction catalogues frequently describe covers as "roughly opened". This is a sort of apology and is meant to indicate that they have somewhat reduced the Estimate because of the rough opening.

To me, "roughly opened" is often a bonus: it indicates with some high probability that (a) the envelope was received by someone and (b) that they did not think of the envelope as a philatelic cover. That is valuable information!

Auction catalogues also describe covers, with great frequency, as "slightly reduced" or " cut down". What this usually means is that some collector did not like "roughly opened" covers and so trimmed them whenever one came into his or her collection. Even today, collectors vandalise covers like this - sometimes very expensive covers. As a result, we lose some valuable information which helps us decide whether a cover has travelled and whether it is non-philatelic.

Curiously, just because a cover travels from one stamp dealer to another stamp dealer does not mean that it is philatelically conceived or treated as a philatelic cover by the receiver. Some dealer to dealer letters are just business correspondence. (Any collector who has received a letter from me will tell you that they are 100% non-philatelic. I just go to the post office and stick on whatever stamps I am given.)

Here is an interesting cover which, over decades, has been attacked by philatelists.

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It started out in August 1919 as business correspondence from the stamp dealer W A Solman in Riga addressed to the stamp dealer Bela Szekula in Switzerland. It's main interest is that it was registered at the Riga Railway Station post office, where both an old Imperial Russian internal Registration label (overwritten with Latin "Riga") and an old Imperial cancellation were used. As it happens, the letter was sent on 6 August 1919 which Harry von Hofmann gives as the date at which this post office (re-) opened under Latvian control - maybe this cover was the source of his information.

Solman did put on a set of "Liberation of Riga" stamps as franking but also used them as seals. The stamps were widely available. The cover arrived in Luzern very quickly, on 13 VIII 19. I don't think Szekula thought much of the cover - I think he opened it roughly. I think this because the cover has been cut down at the top by maybe 5 mm. Someone has "tidied it up".

Probably, Szekula put out this envelope for sale in his shop but tore out the W A Solman handstamp on the back of the cover so that his clients could not make direct contact with his source. I will prove in a moment that there was a Solman cachet on this envelope.

Later, someone thought this cover was too big and folded it over at the left and sealed down the fold with hinges. This damage could be partly reversed. So too could the small amount of damage caused by the four or five hinges applied to the front of the cover when it was "mounted" to display the back.

Here's another Solman cover which started out as a quite philatelic item and then acquired some fascinating non-philatelic aspects.

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This cover started out from Riga on 2 12 19. There is an Imperial Russian registration label but a new style RIGA LATWIJA -2 12 19 cancel on the front. It's addressed to South West Africa! Since that territory was now under British control, the letter headed for London where it picked up a transit cancel on 18 December and then was sent down to Africa. There it picked up a violet Passed by Censor cachet and a WINDHUK R.L.O.  5 2 20 cancellation. I don't know if "R.L.O." stands for Registered Letter Office or Returned Letter Office - the latter is possible because this letter was returned. Across the front i red is written "Repatriated" and again in blue crayon "Repatriated". And the cover made it back to Riga - there is a Cyrillic "RIGA 15 4 20" on the reverse. 

The cover is franked with stamps which have been unofficially perforated; the 5 kopeck stamps are imperforate between and the 25 kopeck a bit misperforated. I suspect this was Solman's work - his cachet is on the reverse of the cover at the top. It's the same cachet as that which was once on the Szekula cover.

Someone has pasted arrows on to the cover so that we don't miss the imperforate between and someone (else?) had pencilled "Nichtoffiziellzähnung : 11 3/4" - information which should be on an album page. The damage here is partly reversible though the arrows will require steaming. The "Mi 30 oo" can also be got rid of.

In this case, my feeling is that the journey made by this cover and the reason for its return add greatly to the postal historical interest of what could have been a cover mainly of interest for its evidence of stamp dealer activity.  

Both these covers are for sale.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

1918 Latvia Map Stamps and their Postal Use

This Blog was made possible by the recent sale of the Dr Hubert Schrödinger "Baltica" collection at Heinrich Köhler, Wiesbaden.

Latvia's Map stamps of 1918 are well-known, well-studied and widely collected - quite often, in complete sheets. There is a very good website devoted to them at  I have used Bill Apsit's site for some of the information below.

They were available at post offices but for a very short time period - and most of the people at the post office counters appear to have been stamp dealers or collectors.

Here is a brief Chronology. After Germany signed the Armistice with the Allied Powers on 11 11 18, Latvia quickly proceeded to declare its Independence on 18 11 18 - though German troops and administrators remained in Latvia until late in December. The Latvian government in Riga took delivery from the Riga printer of the first instalment of Map stamps on 17 December. The first illustration below shows a blank philatelic cover cancelled 18 12 18 but this is unusual - most Riga cancellations on Map stamps are dated for the last five or six days of December. Then the trouble begins.

The Latvian Government evacuated from Riga on 2 January and on the 3 January, Soviet Latvian troops entered the city. End of Map stamps in Riga. The government evacuated first to Jelgawa (Mitau / Mitava) and then to Liepaja (Libau, Libava).It returned to Riga on 22 May 1919 and took delivery of more Map stamps (which may simply have been kept in store during the Soviet occupation). But it seems doubtful that these new supplies were issued.

So if you are looking for postally used Map stamps, then for Riga they will only be found in a 14 day period from 18 December to 1 or 2 January. After that, they can be found from other cities and towns - but rarely - and they were soon replaced by further issues with a wider range of values - the Map stamp only exists in one 5 kopeck denomination.

Philatelic productions can be as basic as these two, one prepared in Riga 18 12 18 and the other with an undated provisional cancel of Jelgawa:

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These unaddressed items are not so common - either they had addresses written in soon after or they were "harvested" for used copies of the Map stamps and so no longer exist.

A bit more ambitious are Registered covers like this one. But it has no cancellation on the back and is one of a batch which were probably handed straight back to the "sender". Note that this item has a 30 12 18 Riga  cancel:

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What does real postal use look like? I cannot show anything from Riga, though it exists. Here are two items from Leepaja cancelled witha provisional Latvian cancellation which does not include a date. But they are correctly franked for transmission to Germany and the typical boxed Königsberg transit and censor cachet ties the Latvian stamps to the envelopes in both cases - and on the second cover you can also see what are probably the Censor's initials in blue crayon at the bottom of the envelope:

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So it seems clear that these ordinary letters travelled. At this period, people often used Registered letters to maximise the chances of a letter arriving - but as we shall soon see, this was not possible at the end of 1918 - beginning of 1919. The two letters above can be reckoned both genuine postal uses and very scarce.

Finally, here are two cards both of which appear to be correctly franked and non-philatelic though one has an interesting stamp-related content. Once again both have Königsberg transit / censor cachets

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The typed message on the 27 January 1919 card from Leepaja says two interesting things: first, that for the moment Registered letters are not accepted; second, that in the next few days, two new Latvian stamps will be issued. That could refer to the first 10 and 15 kopeck Sun stamps, printed in Liepaja. The dating of the card also helps date the period of use of the provisional Liepaja cancel.

The second card is sent from Jelgawa. The card is dated 6 January - just after the arrival of the Latvian government in Jelgawa -  and the postmark the same. Unlike the version on the unaddressed card at the top of this Blog, the provisional Jelgawa cancel now has a date line. The Imperial stationery card has been used as a Blank, with German "Postkarte" (not Latvian "Pastkarte") written across the top. The arrow is just a bit of collector vandalism as may also be the case for the "III" written in ink to the left of it. Unfortunate, because this is undoubtedly a rare item.

I can't read the message on the back - it's been written in a hurry and in one of those German scripts which are now baffling. Any attempts at translation by readers are most welcome!  

In summary: For postal use of Map stamps look for 5 and 15 kopeck frankings and look for December 1918 and January 1919. Mail to Germany usually has proof of transit through Königsberg even if there is no arrival mark on mail (which is likely to be unregistered).

The items illustrated above are for sale

Tuesday 6 October 2015

1919 Northern Army (OKCA Issue) - Postal Use

The world's worst designed stamps were printed in large quantities and miserable looking specimens can be found in every old collection of Russian stamps. There are just five values, though you need a magnifying glass to find out what the values are.

Philatelic covers are reasonably common but examples of genuine postal use are very rare. Alexander Epstein has tried to make an Inventory of known examples. A few years ago, I was able to add one to his list.

Now I think I can add a second:

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This Kerensky stationery card has a 10 kop Imperial Arms stamp added to it and then a 5 kopeck OKCA stamp. They are cancelled POLNA S P B [St Petersburg] 2 10 19. But we know from the researches of A Epstein that this Imperial Russian Polna cancel was actually being used in Gdov at this time - and the text of the card confirms this - the sender is very much in Gdov for he ends his message "I have already been here 5 months and have still not received a letter from anyone. I feel like I am in prison in the town of Gdov. 1919 Taras O. Kremen"

So far so good. The card is addressed to Orsha in Mogilev guberniya (modern-day Belarus). The small triangular cachet on the front is a known Estonian censor mark and confirms what is already believed, that mail from towns held by the anti-Soviet Northern and North Western armies was generally routed "back" through Estonia.

What about the franking? In the RSFSR, postal stationery cards were invalidated on 1 January 1919 when the "Free Post" was introduced. Thereafter, they functioned as Blanks. But it is possible that this invalidation did not apply in Gdov and that the Kerensky card contributes 5 kopecks to the franking. If the two stamps both count towards the franking, then this card is franked either at 15 or 20 kopecks. [Added: Alexander Epstein writes to me that the Kerensky cards remained valid in the areas controlled by the Northern armies so that this card is franked at 20 kopecks, the correct foreign rate which had been established by OKCA. In addition, he notes the use of an obsolete 10 kopeck stamp and says that, from other evidence, the Gdov post office appears to have had few stamps available - even the OKCA stamps - and used whatever it could find]

Now to the back of the card. The message is as non-philatelic as you could wish:

Good day, Patsits Diu ... Fedorovich. I want to let you know that I am alive and well and that I hope that all is well with you. Dear Brother, I am now alone. My family remained in Petrograd. I don't know if you are now in Petrograd or already somewhere else. Can you  please find out some news about my family. Then please write to me at my address: Town of Gdov, Petrograd Prospect, Customs [?] D... Bojarov, T.O.Kremen"
- after which he concludes with the passage I have already quoted.

What happened next? On the reverse of the card is another postmark: WARSAWA VIIIb, 15 V 21.

Well, that suggests that this card got caught up in civil war fighting and that it eventually fell into Polish hands, perhaps during the Polish-Soviet war [Added: Alexander Epstein thinks that Estonia passed on to Poland mail that it could not deliver to Russia and that Poland then released this mail after the conclusion of its own conflict with the Soviets]. Whether it was ever delivered would seem to depend partly on the meaning of the red ink annotation, top right of the card and which I cannot read. Can anyone help? [Added 25 April 2018: Pawel Urbanek provides the translation:

"Z braku komu-nikacji na przechowanie" (to storage due the lack of communication).]

Monday 5 October 2015

When Is a Stamp Issue a Stamp Issue?

Today I was reading articles in a well – known philatelic journal, two of which struck me as largely wish-fulfilment. Of course, wish fulfilment is like Sin – you can denounce it but it never goes away.

We all like to discover something new or own something unique. The desire can be so strong that we abandon our critical faculties.

What is a stamp issue? Here are three stories:

1.      Some local postmaster discovers he is just about to run out of 1 cent stamps. He has put in an order for more but has been told they won’t be delivered for ten days. He’s got a problem. Then he has an idea: he tells his counter clerks to cut two cent stamps in half and use them as one cent stamps until the new supplies arrive. Problem solved! From an accounting point of view, it’s perfect, since the total value of stamps used up continues to match the total amount of postage paid in. But we also have a Postmaster Provisional. We have an even better Postmaster Provisional if a regional post office authority informs all its dependent postmasters that since its supplies of 1 cent stamps have run out and it cannot fulfil orders for them, for the time being postmasters may bisect two cent stamps.

2.      The manager of a local firm comes to the post office wanting to mail out advertising cards locally. As it happens, the tariff for this has just been reduced from 2 cents to 1 cent. The manager explains that they had a lot of 2 cent stamps in stock which are no longer needed, so they have cut them in half. That’s all right, isn’t it? The counter clerk consults the postmaster who says it’s a bit irregular and why didn’t they ask first, but since they’ve done it, well all right. So the advertising cards get accepted and postmarked. This isn’t a Postmaster Provisional. It’s just someone taking a chance and getting away with it.

3.      A local philatelist comes in – they all know him at the post office – and he’s franked a letter in his usual cheerful way and wants to send it, Registered, to a friend. Only this time, he’s cut some of the stamps in half. They still add up to the correct amount, he points out, and the counter clerk smiles indulgently and registers and cancels the letter. After all, the philatelist always brings in a big box of chocolates at Christmas.

Some central governments are stronger than others, some postal authorities fiercer than others. At some times and places, the manager in story 2 and the philatelist in story 3 would not get away with it. And  the postmaster in story 1 trying to do his best might find himself in trouble.

But there are plenty of times and places when you can get away with an awful lot and especially in times of war and revolution.

So if you take somewhere like Ukraine in 1918 – 19 or again in the 1990s, then stamp “issues” can originate on both sides of the post office counter

Long before postal authorities introduced “personalised” stamps, people – philatelists – found ways to personalise stamps. No fraud need be intended or need result. 

I want to celebrate the Revolution so what do I do? Make a little handstamp with my Symbol of the Revolution and apply it to my personal stock of stamps I bought from the post office last week. Then I stick them on letters addressed to all my philatelic friends (hoping they will return the favour), go off to the post office and cause a bit of amusement. And if I don’t cause amusement, well a box of chocolates will soon change the mood.

Of course, I may get more serious about this – then the next step is to stick my stamps on envelopes addressed to Yvert et Tellier or Gebrüder Senf. 

Or I may try to do a deal with my local postmaster to provide him with  stamps he needs but which aren't arriving from the government department which is supposed to keep him stocked (Here we have the beginnings of a story 4)

Stories like 2 and 3 are an interesting part of social history or the history of philately. But unlike story 1 and some fleshed-out versions of story 4, they don't have anything to do with what we normally think of as stamp issues.

Added in response to Dr Ivo's Comment below:

Here's a Story 4:

The local postmaster and the local philatelist know each other well. The postmaster is complaining that he is being sent imperforate stamps which are a damn nuisance at the post office counter - maybe they are 1917 Imperial Arms, Ukraine General Issue or Denikins. The philatelist offers to help: give me a batch and I know where I can get them perforated for you. All I ask is that I get to buy some to stick on letters to my philatelic friends. The deal is done. The postmaster (and the counter clerks) are pleased, the philatelist is pleased, and we have a Postmaster Provisional Perforation. That's a bit different to a perforation made in the mail room of a big company (say Gerhard and Hey in Petrograd) and applied only to their own stocks of stamps

Thursday 1 October 2015

Collecting single handstamps

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Collectors of single handstamp overprints often ask me for a "nice, clear strike". Frequently, that is a difficult request. Handstamps applied to thousands of stamps, in a hurry, are generally not very clear. Or, at least, they are very variable. Only forgers come up with a perfect strike every time.

It actually makes a lot more sense to collect single handstamps in small multiples, especially if they   are inexpensive stamps to begin with. Tidying up my stock, I grouped together the examples of Podillia Xa shown above. The mint 7 kopeck stamps are catalogued just 30 cents each in the Bulat catalogue (#1722 with $150 for used) and the 10/ 7 stamps are catalogued just $2.50 each for used (Bulat #1723; $8 for mint). 

The whole lot are worth 30 to 50 euros retail, depending a bit on what premium you put on multiples. For that modest price, you have a complete album page and a group of stamps which will help you decide whether or not other single stamps which come your way are examples of Xa or not.

From the mint stamps, it's easy to see how the clerk doing the work overprinted from left to right and re-inked after five strikes. You can also get a sense of which parts of the handstamp always print and which parts sometimes don't - this was a wooden handstamp so it would not have been perfectly level and the clerk would have naturally held it at a bit of an angle. The mint stamps also help to confirm the used copies as examples of Xa even though they don't have one of the features of the Bulat illustration - a small spike protruding inside the bottom of the right hand wing. This is, in fact, only clear on a few of the strikes, notably the left hand stamps on the mint blocks. It is a feature which may have been affected by wear and tear to the handstamp.

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: