Jeffrey Mehlman

Jeffrey Mehlman is a professor of French literature at Boston University. He is the author of Walter Benjamin for Children and of the forthcoming Iphigenia 38: Essays on Literature, Psychoanalysis and Politics in France

Stamp Scams

Walter Benjamin, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman, 8 September 1994

I want to speak about a domain which the most learned and cleverest experts in philately have yet to exhaust: the subject of fraud. Fraud involving stamps. Ever since 1840, when Rowland Hill, a simple schoolmaster, was knighted, granted a stipend of some 400,000 marks, and appointed Postmaster General by the British Government in recognition of his invention of the stamp, millions upon millions have been made thanks to that little scrap of paper. Many have made a fortune out of stamps. You all know, thanks to your catalogue, your Senf, Michel or Kohl, how valuable a stamp can become in the right circumstances. The most expensive of all, contrary to popular belief, is not the two-penny Mauritius ‘Post Office’, but the one-penny British Guyana ‘magenta’, a temporary issue of 1856, of which only a single specimen is said to survive. It was incised on a typographic press from the same crude plate which the local newspaper used for announcements by the shipping companies. The sole known specimen was discovered years ago by a young Guyanan collector among old family papers. It then showed up in the La Renotière collection in Paris, the largest stamp collection in the world. No one knows how much its owner paid for the stamp; its catalogue price today has reached a hundred thousand marks. But in 1913 the La Renotière collection already included more than 120,000 stamps and was estimated to be worth more than ten million. Only a millionaire, to be sure, could amuse himself by building such a collection. Whether he anticipated it or not, his collection earned him millions more. Its origin goes back to 1878. As for the beginnings of stamp-collecting itself, they go back a good fifteen years earlier. It was easier to collect in those days than it is today. There were not only fewer stamps, making it easier to have a complete collection: above all, there were as yet no counterfeits or at least no counterfeits intended to deceive collectors. If you happen to subscribe to a stamp-collecting journal, you will know that they talk about counterfeits that have just been issued as though they were a matter of course. How could it be otherwise? There is so much money to be made out of stamps and they comprise so vast a domain that no one can claim complete familiarity with it. Some 64,268 different values were listed in 1914, and that was before the innumerable war and occupation issues appeared.

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