A distinguishing feature of our philatelic legends is their expertise in stamps which has been gained through thousands of hours of study and application. This resulted in the formulation of world-class collections which were later sold, leaving behind an indelible mark on the very fabric of philately. So, whilst our next legendary collector might not on the face of it qualify in the ‘purest’ sense, he without doubt meets the characteristics for assembling one of the greatest ever collections of forgeries ever seen, and his philatelic eye and knowledge of stamp detail was second to none. In fact, Jean de Sperati (1884 to 1957), who was an Italian stamp forger, put together the ‘Livre d’Or’ his personal collection of 234 rare stamps, all certified as genuine by experts, and representing 124 different adhesives from around the world, and contained certificates from 17 different expert authorities, across five countries. But these stamps were all his own creation. Or to use Jean de Sperati’s own interpretation, every single one of his stamp reproductions, which fooled the great and good experts of the day, were philatelic pieces of ‘art’.
In producing his Livre d’Or, and openly demonstrating his skill as a producer of stamp replicas, Sperati gained legendary status in the world of stamp collecting. Whilst during his lifetime Sperati caused a lot of controversy and even went on trial in France for forgery, he has always had his admirers and today his forgeries are a collecting genre in their own right and in many cases sell for more than the original stamps they represent. In other words, his art is today admired the world over and is studied and collected by many of the world’s greatest philatelists. Whilst examples of his stamp reproductions do come to market from time to time, rarely do you see on the open market an archive of Sperati forgeries of a particular country.
However, one such archive is available in our upcoming auction in December, and includes an extraordinary assembly representing the largest and most comprehensive archive of classic Switzerland (Lot 40438). This important treasure trove of unique reference material illustrates the depth of Sperati’s research and includes trials and essays, demonstrating his meticulous attention to detail, which enabled him to produce replicas that even today are only detectable by the trained philatelic eye, but can still pass as the genuine article.
It gives insight into how the ten year old schoolboy, Jean de Sperati, went from being able to fake his parents and school teacher’s signatures, to obtaining an expert understanding of chemistry, paper manufacture, graphic art – including engraving and lithography -, photography and then philately, which ultimately lead him to be the greatest stamp imitator of all time.
Sperati was able to disarm experts and collectors unlike anyone before him or since because he understood not just the components and make up of the stamps he reproduced, but also how they were produced, even going to the lengths of using the correctly watermarked paper, with the right perforations and with genuine cancellations. He could also print and paint fake stamps from scratch, as well as replicate cancellations. Sperati was able to dupe experts by making his own printing Dies for certain issues and notoriously whilst operating in France would produce stamps to order and to comply with the laws of that country, he would sign the back of stamps as replicas. The trouble was he did this in pencil and so unscrupulous dealers and collectors could, and would, remove the endorsement, and sell the stamps as the real thing.
This meant that for decades Sperati produced replica stamps that were sold and distributed far and wide across the continent, and beyond, and even today discoveries of his work are identified. However, in the early 1950s Sperati’s declining eyesight meant he looked to sell his business and his archives were purchased by the British Philatelic Association (BPA), lead by one of Sperati’s greatest admirers of the time, Robson Lowe, and the BPA produced books in 1955 which uncovered the details behind his incredible work, enabling a much wider audience to understand Sperati’s talents and how to detect his replicas. These books, which comprise the work of Sperati in detail, include reproductions of his printing plates, and the supporting text of how to detect his copies from the genuine item for each country and stamp he produced replicas. The stamps he reproduced and sold are all now prized philatelic material. That in itself is testimony to Sperati’s skills and in his own words he said: “I embarked on a project to obtain documentary evidence of the inability of experts to detect my imitations, be they professionals or dealers, and to make available my products as ‘works of art’, which status the opinion of experts justified”. And Jean de Sperati succeeded and in doing so he left an indelible and artistic mark on our hobby and today is our Philatelic Artist.
You can catch-up on the previous 29 legendary collectors by clicking the links: Legendary Collectors: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, Part 20, Part 21, Part 22, Part 23, Part 24, Part 25, Part 26, Part 27, Part 28 and Part 29.