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Monday 26 December 2016

Stamps which are not tied to cover

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It's an unfortunate fact that many early stamps were pen-cancelled and another fact that some postal clerks either pre-cancelled stamps or else were very cautious about letting their pen cross extend from the stamp to the envelope. Pre-cancelling was a good idea because it meant you were less likely to smudge or spill ink onto a letter and the cancel was completely dry by the time you came to stick a stamp on a cover. If you did not pre-cancel, there may still have been a motive for not spreading your cross onto the cover - the kind of steel or even quill pen you were  using may have easily snagged at the point where the stamp and cover meet, easily creating an unsightly ink blob

But in auctions, it is obvious that if a cancel does not tie a stamp to a cover, the price someone pays will always be lower. When I bought the entire letter ( a printed death notice) shown above recently, no one else bid for it. I can see three reasons: it is not particularly attractive - the ink address has faded, there are creases; there is a brown smudge on the stamp; and the stamp  is not tied to the letter sheet. The Finnish expert Rolf Gummessson thought the stamp belongs to the cover and gave a certificate in 1990, pointing out that the style of the cancel is that found on stamps used from Lovisa. And if the stamp had been added, there would surely be some indication on the cover itself of postal charges paid or due on reception but there aren't. There is just a receiver boxed ANK on the back and a typical Finnish distribution mark "1" in the top right of the cover.

In the case of this cover, I can't really see any collateral evidence to persuade anyone that the stamp belongs. The little brown stain bottom right of the stamp seems to extend onto the letter sheet but that does not really help - the stain could have been created in many ways. Looking at the stamp from the back of the sheet does not offer any insight. And so on. 

In the end, what you have here is a judgement call - Gummesson thought it OK no doubt in part because he had seen many Finnish covers like this franked with a stamp which is itself quite rare. 

Tuesday 6 December 2016

An 1874 Money Letter from Kherson to Rostov on Don

I have just finished working through a heap of Imperial Russian Money letters. I am left with one which puzzles me:

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This letter contains money intended for the Russian Andreevski monastery at Mont Athos, but instead of being routed to Odessa, it is routed to Rostov on Don - the only example of this routing that I have. My assumption is that there was a collection point in Rostov like the one in Odessa.

It definitely started out in Kherson. There are four small private seals and then a large central seal which is that of the Kherson post office - it's readable. Around the seal are three strikes of Kherson cancellations dated 25, 26 and 28 November - the cancellations in two different styles: just look at the base fleurons. Calculations at the left of the seal (upside down on the scan) show an addition of 90 kop + 6 roubles + 5 kop = 6 roubles 95 kop so not exactly a big money letter. [But seee Howard Weinert's Comments posted below]

Finally, the letter was on its way and there at the bottom is a cancellation reading ROSTOV ON DON / 2 DEKA 74. But this cancellation is simply not in any recognisable Imperial post office style. So what is it? Could it be a cachet used by the receiving ecclesiastical organisation in Rostov?

Then at the top in a different blue - grey ink is a mark of some control office KONTROLNAYAR PALATA and a date IX 74. It is unclear whether this control mark is under the post office seal or over it. The date is deeply unhelpful. Maybe the IX is an inverted XI, in which case this mark was applied before the Kherson post office seal in November. But where was the Control Office which applied this mark? [See Arno's Comments published below]

All contributions gratefully received ...

Friday 18 November 2016

Imperial Russian Mail to Mont Athos

In the decades before World War One, the Orthodox Russian presence on Mont Athos grew considerably and there were probably more Russian than Greek monks there by the end of the period. Things changed once Greece took control of Athos from Ottoman Turkey in 1912 - 1913 and as Russia itself descended into Civil War.

The Orthodox Russian community was centred on the Andreevski Sikt / Sekte - basically a monastery but technically not eligible for that title. There was an Ottoman post office on Athos and from the 1890's a ROPIT post office.

Mail from Russia to Athos seems always to have been routed via Odessa and this fact is explicit on nearly all the mail one sees. After that, mail was  sent by sea to Constantinople and then by land to Athos. Despite the fact that Athos was clearly part of Ottoman Turkey there seems to have been some confusion about mail franking with correspondents using Russian internal tariffs and then getting charged Postage Due - or not.

Most of the mail one sees comprises Money Letters with elaborate addresses and manuscript markings not always easy to interpret. So I was pleased to come across a piece of mail which at first sight could hardly be simpler, though it does soon get more complicated:

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This is an ordinary letter which started out in Tver guberniya in a small community which today appears to be written in English as MOSHKI. It is located due south of TORZHOK, a larger town.

This letter started out in Moshki and bears a Free Frank privilege seal on the reverse which spells out that the privilege is being claimed by the Volost of Moshki's Starshina [head man] and further locates Moshki in NOVO-TORZHOK Uezd [district]. "Novo-" is a bit puzzling since the Imperial cancellation on the front of the envelope reads simply TORZHOK TVER and modern maps know only a Torzhok. So maybe Staraya Torzhok was something which existed only in memory 

Anyway, in addition to his free frank seal, the Starshina applied a violet cachet on the front which simply says MOSHKI VOLOST STARSHINA to the left of which is the essential Registry number always written bottom left to complete the claim to Free Frank Privilege.

The Starshina may have had a postman or courier to take his letter to Torzhok or maybe he went to the Imperial post office himself. On this the cover is silent. But from Torzhok the cover did indeed make it to Odessa on 26 October 1905, just over a week after despatch from Torzhok. It is addressed to the Andreevski Sikt and I am sure did get there since the cover is in an accumulation of Athos material.

What happens after Odessa is not shown by any marking which is unusual. On the front in the middle of the cover there is a smudge of violet ink. in which I am tempted to see a date - in which case it could be the trace of a ROPIT AFON postmark. or a ROPIT Constantinople. Under high magnification the latter is possible with adate in the middle which includes a 2 and a 1 and letters which could include a C, A and O 

What is perhaps most interesting about this cover is that a Volost Starshina's Free Frank privilege carried a letter all the way to what was at least technically a foreign destination

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Tweezers, Magnifier, Perforation Gauge, Watermark detector, natural daylight ... but most important of all....

...a large computer screen. Mine is currently 60 x 30 cm and since I have upgraded several times since I became computer-literate circa the year 2000, I realise that I am taking for granted now very big advances in my ability to study material easily. Most times, I do not even bother with the magnifier - I simply scan an item, crop the scan, and then display on screen an enlargement big enough and bright enough  for most normal purposes - and that's an understatement. Most of the time, the screen is showing information way beyond the level  I need.

I only use mobile devices for text messages and phone calls so I don't know how good they are for serious work but I very much doubt they can achieve what a 60 x 30 full screen can offer.

I also make quite a lot of use of natural daylight as well as a desk lamp for spotting defects and identifying repairs, faked elements and so on.

I have several times had the experience of buying at stamp shows in halls with poor light, items which fail one or other test the moment I look at them again in good natural daylight. Surprising perhaps but true. And, for example, in many stamp exhibitions the light would not allow you to distinguish typographed from lithographed by looking at the back of the stamp - you need natural daylight or an equivalent.

Zemstvos which did not issue stamps but did run postal services

In recent years, Zemstvo collectors have become interested in those Zemstvos which did not issue stamps but which did run postal services, the evidence for which is found in cachets and cancellations. This is not an easy interest to pursue. First, as far as I know, there is no Directory of Zemstvos which did run postal services - and some of them, presumably, for only a short period of time. Second, forgers have been quick to spot an opportunity in this recent area of collecting interest - they add cachets and cancels of their own making to boring items of mail with vaguely relevant despatch or arrival points. Like most forgers, these Zemstvo forgers make fairly obvious mistakes.

Money Letters are things I usually avoid - collectors hate them because of the wax seals which break up and leave trails of red or balck  flakes and so on. But recently I bought an old and unstudied accumulation which looked interesting. In the end, it wasn't very interesting apart from a few items including the one below. In order to avoid re-typing I have scanned my write up so you have to go to the end to see what it is all about ....

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Tuesday 8 November 2016

Russia: The Office for Government and Diplomatic Correpondence

Howard Weinert in the USA sent me a query about the cancellation used by the Office for Government and Diplomatic Correspondence, in St Petersburg and then in Petrograd. When did the cancel go out of use? Iain Baillie and Eric Peel in their work on St Petersburg postmarks record no Petrograd-version examples after 1916. However, it can be found used in 1917 even after the Bolshevik Revolution - I have two examples as shown - and Howard Weinert has an example from 1918, also shown below. So the question is, When did it go out of use?

The Soviets moved the capital from Petrograd to Moscow in March 1918, largely because of the vulnerability of Petrograd to German attack. Even before, some embassies had moved out to Vologda with Soviet assistance. Despite this, the cancel is still in use in April 1918 on the Weinert cover.

How long did it continue in use? Was a new office created in Moscow and did it have its own cancellation?

My November card is addressed from Station Vyiya on the Bogoslov railway to the Italian Embassy in Petrograd, where the Government and Diplomatic office handled it on 6 November 1917. My December card is addressed to the Swedish Mission (or Legation) from Sukhrinskoe in Perm guberniya and was handled by the Government and Diplomatic office on 10 December 1917. Howard Weinert's 1918  item is fully written up below:

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Added 9 November 2016: Here are two more I found, one from September which is addressed personally to Alexander Kerensky - it's from a provincial lawyer who fancies a job in Petrograd. The other December card is another Swedish Legation item:

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Saturday 5 November 2016

Appearance Can Mislead - an Unusual Russian Tariff from 1917

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When I saw a small image of this cover in an auction lot, I immediately assumed this was an ordinary letter abroad from 1920 - 1921 at the rare 5 ruble rate, the 5 kop stamp revalued x 100. So I bid and discovered I was wrong. It is a 1917 letter at the scarce 5 kopek rate allowed for letters sent to soldiers on active service at the front:

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The letter was sent from UST NAROVA ESTL[and] 27 3 17, early in the period of the Provisional Government. This one lacks a Field Post receiver cancel which would often be applied. I can't interpret the remarks pencilled in violet. The normal letter rate was 10 kop at this time.

Such letters are scarce for at least two reasons: their survival rate cannot have been high; the parents of most soldiers were probably illiterate and so would need someone to write for them so perhaps not many were sent.

Added 5 November 2016: Hannes Westendorf in Luxembourg sends me the following scans which show the corresponding reduced Tariff for postcards, 2 kopeks instead of three. I have never seen an example before. According to Alexander Epstein in an article in POCHTA (New Zealand) 1996, the  Tariff was applied only between 1 February and 27 March [Old Style] 1917 which also helps explain the scarcity I referred to above. However, the Tariff may have been renewed - see the cover from my own collection below sent from SAMARA  7 6 17 and as with the other two examples headlined "To The Active Army" - the equivalent of "On Active Service".

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Click on Images to Magnify

Added 7 November 2016:
Alexander Epstein writes to me from Tallinn, "By the way, I was going to contact you myself just today concerning your recent blog. You are quite right writing that such covers are scarce, since this rate was lasting for 2 months only. However, you are wrong when stating that the rate was later restored again. This never happened and the bulk of mail to Active Army was free also after March 1917. Indeed, one can find covers franked later according to this rate as well as those according to the normal inland tariff, but all those are occasional deviations. The same concerns the mail from Army or hospitals for wounded soldiers franked by this privileged rate. The arrival postmarks of FPOs are found on such covers rarely, since the addressees could be located also outside the theater of military activities, at the rear localities etc. Generally, such postmarks are rather often missing in those years on the usual mail as well. 

 Alexander Epstein's also sends scans from his collection. The last scan shows a PROJECT for a 2 kop postal stationery card:

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Tuesday 1 November 2016

Imperial Russian Money Transfers: the Coupons

Money Transfers are an alternative to Money Letters. The Imperial Russian PEREVOD forms which you find in dealers' boxes are from post office archives but they are usually not complete.When the money was paid out at the receiving post office, the coupon at the left of the form was cut off and given to the person receiving the money. The post office kept the main part of the form and archived it. The coupons were less often saved and so are less often found. They very often contain messages which indicate why the money was sent.Usually, they are not franked though they may have cancels and marks of various kinds.

Here are three coupons from Money Transfers sent from Russia to the Russian Andreevski Monastery (Sikt) on Mont Athos, the money sent to pay for prayers and lighting of candles and so on. There are a number of things to note. First, that the three I show are from different printings. When the Perevod forms did not have any stamped value, they did not require Security printing and so could be locally produced. There are many variants and in 1917 - 20 many were locally re-printed with the Imperial Arms defaced or removed. The coupons shown are from the period 1906 - 1917.

The one from 1917 in the middle of the top image has a pre-printed message as well as the manuscript message. 

Second, note how much information is squeezed onto the coupons.

Third, note that on the 1906 coupon the monastery has attached its own form which is pre-printed to allow for notes to be made on the handling of the transfer.

A collection of Money Transfer material should include examples of such coupons to show how the system worked. Telegraphic Money Transfers require separate treatment.

These coupons will be offered for sale in the Turku auction of 

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Saturday 22 October 2016

1918 - 1919 South Russia Kuban Overprints

The 1918 - 1919 White stamp issues of the Kuban, were carefully printed in Ekaterinodar and normally yield crisp, clean typographic overprints. Errors and varieties exist but the printing plates were kept clean and aligned carefully.

This is very obvious for the 10 rouble overprints on Postal Savings Bank stamps. Here the plates were prepared in such a way that if the plate was carefully applied the "10" obscured the 1, 5 or 10 of the underlying stamp and the "rublei"obscured the underlying "kopeka". See the top row of stamps in the illustration below.

Most forgeries make the mistake of placing the "10" centrally above the "rublei" so that the "10" never obscures the underlying 1, 5 or 10 - see the rest of the stamps below, all of which are forgeries.

Notice that on the basic stamps, the "1" is aligned to the left and the "5" and "10" to the right. As a result, the Ekaterinodar printer had to prepare two plates for the overprinting. The forgers economise and use just one. One of the forgeries (bottom row, third stamp from left) does realise that the "10" should be above the letter L of rublei, not the letter B, but the quality of the lettering is very poor in comparison to the genuine stamps.

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Russia 10 Rouble Imperforate Used in Russia 1918

In a previous Blog (7 March 2015), I have written about the limited distribution of the Imperial Russian Arms 10 rouble imperforate which is most frequently found with Ukrainian postmarks of 1918. Today, I can add an early use in Russia proper: below is a pair of stamps, with shifted centre, used at IRKUTSK 8 4 18. The vertical arrangment suggets use on a formular card (Parcel or Money Transfer).

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Added 31 October 2016: Michael Kuhn in Bamberg has added some very significant information. He has sent a scan which shows another stamp used at Irkutsk earlier than the pair I show and also a block of four with a MOSKVA 7 3 18 cancel from the XVI GOR.[od] POCHT. OTD.[el]  which looks completely non-philatelic and is earlier than all the Ukrainian and Irkutsk examples I have shown. I have recorded only one other use in Moscow -  but in 1922

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Added 7 November 2016: Grzergorz Mikula in Warsaw kindly send me these very interesting examples, confirming use in Moscow. His colour filters allow us to see the dates clearly. The first two stamps have Moscow cancellations. The third adds Nikolsk Ussurisk to the list of places where this stamps was used. The last stamp shows a November 1917 cancellation which is the earliest I have seen. The postmark is from a village [Posad] in Moscow Guberniya. The most likely Posad, I think, is SERGIEVSKII POSAD which was a centre of Russian Orthodox church activity.


Saturday 8 October 2016

Was There a Russian Refugee Post in Constantinople?

I am one of those who thinks that there was no postal service which used the stamps of the (White) Russian Refugee Post in 1920 - 1921 and that all the covers and cards which exist were produced by a group of philatelists sitting round a Constantinople table. No doubt they were inspired by the presence of so many Russian refugees in Constantinople following the evacuation of General Wrangel's forces from Crimea at the end of 1920 but my assumption is that those refugees were expected to make use of the Turkish postal service.

Nor do I think that the pre-war Russian post offices re-opened in Turkey after the end of World War One, though there were philatelic speculators who hoped they would and who prepared stamps in anticipation - the ROPIT overprints on old Russian Levant stamps (which they were clearly able to obtain in quantity) and the elaborate "Ship" fantasies probably printed in Constantinople by the Armenian printing company of V M Essayan (Yessayan).

But there are other questions to be asked, especially about the immediately preceding period 1918 - 20. For example, were Ukrainian governments or White Russian governments (Denikin, Wrangel) able to connect to any international postal service and if so how. It is known, for example, that Trident - franked covers did leave from Odessa /Odesa on British ships and probably on ships of other nationalities though the status of the frankings is obscure because they are often left uncancelled but then have cachets added indicating, for example,  "Received from His Majesty's Ships" and no Postage Due to be levied.

Below is an intriguing ordinary letter for which I have not seen any similar examples. It is addressed to a company in Denmark and has an ordinary machine receiver cancel on the back dated 17 October 1920, a month before White forces were finally defeated in south Russia and Crimea. It started out from MELITOPOL TAVR [ Taurida] 5 9 20. At this date Melitopol was still under White control - it was taken by the Red Army at the very end of October 1920.

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The letter is franked by a single copy of a late Wrangel / Crimea issue which revalues an Imperial 5 kopeck perforated stamp to 5 rubles by means of a simple typographic overprint.  Curiously, this looks exactly like a Soviet x 100 revaluation created following the revaulation instructions issued in March 1920. Even more curiously, and perhaps relevantly, in the second RSFSR Foreign Tariff of 1920 the tariff for an ordinary foreign letter was 5 roubles so by the time it reached Denmark, this letter would look exactly like a correctly franked foreign letter arriving from Soviet Russia.

But this is definitely a White letter which was routed to Constantinople where it received some kind of transit mark. But not an Ottoman Turkish one. The blue mark reads in the centre Russian Post / Constantinople and around the outside Russia Refugee Aid Organisation - basically, a Hilfskomite. This suggests to me that mail carried by boat from White-controlled southern Russia to Constantinople was handed over to this Russian organisation which was able to organise onward transmission as required and without having to add any new (Turkish) franking to the letter. The presence of the Danish receiver mark suggests that this letter was entered into the Turkish mail stream in Constantinople by an organisation empowered to do just that.

The addressee D.B.Adler was a private commercial bank (a Handelsbank) which had conducted business with Russia before World War One. The sender has an unusual and I assume Jewish name, Solomir, if I have read it correctly.

Does anyone have any information about the Russia Refugee Aid Organisation?

Added 5 December 2016: Thomas Berger spotted this item in the December 3 2016 David Feldman auction. It confirms the possibility of sending White mail abroad as late as October 1920 and again shows the Constantinople cachet facilitating the onward transmission of a letter to a third country, in this case Bulgaria:

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Added 17 December 2016: Thomas Berger has found images of the cover below in a Lot sold in the 2011 Zelonka sale (Corinphila auction, Lot 158). So now we have three solid examples of White mail from South Russia routed through Constantinople to foreign destinations - and arriving there without postage due being raised:

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Friday 19 August 2016

Auction Records - calling my Auction House Readers

Is this a record?

The Philatelic Services of Finland company (Suomen Filateliapalvelu Oy) held its 98th auction today, an Internet-only auction. I had 150 Lots for sale and so I was watching closely. I was also buying. When I looked at the Results, I noticed

Lot 212 Start price 10 €   Hammer Price  3068 €
Lot 244 Start price 5 €  Hammer price 1011 €

You can still have a look at if you want to see what these lots contained. You will smile :)

But does the Result on Lot 212 set a record? The Hammer price is 307 times the Start price
Do any of my auction house colleagues recall a Result which beats that?

Of course, there are lots of reasons why Start price and Hammer price sometimes differ x 10 or even x 20. For example, an auctioneer with a sense of humour may know that a particular lot will attract a lot of attention. So it's fun to start it at 10 when you know it will sell for 100. But time in the auction room is precious and an auctioneer can't really waste time just to have a bit of fun. On the Internet, it's different - there is no real-time auctioneer at work so you can start at 10 and can indeed sit back and enjoy the fun.

Some things have no known market value, often because they are obscure. So an auctioneer has to start with a cautious estimate.

Some things are simply not understood by an auction house describer. There is one successful auction house in the UK which basically prices everything in the 100 - 300 range and leaves the buyers to work out the real value. You don't need much expertise to put everything into a 100 - 300 range.It's not very efficient of time in the auction room, but it's the model they have adopted and it seems to work.

Some things are understood  but there may still be uncertainty. I remember once doing some work for Heinrich Koehler. I had ten single Lots taken from a collection on which I put start prices of 1000 to 2000 €, but I said to Koehler: Look, one or two of the ten will go up but I don't know which ones so I have put them all in this 1000 - 2000 category. Well, one lot went to 36 000 and one to 52 000. But the others stayed closed to my Estimates. In the case of the 52 000 item, some of the uncertainty was caused by the printed company name on an envelope.It definitely added a premium, but I didn't know how much of a premium it would add. In the end, I think it contributed a lot to that 52 000 figure.

Tuesday 9 August 2016

1917 Kerensky Postal Stationery Card

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This is my August Competition.

Here's an ordinary 5 kopeck Kerensky (Provisonal Government) Postal Stationery card correctly used from TAMBOV 25 11 17 to Moscow. So it is used a month after the October (Bolshevik) Revolution. On the back the sender has dated their message to 25/XI so we can rely on the postmark.

The Competition is simple: Send me a scan of a Kerensky card showing an earlier date of use. No prizes, except publication here with your name. Scans can be sent to

Your turn ...

August 10 2016 and Ivo Steijn in the USA sends these examples from the Robert Taylor collection, giving us 9 11 17 also from TAMBOV to Moscow and 15 11 17 from PETROGRAD to Koebenhavn, uprated to the foreign 8 kopeck rate. Thanks, Ivo! So now the challenge is to beat 9 November (Old Style).

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August 10 2016 and Alexander Epstein in Estonia shows us three examples, top to bottom 

MOSKVA 25 10 17 [ first day of Soviet power in Petrograd] to Yuriev [Tartu]
MOSKVA 4 11 17  to Reval and Registered
REVAL 25 10 17 to Petrograd and cut down at right

So..... just one day earlier than 25 October 1917 and we will have a Kerensky card used in the Kerensky [Provisional Government ] period.  Who has it in their collection? 

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Added 3 October 2016: Ahto Tanner sends me the card below used at REVAL 27 10 17. Alexander Epstein's card immediately above this was used at REVAL 25 10 17 - so it looks like there was a stock available in the post office there, sent out from Petrograd during the Kerensky period. So somewhere there must be a card used on Tuesday 24 October or Monday 23 October ....

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Added 27 August: Henri Taparel submits this interesting card used from IRKUTSK at the end of November, with a transit censor mark of Petrograd on the reverse. The use of the Kerensky card for foreign mail is unusual at this early period, partly because the foreign postcard tariff was 8 kopecks - this card is under-franked and has a Tax "T" marking and a "15 c" charge in violet crayon. The oval French censor mark shows that it arrived in France.

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