Phony Philatelists: Four Stories of Stamp Forgers
Ever since the first postage stamp was issued by Great Britain in 1840, there have been stamp collectors. And for almost as long, there have been stamp forgers. Some create counterfeit stamps to get around paying the fee for mail delivery, while others sell their replicas to unsuspecting collectors for quite a bit of cash. Here are the stories of four forgers who were surprisingly adept at faking their way through the world of postage stamps.
Jean de Sperati
As a child growing up in late-19th Century France, Jean de Sperati was fascinated with printing techniques, paper types, photography, and stamp collecting. With a background like that, it should come as no surprise that he became one of the most successful stamp forgers in history. His fakes were easily mistaken for the real thing, because he actually created new engravings of the stamps just like the postal service did, rather than using crude lithography processes like many of his contemporaries. To further convince experts, he purchased less valuable stamps from the same time period as the stamp he was recreating, chemically removed the image, and then printed the fake image on top. Thanks to these techniques, many collectors have Sperati fakes in their collection today and are none the wiser.
He sold his first forgery in 1910 and dealt unabated until 1942, when French customs officials stopped a package he was sending to a collector in Lisbon, Portugal. French officials were set to charge him for exporting stamps without a license when he declared that they were not genuine, but reproductions that he had simply forgotten to mark as such. To verify his claim, two separate panels of experts were brought in and, after thorough examination, the stamps were declared genuine. But to prove they were fake, Sperati created four more perfect copies for the court, who then instead charged him with fraud, a lesser crime. After years of legal arguments, the trial ended in 1948 with Sperati convicted and fined, not even for fraud, but for “disturbing the normal routine of the French customs service.”
The trial tainted his reputation as collectors were now aware that he sometimes sold forgeries, but he stayed in business until 1954 when The British Philatelic Association offered him an estimated $40,000 (approximately $320,000 today) to buy his entire collection of forged stamps. All told, over the course of his long career, it's estimated that Sperati made copies of 566 styles of stamps, from 100 different countries, totaling around 70,000 individual stamps. Because the story is so famous among collectors, Sperati forgeries are now highly-collectible and are sometimes worth more than an original stamp of the same type. In 2007, Sotheby's Auctions sold a collection of 1,500 known Sperati forgeries, one of which sold for £3,270 (about $5,100) the highest price paid yet for a fake stamp.
After a piece of mail has been processed, the post office imprints the envelope with a postmark, also known as a “cancel”, making it so the postage stamp can't be reused. If the cancel is placed well for readability, canceled stamps that have survived the mailing process in great condition can sometimes bring much higher prices than stamps that were simply purchased from the post office and carefully placed in an album. Which is why, in the early part of 20th century, a mysterious British philatelist, known only as “Madame Joseph”, began making fake cancels. She sold or rented over 450 phony postmarking tools to corrupt stamp dealers who used them to mark perfect impressions on their unused stamps, making them appear to have been sent through the mail.
When Madame Joseph died, her fake postmarks passed through various hands until they wound up with Clive Santo, who took possession in 1990 after his father George, a stamp dealer, passed away. The Royal Philatelic Society of London, also known as “The Royal,” was made aware of the cancels and, as is common for stamp collecting authorities, tried to purchase them for safekeeping. However, Santo's asking price was more than The Royal could afford. So, in a brilliant move, The Royal purchased what they could and then sold handbooks to collectors to help them identify Madame Joseph's fake postmarks so they'd know to avoid them. Using the profits from the handbook sales, The Royal was eventually able to purchase the entire collection and prevent generations of philatelists from getting swindled by the legacy of Madame Joseph.
François Fournier never said his stamps were real. Like people who buy a fake Rolex watch to impress their friends, philatelists, a term for people who study stamps and usually collect them, have been known to purchase replicas of some hard-to-find stamps in order to fill out their collection. Fournier openly printed very realistic fake stamps and sold them at a fraction of the cost of genuine article. The problem with selling really convincing fakes, though, is that they're really convincing. And many times Fournier’s excellent replicas would be resold by unscrupulous dealers and collectors, passing them off as the real deal.
In what they said was an effort to prevent collectors from getting ripped off by people reselling Fournier's replicas, some stamp dealers tried to force Fournier to use a watermark or some other type of signature to let people know that his was a fake stamp. But the stubborn Fournier refused. After all, his clients didn't want it known they had purchased a copy, so marking his replicas as such would kill his business. Of course killing his business was the real reason dealers wanted him to mark his items. If a collector could simply buy one of Fournier's replicas, they’d have no reason to go to a dealer and pay what Fournier believed were inflated prices on the real thing. The two groups fought back and forth for years - the dealers bad-mouthed Fournier in trade journals, and Fournier returned with barbs in the editorial pages of his own sales catalog, Le Fac-Simile, where readers could choose from his collection of 3,671 replica stamps for sale.
Because he never tried to pass his stamps off as genuine, Fournier escaped any legal trouble during his 13 years in business. When he died in 1917, his apprentice, Charles Hirschburger, took over the operation, but sales were never as strong as they were under Fournier. In 1928, shortly after Hirschburger died, his widow sold nearly 900 lbs of unsold replicas and printing paper, as well as the printing equipment, to the Union Philatelique de Geneve, a stamp collecting society. The group purchased the items in an effort to prevent anyone else from using the equipment to make their own copies. To capitalize on their investment, the organization printed enough Fournier replicas for 475 numbered albums and sold them to collectors and dealers for $25.00 each (about $300 today). Their replicas, however, were marked with the words Faux or Facsimile.
The U.S. Government
While most stamp forgers did it all for the money, during World War II, the Allies had a greater purpose for making fake stamps. The clandestine warfare branch of the U.S. Military, the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), kicked off a propaganda campaign in 1941 that it called Operation Cornflakes. The plan was to print thousands of anti-Nazi pamphlets, put them in envelopes addressed to German citizens, and then bomb German mail trains. Along with the munitions, the Allied planes would also drop mailbags filled with these envelopes. When the debris of the destroyed train was cleaned up, the Germans would gather up any intact mailbags and deliver the letters, unknowingly delivering the propaganda mail as well.
But of course to get the mail delivered, it had to have valid, German postage. Secretly buying thousands of German stamps would not only be difficult, but would also contribute to the efficiency and economy of the German government, something the Allies were obviously not interested in doing. So they made fake stamps, most famously one nicknamed the Hitler Skull Stamp.
The Skull Stamp is similar to another German stamp the O.S.S. commonly forged, featuring a profile of Adolf Hitler, and the caption, “Duetsches Reich” or “German Empire.” On the blatant Allied forgery, done so intentionally to send a message, but not so obviously as to prevent the letter being delivered, Hitler's head has been redesigned to look like a skull, and the phrase now reads “Futsches Reich” or “Lost Empire.”
As with most propaganda campaigns, its hard to tell how effective Operation Cornflakes really was. In fact, the operation and the forged stamps were so secret that many people didn't even know they existed until Skull Stamps were found in the extensive stamp collection of President Franklin Roosevelt, who apparently received them as a gift from the O.S.S. Today the Hitler Skull Stamps are one of the most sought-after collector's items and, ironically, there are quite a few fakes of these fakes sold by people hoping to make a quick buck.