For better or worse, hobby will never shake fakes

Stamp collecting is rarely a world of absolutes; take for instance the subject of counterfeits, which we generally agree are bad.

Counterfeits have been around almost as long as postage stamps. The first books on the matter were published in the 1860s, about 20 years after the first modern stamps were introduced. Back then, faking stamps was difficult because it required specialized skills and equipment.

Over the years things didn’t get much better. As soon as there was money to be made creating stamps, there were criminals out there seeking to make a quick buck. Collectors not only had to worry about fake stamps created from scrap, enterprising criminals were also trying to turn a quick buck by modifying existing stamps to make them resemble more valuable issues, or even faking cancels and postmarks to fill the demand for hard-to-find stamps.

Today, things aren’t much better. The modern faker has access to electronic tools that would be the envy of crooks just a generation ago. Paper is easy to obtain, and even a fairly inexpensive printer can both scan and print out images that would fool the casual or uninformed collector. On top of that, we still have the expert criminals who are able to produce high-quality fakes.

Certainly a few of them are well-meaning individuals who are creating art; certain fantasy covers come to mind. But once produced, these things are time bombs waiting to destroy a new collector’s love of the hobby.

Security printers have responded with micro-printing, latent images, holograms and more, but it only makes the task of fakery tougher, not impossible.

The stamp industry’s traditional response has been two-fold: dealer integrity, and third-party opinions.

I have a lot of faith in dealer integrity, when it comes to genuine dealers who know their name is an important part of their success, and who do their best to avoid fakes and frauds. These dealers almost universally stand behind their products. If you buy a bad stamp from one of them, they will generally replace it or refund your money.

Of course, there are some bad dealers, and the Internet is full of fly-by-night operators who need only an email address to set up shop. At least a few of these are knowingly engaged in selling fakes and frauds and will disappear into cyberspace at the first sign of being caught.

So the collector has to be wary, check out potential vendors, and perhaps accept the risk of getting taken on a transaction.

Expertizing services are reliable and conscientious, but they take time and cost money. It makes sense if you think you have a great rarity, but you won’t do it for every stamp. Even more problematic, if you haven’t already bought the stamp, you have to get the vendor to agree to have it expertized, and the bad apples won’t go for that.

It is just part of the stamp-collecting landscape. Counterfeits, fakes, and frauds are a blight on the hobby.

But it just isn’t that simple.

As I mentioned, back in the day, stamp fakers were artists.

Some of the best even gained a level of fame on their own account. Jean de Sperati, for instance boasted about the accuracy of his work, and in a 1948 trial claimed his fakes were just art.

He was convicted, and in 1954 sold all his remaining “art” and vowed to never fake again.

He would appear to be just another stamp forger, except that the stamp-collecting community seemed to share his opinion. Today, forgeries by Sperati are highly sought after and command big dollars at auctions.

So while we may hate most fakes, we can’t condemn them universally, without burning all those valuable Speratis at the same time.

It is one of those things that makes stamp collecting so darn intriguing.

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