Russian stamps 10 kopecks imperforate, strip of five, largest multiple known. Ex Fabergé

Russian stamps 10 kopecks imperforate, strip of five, largest multiple known. Ex Fabergé

March 9, 2014

Scarcity Rating System: Defining What 'Rare' Really Means

A recurrent complaint in the philately world is the language abuse of the word 'Rare'. How many times have we seen, especially in dealer's descriptions or on Ebay, the adjective 'rare' and all its declinations (very rare, extremely rare, rarity, etc.) pasted all over the place. Depending on whether one is selling or buying, the same item is either scarce, rare... or suddenly through God's grace becomes completely common. 'Anarchy' describes many of some seller's or owner's personal evaluations. 

As an example: when I see some French dealers stubbornely describing a 15 centimes Cérès 1849 used as 'R' (cat. #2), while there are probably a few thousand copies existing, I can only disapprove such methods. Russian stamps have no better treatment.

The Cérès 1849 - 15 centimes green (cancelled) is often described as 'R' (rare) in many French auction catalogues. 
I could easily find 100 copies to sell in a week, how can it be rare?


Let´s bear in mind the TWO factors determining rarity: how many items are known AND how often they are avalaible on the market.

And let´s bear in mind the gap existing between rarity and popularity (although the later can partially influence the former): how many people are willing to pay for an item, irrespective of its rarity.
Although no rating system can ever be qualified as perfect, and how could it be regarding the very complex nature of stamp collecting, I am in the strong favor of using a scarcity scale that would be both easy to use and reliable.

Besides reliability and easiness of use, this scarcity rating model should be easy to understand, easy to remember, and satisfy most of the advanced (read: knowledgeable) philatelists. I guess some of the criticism would come from the dealer's side. After all, describing anything slightly uncommon as being 'rare' makes it more likely to sell at a higher price, isn't it? 

Some dealers though are making a good job and are using the adjectives scarce and rare only when necessary. Paul Buchsbayew of Cherrystone is rather cautious when describing some items' rarity; my colleague Terry Page, when selling his Zemstvo stamps on Ebay, also describes them with an excellent precision. Generally speaking (there might be some casual mistakes), all famous worldwide auction houses such as David Feldman and Harmers are doing a nice job. So everything is not so chaotic in our stamp world  :-)

When selling my stamps through Ebay's Filarossia, or when writting down a description for an album's leaf, I inspire myself from the rating scale created by Carl Schmidt, the famous Russian Zemstvo specialist. It is an excellent system which has survived the test of time and was adopted by some great names like the Fabergés. This tells a lot about its reliability. This system could easily be used for any area of classical philately, be it Classic Greece, USA, Australia, etc

Here is the scarcity scale (the first three lines are my own):

Uncommon : 101 to 200 copies known
Scarce : 51 to 100 copies known
Very Scarce : 26 to 50 copies known

R rare : 16 to 25 copies known
RR very rare : 9 to 15 copies known
RRR extremely rare : 4 to 8 copies known
RRRR great rarity : 1 to 3 copies known
Of course, using such rating scale requires a deep knowledge of the subject at hand. But even, it is helpful in separating the wheat from the chaff: with this scale, a cancelled Russia #1 (with no special feature) simply cannot be described as rare!

Readers are welcome to share their insights on the matter. And it is fine to disagree.

Maxime Citerne

February 15, 2014

Kelleher Specialized Zemstvo Sale

Last Wenesday Kelleher Auctions offered a single-owned Zemstvo holding from a New York collector. 186 lots covering a large spectrum of districts. The collection was not very strong on postal history, as only a small selection of covers or postal stationaries were offered, none of them being particularly of great interest. It appears that the collector focussed primarly on Russian Zemstvo stamps, and the quality was in general rather attractive and above the usual standard.

There were a few items of great interest: a beautiful copy of the provisional from Borovichy (hammer price 5500$ against an estimation of 1500-2000$), definitely rare in such quality (figure 1). Novaya Lagoda district was graced with a nice lot including the rare transfer bloc error from 1867  (lot 98, hammer price 5605$). Figure 2

 Figure 1 - Lot 25: Borovichi 1876, 3 kopek bronze on white paper. Mint large part OG.

Figure 2 - Lot 98: Novaya Ladoga 1867, including the rare transfer bloc error "25 in corner"

I have also noticed the rare and rather unknown revenue stamps from Simferopol: two attractive copies of these interesting issues (1878) that finally reached a hammer price of 443$ (lot 139). Figure 3

Figure 3 - Lot 139: Simferopol 1878, two fine copies of the Revenue Stamps.

The auctioneer broke down some districts by offering intact parts of the holding. That was the smartest thing to do, and as expected some of those lots went above their maximum estimation. Lot 46 was of particular interest to me: a nice section of Gadiach including a scarce selection of blocs (among them a very rare bloc of 6 of Schmidt 5 - possibly the second largest known). This lot was finally sold to yours truly (hammer price: 1600$ against an estimation of 1000-1500).

Overall, this sale was a nice experience and the Kelleher team was very reactive both in promoting the sale, and dealing with their communication with potential buyers. And it is always nice to see a constant flow of Russian stamps, and Zemstvo adhesives, coming to the market!


February 9, 2014

RSFSR 1917-1923: The Igor Gorski Collection

First of all an apology to the readers of this blog for a two months silence, but both professional and familial priorities have taken me away from the world of philately. I trust that I will be able to keep on posting regularly, at least to maintain a good level of entertainment for my collector friends.

Year 2014 starts with a splendid world level collection disposed at Cherrystone: the Igor Gorski collection of RSFSR.

I have been wandering through the superb catalogue, lavishly illustrated with top rarities, only to remember to myself how fascinating a well-researched and nicely mounted collection could be.

The Gorski RSFSR collection is an example of careful work. Probably a work of love. I cannot help but recommand to everyone to get your hands on the Cherrystone catalogue, which is bound to become a reference on that subject.

The collection is very, I mean VERY strong on essays and proofs, unadopted designs and color trials. Many of them had never been pictured in auction catalogues before. The definitive issues are presented litterally packed with all the varieties, shades and possible curiosities that add spicy to the philatelic meal. Did I mention some of the biggest multiples recorded as well?

Postal history is represented too, though in my personal taste at a slightly less interesting level than the stamps (no offense: we are already talking of very high level...). Overall, and as expected from such holding, quite a few items have been previously held by famous RSFSR collectors, namely Liphschutz and Shtern.

More information on


November 27, 2013

Romanov: An Exceptional Early Postcard

Figure 1Oldest mail recorded with some Romanov stamps: 30 December 1912
Postcard sent from a Travelling Post office to the small city of Starozhilovo in the Ryazan Gubernia.  
3 days before the official first day issue of the famous commemorative set (!!!)
A stunning rarity for the Romanov specialist. Unique, ex Leonard Tann.

[ Author´s collection ]

The popular Romanov set strikes back again. I have written this year about a very rare earliest usage recorded of a Ruble value: 1 ruble Romanov adhesive cancelled on the 4th January 1913 (third day of use), one of three known. That item nevertheless pales in comparison with the postcard pictured above.

The Romanov set was officially launched on the 2nd January 1913. On the first of January, the post offices were closed to the public but incoming mail was treated by the postal clerks. In other words, the public could´t buy any Romanov stamp before the 2nd January, BUT those stamps were already available to the postal clerks in most of the post offices in Russia and, as well, Mandchuria [1] and Mongolia [2], as early as December 1912.

There are a couple of first day covers (i.e 2nd January 1913) recorded in the litterature with kopek frankings, as well as a handfull of extremely rare loose stamps cancelled in December [2]. The postcard above is absolutely exceptional. It is the only recorded usage on cover, to the best of my knowledge, of any Romanov adhesive in 1912 (Figure 1).

It was sent from a Travelling Post Office (postal wagon) to a small city in the Ryazan Gubernia. The sender wrote the message, and asked the postal clerk for franking. The later took what was available to him at the moment, picking up in a pile of the freshly delivered and ready-to-use Romanov sheets. Working in such a small office, he probably had only a short selction of values below the counter, excluding the 3 kopek, otherwise he would have logically picked up some of those 3 kopek stamps to complete the franking.

Then he cancelled the stamps with his TPO handstamp, dated from the day: 30 December 1912. The postcard travelled by train as expected and reached its final destination on the 1st of January 1913. The arrival postmark proves that the post offices, although closed to the general public, were indeed treating incoming mail on the 1st. 

And as a result of this fortunate sending, we have today an amazing and rather unexpected item of Russian postal history.

Maxime Citerne


[1] Harbin 3.01.1913. Dr Casey collection. See David Feldman sale, December 2013 sale.
[2] Antoine Speeckaert: 35 kopek and 70 kopek cancelled Urga 21.12.1912
[3] Rev. Leonard Tann, "Three days early", in The Post Rider Volume 27:4-5, November 1990