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Phony Philatelists: Four Stories of Stamp Forgers

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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.

Madame Joseph

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

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.

Are you a stamp collector? What's your most prized possession in your album? What's the most you've ever paid for a stamp? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.