Introduction to UPU Illegal Stamps Effort

by Les Winick

AskPhil.Org, and the Collectors Club of Chicago, our sponsoring organization, want to work with the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in its campaign to publicize the large number of illegal labels that are being marketed as postage stamps that have been sprouting up throughout the world.

The UPU has sent AskPhil a listing of labels that some of their 189-strong member nations has reported to them as being "illegal." We intend to publicize this listing and keep it current as information is supplied to us by this international organization. We hope that by making the public aware of what is being offered, what is illegal, then potential buyers can make an informed decision on the status of the labels.

The UPU has a history of not interfering with the rights of their individual member nations. But they have played a role in subjects that directly affect our hobby.

The UPU has consistently had a strong role in philately starting in1897 when uniform colors were suggested for postage stamps. At that time, the 55-nations recommended that the stamps for the international letter rate was to be a dark blue, the stamp for the postcard rate was to be red, and the stamp for the international printed-mater rate was to be green. No specific shades of red or green were mentioned.

The International Reply Coupon (IRC) was created by the UPU in 1906 so that an addressee can exchange it for postage. The IRC's are ordered by postal administrations from the UPU headquarters in Berne, Switzerland.

The UPU also plays an important role in stamp verification. In addition to receiving copies of every postage stamp of every denomination and type used in the territory of each member nation, it requires that each nation send examples of every stamp to every member country of the UPU.

Organized Philately and Illegal Issues

Here is the background of how another philatelic group tried handling what they called "issues harmful to philately."

In 1929, a commission was named by the International Federation of Philately (FIP) named "Commission Against Issues Harmful to Philately." Basically, their concern at the time was to investigate the excessive number of surcharges. Twenty-one years later, on March 21, 1950, a list with 18 issues were distributed. These included 10 issues from Belgium, three from Saar, one from France and four from French Morocco.

In August 1950, the FIP commission sent all national federations and postal administrations guidelines explaining that unnecessary issues should not be authorized at exhibitions, should not be included in new issue services and should not be allowed in stamp sales conducted by member societies.

Reaction to this proposal ranged from laughter to cries of "undemocratic" and "unworkable." Of the 24 FIP national federations, only three appointed commissions to promote the guidelines. The president of the FIP commission resigned. In Oct. 1955, FIP sent a letter to all postal administrations advising them that FIP "has no intention of imposing its views on postal administrations regarding their stamp issues."

It is interesting to note that FIP sponsored its own overprint at the 1985 Israel international stamp exhibition, with a portion of the funds going to FIP.

In spite of its promise not to interfere in postal matters, FIP published guidelines in 1965, describing which stamps they considered undesirable. This included excessively long commemorative series, excessively high face value stamps, miniature sheets, a theme foreign to the country of issue, and issues produced in abnormally small quantities.

A group of stamp dealers sued the FIP president for material damages, which was dismissed by the court. The court handed down a very important decision that continues true today. The court ruled that collectors had a right to be warned, even if this opposed the interests of the dealers.

By 1970, several FIP members complained about the list and East Germany requested that the list be stricken from the records and the commission dissolved. The role of the commission was changed to a Commission for Prevention of Forgeries and Undesirable Issues.

What FIP or any other body of collectors or dealers must realize is that no one can dictate to the postal administrations what they should or should not issue as stamps. Not even the UPU can do this.

Knowledgeable Collectors Buy from Strength

Every postal administration has the right to issue whatever it pleases. The market and need for the issue will tell the individual postal administration whether or not it made the correct decision. If the stamp(s) do not sell, the postal administration will not make the same mistake twice. They can't afford that luxury.

For the past several years, what started as cinderellas and "carriage labels" have evolved into a huge market of labels that are counterfeits of legitimate stamps, "stamps" not valid for postage from territories that don't have their own stamps, labels from non-existent countries, and the list goes on.

We have no problem for those who wish to buy these issues, knowing what they are buying and collecting, but unfortunately, many of these products are being sold to unsuspecting consumers. A set of three labels featuring golfer Tiger Woods, sold on the Internet auction firm eBay on Nov. 26, 2000 for $1,225. Who profited? Certainly not the postal administration since the labels were inscribed "Turkmenistan" and they have very conservative stamp issuing policy, having issued only 65 stamps since 1962. Not the stamp trade, since it was a speculator who was the seller. And what will happen when the buyer, or his family try to sell this "keepsake?" The stamp hobby will be characterized as a bunch of "crooks" for wanting to take advantage of the seller. This has happened many times to many dealers.

However, another scenario has entered the scene. In Sept. 2000, a shipment of 630,000 German Johann Strauss postage stamps, Scott 2045, were seized by German customs. They were going to be used for bulk mailers. These stamps were not perforated, and did not have the fluorescent added. They would have eventually ended up being sold to collectors as "varieties" and offered at a premium. The German philatelic publication that reported this seizure, stated that this was "yet another" shipment of modern forgeries.

While many of the forged stamps are designed specifically for us, the collectors, they are also being sold to business firms to be used as postage in many nations. The UPU is the only organization in the world that is equipped to stop this proliferation of spurious material.

The counterfeiting of postage stamps is a very real threat to postal revenue due to the large volume of mail. It is even a greater threat to the stamp collecting public.

The UPU has requested every one of their member nations that the Berne, Switzerland UPU headquarters be informed if any member-nation has knowledge of any illegal label, being sold as a stamp, that involves their country. The UPU has already received a number of notifications, and has forwarded them to AskPhil.

We will publish these countries' lists and the material that they have described as "illegal." These are simply labels, printed for the exploitation of collectors, dealers and businesses. When an individual buys these labels, thinking they are stamps, the hobby pays the bill.

AskPhil feels that a widespread distribution of this information will only help the philatelic hobby in the short and long run.