Rare-Stamp Racketeers Thwarted by Black Light (Sep, 1933)
Rare-Stamp Racketeers Thwarted by Black Light
By Edwin Teak
IN THE palm of his hand, not long ago, an eastern dealer held two carmine and blue postage stamps. One was worth 50,000 times its weight in gold. The other was worth no more than a scrap of paper. Yet, even under a high-powered magnifying glass, he could detect no difference. Only rays of black light, coming from a quartz lamp in his laboratory, had disclosed an amazingly delicate operation performed by stamp surgeons of the underworld.
The original was a rare 1918 twenty-four-cent airmail stamp with an inverted center. Less than one hundredth the size of this page, it was worth $3,300. An ordinary stamp of the issue, with center right-side-up, can be purchased for as little as a dollar and a quarter. Rare-stamp racketeers had bought two ordinary stamps and had combined them to produce a fake stamp with an inverted center.
First, they had cut out the blue vignette at the center of one stamp and scraped the back until the paper was only half its normal thickness. Then, cutting carefully around the center of the second stamp, they removed the top layer of the paper, leaving a flat-bottomed pit hardly 3/1000ths of an inch deep. Into it, they pasted upside-down the center that had been prepared, gluing it in place with special albumin paste made from the white of an egg. Such paste will not dissolve in water, and even if the stamp were boiled, the parts would hold together.
It was a seemingly perfect job. But the crooks overlooked one thing. This is the latest scientific aid to fraud detection, the ultra-violet lamp. Under its invisible rays, the fine line of albumin around the center of the stamp stood out in brilliant contrast to the paper and exposed the plot.
In recent years, the hobby of stamp collecting, which grips kings and clerks alike, has boosted the price of bits of colored paper to fabulous sums. Million-dollar collections are in existence and a few stamps are literally worth fortunes.
Consequently, it is not surprising that stamp forgers and stamp fakers are on the increase. When I recently spent an afternoon at the auction room of George B. Sloane, famous New York dealer and official expert for the American Philatelic Society, he told me that members send him upwards of 2,000 precious stamps a year for examination. Another expert estimated that at least 20,000 bogus, counterfeit, or faked stamps have been put upon the market at one time or another.
To separate these “album weeds” from the genuine stamps, the experts employ an array of scientific helpers. They are aided in their work by millimeter scales, ether tanks, color-sensitive plates, perforation gages, ultra-violet ray machines, chemist’s tubes, and microscopes. And the discoveries they make not only protect the collector but also break up gangs seeking to defraud the government by counterfeiting current issues.
In two cases when underworld gangs sought to flood the country with worthless stamps, collectors were the first to detect them. Again, when crooks in the South, not long ago, tried to wash off cancellation marks with chemicals, re-gum the backs of used stamps and sell them for new, they had operated for less than two weeks when a collector spied one of the doctored stamps and notified the government.
A recent dispatch from the west coast tells of the rounding up of another gang engaged in selling used stamps reclaimed under peculiar circumstances. The stamps, obtained from used parcel post wrappings, had been coated with shellac when they were pasted in place to keep them from being rubbed off in ransit. Consequently, the cancellation marks at the post office had been imprinted on the film of shellac rather than on the face of the stamps and it was an easy matter for the criminals to wash off the shellac, re-gum the stamps and sell them for new. In all such cases, the spurious stamps are represented as having been sent in for payment for mail order goods and they are usually offered at $115 worth for $100.
In another recent case, a postal clerk in an eastern state was caught defrauding the government by an ingenious substitution of stamps. He worked in the parcel-post window. When a customer came in with a large package, he would take the money and lay aside the package until the customer was gone. Then, he would paste on used stamps, recancelling them with great pressure and sufficient ink to blot out all previous postmarks!
He, like the others, was tripped up by the alertness of a stamp expert. It is no wonder that an adage of the Post Office Department has it: “A wide-awake collector is the best of postal detectives.”
But, it is not in this field that the most spectacular feats of the experts are found. It is in the realm of big-game hunting, of detecting fake stamps of rare and precious issues. Here, the clues they work on are often tiny errors, too small for the naked eye to see.
In one case, the picture of a lotus flower on a counterfeit Japanese stamp had one microscopic petal missing. In another instance, an expert enlarged two stamps to fifty times their size and discovered that an “o” in ‘the genuine stamp leaned slightly to the right; in the counterfeit, slightly to the left! Again, in two almost perfect reproductions of American issues, one showed an added wrinkle in the stock around Benjamin Franklin’s neck, and the other, now known as the “Sleepy Washington Stamp,” portrayed the Father of His Country with a drowsy instead of an alert look in his eyes. It is through such tiny and curious minor differences that fraudulent stamp plots are often revealed.
PROBABLY the most remarkable plot of the kind was the $65,000 Hawaiian “Missionary Stamp” case which came to a climax a few years ago on the Pacific coast.
The original stamps were printed in 1851 in Honolulu. Because they were used largely by missionaries to send . letters back home, they got to be known as “missionary stamps” and these stamps are among the rarest known. An unused two-cent “missionary” sells for $12,000; a used one for $10,000. A number of years ago, two of the precious $10,000 stamps were found by accident pasted to the wall of an old Hawaiian schoolroom. The whitewash cracked off and revealed an ancient letter attached to the boards beneath.
For more than twenty years, rumors had drifted through the stamp world that a number of unused missionaries had been brought back from the South Seas in the chest of a Cohassett, Mass., whaling captain. Taking advantage of this rumor, California counterfeiters worked up an apparently holeproof plot. According to their story, a missionary who was in the Hawaiian Islands in the eighteen-fifties had bought an even dollar’s worth of stamps and had put them for safe-keeping in a psalm book. Shortly afterwards, he had died and the psalm book, together with his other belongings, had been brought back to America by a whaling captain from Cohassett and turned over to the missionary’s son. On his death, the stamps were discovered.
Although no direct check could be made upon the story because the missionary, his son, and the captain were all dead, an investigation showed that all three had lived when and where the plotters said they had. On the strength of this, an eastern dealer paid $65,000 for the stamps. Only after he had returned East and was able to give them a thorough examination, did he discover they were cunningly executed forgeries. Minute differences, visible under high magnification, showed they were produced by photo-engraving while the originals were printed from type in the plant of a Honolulu newspaper. This discovery gave away the plot and resulted in judgment being rendered against the seller.
ALMOST always, Sloane explained to me, fake-stamp plots are worked out so ingeniously that the buyer is caught off his guard. Take, for instance, the clever ruse of one European forger.
He would advertise in stamp magazines under an assumed name, offering high prices for certain rare stamps which he was sure no dealer had on hand. Then he would counterfeit the stamps and, under a different name, write in to dealers setting a price far below the one in the advertisement. Anticipating a quick sale at a big profit, the dealers would snap at the bait and the crook would dispose of his counterfeits and disappear.
Another faker would print up what appeared to be a newspaper clipping announcing his death when things got too hot for him and would mail it to the stamp publications. They would reprint the announcement and he would move to another part of the country and start over again under another name. When the police again got on his trail, he would send in another clipping announcing his death under his new name and repeat the performance. He did it three times before he was caught.
The counterfeiting of stamps goes back more than ninety years to the days of the “Black Penny,” the world’s first adhesive postage stamp issued by Sir Rowland Hill, in England. On the stroke of midnight May 5, 1840, the first black penny stamp was issued in Birmingham. A few weeks
later, the first counterfeit appeared in London. However, it was so poor that it fooled few people. One of these early black stamps appears to carry on its face evidence it is a counterfeit; but it isn’t. It is postmarked: “Bath May 2, 1840,” four days before the first stamp of the issue was put in official circulation. The explanation lies in the fact that a government employe sent one of the stamps to a relative and the latter used it before the service was officially opened.
ANOTHER classic example of a rare stamp which was at first thought to be a counterfeit is the famous 1855 three-skilling-banco Swedish stamp printed in yellow. It first came to light when a schoolboy showed a dealer some stamps he had found in an attic. The expert thought the yellow stamp must be a fake because no specimens of that issue in that color had ever been seen. Investigation proved it was genuine, a government printer having used yellow instead of green ink by mistake. As a result, this bit of paper, which was originally worth a cent and a half, sold in Stockholm not long ago for $10,000!
But the prize oddity of the stamp world is a small British specimen. It was issued by a postmaster in New Brunswick who printed the stamp with the picture of Queen Victoria replaced by a picture of himself!
In determining which stamp is counterfeit and which is real, the expert must study the ink, the paper, the perforations, the glueâ€”every minute detail. His hunting ground for clues is often less than one square inch of paper.
On a number of occasions, the texture of the glue, or gum, has been the telltale, deciding factor in the test. The original mucilage placed on the backs of stamps is made from vegetable matter. Occasionally, plotters will make the slip of using gum arabic or other glue in recoating the backs of doctored stamps. Knowing the color, texture, and chemical composition of the gum used on different issues, the expert is quick to detect such frauds.
AGAIN, there are the watermarks which appear in the paper of some stamps.
Crooks often counterfeit these by pressure. When such stamps are viewed from the back, they appear to possess the watermark. But when they are looked through, against a strong light, the illusion disappears. In studying watermarked specimens, the expert dips them in benzene, gasoline, or ether. This does not disturb the ink or gum on the stamp and it usually reveals every cut, tear or translucent watermark.
Stamp racketeers recently developed a new method of producing fake watermarks. They carefully scrape away fibers on the back of the stamp to form a translucent design which, in benzene or against a strong light looks like a real watermark. Experts, though, can detect this ruse with a high-powered microscope, which reveals a fuzz wherever the fibers have been scraped.
In a similar manner, microscopes help the experts to discover fake perforations. In some issues, the stamps are printed in sheets with the outer edges* cut straight. Thus the outer stamps have one side, and the corners stamp two sides, which are unperforated. As collectors desire “well-centered” stamps with perforations on all sides, such specimens are worth less than the other stamps.
So the racketeers make fake perforations along the straight edges by cutting out tiny half circles exactly matching the perforation marks on the other sides. Under the expert’s microscope the projections on the different sides of the stamp are shown magnified hundreds of times. Those left between the half circles of the fake perforations have clean-cut, straight edges while those left where the stamps have been torn apart have fiber ravel-ings sticking out and ragged edges.
Special perforation gages, containing rows of different-sized black dots, enable the expert to check up quickly on the type of perforation used in any given stamp. In the United States, the standard for ordinary issues is eleven and ten and a half perforations for every two centimeters. Some years ago, when Fournier of Switzerland, the ace of stamp counterfeiters, died, it was discovered that he had produced a complete set of homemade tools to reproduce every known type of perforation.
SOMETIMES, I was told, instead of putting on perforations, the faker takes them off. An example of a stamp worth more with only two sides perforated is the 1907 United States coil stamps issued for use in the first vending machines. They appeared not as a special issue but as ordinary stamps with the sides straight-cut. Collectors did not awake to the fact that they were different from the regular issue until the stamps had become relatively rare. When the demand for these stamps arose the.stamp fakers proceeded to supply it by cutting off the perforations of ordinary stamps of this date and selling them as coin-slot originals.
In other cases, stamps have been cut in half to enhance their value. Years ago postmasters in Canada and the United States sometimes cut two-cent stamps in half, for example, to make one-cent stamps when they temporarily ran out of the stamp of lower denomination. One 1847 bisected ten-cent stamp, postmarked “Concord, N. H.,” now has a value of $1,250, while an ordinary ten-cent stamp of the same issue is worth only $25. Such specimens are much sought after. However, collectors want them “tied to the cover,” that is, attached to the envelopes with the postmark running off the stamp onto the paper, to indicate they are genuine.
A few months ago, a Canadian stamp faker sent a New York dealer half a dozen bisected stamps tied to ancient 1858 envelopes with apparently genuine postmarks. But, by a curious oversight, he wrapped the stamps in a piece of paper on which he had tried out his counterfeit rubber cancellation stamp and it contained half a dozen clear imprints of the identical postmarks carried by the stamps!
ONE of the most difficult things for an expert to expose is a fake surcharge, or imprint on the face of the stamp raising or lowering its value or designating it for special service. Many of the early air-mail stamps were made by surcharging ordinary issues, the most famous being the 1919 Hawker. It was issued in Newfoundland when Harry Hawker, the British pilot, attempted to fly the ocean shortly before Alcock and Brown succeeded.
Forced down in mid-Atlantic, the flyer and his mechanic were picked up by a tramp steamer, which carried no wireless, and reached Europe days after they had been given up for dead. By a curious twist, the mailbag, which had been left floating in the ocean, was picked up by another vessel. The value of the stamps it contained is now something like $1,000 apiece.
As it is comparatively easy to print a fake surcharge on an ordinary stamp, special care is taken with rare stamps of such issues. The latest method of ferreting out fakes of the kind is to place a known genuine stamp beside the submitted one under ultra-violet light. Unless the inks used in printing the surcharge are identical, they will fluoresce, or glow, in different colors. The printing is also gone over with precision scales, and looked at under pieces of glass ruled off into millimeter squares and concentric circles a millimeter apart, to detect variations in type and spacing. Sometimes the ink is examined chemically.
FREQUENTLY, the cancellation is the key to a forgery. Many stamps are worth more when they have been cancelled in a certain place or in a certain way, and such postmarks are imitated by the fakers. There is the case of the United States twelve-cent issue of 1856. A few, having green cancellations, are worth five times as much as those which are postmarked in the ordinary black. On several occasions, attempts have been made to wash off the black ink and substitute green. Such work would be comparatively easy and would fool the naked eye. But it wouldn’t fool the latest apparatus of the experts.
By placing the bits of paper under ultraviolet light and by photographing them with special color-sensitive plates, the experts can determine where chemical erasing has been done. In fact, in at least one instance, the black light rays were too effective. This was in the case of the “ghost” postmark found on a stamp in the collection of a famous philatelist.
When his stamps were being examined by an expert, the faint but certain print of a postmark became visible under ultra-violet light on the face of a rare, supposedly unused stamp. The collector thought he had been sold a doctored specimen from which the postmark had been removed. But a curious solution was found to the mystery. A few years before, he had rearranged his album. The questioned stamp had taken the place of another specimen which was a used one. On the back of the opposite leaf, the postmarked stamp had left an invisible ghost print which was transferred back to the surface of the unused stamp by the pressure of the leaves. Although the ink marks were so faint that a magnifying glass failed to detect them, the ultra-violet rays brought them out.
THE two most popular forms of stamp faking today are removing cancellations and repairing damaged stamps. Torn or damaged specimens can be bought for a small fraction of the price of perfect ones. So, by extremely delicate work, underworld stamp surgeons patch up tears, plug in holes, put on corners, turn center vignettes upside down, to produce apparently perfect copies or to enhance the value of various specimens.
I learned of one instance in which parts from four damaged stamps were combined to produce what passed at first glance for an authentic copy.
In some European countries, stamp repairing is considered a legitimate profession. There, specialists have developed amazing skill at combining, altering, and improving stamps to dress up a collector’s album. Frequently, such stamps find their way to America, after the collector’s death, and add to the problems of the expert.
But, almost invariably, by employing his knowledge of stamps, his collection of reference volumes, his comparison specimens and the latest aids to scientific investigation, he is able to separate the real from the spurious and to detect even the most cunning of the counterfeits.