Stamp Scams

Walter Benjamin

translated by Jeffrey Mehlman

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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Jeffrey Mehlman writes: Between 1929 and 1933, partly in order to make ends meet, Walter Benjamin wrote and broadcast a series of radio talks for children. Given the legendary intractability of his best-known work, the circumstance seems as implausible as an anthology of fairy tales by Hegel, or a child’s garden of deconstruction by Derrida. Yet the scripts exist. Some thirty of them, focusing principally on subjects involving fraud and catastrophe, languished for fifteen years in Russia, then Potsdam, before finally getting into print in Germany, in 1985, as Aufklärung für kinder.

‘Stamp Scams’ (Briefmarkenschwindel) is best seen in the context of Benjamin’s lifelong fascination with prodigies of concision in writing. Here, it is as if he had all but succeeded in writing his classic essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, on the back of a postage-stamp. Just as in the essay the reproducibility of photography seems to be invading the work of visual art, stripping it of its ‘aura’, so here the postmark seems well on its way to supplanting the postage stamp. The result reads like a primer on deconstruction, a discussion concerned less with fraud than with the ambiguous status of postmarks in what Benjamin takes to be the twilight of philately: validating supplement, or index of forgery?