If you are a stamp collector, here’s some shocking news: More than a few of the stamps in your collection — even some of your prettiest topical sets featuring birds, butterflies, rock stars, Disney characters or world history — may be illegal!
When I say “illegal,” I don’t mean forgeries or counterfeits — though let’s pause to consider them in passing. These fakes are like forged paintings by “old masters” being foisted off as the real thing, or counterfeit $20 bills rolling off some illicit press. Stamp catalogues warn about forgeries, which naturally are found among costlier and rarer stamps. Some early issues from British Guiana, for example, are called “reprints” — not exactly forgeries, since they are “official,” but not genuine
postage stamps either. The original 1 cent magenta of 1852 (above left) is for sale on eBay for just over $5,000; a reprint, readily identifiable by its thick paper and bright color (see above right, from my collection), is worth no more than $15.
Early stamps from the south African republic of Transvaal are quite dear — No. 1 is listed at $350, No. 3 at $450. The catalogue warns that “So-called reprints and trial
impressions of the stamps … are counterfeits.” It goes on to describe how to distinguish forgeries from the real thing. Beware, this really gets into the weeds: “In forgeries … the ‘D’ of ‘EENDRAGT’ is not noticeably larger than the other letters and does not touch the top of the ribbon. In … genuine stamps, the ‘D’ is large and touches the ribbon top. The eagle’s eye is a dot and its face white on the genuine stamps; the eye is a loop or a blob attached to the beak, and the beak is strongly hooked, on the forgeries. …” There is much more to be said about forgeries — I just spent an absorbing 10 minutes delving into the subject online, and could easily get lost in the fake weeds. But let’s move on …
How about a word of reassurance?
Just because you own a few illegal stamps, doesn’t mean the Stamp Police will come knocking on your door, demanding to see your collection. They won’t throw you in jail, slap you with a fine, or even confiscate the unauthorized items. In fact, the Stamp Police don’t even exist. And don’t think that just because some of your stamps are illegal, they have no value. The UPU estimates the market for illegals is at least $500 million.
I recently read about an illegal stamp issue that was a hot item at the 2016 World Stamp Show in Manhattan. The souvenir sheet from the Central African Republic (see right) displayed Donald Trump, then the U.S. presidential candidate. The stamps commemorating the World Stamp Show paid tribute to prominent New Yorkers, with Trump featured as the most prominent of all. It was being promoted by Stamperija, a private firm based in Lithuania that serves the CAR and at least 10 other nations through outsourced postal operations, including stamp production and marketing. This sheet breaks at least a half-dozen rules for postage stamps set by the Universal Postal Union. Yet reports from the stamp show indicate sales were brisk. (You can buy one of the sheets online from eBay for $6.26, plus postage and handling.)
What are the rules? First, here are six rules the Trump souvenir sheet from the Central African Republic breaks:
— It gets involved in the politics of another country
— It has nothing to do with the CAR: does not promote its cultural identity, has no bearing on the people or the state.
— It was not in circulation in the CAR or available to CAR postal customers.
— It was not in keeping with the spirit of the Preamble to the UPU Constitution
— It did not contribute to the dissemination of culture or to maintaining peace.
— It was not a manifestation of the sovereignty of the CAR.
Victor Banta of the philatelic webmaster group took the trouble to put the CAR souvenir sheet into context and perspective. He noted that while the World Stamp Show was going on in New York City in 2016, the CAR was wracked by kidnappings of government ministers, tribal violence and the threat of terrorism. “The influx of peacekeepers no doubt reduced further bloodshed,” Manta observed, “but the crisis continued to outpace the response” in a “rapidly expanding catastrophe.” Now why does a government in such a state put out stamps honoring New Yorkers, particularly the controversial presidential candidate Donald Trump? As a distraction? A sycophantic ego trip? A commercial hustle? Whether or not this souvenir sheet illegal (and I believe it is), it’s a philatelic phelony. J’accuse!
The rules may seem repetitive, even redundant, but it’s worth parsing words to get at what exactly is and is not a “postage stamp.” The UPU begins its definition transactionally: “Postage stamps: 1) Shall be used and put into circulation solely under the authority of the member country … 2) Are a manifestation of sovereignty and constitute proof of prepayment of the postage …”
The UPU declared that stamps must “be devoid of political character or of any topic of an offensive nature in respect of a person or a country …” The postal poobahs even set size parameters — not less than 15 mm or more than 50 mm, vertical or horizontal.
Here’s a basic rule, one might think: Stamps must bear “the name of the member country or territory of issue, in roman letters …” But wait! There is an exception. One country, and one country only, does not have to print its name on its stamps. “An exception shall be granted to Great Britain,” the UPU allows, “the country which invented the postage stamp.”
In 2008 the UPU reaffirmed its Philatelic Code of Ethics as originally adopted at the UPU congress in Bucharest, Romania in 2004. The goal of the enterprise is “high quality, ethical stamps” and a “vibrant philatelic market.” Keenly aware of the enduring value of stamps to philatelists, the authors of the code of ethics warned that postal authorities “shall not produce postage stamps or philatelic products that are intended to exploit customers.”
The code of ethics seems to cover the matter of cancel-to-order mills, the bane of most philatelists. But the language is vague, directing that “cancelling and marking devices shall be used for operational purposes only.” Couldn’t you call it an “operational purpose” when a postal authority decides to reduce its stock by having its stamps cancelled to order? The postally-suspect “remainders” thus created are sold (somehow) at a deep discount, and are spurned by collectors-in-the-know (though I admit I own some CTO sets).
The code also addresses supply and demand. This means ensuring “that the number of stamps issued each year is limited to that which their market will accept.” Postal authorities should “avoid oversupply,” the code advises. “They shall not saturate the market and thus drive philatelists and collectors away from the hobby.” As for proscribing illegal stamps, the code makes only one reference to “products of unofficial origin incorporating postage stamps,” and directs its members to “avoid any action which might be taken as declaring approval … or conferring official status” on such illegals.
Since 2002, the World Association for the Development of Philately (WADP) has been keeping track of legitimate stamp issues from UPU member states through its WADP Numbering System (WNS). Not all UPU member states cooperate with the WNS, however, so there are gaps.
How many of the world’s 17,000-plus new stamps each year are designed and printed by outfits like Stamperija? Lots. Thousands of stamps in recent decades carried the names of nations in Africa and the former USSR, as well as tiny sovereign island states, and before that the Arab trucial states … Here is where it gets really confusing. How do you separate the “legitimate” postage stamps issued by, say, the Arab trucial state of Fujeira, from the “illegal” sets proscribed by the philatelic poobahs? And what if the set is “legit,” that is, postally valid, yet it breaks rules set by the UPU’s code of ethics? I mean really, look at some of these topical sets picked at random from the Scott catalogue for Fujeira in 1967: Butterflies, Winter Olympics, Eisenhower.
Or how about florid souvenir sheets from the west African nation of Sierra Leone celebrating … U.S. Civil War generals (from both the north and the south!)?
These stamps have nothing to do with Fujeira or Sierra Leone, any more than the sets of French classical painting on stamps from the Arab world or Central Africa. Is that a philatelic crime? At least a shade unethical?
Now consider this pretty stamp (right) from Angola — it is from a series of topical sets celebrating flora and fauna, fungi and cacti. Why does the UPU insist they are illegal? Because Angolan postal authorities themselves denounced these issues to the UPU, refusing to acknowledge their legitimacy. The Philatelic Webmasters Organization noted: “Three companies located in Belgium, Great Britain and Lithuania issued stamps in its name.” Was this a shameless attempt by unscrupulous stamp-makers to cash in on the topical stamp market? Was there a misunderstanding? A deal gone bad? A plot foiled? I wish I knew. …
As you begin to realize how many illegal stamps there are out there — from Mali, Chad, Georgia, and so on — the likelihood that this is the result of an accident or a misunderstanding fades. What we’re left with is a philatelic scheme that blurs the boundaries between legal and illegal, and between Cinderellas and “real” stamps. The goal: to bleed the market until the entire house of stamps collapses in a pile of disarray, distraction, dismay, disgust and disinterest.
A small gallery of illegals, undesirables and toward the end, forgeries
Notwithstanding the purpose of this particular inquiry is illegal stamps, I can’t resist treating you to a few memorable stamp forgeries from the past …
This image on the left is described as an “American propaganda stamp” from World War II. I don’t know much about it, except that it parodies the definitive series from the Hitler era (see example, right). The name “Deutsches Reich” has been replaced with “Futsches Reich,” and Adolf’s profile is transformed into a hideous skull-creature. Brrr!
The Goebbels propaganda shop came up with this multi-layered Nazi deception (right). First, the red overprint — “Liquidation of Empire/Jamaica” — describes a fantasy scenario of de-colonization after Nazi conquest of England. Now look at the stamp itself. At first glance it appears to be a common British definitive from the George VI era (compare with the real thing, below). But no! The cross above the crown has been replaced by — a Star of David! Instead of the rose in the upper left corner there is — a Bolshevik Hammer and Sickle! Message: Great Britain is a tool of the Jews and the Communists. Pretty slick, eh? Maybe a bit too slick, I’d say …
Journey with me further back in history for this little collection of Confederate forgeries. I just acquired it at the Syracuse Stamp Club auction, for a buck. DJK, the seller, labeled it “Confederate fakes,” and that pretty much says it. Every design from the brief interval of CSA stamp production is represented here — in a set produced “privately” in 1941, seven decades after the war between the states ended. The so-called Springfield Facsimiles were the work of H.E. MacIntosh, owner of Tatham Stamp and Coin Co. in Springfield, Mass. He commissioned the stamps as a promotional gimmick, using copyrighted portraits. After many complaints, MacIntosh agreed to label the stamps “Facsimile” and number his fakes. At right, for comparison purposes, I offer an example of the actual 10-cent Jefferson Davis profile stamp of 1863. I know it’s genuine because it was used on a cover, and passed down to me in my collection. Am I really sure? Well, look closely: the engraving itself is distinctive (the cheap imitation of the 10-cent stamp above, which is in the second row, far right, is lithographed, if I’m not mistaken.)
END OF PART FOUR: 1