It is an accepted fact that the more desirable and valuable collectible items become, the temptation for counterfeiting increases. And in the world of philately, the master forger was surely Jean de Sperati.
Born in Pisa, Italy, in 1884, Giovanni de Sperati (later adopting the forename Jean) was part of a wealthy family thrown into poverty by the failure of their business. This forced his brothers, Massimo and Mariano, to take up a trade – one becoming a photographer, the other a stamp dealer. As a result, Giovanni developed a passion for both philately and photographic processes and techniques.
As an impoverished collector of stamps, he once discovered that a particular item he had bought was a fake. In later life he claimed that his desire to avenge the selling dealer led him to create his own philatelic ‘‘works of art’, which would eventually fool stamp experts across Europe.
When, in 1909, a German philatelic publication – the ‘Berliner Briefmarken-Zeitung’ – reported that a family of forgers in Italy, operating under cover of a legitimate stamp business run by Sperati’s brother Mariano, were offering approval sheets containing rare stamps with great discounts, alarm bells sounded for the de Sperati’s.
The magazine article also exposed as fake a rare stamp set from San Marino, now thought to be Giovanni’s first major work. This publicity led to their premises being raided by the police. However, having been forewarned, the family fled, leaving behind more than two truck loads of forgeries, printing plates, printing presses, chemicals and inks, photographic equipment and paper.
After fleeing his homeland, the young Giovanni sought refuge in Paris and changed his christian name to Jean. He married in 1914 and had various jobs in other parts of France.
But his love of stamps (and possibly the lure of money to be earned by continuing his forging career) meant that at night he continued to study chemistry and printing methods, while producing what he termed “philatelic works of art”.
To be continued…