Continuing the story of Giovanni (Jean) de Sperati, Italy-born master forger of postage stamps. In this second, and final, instalment we move forward to the third decade of the 20th Century.
By 1930 Jean de Sperati was earning enough to become a full-time stamp forger. He was so good that he was acting as a dealer but producing and selling copies of rare stamps to unknowing reputable dealers in Europe.
He was so proud of his skills that he started a collection of his own forgeries which had been declared “genuine” by various dealers and experts. Some items in his collection had as many as six different signatures of authenticity. The collection contained in total 125 different stamps guaranteed as genuine by experts.
The most interesting thing about Sperati is perhaps the care he took towards his forgery. He loved his work and his knowledge of chemistry, paper and printing helped him to avoid mistakes made by other philatelic forgers. His skills were so advanced that even after knowing a Sperati stamp was a forgery, experts were baffled by his methods of reproduction.
His favourite printing method was collotype (collotypy), also known as photogelatin in America, which simulated intaglio and lithographic printing.
This eventually resulted in more than 550 high-quality forgeries from more than 100 different stamp-issuing agencies. During the Second World War, when France was occupied by German forces, Sperati’s run of luck ran out.
A cache of his stamps, marked as valuable and intended for a Lisbon stamp dealer, was discovered by customs officials. It contained several falsified German stamps and he was charged with “exporting capital” without a licence and intent to avoid customs payments. He protested his innocence, explaining that it contained only copies of valuable stamps, which he himself had made.
The police called in the country’s best stamp experts to attempt to clarify the facts of the case. The experts came to the conclusion that the stamps were all originals, and also very valuable. Despite the findings of the experts Sperati managed to convince the police that they were fakes, and he was then charged with fraud.
In court he defended himself by explaining that the stamps were actually reproductions, to be sold to collectors at a fraction of the genuine stamps’ price. He also claimed that he normally signed his reproductions but had forgotten to do so in the case of the impounded stamps. His trial ended in April 1948 after years of legal wrangling and he avoided imprisonment and simply received a fine because by then he was 64 years old.
He continued to sell his signed “fakes” until 1955 – when his health was failing – the British Philatelic Association purchased his remaining stock and equipment. They later published a booklet, “The Work of Jean de Sperati”, in an attempt to prevent further deception.
Jean de Sperati’s printing press, on display and demonstrated at Europhilex London, May 2015.
The BPA’s action sent shock waves throughout philatelic circles. For the first time, the stamp world became aware of the magnitude of the forger’s output of bogus stamps. For a price reputed to be anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000, the philatelic association got the aging counterfeiter to turn over all his stock, dies, and proofs. But, most importantly, he agreed that he would never again produce a counterfeit stamp.
However, when Sperati died in 1957, it was discovered he had still been hard at work with his reproductions. “Just for fun”, he confided just before his death.
Even today, many valuable collections contain (knowingly and unknowingly) de Sperati forgeries – and some collectors are completely focused on seeking out his reproductions as a topic for their collections. He was, indeed, a Forger Extraordinaire.