Learn the genuine to know the fakes, says longtime philatelic researcher

By Jesse Robitaille 

It takes careful thought and consideration, but there are ways – and thankfully machines – to detect even the most meticulously crafted philatelic fakes, forgeries and counterfeits.

This was the message on Oct. 18, when more than 30 philatelists gathered at a meeting of the West Toronto Stamp Club for a presentation by Canada’s pre-eminent philatelic forgery expert. Attendees came from as far away as White Rock, B.C., for the first of three presentations led by Ken Pugh, the author of an 11-part series on the forgeries of British North America (BNA), among other areas of collecting.

It’s somewhat alarming for a philatelist to hear: Pugh has 36 books in his series on the fakes and forgeries of BNA and Canada alone; that’s in addition to five books on Buenos Aires and others on Uruguay, Serbia and the Belgian Congo. Each book is between 50 and 150 pages, making for nearly 4,000 pages of reference material on philatelic fakes and forgeries from the world over.

“You can imagine how much material is out there to keep me busy writing,” said Pugh, who listed enough affected collecting interests to put a scare in most of the audience. “Believe me, there’s a lot of fakes and there’s a lot of forgeries.”

For example, Pugh warned: “If you collect anything in BNA, that area has fakes and forgeries in it.”

There was a discernible reaction from attendees, many of whom said they collect BNA. However, Pugh said, there’s plenty of room for optimism.


To counteract the counterfeiters, there are organizations such as the Toronto-based Vincent Graves Green Philatelic Research Foundation.

“They have equipment that can virtually detect anything,” said Pugh, who has an affectionate name for the foundation’s Video Spectral Comparator (VSC)-6000: “The Oh-My-God Machine.”

The VSC-6000 is a digital imaging system that can forensically examine a range of items, including stamps and other philatelic material. It allows the Greene foundation’s expertization committee to identify items suspected of having cleaned cancellations; altered or enhanced postmarks; counterfeit overprints; repairs or sealed tears; and removed or altered colours.

“That’s a game changer,” said Pugh, a resident of Vernon, B.C. “You guys are so fortunate to have this resource.”


There’s a lot to consider when you’re poring over your collection in search of counterfeits, so it’s important to get a sense of things before you start.

“You have to know what you’re looking for,” said Pugh, who added you should be able to know when something doesn’t “smell right” about a particular stamp, cancel or perforation.

“How many, going through your collections, have found fakes of your own without the help of sending it to the Greene to identify it?” he asked, with more than half of the 30 attendees raising their hands.

Pugh said for “every book and every bit of research” he has done, he began by studying the genuine example.

“You have to know what they look like to compare,” he said, adding the first 75 pages of one of his books is exclusively focused on genuine Crown cancels, including what they look like; how and why they were used; and how to determine a genuine example from its usage and the stamp it’s tied to. “The rest of the book is about the 33 fakes that are out there trying to replicate these.”


Pugh said the first step in detecting a counterfeit stamp is understanding how the genuine examples were produced.

“Is it a lithograph, or is it engraved, or is it a typograph?” asked Pugh, who added early forgeries were typically typographs (also known as letterpress), which use the raised surface of a plate to replicate a stamp with ink.

“It has certain characteristics,” he said. “When it’s made, the ink squishes out from the lines, and that’s an important thing to look for.”

The lines of a lithographed stamp won’t exhibit this “squishing,” he added.

When making engraved stamps, a die is used to press ink into paper, which, when removed from the die, will show a “negative ridge.”

Pugh said one of the best ways to detect this ridge is to touch the stamp.

“You can often feel it,” he added.


Pugh said one of the best-known philatelic forgers, Jean de Sperati, used a process known as photo-lithography, with which he would directly transfer a stamp’s design to a printing surface.

Sperati, who was born in Italy but spent much of his life in France, had relatives who owned a paper mill as well as a factory that produced postcards, granting him access to endless knowledge on the subjects of printing, photography and the industrial chemicals used in both.

“When printing, he printed it over and over and over again on top of each other, so when you gave it the foil and finger test, it looked engraved,” Pugh said. “He’s a clever fellow, and there are a lot of things he did that fooled the experts.”

With his knowledge of paper and chemistry, Sperati could dissolve the inks of a cancellation while keeping the genuine stamp intact underneath.

“He would take a genuine stamp and be able to make a plate of it and print it on another piece of paper – usually from old books – so when he made his reproductions and a stamp was on laid paper, he would go to the library and find an old book with laid paper and use that.”

Sperati could also chemically dissolve paper – keeping cancellations as well as perforations – and then use photo-lithography to place an entirely different stamp on top.

“It’ll have all that, so that’s how he was able to fool all the experts, and that’s what he liked doing. His thing was trying to prove he was able to do all this.”

Pugh showed a Sperati example – the highest price ever paid for a Canadian forgery – from his personal collection. The forged 12-penny Black cost Pugh $7,500.

“He removed the ‘specimen’ overprint and re-backed it onto laid paper,” he said, adding someone would have to look “very carefully” to detect it.

“There are things we can do ourselves and things only the Greene (foundation) can do.”

For more information about Pugh’s work, visit kenpughphilatelics.com.

Leave a Reply

Canadian Stamp News


Canadian Stamp News is Canada's premier source of information about stamp collecting and related fields.

Although we cover the entire world of philatelics, the majority of our readers are Canadian, and we concentrate on the unique circumstances surrounding collecting in our native land.

Send Us Your Event

Running an event? Send it to us and we will display it on Canadian Stamp News!

Submit Event →

Subscribe To 26 Issues For Just $59.99/year

Subscribe today to receive Canada's premier stamp publication. Canadian Stamp News is available in both paper and digital forms.

Subscribe Now