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Tuesday 13 July 2021
Friday 18 June 2021
Stamp catalogues are
not entirely consistent in what they do and don’t list. This is especially the
case in relation to what I shall call local
Our paradigm for a
stamp issuing authority is a central government department which distributes standardised
stamps to post offices under its control. A limiting case is the micro-state
which has only one post office but we can safely ignore that.
In general, local post
offices are supposed to use the stamps they receive in the ways intended by the
centre. But quite often they do things to stamps before selling them, most
Perforating imperforate stamps
Changing the face value of stamps
Changing the face value and showing the
change with an overprint or manuscript note
Authenticating stamps at point of sale
with a postmaster signature
Defacing stamps - for example, obscuring
the face of a former national leader
This list is not
exhaustive. In addition, stamps may be distributed not only to post offices but
direct to government organisations or departments and they may mark the stamps
in some way to prevent their theft and private use by employees. The marks are
intended to ensure that the stamps are only used for official business. Quite
often, the stamps will already be overprinted OFFICIAL or SERVICE when they
arrive but, if not, local initiative might supply the necessary markings. This
happened in India before 1900 though the stamps are quite rare unlike the
regular On H M S and Service stamps.
In relation to any and
every such modification, a central authority may require it, suggest it,
tolerate it, forbid it. The actual situation may be unclear: when in 1920 the
People’s Commissariat of Posts and Telegraphs instructed Russian post offices
to sell Imperial kopek value stamps at x 100 face value, some regional stamp
distribution offices and some local postmasters took this to mean that they
should mark the stamps in some way to indicate the change. But many didn’t and
re-valued the stamps invisibly. In contrast, when in the early 1990s
Lithuania’s postal authorities instructed post offices to revalue stamps I
don’t think any of them marked the change - the revaluation was always invisible.
When the stamps leave
the post office some buyers may modify them before use. Common practices
Perforating imperforate stamps
Punching the stamps with company
initials as a security device to protect against theft [Perfins]. In Imperial Russia, the practice was rare and, in practice, it is only stamps of the Russian Levant which are occasionally found with company perfins.
Overprinting or handstamping the stamps
with a company name or logo likewise to protect against theft. In India, this
was common until the practice was banned around 1900. At least one organisation
- the Bombay Education Society Press - then responded by handstamping the gummed side of its stamps with its
acronym B.E.S.P. So it was still the
case that no employee could safely walk out of the office with mint stamps! Nineteenth century stamps from other British colonies (Ceylon, Hong Kong, Straits Settlements notably) are frequently overprinted with company cachets but in Imperial Russia it is rare and the cachets were normally applied after the stamp had been applied to the cover. Here, the motive seems to be to prove that a stamp was on the cover when posted, since if it is removed then the removal will be visible.
[Possibly - I have no examples] Gumming
ungummed stamps in sheets to have them ready for use rather than using a glue
pot at point of application to a letter.
generally exclude these private modifications. As for the official or
semi-official modifications, these are not treated uniformly though there may
be some logic to the choice. Thus, the Departmental overprints of South
Australia are listed in outline by Stanley Gibbons because the overprints were
all done by the central authority. But the very similar Departmental overprints
of India are not listed because they were local initiatives. When it comes to
bisects, catalogue makers may try to distinguish those where official
permission was granted to a postmaster (or an instruction given to all
postmasters) and those where the postmaster took the initiative. If you had no
phone or telegraph and had run out of stamps you needed, it made no sense to
wait for a permission which might take a week or two weeks (or more) to arrive.
From a philatelic point of view, that
kind of unauthorised bisect is probably as interesting as the authorised one.
It is only problematic if one suspects that the postmaster had been signed up
by the local stamp dealer to create a scarce variety, as indeed has often been
the case. In the Soviet Union by the 1930s and after, central control was very
effective and local modifications by post offices very, very rare.
There is one
interesting category which is not often noticed. Central authorities may damage
stamps deliberately before issuing them, or may instruct postmasters to do the
job. I know of two examples: in Hungary in the 1920s, sheets of stamps intended
for post offices had some of the stamps in each sheet perforated before distribution with three small
punch holes. The idea was to protect the revenues of the (hard currency?)
philatelic department by making it unattractive to buy sheets of stamps at
regular post office counters. Similarly, in the 1990s to protect a commercial monopoly
of mint sales to dealers and collectors, the stamps sold at Turkmenistan’s post
offices had perforations trimmed off on one side before sale. This has the
curious consequence that you can only collect genuine postally used Turkmen
stamps (rare in themselves!) if you are willing to collect damaged ones …
Locally modified stamps
all have their specialist collectors and study groups; general catalogues could
help by at least noting some of the more prominent local modifications. For
example, postmaster and private perforations on the early stamp issues of
Estonia and Latvia are common enough for copies to appear fairly frequently in
old collections and on covers, often philatelic. The same is true for the 1917
imperforate issues of Russian Imperial Arms stamps. But in the case of the
first post-1991 stamps of Lithuania, local perforations exist but are much less
common and I guess many collectors would be surprised to learn that they do.
Sunday 11 April 2021
The recent April 2021 sale
(by Corinphila Veilingen) of Dick Scheper’s fine collection of Siberian postal
history during the 1917-24 period made me realise how important Russia’s major
ports were to stamp collectors and dealers in the Civil War and early Soviet
period. Proximity to ships which could carry mail had two major advantages.
First, it avoided sending mail overland in territory which might be subject to
banditry or Red versus White fighting - or both. The Trans-Siberian railway,
for example, ceased to be a reliable routing for mail from Siberia to western
Europe and ship mail replaced it. Second, though it did not entirely avoid
censorship and customs control, it may have been the case that local censors
and customs officers in the ports - even when under Red control - were more
sympathetic to private enterprise than their counterparts in Petrograd and
later Moscow. And if not more sympathetic, at least more easily bribed.
Thus, for example, when
in March 1922 - well into the Soviet period - the well-known Vladivostok stamp
dealer Pappadopulo wants to write to his opposite number in Archangel, the
equally well-known Tarasoff, he writes his postcard in Roman script and
endorses it “via America”. The journey takes seven weeks but the postcard gets
there, as the receiver mark of Archangel attests. [Lot 139 in the Scheper sale].
Pappadopolu uses the same endorsement for a card to Bulgaria [Lot 133] in July
1921 and to Iceland [!] in January 1921 [Lot 131]. Times were clearly harder at
this earlier date - Pappadopolu is reduced to using indelible pencil, and only
later has ink for his pen. In all three cases, he is writing from the
Soviet-allied though not fully-Bolshevik Far Eastern Republic.
As late as August 1923
I can see a Registered cover going to New York from Vladivostok via Japan [Lot
218] and in February 1924 via Seattle [Lot 226]. I assume that at some point
all foreign mail had to be routed through the centralised censorship of Moscow,
but I don’t have a date.
mail often went by ship via the Norwegian port of Vardø [see my long Blog about
Tarasoff 11 March 2015]. Ship mail from Odessa went to Constantinople, Genoa,
and Marseilles - and no doubt other ports. Dealers - like Trachtenberg - and collectors would have been able to take
advantage of this in the period of Ukrainian independence but also into the
early Soviet period.
Illustrations to follow
but right now the Scheper material can still be seen on line as
Friday 22 January 2021
Ingert Kuzych has sent me the above scan of five puzzling stamps. Below I reproduce his thoughts about them. But he would like to know more - if anyone now knows. If you do, please email him directly at email@example.com