In the December 1863 edition of ‘Das Magazin für Briefmarken-Sammler’ (The Magazine for Stamp Collectors) is an ad from Jeanne Wed.(Widow) Elb in Dresden offering albums, stamps and catalogues for sale. This stamp trade was driven by her but was owned by her son Ferdinand Elb.
During his student years Ferdinand traded extensively in railways stocks and shares, which hardly left him time to attend lectures. In 1864 however, he, together with his mother, traded stamps and developed himself as a “handy boy” with special – and not strictly honest – methods.
In 1864, for example, he travelled to Berlin and on August 5th went to the main post office. He had a hundred envelopes with him – with values 4, 5, 6 and 7 Silbergroschen (Silbergroschen were replaced with 10 Pfennig pieces when the German Empire decimalised their monetary system following unification in 1871) – the so-called octagonal covers. Not the originals from 1852 but the reprints from 1864.
On those envelopes he added one or two reprints of the first Prussian stamp. He addressed all the envelopes to himself and sent them by registered delivery from Berlin. At home he sold the envelopes on quickly with a good profit, without informing the buyers that they had reprinted stamps on them.
This was also unnecessary, as his customers would have looked at him strangely if he had. At that time a stamp could only be two things – real or fake. Only a lot later when collectors began to focus more on studying stamps, did they discover Elb’s joke. The ‘Elb’ letters became wanted items. In 1895 an example could fetch 100 marks (100 pfennig equal 1 mark) were paid for such a piece.
In 1864 he published his own catalogue with the unimaginably long title: ‘Katalog nebst Preisliste mit Beschreibung über alle seit Anbeginn der Ausgabe von Briefmarken überhaupt bis zum heutigen Tage ausgegeben und projectirten Briefmarken und Stempel, enthaltend bis dato 2800 Nummer. Hrsg. unter Beihilfe u. Revision eines höheren Postbeambten u. Benutzung authentischer, officieler u. privater Quellen. Dresden: Selbstverlag 1864’ (Catalogue and price list with description of all stamps issued since the beginning of the issue of stamps until today and postmarks, containing up to date 2,800 in total. Edited and revised with help from authentic, official & private sources. Dresden: Self published in 1864. In 1866 and 1867 additions were added.
In 1865, he composed the following text for an advertisement:
Dresdner Express Company, “In order to accommodate the many inquiries of domestic and foreign collectors and traders concerning our newly published stamps and covers, we have sold the company to Mr. Ferdinand Elb in Dresden – the Executive Board.” Below is an advertisement of Ferdinand Elb in which he offers stamps and covers of the Dresdner Express Company for nominal amounts.
The Dresdner Express Company had actually existed in 1861, but it had only a very short life. By 1865 the company had long been extinct. Other fabrications attributed to him are a stamp with the inscription ‘Kissingen Schweinfurt Express Privilig’ and city postage stamps from a non-existent city postal service Leitmeritz.
Ferdinand Elb has long gone into philatelic history as “the Fat Elb of Dresden”, but that could be due to a misunderstanding. Ferdinand was not as fat as his uncle. This misunderstanding may be due to a piece in the November 1865 issue of ‘Le Timbrophile’ which stated that on 4th November in Paris at the age of 48 years Mr. J.W. Elb from Saxony, had died. It adds: “Mr. Elb was of such a magnitude that he was generating astonishment and curiosity. He weighed 179 kilos and his coffin, which could not be transported by a regular carriage, had a height of 80 centimetres.”
This J.W. Elb was a correspondent in Paris for his cousin Ferdinand in Dresden, and was therefore always well-equipped with postal items from the German States. He was often busy with reprints. After his death, the stamp dealers Mahé and De Laplante (both featured previously in this series) were appointed to auction his legacy. On December 29, 1865, his possessions realised about 800 francs at the renowned Hotel Drouot auction house. This was a considerable amount at the time. That auction is recognised as the very first auction in Europe that also sold stamps. Previously, in New York, a stamp lot had fallen under the hammer in a coin auction in 1862.
Pierre Mahé writes in his ‘Les Marchands d’aujourd hui’: “That in Paris the postal stamp dealer Josef W. Elb has lived. This Elb was a sight on the street because he weighed 208 kilos. His bags were always packed with biscuits and other refreshments, not always fresh. He was kind of character and had a high childlike voice. He had to walk everywhere because he could not travel in a vehicle because of his size.”
The Fat Elb of Dresden description does not therefore entirely fit Ferdinand, the maker of the ‘philatelic pieces’, but rather the uncle who lived in Paris.
The fact that the Fat Elb was a kind of world wonder was apparent from the fact that even the prestigious and serious British ‘The Times’ newspaper mentioned his death in edition number 10 of 1865.