Sunday, October 7, 2018

The presumption of innocence or the presumption of guilt?

Amazingly, I won't be talking about recent political events in the US.
Suppose we are confronted by a stamp issue that is not documented in official publications of any kind. And no, those goofy "certificates of authenticity" you see for several dodgy Russian Civil War issues don't count, for obvious reasons.
There might be some references to the stamps in contemporary publications, like newspapers, but I advise against looking at contemporary philatelic publications as being very useful. All too often, those publications were the victims of unscrupulous correspondents who had something to gain by an issue looking respectable, and an article in a philatelic magazine conveyed a lot of respect!

Next step: look for convincing postal usages. That may or may not be difficult or impossible. The only postal usages may have been on internal postal forms, or on items which had a minute survival rate. And even postal usages which look convincing really need expert opinion to be assessed realistically. As an example, here's a fake Nikolaevsk-na-Amur'e cover, offered on Delcampe in 2010:

It takes a fair bit of specialist knowledge to spot the problems with this cover: it's a fake. That even alleged experts can be fooled is demonstrated by this certificate:

It's a silly forgery, one of the many forgeries that were circulating in Moscow during the 1990s. But it fooled this Mr. Hovest, who at one point was an accredited expert for Russia!

So do we give an issue like this the benefit of the doubt and presume its innocence?

I believe we should not. I think we should regard every even slightly questionable issue as guilty until proven innocent, and proving innocence is and should be difficult! For me, the NNA issue is still guilty...

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Missing stamps and missing stamps

Is there anything that makes a collector of postal history sadder than the sight of those tell-tale rectangular pale spots where a stamp used to be? Missing stamps are not just ugly, they decrease the value of a cover enormously, and they can make it difficult to understand the story behind the cover. So when I saw this cover, my heart just sank:
This cover was sent in March 1920 from the Vladivostok - Kharbin TPO (line 264) to Tomsk, and was sent on to Perm'. Missing stamp at lower left: almost certainly a 50k stamp since the correct rate was 1.50R for an inland letter. Tragic, isn't it? A nice TPO cover from 1920 and this happens and wait a minute......

The "To pay" mark (from the line 264 TPO no less...) tells a different story, because the amount that was entered in the center was 1r. Twice the the missing postage was apparently 50k. And now it's a wholly different story. The postage due exactly covers the value of the missing stamp, so the stamp falling off had happened sometime soon after the postmark was applied, and a(nother?) postman slapped on the postage due marking.

The cover didn't reach Perm' until January 1921.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Sredinskii's postmark

By now it is generally accepted that the "final issue" of South Russia - the 100R surcharge on perf and imperf 1k stamps - never saw use in the Crimea. While the issue made sense in light of the final postal rates of Wrangel's mini-state, distribution was prevented by the collapse of the White front lines at Perekop and the hurried evacuation of the Crimea by White forces.
The Evil Genius behind this issue (as well as the Refugee Post non-issue and probably several forgeries as well) was a gentleman called Sredinskii, and he enthusiastically marketed this "prepared for use but not issued" "issue" among stamp dealers. And postmarked copies (I won't dignify them with the description "used") do exist. Here's one:

Have I seen this Sevastopol' postmark with serial letter "d" before? Yes I have! I have ONE record of another strike, a very crisp example from 1908 (from a parcel card, as it happens):

There is actually room for doubt that the two are strikes of the same postmark and the intervening 12 (at least!) years have obviously not been kind to this postmark, but for now I'll posit that these are strikes of the same postmark. But, here's where it gets interesting: I can't record a single Soviet-period strike of this postmark, and there were plenty of Soviet usages of other Imperial postmarks. So perhaps this postmark was no longer on the Crimea after 1920. Because it was in Sredinskii's pocket while he ran away to Turkey. 
Frankly, even if there were a post-1920 example of this postmark from Soviet Crimea, I'd simply conclude that Sredinskii spent a productive afternoon in the Sevastopol' post office, CTO-ing the heck of a few sheets of stamps.

Friday, June 22, 2018

1937 Geological Congress

Special Event postmarks of the USSR can be fun to collect, at least as far as the pre-war period is concerned. The one aspect about them that I have trouble with is that they tend to occur on blatantly philatelic covers. Ick!

This cover is icky for another reason: the spectacularly acidic glue that was used to affix the registration label securely discolored the paper of the envelope around it. Ick! But this particular postmark is uncommon so one can be flexible...

But the best part of this envelope is the vertical pair of the 15k Gor'kii stamps: imperforate! Clearly a philatelist was at work here...

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A fun bit of FER (postal) history

Telegraph postmarks from Vladivostok are not that scarce, since the telegraph office apparently processed quite a bit of registered mail, even during the Civil War. But complete telegrams are a different matter. This is an example from October 1920, showing the very scarce postmark with serial letter "a". Nice enough already.
The telegram was sent from Kharbin to Vladivostok, by a Mr. Pogrebetskii. And if you're a banknote collector, you know that name.
A.I. Pogrebetskii was the author of a very fine book on the monetary history of the Civil War in Siberia and the Far East. The book, published in Kharbin in 1924, gives a very detailed review of prices, banknote issues and redemptions during 1917-1923 and let me tell you, it's a complicated subject! Pogrebetskii was a dealer in banknotes in Kharbin, and it's possible he dealt in stamps as well. His book actually mentions the Civil War stamp issues of Siberia too, but it's not very detailed on that subject.
Before he became an emigre banknote dealer in Kharbin, Pogrebetskii was a politician, a member of the SR party. In fact, he was an SR member of the Far Eastern Republic parliament. The FER allowed multi-party politics and the bolsheviks, mensheviks and SR were all represented in the FER parliament. How much of a sham this was is demonstrated by the events of November 1922. With the defeat of the final White enclave in October 1922 and the withdrawal of Japanese intervention forces (except from Sakhalin), there was no longer any need for a "buffer" state in Eastern Siberia, and the FER government asked the RSFSR for permission to be absorbed. The vote in the FER parliament was unanimously in favor of this proposal....mostly because the menshevik and SR members of parliament had been arrested a few days earlier. Except Pogrebetskii, who was away in Kharbin on business at the time...

Pogrebetskii also wrote a book on Chinese banknotes and was still active as late as 1930. I can't trace what happened to him after that, but if he was still around in Kharbin in 1945 he probably met a messy end.

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!