By Jesse Robitaille
It’s considered one of the most challenging aspects of philately, and with copious amounts of forged, faked, and counterfeit material on the market today, it’s vital for collectors to understand what they’re dealing with.
As usual, the first step is knowledge. Luckily for collectors, the hobby is filled with knowledgeable people who are more than willing to help. After all, when dealing with anything of value, one runs the risk of being “hurt” – either from the emotional pain of mistakenly identifying a stamp or the financial pain of wasting money on something it’s not – so it follows that stamps can attract some dishonest folks who are only concerned with turning a profit. And in terms of commercial value, aesthetic appreciation and historical significance, stamps are on par with currency and fine art as some of the most faked and forged material in all of history.
WHAT’S A FORGERY, ANYWAY?
When it comes to stamps, there’s a difference between counterfeits, fakes and forgeries.
A counterfeit is essentially a copy of a government document used to defraud the government – or its postal system, in this case – of money. On the other hand, a forged stamp is produced from scratch by copying a genuine stamp and then using the finished product to deceive or defraud collectors. So while counterfeit stamps are an attack on the postal system, forged stamps are an attack on collectors.
Furthermore, fake stamps, which begin as genuine stamps but are altered to boost value, can include harsh changes such as applying overprints, re-perforating, de-perforating, re-backing, repairing, re-gumming, altering colours or adding false cancellations or postmarks. Any of this fakery would render a stamp disingenuous because it was produced or altered in an attempt to make it appear more valuable to collectors.
However, fakes and forgeries don’t hurt the hobby as much as one would think, said John Beddows, a stamp dealer from North Bay and member of the North Bay Stamp Club.
“In fact, it adds a new perspective to collecting. It creates an opportunity for people to get samples of postal items that they can add to their collection. Some people only collect forgeries. Ken Pugh has a catalogue – it’s that significant.”
Beddows said the main issue today is counterfeit stamps being used to defraud the post office.
“The forgeries to defraud collectors are certainly of a past glory, and the forgeries that we have today are to defraud the postal administration for financial gain,” he said. “But it’s supply and demand, and anyone who collects certain stamps will want to find them, even if they’re faked or forged.”
The world’s first adhesive stamp, the Penny Black, was issued in 1840, and it didn’t take long for the world’s first counterfeit stamps to follow suit.
The first edition of The Guinness Book of Stamps Facts & Feats claims the earliest counterfeits – or stamps used to deceive and defraud the post office – were of the Penny Black, which was first copied within its year-of-issue in 1840.
Only two decades later, in May 1864, an edition of The Stamp-Collector’s Magazine said forgeries had become so common as to necessitate a book, Forged Stamps: How to Detect Them, which was published to help collectors differentiate between forgeries and genuine stamps. By that time, forgeries of both common and rare stamps from a wide range of issuing countries were already being produced.
Soon after Britain issued the Penny Black, stamps became “philatelic objects” – the interesting and valuable historical artifacts cherished by many – and stamp forgery became a problem for the postal system and collectors alike.
While counterfeiters of currency often target large denominations in an attempt to garner the biggest return for the same amount of work (the same amount of time and money goes into producing a $5 note as it does a $100 note), stamp counterfeiters often produce common, everyday stamps, which can pass as regular paid postage.
Interestingly, as the hobby proliferated throughout the 20th century, many collectors used these faked and forged stamps to fill holes in their collections. This was often considered an acceptable alternative to finding a genuine piece and led to disingenuous stamps flooding the early market. Of course, as with most counterfeiting, the problem didn’t end there, and those forgeries surely found their way into some of today’s collections, as was previously described by Beddows.
Beddows said the market for faked and forged stamps has remained consistent over recent years.
“There are people right now whose philatelic credence is a result of their issuing certificates stating what the stamp is – whether forged or real, whether properly or improperly cancelled and so on – so obviously the certificate issuers are aware they are looking for forged stamps, and there are more being issued, so it’s an area that’s not dying or being restricted in any way.”
While some collectors seek out faked and forged stamps to fill their collections, others prefer only genuine pieces.
Of course, some fakers and forgers go to great lengths to produce their alterations or copies, so if you collect any stamp – whether real or not – it’s important to know what it looks like. As mentioned earlier, the first and often only step in determining the genuineness of a stamp is knowledge.
One person who specializes in figuring out whether a stamp is genuine is Garfield Portch, vice-president of the Vincent Graves Greene Philatelic Research Foundation.
He said major fakeries are rarely seen today and have little impact on the hobby.
“It’s mostly minor alterations that are seen today, so education is paramount,” said Portch, who was invited to join the foundation in 2007. “It’s more the repairs, forgeries and modifications that make stamps more desirable for collectors that should be watched out for. There is a whole string of things people do to try to present something as something that it really isn’t.”
He said these minor alterations are what most collectors are interested in.
“If you’re going to buy a special stamp, you better damn well make sure it’s been analyzed by an expertizing committee.”