Sunday, January 14, 2018

Confessions of a postmark collector

While stamp collecting certainly offers enough room for a lifetime of collecting, once you enter the fuzzily-defined world of postal history the possibilities for specialization are almost limitless. “classical” postal history tends to focus on postal rates and routes, but the collecting of postmarks – technically known as markophily – has been around for a long time as well. And I don’t even care if we’re talking about collecting postmarks on loose stamps or on complete items that went through the mail: the postmarks themselves are the subject of study.

I fell in with the postmark collecting crowd early on when I made the acquaintance of Peter Ashford. Peter wasn’t just a fine student of Transcaucasian stamps and Russian prestamp postal history, he also had a life-long interest in postmarks: specifically, Imperial Russian postmarks from the area now known as Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan – Transcaucasia for short. This is a perfect example of what I would call Area Collecting: you rope off one geographical area and collect the postmarks from a certain historical period. Since I believe in copying the best, I applied the same model to collecting postmarks myself, and concentrated on the postmarks of the Crimea up to about 1945.

An alternative would be to not limit the geographical area but to limit the period more severely. In that way you could collect, say, the first postmarks of the post-1857 period, the so-called Berlin types. You see that here you pretty quickly find yourself collecting a particular postmark type, like the Berlin types, or the dot-numerals. Perhaps a better example would be the “mute” postmarks of WW1, of which the use was limited to a few years.

Plan C is to concentrate on postmarks with a specific function, like railway TPO postmarks, or ship mail postmarks. I have a collection of the postmarks of Telegraph offices of the pre-WW2 period (about which I’ll tell you more someday). Here, limitations in terms of postmark types/function and limitations in terms of the period of use quickly start to overlap.

Plan D is to go for looks: collect postmarks of a particular appearance. For many years I collected the bilingual postmarks of the USSR, 1924-1940, and you can certainly spend a lifetime collecting those.
Of course you can also mix and match and collect, say the oval railway postmarks of Ukraine up to 1918, or the bilingual “Express Mail” postmarks of the USSR from Central Asia (and good luck with that latter choice!).

The point is…there’s really no limit to how you can define a postmark collection. Just pick something that you can have fun with and won’t break your budget.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Nobody beats Hungary. Nobody.

Over the past two centuries the world has seen quite a few outbreaks of hyperinflation. (by the way, the rather arbitrary definition of hyperinflation is inflation of 50% or greater per month. That's bad but hardly the usual "your money loses half its value in hours" thing you think of when you hear "hyperinflation") After WW1 there was a whole rash of them in Europe with Germany of course the best known. When the new "Rentenmark" was introduced in late 1923 it was equal to 1,000,000,000,000 old marks, so 12 zeroes got crossed off. That was pretty impressive! The USSR went through its own hyperinflation, of course, and when the new gold ruble was equal to 50,000,000,000 old rubles so a little over 10 zeroes. Still pretty good.
Later there were outbreaks in China, Greece, several Latin American and African countries of which Zimbabwe had a good one, too. Before Zimbabwe essentially gave up on having a national currency they were on their fourth "Zimbabwe dollar", and somewhere along the way a banknote of 100,000,000,000,000 Zimbabwe dollars was issued, which is a popular item on eBay.
But the record is still Hungary after WW2. The amazing thing there is the speed with which everything happened. On May 1, 1945 the first postwar rates were introduced and the inland letter rate was set at 1 Pengö. By early January 1946 it was 600 Pengö, which is impressive but after that, things just became surreal. What was particularly interesting was the Hungarian government's attempts to keep renaming the currency. So the Pengö was followed by the ezerPengö (1000 Pengö), the MilPengö (1,000,000 Pengö), the Milliard Pengö (1,000,000,000 Pengö) and the BilPengö (1,000,000,000,000 Pengö). By now we're in early July 1946. That's right, the letter rate went up by a factor of about 60 billion in 6 months! July 1946 then just went further into funny numbers, with the introduction of an adoPengö ("tax-Pengö") not really helping. When the Forint was introduced on 1 August 1946 the stabilization rate deleted TWENTY-NINE ZEROES.

This (second - they had a first run at it post-WW1) Hungarian Hyperinflation is of course very interesting philatelically as well. The Collector's Club of Chicago has published a really nice book on the subject which is available free as an e-book too. Recommended reading!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

An unpleasant man behind some stamps

Most collectors will be aware of the "Western Army" issues, which saw a tiny bit of use (mostly on contrived envelopes sent within Mitau) during 1919. They're associated with a gentleman usually referred to as Colonel (or even Prince!) Avalov-Bermondt.
Very few collectors will know much about this unpleasant character. In the first place, his name is just Bermondt. During 1918 he claimed to be the adopted son of a Georgian prince called Avalashvili, and started hyphenating his name as a result. he also adopted the title of Prince while he was at it. Needless to say, claims like that were easy to make in 1918 and impossible to check.
The appalling story of the Western Army is easy enough to read about but it's only after its final defeat that Bermondt's story starts getting really unpleasant. He hovered around the fringes of various Russian/German extreme right-wing groups in the early 1920s before he went all the way and became the leader of the Russian National-Socialist Movement (usually abbreviated as RoND). Here's a picture of him at a fun little get-together:
That's Bermondt in the middle. To his right is Anastasii Vonsyatskii (Anastase Vonsiatsky in Americanized spelling) about whom half a wonderful book has been written ("The Russian Fascists - tragedy and farce in exile" by John Stephan, which I recommend to everyone). To Bermondt's left is Alexander Kazembek, another interesting case.
Bermondt eventually ended up in the USA, where he died in New York in 1972.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The 1928 Spartakiad

Spartakiads were giant, usually international sporting events, usually organized in the Soviet Union. The first Soviet event was the August 1928 Summer Spartakiad in Moscow (also referred to as the All-Union Spartakiad). Here's a wonderful postcard celebrating the event, designed by Gustav Klutsis, who did a whole series of posters for the event that I urge you to Google. They're beautiful examples of Soviet avant-garde photo montage.
Now here's the funny thing. We all know the very handsome stamps issued for the Spartakiad in 1935. Except there was no Spartakiad in 1935, there was a Winter Spartakiad in 1936 in Oslo, Norway. But the 1928 Spartakiad did leave one philatelic trace:
While most pre-war Special Event postmarks are fairly easy to find, thanks to those pesky philatelists, this postmark seems to be a rarity. This is the only one I've ever seen. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Uzbek ennui

There’s no accounting for taste. I happen to like definitive stamps that are well-designed and issued in a range of attractive colors. The Dutch definitives of my childhood (the beautifully simple “en profil” Juliana stamps) probably had something to do with that, and I still have a soft spot for the recess printed high values of that set. But some definitive sets are difficult to like.
In 1883-1884 Great Britain issued the dullest definitive set in its history. The designs weren’t that great to begin with but the coup de grace was the decision to use just two colors: dull purple for the lower values and dull green for the higher values. What a boring set! I suspect this idiotic decision involved enormous sideburns, syphilis and laudanum.

Which brings me to Uzbekistan. Obviously. The Central Asian republics have spent the past 25 years developing their national identities. Uzbekistan did so under the harsh reign of Islam Karimov, in office since 1990 and one of two remaining “Soviet survivors” among the post-Soviet heads of state. Initially, Uzbekistan overprinted some old Soviet definitives, while four stamps showing the flag and coat of arms were uninspired but functional. When a small definitive stamp showing the coat of arms was issued in 1994 it was hard to predict that it would be the first value in the dullest set of post-Soviet definitives, with bunches of values issued until 2006.

There are a few things to like about this set. In the first place, the way the country name was spelled changed, with values prior to 1998 inscribed UZBEKISTON (Cyrillic)/UZBEKISTAN (Latin) while starting in 1998 it was a Latin O’ZBEKISTON. The currency unit was given as either SUM (Cyrillic), SO’M (Latin, a single value issued in 1999) or nothing at all. Of course high inflation meant that new, higher values were needed regularly. Five values in the set were in a larger format than the others, just to add further weirdness.

But the colors! Except for the first 1994 stamp in the set, all values are in shades of red, blue or green. And usually they’re the same shade. For example, the last batch of values was issued in 2006: 9 stamps. Two stamps are the same shade of light green, three stamps are in an identical light blue and four stamps are the exact same shade of light red. There must have been a lot of cursing and squinting going on in the Uzbekistan post offices as postal officials tried to distinguish between different stamps. Sometimes all the values in a batch were the same color, like 4 values issued in 2004 being the same shade of light green. 
In all, 57 values were issued and they make a damn dull page in your album, I can tell you. Kind of fun to collect on cover, though.

Incredibly, the set of definitives that followed this snore-fest was even worse…

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Hundred thousand!

In the US there's a candy bar called "100 grand" which was once used during a memorable class on how much lawsuits cost the company, so don't get into any!
Which must be a very odd introduction to what is really a note about Ukraine. Ukraine had a fairly rough start to its independence, with high inflation making the karbovanets a currency that was soon spiraling into 6-figure exchange rates against the $. The stamp with the highest face value issued by Ukraine was a single stamp issued in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of WW2: a stamp of - you guessed it! - 100,000 karbovanets. This made me wonder how much postal use this stamp saw, particularly since the currency was switched to the hriven a little over a year after its issue.
The first, rather obvious conclusion is that the stamp was not often used on inland mail, since the inland letter rate peaked at 20,000 krb in 1996. However, mail abroad was a different story. Mail to the CIS countries, particularly airmail, went into the low six figures during 1995-1996 and this stamp must have seen use for such mail. But it is for mail to non-CIS countries that the postal rates get really impressive. Which brings me to this letter:
This is a registered airmail express letter from Kiev to Arnhem in the Netherlands, part of a whole bundle of mail addressed to the CITO (an institution that conducted tests of English as a foreign language for students worldwide) in October 1995. Eight copies of the 100,000 stamp, a 50,000 stamp and four copies of the "V" letter stamp @ 10,000 krb each makes the total franking 890,000 krb. At the then current exchange rate used in postal calculations, this was equal to about $5.13, which is pretty cheap for such a letter. 
I'm still looking for even higher frankings of the 100,000 stamp but I don't think I'll find many.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A call for help!

Dearly beloved readers (both of you!),
I am in the middle of writing an article about Azerbaijan, 1992-1994 and I would very much like to include information about postal tariffs. However, I have never seen any publication about these tariffs and can only reconstruct incomplete information from the covers in my collection.

So here is my call for help: if you know anyone in Azerbaijan who might have this information, please ask them to contact me! I have long wished for contacts with collectors in Azerbaijan itself since I appear to be the only person outside Azerbaijan who collects modern Azerbaijan! So: all contacts welcome, and contacts who are interested in postal tariffs 1992-1994 even more welcome!

Thank you!