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.

We come then to the subject of forgeries You are aware that as soon as there are stamp-collections there are forgeries, which is a rule without exception, and that alongside crude and very approximate forgeries aimed at fools there are some over which the world’s greatest experts have come to grief, and others which it has taken decades to establish were counterfeit, when indeed that is possible. Numerous collectors, beginners above all, believe they can insure themselves against forgeries by restricting themselves to used stamps. The reason for this is that, originally, numerous states – principally the Vatican, Sardinia, Hamburg, Hanover, Helgoland and Bergedorf – reissued sets that had become rare, which were then not put into circulation but delivered directly to collectors. These reimpressions, or forgeries if you like, had as their distinctive feature the fact of not having been cancelled. But one should not generalise. Nothing could be more absurd than to say: ‘this stamp is a fake because it’s not cancelled.’ It would be far more accurate to say: ‘this stamp is cancelled because it is a fake.’ In point of fact, it is extremely rare to find counterfeit stamps without cancellations. It happens only when the forger – if the word can be used – is a government. The private forger who rises to the challenge of a stamp of intricate design can, of course, also imitate a crude postmark. Once his forgery is complete, he will look for the weak spot in his work and attempt to conceal it beneath the cancellation. In fact, to collect only cancelled stamps is to insure against some reimpressions, but not against the mass of fake stamps.

Few collectors know which country has the best reputation for forgery and where the most successful counterfeits come from. That country is Belgium. The Belgians are not satisfied with counterfeiting their own stamps – the most famous is the Belgian five-franc – they do the same with foreign stamps, such as, for example, the German Morocco one-peseta. Forgers have discovered a formidable gimmick for distributing their products, which allows them to do a brisk trade, but also to insure against criminal proceedings. They explicitly advertise their forgeries as such. Since they don’t sell the counterfeits as genuine, they of course forgo spectacular profits. But since most of their clients, for their part, plainly intend to do so, the manufacturers are able to charge quite sound prices for their stamps, which are said to have been reproduced for scholarly purposes. They send out brochures to small stamp-dealers, vaunting the perfect reproduction of stamps that are no longer current, the remarkable execution being due to entirely new procedures, the mathematical precision of surcharges, tinctures, paper stock, watermarks and perforations. To protect themselves against this kind of product, major stamp dealers have proposed marking rare items with a kind of certification or guarantee, from which it could be inferred that a well-known firm had staked its name on the authenticity of the stamp. But the objection was raised, and quite properly so, that a commercial marking, however minuscule, would disfigure a genuine stamp. It would be far better to apply a marking case by case, like a brand of infamy, which would stigmatise forgeries of valuable stamps.

It should be said in passing that not every so-called ‘reimpression’ is an intentional forgery. The celebrated ‘penny black’ of 1864, for instance, was reprinted by the British Government, in a few specimens only, for the benefit of the collections of British princes. Those of you who remain stamp collectors later on will have many encounters with forgeries and will soon know far more than I can pass on to you today. With practice, you will find ways to fend off forgeries. I shall cite only one essential book, Paul Ohrt’s Hand-buch der Fälschungen.

But apart from the issue of forgeries, there are many other ways to deceive collectors, many other private or public ways to exploit them. This is the moment to evoke countries that live, so to speak, from stamp collecting. A fair number of small states used to count on the money of stamp collectors to improve their finances. The discovery of this strange source of revenue can be attributed to a resourceful inhabitant of Cook Island. The ten or twelve thousand inhabitants of that island were, even recently, still man-eaters. Along with the first tools and the customary objects of civilisation, they received stamps ordered from New Zealand. These were quite simple, with a border of block letters surrounding the gummed paper. None of which prevented the great stamp dealers of America and Europe from taking an interest in the issue and paying rather dearly for it. The most astonished of all in this affair were the inhabitants of Cook Island, who saw a source of easy revenue opening up to them. They immediately had new sheets of stamps printed in Australia, which differed in colour and design. The same might be said of numerous South American states, especially Paraguay, as well as the small Indian principalities of Faridkot, Bengal and Bamra. But certain private individuals opted to do business in this manner who were even slyer than these potentates. Such is the case of the engineer who agreed to supply two million new stamps to Guatemala, asking in exchange only for the series of old stamps from the state printing office. One can easily imagine the pretty penny he made shortly thereafter. At the end of the war, with things going disastrously, the postal service of the Reich followed the example of those same kingdoms and exotic principalities, relinquishing its stocks of colonial issues to private individuals.

Would you like me to tell you a tale of fraud of a very different sort, even though it does not relate directly to collections? It is one of the most subtle to have been conceived. It happened in 1912 at Wilhelmshaven. A rich resident of the town sold a very fine collection, which had been patiently built up over the years, to a Berliner for 17,000 marks, and sent it off to him, cash on delivery. The buyer had in the meanwhile sent under the same signature a parcel said to be of books, to Wilhelmshaven, and requested its return shipment to the sender by telegram. The two parcels arrived at Berlin, and the con artist succeeded in having the package containing the collection given to him at the parcel window in Berlin, but without payment, since he passed himself off as the sender who had requested its return. The crate allegedly filled with books contained scraps of paper and the addressee was never found.

That will be all for cases of fraud affecting collectors themselves. But there is another victim of far greater interest to conmen and counterfeiters: the postal system itself. It has been calculated that the annual consumption of postage stamps in Germany is on the order of six billion – that is, six thousand million – and the world-wide consumption thirty billion. The commercial value of the stamps used in Germany has thus been estimated to be about five billion marks. It could be said that the postal service manufactures and consumes five thousand million marks a year in small-denomination paper money. Stamps can thus be passed off as small bank notes, since they serve not only to mail letters but, to a certain extent, as a means of payment. They differ from paper money on a single point. In order to counterfeit a 10 or 100-mark bill, one needs not only extensive knowledge of the printer’s craft, but expensive and complicated materials. The reproduction of stamps, on the other hand, is quite simple, and the more primitive the original print, the harder it is to distinguish the genuine from the fake. Thus experts in philately declared, a few years ago, that the German ‘10-pfennig’ was a forgery, whereas the Reich’s postal service regarded it as authentic. It is impossible to know how many counterfeit stamps of this type there are (but one should say ‘counterfeit bank notes’, which is how the law treats them), since if the post office keeps an exact account of the millions of marks’ worth of stamps it sells each year, it keeps no such record of the millions of marks’ worth which it cancels. Some calculate the annual loss in hundreds of millions of marks. It’s impossible to prove, of course, but when one realises that it is so much easier to defraud the post office by carefully erasing the postmark from cancelled stamps than by fabricating counterfeits, the views of such people seem worth taking into consideration. They even maintain that each region has its preference when it comes to fraud, and that wholesale forgery by printing is the specialty of Southern Europe, and retailing, by washing and laundering, that of the North.

I’m telling you this because behind it all lies a project which concerns every collector: replacing stamps by postmarks. You all know that mass mailings, already today, are sent out not with stamps but with postmarks. And the adversaries of postage stamps would like to generalise this procedure by installing, for example, automatic mailboxes. There would be boxes for five, eight, 15 and 25 pfennigs etc, according to the amount of postage due. One would have to insert the appropriate sum in coins in order for the slot in the box to open. We are not yet at that stage, and the matter poses a number of difficulties. The principal one is that the world postal union recognises only stamps and not postmarks. But it is nonetheless entirely plausible that in a century of mechanisation and technology the postage stamp does not have a very long life ahead of it. Those of you who would not like to be caught short would perhaps do well to envisage a collection of postmarks. They are already more diverse and more complex and have been used as a means of advertising. The opponents of postage stamps, in order to win over collectors, have promised to decorate them with landscapes, historical motifs, and heraldry, so that they might become as handsome as stamps were in an earlier era.

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?