Part 1



© Calvet M. Hahn 1975 Updated 2002
Let’s talk about ‘provenience’ or ‘provenance’ in expertizing.  What the term means is that an item can be traced back for many m any years.  it is used by libraries, museums and expetrs in all sorts of fields to indicate a higher likelihood of genuineness.  When philatelic experts can trace an item back through important collections and auctions, they are referring to its provenance and it tends to give them greater assurance that the item is good.

It can happen thatn an incident such as the following can occur.  I remember a knowledgeable African art dealer-specialist examining a statue and carefullly pointing out several characeristics which wered characteristic of ‘modern’, e.g. at least post-1950, carving.  A modern statue of this sort has relatively little value.  A quick reversal of opinion took place when it was pointed out that this particular item was illustrated and sold in the Helena Rubenstein collection and that it bore the markings of the Lem museum collection, which she had acquired.Let’s talk about ‘provenience’ or ‘provenance’ in expertizing.  What the term means is that an item can be traced back for many m any years.  it is used by libraries, museums and expetrs in all sorts of fields to indicate a higher likelihood of genuineness.  When philatelic experts can trace an item back through important collections and auctions, they are referring to its provenance and it tends to give them greater assurance that the item is good.

These markings made it impossible for the item to be more modern than the 1920s, and it could be considedrably older.  I might add, there was never a breath of scandal that a marking had been added to a Rubenstein piece, so forgery was out of the question.  Obviously, the item was of substantially greater value than the specialist had first guessed, and provenance made the difference.

Philatelic experts also treasure provenance.  They reason that the further back you can trace an item the more likely it is to be good.  Among the reasons behind this view are the following: a) Older items are more likely to have been in the hands of a knowledgeable and competent collector or to have been examined by a competent expert. b) Years ago, many items of great value today were sufficiently cheap so there was no real economic reason for forging or faking them. c) The old-time forger was not competent and his product is easily detected.  This writer does not accept this last assumption.  While it is certainly true that a number of the known old-time forgers have easily identifiable charactheristics, that is not sufficient evidence that the better ones were not detected.  It might be noted here that a very interesting work about the early forgers is currently being pubished in the British periodical Philiatelist authored by Varro E. Tyler.

The Making of the Expert

There is no universal philatelic expert, although several men have such an encyclopaedic knowledge combined with years of experience as to come fairly close.  Wlhat does it take to be an expert?  Among the first items is access to a reference collection of the item being examined.  It is the unavailability of adequate reference material that gives most collectors serious prblems in evaluating their own purchases.  Mistakes are made until one has examined enough items to know some of the distinguishing characteristics.  This is difficult to do with higher-priced material.

This handling factor is the second basic requirement.  An expert has handled or studied his material to the point where he begins to have a ‘feel’ for it.  Let me tell a very minor story along this line.  As a member of an advanced philatelic study group, I have been able to handle a number of rarities.  By the time I had examined fifty copies of Scott’s U.S. #64, the pink 1861 3¢ stamp, I found I could correctly pick it from Scott #64b, the rose pink, to the satisfaction of specialists who had examined far more than I had.  The bluish cast of the pink , which definitely differs from the rose or rose-pink, is now part of my visual memory.

The same is not yet true of the purple caste of Scott #64b, where I have only examined a half dozen copies.  I think I might be able to pick out a pigeon blood, but without checking a reference copy, I would prefer not to dare expertize it.

If you read the opening pages of the Scott Specialized United States Catalogue, you can get a fairly-good rundown of the areas in which an expert ought to be conversant.  A deep knowledge of how the printing of an issue is done, the characteristics of the paper used, the gum and ink and how they react under varied conditions as well as how they were formulated and applied—all of these are essential background.  Advanced collectors and experts have absorbed this knowdedge in some fashion in order to evaluate the material they see.

It is not just a matter of knowing the information or techniques.  It is also a case of thinking about them in the proper fashion.  When is gum applied relative to the perforation of a stamp?  What does that mean in terms of a regummed stamp?  Would it not be logical to find bits of gum in the perforations if the gum is applied afterwards rather than before?  And, if governments perforate after gumming then it would be illogical to find loose gum in the perforation of a stamp they printed.  This simple thought will aid in most of the so-called regum problems although by no means all of them, as new techniques in regumming are eliminating some of the clues.  If your example has bits of gum in the perforation hole, is it not logical to conclude the gum was applied afterwards and not before:  And that leads to the conclusion that the stamp was possibly regummed. While philatelic experts have studied these matters quite thoroughly, there has been a much less-stringent study of postmarks and how cancellations are apploied and even less study of the postal history surrounding the handing of the mails.  Part of this stems from the fact that for almost the first one hundred years of collecting the focus was on the stamp itself, not on the cover on which it originated.  Thus why bother to study the postmark.

A second problem results from the fact that there is no major reference collection of postmarks.  And by their nature, there cannot be.  While many collectors and experts have substantial holdings of postmarked items relating to their specialty, pulling them all together is too vast a job.  Important studies have been published of the postmarks of Washington, Baltimore, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and Boston among others.  Perhaps the best single work on the subject is the monumental Blake and DavisPostal Markings of Boston recently reprinted.  Yet this work does not show the difference between the same general marking used in March of one year and the change that time and use made in it when it was utilized in March of the following year.  Further, the major source collection upon which the book was based has been dispersed and is unlikely to be reformed in the near future.

There are spot studies of specific markings and their varied characteristics over time.  Among others, I have seen those of San Francisco, Troy, NY and New York City.  But the field is still sadly neglected.  It may make a major difference in evaluating a cover to know exactly what the Station B marking looked like in February 1908 or March 1919.  Did it differ in the preceding month or a year later?  Upon just such evaluations the genuineness of a rare first-day cover may hinge.  And how do you possibly build a reference collection that includes a selection of postmarks–or even a single example–of a post office that did only $2 worth of business a year and only operated for ten years a century ago?

Even less studied than the postmark is the postal history involved in moving letters from one location to another in the classic period.  I know of no specialist or key philatelic library that has a complete run of the regulations of the post office, although a number of collectors and some libraries have partial runs.  Such a file is now under assembly.  How many people have ever examined the mail route contracts and the change in handling over the years?  If fact, in most cases, collectors don’t even know the different postmasters of the towns they study and have not classified the postmarks agains the postmaster lists for the rather interesting results than be be obtained.

Kung-fu Fooling

One of the world’s great philatelic experts, as well as one of the most successuful. of the philatelic forgers, was Jean Sperati.  Today, many of his productions sell for more than the original stamps.  Students usually rely upon the two books about his reproductions for characteristics.  Unfortunately, as the second book noted, the work of his last years was not as carefully done as his early forgeries and some of those may still be undetected, so that we are lulled into a belief that his fakes can be more easily detected than they actually can be during his early forgery period.

Writing in 1946 in his Philately Without Experts?, Sperati, on page 120, discusses the conclusions of experts in regard to the old-time forgers of stamps noting that one can fill the pages with ways of detection, for it is always the same thing.  He notes,

“differences of design, of perforation, of dimensions, of paper, of color, in the watermark…”

Then he goes on to refer to his own productions of the 1930s and notes that expert testimony reports,

“1. If it is a question of imitation, even by photogravure which is the most perfect method of falsifiaction, one inevitably finds differences of dimension.  In this case (Sperati’s production) the stamps were coupled with the originals and examined under a comparison microscope. Between the pieces being examined and the reference copies, there wasn’t even a difference of a tenth of a millimeter.

  1. In imitations, even perfect ones, the similarity of shade under ordinary light stops in almost every case when examining the item under ultra-violet lamps (Dr. Wood’s or the one of Gallois).  In this case, no difference in shade or suspect fluorescence betrays any of the Sperati stamps.
  2. A forgery, as perfect as one could wish, still is not on exactly the same paper as the original.  It is noted that, in the series under examination, the papers are precisely the same although the papers are quite different on some extremely difficult to reproduce stamps, notably that of the Bavarian one Kreuzer and the Spanish two reales.  All Sperati’s papers are perfectly identical with the papers of the originals.
  3. Among the examined stamps, some have watermarks.  The Hong Kong has a crowned CC watermark.  That of Lagos has the crowned CA watermark.  It is a fact that the exact imitation of watermarks is almost impossible.  In this case not only have the watermarks been compared, they have been measured and the agreement is exact.
  4. Most stamps are gummed and each of them has a characteristic gum of its country of printing.  Each of these has this characteristic, even when great age has transformed the old gums.  The hypothesis of imitation gums so varied is not sustainable.
  5. Several stamps are perforated (five francs of Belgium, Hong Kong, Lagos, the seventeen ore of Swede, the peseta Spanish of 1878).  Perforations are the constant stumbling block of the forger.  It is necessary to construct a costly perforating machine because fake perforations made by hand are immedately recognizeably.  However, here, each stamp has the proper and characteristic perforation.
  6. Finally, in addition to the consistence and nature of the paper used, it is necessary to check its thickness.  Here, there is not a divergence of a thousandth of a millimeter between the originals and those being examined.  And, one should note the typical case of the Spanish two reale, which is a pelure paper.”

(Translated from the original French by the author)

How is it that Jean Sperati was able to so deceive the philatic experts, and why is it that his early productions are so dangerous even today?  A key element was his ability to use the ‘kung-fu’ tactic of using the expert’s knowledge against him.  For example if the question is one of a false surcharge, it is typical for the expert to carefully examine the surcharged overprint for signs of genuineness.  However, one way to fool him used by Sperati was to obtain a genuine surcharge on a cheap stamp then underprint a rare stamp.  Thus it is the stamp which got the cursory attention, rather than the overprint which is fake.

Sperati also successfully forged inverts.  What he did here was to dissolve the outer frame and print a new frame upside down.  For example, in the embossed head items from Sardinia, the typical expert would carefully check the embossed center for signs of forgery—and not find it—and thus be fooled into pronouncing the stamp good when it was the border that was inverted and fake.

Hanz Stoltz, a knowledgeable expert who has examined some $75-million in rare stamps, gives an interesting primer on some of the problems in the February 1975 issue of the U.S. Classic Society’s Chronicle.  It is well worth reading.

Provenance is one of the ways in which an expert can be fooled.  Certainly, the assumptions made by experts about stamps that can be dated back many years are based upon good experience.  It is likely the rare stamp was examined.  The old-time forgers did not do as good a job as those of the 1930s, such as Sperati, or even the specialist forgers of today, and there is also the economic factor.

The uneconomic value of an old-time fake is a subject often discussed among philatelic experts seeking to suggest that the item might be good.  In many cases faking didn’t make economic sense.  However, in my own holding, I have a number of forged stampless covers—badly forged , it is true–that were done at least as long ago as the 1930s when they couldn’t command a price of 10¢.  Yet someone faked them.

Sperati in his Philately Without Experts? gives a list of seventeen stamps all of which have been forged.  In 1914, these were worth 5,800 francs or at 19.3¢ a franc (the approximately correct conversion) this represents $300.  When he was writing in 1946, Sperati reported the same items were worth 1,787,00 francs.  Figuring 350 francs to the dollar, this is $5,100.  Using the 1955 Scott catalog the same items are valued at $7,115 or about 25 times the 1914 value.

Let us now translate this into 1975 buying power.  Right now, the U.S. consumer price index is 160.6 at mid-year.  It was 62.3 in 1946 and 35.2 in 1914.  This means the $300 worth of forged stamps in 1914 has a dollar worth of $1,376 buying power today.  The $5,100 worth of the collection in 1946 is equal to $13,200 in 1975 dollars.  In other words, the rise in value from 5,800 francs to 1,787,.000 francs is a real increase of just under ten times!  Thus, while old catalog values were low, reading and taking them literally seriously undervalues the contemporary worth of the stamps.

In my Fine Art of Forgery, I traced the detection method of a fake that had not only been passed by several leading dealers and auctioneers, but which had also reposed in the collection of one of America’s better known philatelic students.  As late as the time of the article, the item would not have brought the faker $12 had he sold it.  Yet a fair amount of care and expenditure went into this apparenly unique fake.  I for one, am not prepared to guess the motives of a forger who fakes an item of relatively little value.  But I am equally unprepared to accept the thesis put forth by what seem to me to be too many experts that, because the item would have had to be cheap at the time of the faking, it would not have been faked.

This provenance and value weakness is one that several forgers, Sperati included, took advantage of in applying a ‘kung-fu’ technique agains the the experts.  The second major weakness is the study of postmarks.  No real expert would pass a suspected item without examining a comparision copy; yet most are quite ready to pass a cancellation without a microscopic comparison with a reference example.  Admittedly, getting a comparison copy is difficult.

Further, there is a great reluctance to accept that just as stamps can be plated so can cancellations.  Yet, plating studies of cancllations in some cases do exist and others can be created.

Another ‘kung-fu’ type weakness is postal history.  Because postal history is even more recent as a philatelic phenomenon than cover collecting, it has not received the same in-depth study that the individual stamp has.  In the U.S. I doubt there is one complete file of the postal regulations in the hands of any collector or expert committee.  Many specialist have access to some of them, but, a gerneral study and reference file is not yet available.  And, even when the files are available, experts who grew up in the period when the stamp itself was king are reluctant to immerse themselves in the study of a subject alient to their entire career as philatelists.  Our next generation of experts will probably be far better vered in this phase—and perhaps far weaker in plating characteristics, for example, than the present generation.

Cross-border 1847s

Let us examine an example that recently came to my attention while viewing an auction and which bothers me as a postal historian despite the fact that a number of admittedly expert philatelist report it is ‘as good as gold.’  This is the ‘Buckland cover’, which was first illustrated in a definitive work when Lester G. Brookman Brookman expanded his 1947 two-volume The 19th Century Postage Stamps of the United States into three volumes, figure 1.  It was noted there as being ex-Emerson and Ward.  The item is a cross-border cover from Montreal to New York with a Scott catalog U.S. #2, the black Washington, as well as manuscript and pen markings.  It is addressed to Walker Street in New York and the outer leaf, which is all there is, is a blue-toned paper.

There is a red ‘tombstone’ Montreal paid cancellation of December 29, 1849 and a manuscript ‘4½ rate as well as awitten endorsement ‘paid to the lines.’  In addition, there is a red encircled ‘10’ handstamp and the adhesive is adequately tied by three-four strikes of what appears to be a circled grid in red.  The center is almost completely obliterated by the red ink.

As a postal historian, this covers spells possible trouble to me.  Why does it not so register with expert philatelist?  One reason, of course, is the fact that it can be dated back at least fifty if not seventy-five years.  The second is that the problem arises in postal history knowledge rather than stamp knowledge.  It so happens that stampless covers of this precise period have all the markings except for the 10-cent 1847 and its tying circle grid.  Thus, the possibility of forgery exists with vey little effort or expertise demanded of the forger.  Consequently the basic predisposition of the examiner comes into play.  Does he or she examine from the point of view that an item must be assumed to be bad until a rigouous analysis proves otherwise, or from the view that the item is probably good unless there is definitely suspicious evidence?

The postal regulations involved in the period when this item passed through the mails are complex.  Susan McDonald, postal historian par excellence of U.S./Canada cross-border covers, discusses the problems well in her ‘Canada-U.S. Agreement of 1875 Ended Complex Systems of Exchange.’ published by the Postal History Society of America in its journal.  There, in figures #10-14 she illustrated and analyzed similar period covers.

Mrs. McDonald pointed out that with the emission of the 1847 issue in the U.S. it was possible to prepay a letter from Canada to the U.S. by payimg the Canadian postage in cash and putting on a U.S. stamp from July 1, 1847 through June 30 185l when the U.S. rates changed.  From April 23, 1851 through June 30, 185l you could also prepay from Canada by using a combination of Canadian Beaver and the U.S. 1847 issue stamps.  Such covees with both stamps are great rarities and command high prices.  Even covers with the U.S. stamp applied in Canada are valuable rarities.  On the other hand, even today, a stampless cover of this interesting period is relatively common and commands a market price of $7.50 to about $15 in 1975.

Thus, if an 1847 stamp were successfully added to a stampless letter in 1975, the price would moved from a few dollars to thousands of dollars.  Of course, the longer ago such an addition took place, the less probablility of initial detection and the lower the economic gain.  For this reason it is important to have the provenance of such a cover.

In 1847 through April 6, 1851, it was possible to prepay only part of the cross-border rate.  Such letters were marked ‘paid to the lines.’  However, in an order dated October 25, 1847 effective November 16, 1847, the Canadian Postmaster General held that American postage could not be prepaid in cash.  Canadian postage, however, still had to be prepaid under the earlier rulings such as that of June 5, 1845, which remained in force.

Various authorities such as Boggs cite the change incorporated in the U.S./British treaty of 1848, which ended the retaliatory rate period on transatlantic mails.  A clause (Articles 13 and 14) covering Canadian mails was inserted into the Agreement signed May 14, 1849 in Washington which,

‘so far as they are not already in force shall cover into operation on the 1st of July next.’

This clause created a combined U.S./Canada rate which a Canadian could prepay wholly in cash, by cash and stamps, or not prepay at all.  Prepayment wholly in Canadian stamps had to await the issuance of the Canadian Beaver stamp on April 23, 1851.  It is often assumed, oncorrectly, that this article went into force at the time of the Treaty in 1849.

However, Article 23 of the enabling agreement between the British and American postal representatives tells us differently.  It can be found on page 807 of the Postmaster General’s Report of December 23, 1849.  It specifies the use of a combination rate and eliminates part-prepayment.  Article 23 goes on as follows:

“(as) it will not be possible to determine by previous regulations the true combined rates to which letters will be liable; and as, therefore, it will not be practicable to prescribe such forms and settle such details as will carry the said articles into due effect, it is agreed that further efforts for the adjustment of such forms and details for carrying into operation articles 13 and 14 of the Convention of December 15, 1838, shall be postponed until such alterations be made in the rates of postage as will allow of the provisions of the said articles being effectually carried out according to the true intent and meaning of the same.”

In his Annual Report the U. S. Postmaster General reported sending out a table relatiing to foreign postages and instructions.  Point 12 of the 1849 Instructions reads:

“The exchange offices of the two countries (U.S. and Canada), in mailing to each other, are to postmark the letter, not with the entire postage, but with the credit and debit portions of it only; if a paid letter, with the credit amount in favor of the other country in red ink, and with a ‘paid’ stamp in same color; if unpaid, with ther debit amount against the other country, in black ink.  But before the exchange office receiving such letter delivers it, or mails it to the inteior, it is to re-stamp the letter with its own office stamp, in all cases, and with the ‘paid’ stamp in red ink, if paid; if unpaid, with the amount, in black, of the entire postage to be collected.”

Mrs. McDonald, in private correspondence, questions whether these instructions applied to mails with Canada, relying upon Article 3 of the British-American treaty, which calls for such markings on transatlantic mail upon which we know the black debit and red credit was applied.  My reading of instruction points 5 thorough 12, which discuss mail through the U.S., is that these instructions also applied to Canadian mail, both from the wording of the instruction text and from the fact that the Canadian Post Office was still under the control of the General Post Office in London at this time.

We do know that wholly prepaid letters after 1845 were marked ‘paid through,’ ‘paid to New York’, or the amounts of postage of each country were separately stated in red and the combined total noted also in red.  As Mrs. McDonld points out, however, “this was the method prescribed for wholly prepaid letters by the Post Office Department, but was not always observed.”

A basic postal history question arises from this 1849 American Postmaster General report and instructions and the preceding Canadian order of October 25, 1847, effective November 16, 1847.  It is: was part-prepayment still acceptable within Canada or were such letters to be sent entirely prepaid or entirely postage due?  It is obvious from the Canadian instructions that there was no way to prepay the U.S. postage in cash after November 16, 1847; however, such postage could be, and sometimes was, prepaid by stamps of the United States.  If Canadians were obliged to prepay postage the entire way rather than part-prepayment (this meant using U.S. stamps), then covers in the time period should so indicate.  Further, we should find no examples of prepayment to the lines either on stampless covers or those bearing U.S. stamps.  There would be no operative purpose for the notation ‘paid to the lines.’

Prior to the introduction of stamps in the United States, the term ‘paid to the lines’ meant prepayment in cash or by charge.  It was a notation put on by the writer to warn the recipient of a letter that postage had been paid and that, unlike the typical letter of the period, the recipient should not also pay postage.  If a U.S. stamp was applied to a letter in Canada, there was no reason whatsoever for noting that the letter was ‘paid to the lines.’  There was, under the June 5, 1845 ruling, no way for the Canadian postage to be unpaid and the U.S. postage prepaid by stamp that I know of.  No examples of such handling have yet been brought to my attention.  Yet, such a condition is the only one that makes logical sense if the phrase, ‘paid to the lines’ in the 1847-1851 period to to have a meaning, on stamped covers.  The notation, however, makes excellent sense if applied to a stampless cover, for it still warns the recipient that the Canadian portion of postage (part-prepayment) has been paid and that only the United States portion should still be due.

The figure 1 problem cover that initiated this discussion of the ‘paid to the lines’ covers is known as the Buckland cover and has the provenance of being illustrated in Lester Brookman’s major philatelic work.  It is presently (at the time this article was originally written) under discussion by a number of experts—both stamp collectors and postal historians.

Recognizing the problem presented by the specific notation of a ‘4½’ rate, which is the correct currency rate from Montreal to the lines and the notation ‘paid to the lines,’ several experts examinging this cover proposed that the U.S. 1847 stamp was applied in New York City.  Let’s examine this hypothesis and see if it holds up to rigorous analysis.


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