History

A history of philately in three stamp forgers

Written by Beulah | 12th December 2019

Identifying forged stamps is a philatelic discipline–the study of stamps– in its own right, and certain forgeries have become highly sought after collectors items. But what about the forgers themselves? Were they artists? Criminals? Making an important contribution to philately? Or a combination of all three? We take a look at the lives of three notorious forgers, and what they can teach us about the history of stamp collecting.

Jean de Sperati and fake stamps

Jean de Sperati was one of the most talented and prolific stamp forgers of the early-20th century. He became active as a forger just as stamp collecting entered the mainstream; and Sperati’s impeccable forgeries proved to be a deadly combination for many self-styled stamp experts. The first philatelic society in the world–the Royal Philatelic Society London–certified a number of Sperati’s forgeries as genuine, and eminent philatist Robson Lowe described Sperati as “an artist”, while still doing his best to thwart Sperati at every turn.

Born in Italy to a papermill owning family, Sperati developed a childhood fascination with stamps, which was soon complemented by experiments in photography and printing. While young Sperati’s parents may have rejoiced in their teenage son’s wholesome pursuits, the contemporary cynic can’t help but view Sperati’s early hobbies as ideal training for an aspiring forger. Especially as at the time, photography was still in its infancy and a lot of the chemicals used (easily accessible to the amateur photographer) were also used in stamp printing.

Sperati was known for his precise work–his dedication to colour matching the ink was near obsessive–and he was quick to give up on certain projects if he couldn’t achieve a “perfect” forgery. Much to the disgruntlement of many genuine stamp collectors, Sperati frequently did achieve these perfect forgeries, and today his work can sell for double the amount of the genuine version.

Madame Joseph and fake cancels

Madame Joseph was a Britain-based forger who was active in the first half of the 20th century. She ran a lucrative business producing fake cancels, and while the most recent forgery attributed to Madame Joseph is from 1949, her forgeries remained undetected until 1990. Once Madame Joseph’s forgeries came to light, her work was taken so seriously that the Royal Philatelic Society London got involved; buying up all of her instruments of forgery, to guard against them falling into the wrong hands.

Madame Joseph specialised in “cancels”; an area of stamp collecting that has always been especially vulnerable to manipulation. Cancels are stamps that have been issued to the public, but the postal service marks them as “cancelled” before they can be posted. This practise is interesting as it was adopted by postal services as a direct response to the rise in stamp collecting and it is mainly done to make sure that special “collectors stamps” are not used as regular stamps.

The true identity of Madame Joseph is still unknown. This shadowy master forger signed her surname as “Joseph” and she was, possibly, French or Belgian. With so little to go on, it’s hardly surprising that a host of myths and countermyths have sprung up around her. Some of the most persistent of which include the idea that Madame Joseph was actually a group of forgers, hiding behind one moniker, and that she was the same Madame Joseph Krug of Rheims who ferried downed British pilots to safety during WWII.

Rainer Blüm and fake auctions

In 2006, the spectacular case of Rainer Blüm was brought to the public’s attention. Blüm was charged with mass forgery on a mind-boggling level. While no definitive numbers have been released, one survey judged Blüm to have forged cancellations and postmarks from over 200 German towns and over 600 German districts. He was also found in possession of 50 fake expertise handstamps, lending further credibility to the theory that he was forging on a truly epic scale. Blüm was given a probationary sentence of four years, but the majority of his forgeries are probably still in circulation.

What distinguished Blüm went beyond just the number and variety of forged stamps he produced; it was the fake auctions he sold them through. The early days of the internet fuelled an increased interest in stamp collecting, as collectors met on forums and conducted casual transactions. Blüm was one such individual. By conducting so-called “post office auctions”, Blüm was able to arrange unmoderated auctions with people all over the world, many of whom found out about him through collector forums and online catalogues.

Catawiki stamp expert Benedikt Reichl has spoken at length about the ways unscrupulous people use the internet to mislead stamp collectors. While there is always an element of risk to any transaction, Blüm was able to capitalise on that by producing fake authentication certificates. These certificates lent an air of credibility to auctions that were anything but.

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