Fakery expert correct in stressing ‘get to know the real thing’ first

By Ian Robertson

From long experience, well-respected bogus stamps expert Ken Pugh narrowed his decades-old message perfectly during a recent round of lectures in Toronto: “Get to know the real thing.”

Despite echoing what others have said since fakers first sought to woo the unwary with spurious replicas or altered genuine stamps, the teacher and forensic specialist knows full well how collectors can still be duped.

“You have to know what they look like to compare,” he says.

That’s a lesson I learned during my first visit with Royal Canadian Mounted Police anti-counterfeit experts in Ottawa in the 1970s, before writing about bogus banknotes for a newspaper and once for Reader’s Digest.

Although counterfeit Canadian stamps have been produced, the focus of most of that RCMP unit has been on counterfeit currency – whose numbers have declined dramatically in recent years due to continued advancements in security printing. I was shown the difference between genuine notes, which combined old-style intaglio steel engraving with background lithographic printing. Over the years, designs were changed in an effort to thwart crooks, with new security devices and printing methods.

The Bank of Canada also cleared me to visit the British American Bank Note Company plant in Ottawa, where I met the engraver of two portraits for our first multi-colored federal notes. Painstakingly hand-engraved, each die took him nine months to complete. I also saw huge rolls of booklet definitive sheets produced by the same labour-intensive engraving method, awaiting attachment to cardboard folders before being cut apart for bundling and distribution to post offices. Seeing genuine stamps and currency during production drove home the extensive methods used in the battle against counterfeiting.

Memories of my earliest lessons in fakery came back while listening to the B.C.-based author of dozens of volumes – including a set of three British North America forgeries books.

Pugh regularly updates them to include newly-discovered fakes and forgeries plus recent modern multi-colour computerized counterfeit stamps produced to cheat Canada Post out of revenue. His subjects range from mind-numbingly good forgeries to glaringly amateurish examples churned out in the late 1800s and early 1900s for inexpensive collector packets. In order to avoid shelling out good money for bad stamps, he emphasized “you have to know what you’re looking for,” as reporter Jessie Robitaille quoted him saying in the first of several Canadian Stamp News articles.

Pugh’s presentations were often laced with humour and anecdotes, which made for some fun moments, which his audiences appreciated.

While emphasizing his serious topics, he had a memorable title for the awareness of fakes. By reading books, journals and articles, including about genuine stamps, various production methods, plus postmarks and how they can be altered, Pugh says collectors can develop a sense of something that “doesn’t smell right.”

Detection of bogus and altered stamps once required hands-on and eyes-on knowledge, plus magnifying glasses, perforation gauges and micrometers – with which paper thickness is measured. While still worth using, modern photographic and computerized technology has greatly-advanced detection methods.

Some philatelic organizations can provide such expertise, but not all are so-equipped and not all collectors want to pay for expertizing, especially in the case of relatively inexpensive stamps.

And that should make Ken Pugh’s message continue to ring loud and clear: “You have to know what you’re looking for.”

As my friend Ted Wright, manager of the Hollywood Canteen stamp shop in Toronto, said so well after attending Pugh’s third lecture, “no matter what we know, we can always learn more. It’s good for the hobby, to share such knowledge.”

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