By James Bone
You probably know that Library and Archives Canada holds an extensive number of postage stamps in its collections, but did you know that we also have a large number of faked, forged and counterfeit stamps?
The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but technically, a fake is an unofficial (not genuine) item, a forgery is a genuine item that has been altered unlawfully, and a counterfeit is a copy of a genuine item. Fakes, forgeries and counterfeits are made for various purposes, including defrauding the postal authority of revenue, tricking collectors who are eager to get a rarity at a too-good-to-be-true price, or succeeding in the intrinsic challenge of producing a convincing imitation. Within philately (the study of postage stamps and their uses), the intentional collection and study of fakes, forgeries and counterfeits helps to ensure that collectors are not being deceived.
Sometimes a counterfeit is easy to spot when placed beside the genuine article. Compare these two stamps from pre-Confederation Prince Edward Island depicting Queen Victoria. It should be obvious which is real and which is not (the one on the left, which has a portrait that is clearly of inferior quality).
Often it is much more difficult to detect a fake, forgery or counterfeit, and some stamp collectors enthusiastically seek the challenge of finding fraudulent stamps. Three of the main collections with stamps of dubious provenance are the Rowcliffe F. Wrigley collection (R4595), the André Frodel collection (R3759) and the E.A. Smythies fonds (R3853). Each collection holds curiosities for philatelic researchers and collectors.
Rowcliffe “Roy” Wrigley (1885–uncertain) began collecting stamps as a child at age 10. He later became well known for publishing catalogues for collectors of postage stamps used by government departments, characterized by their perforation with the initials OHMS (On His Majesty’s Service) or overprinted with the letter G. Through unknown circumstances, Wrigley came to possess thousands of stamps with forged OHMS perforations: genuine stamps that had been carefully perforated with OHMS to deceive collectors. The problem for Wrigley was that he was also a well-known dealer of OHMS stamps; as a result, the Vancouver detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) took an interest in his activities. Though Wrigley was never proven in court to have done anything wrong, he agreed to transfer the collection by way of the RCMP to the former National Postal Museum, which defaced all of his stamps with a “counterfeit” mark.
The man who became known as André Frodel in Canada began his life as Andrzej Frodel, born in 1890 to a Polish family in Lviv, then part of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and now part of Ukraine. He worked at the Hungarian State Bank Note Company in the interwar years, during which he learned about lithographic printing processes and postage stamp paper stock. He joined the Polish Armed Forces fighting alongside the Western Allies during the Second World War. Frodel was resettled in Canada thereafter with a grant of farmland in Alberta. Within a few years, the farm had failed, and Frodel moved to British Columbia. Making use of his knowledge of printing, inks and stamps, he began to experiment in the creation of counterfeit stamps. As best we know, Frodel had no ill intentions and wanted only to demonstrate his skill, but in time those who acquired his works took the opportunity to resell them as genuine. A striking example is his counterfeit of Canada’s most famous stamp error: the St. Lawrence Seaway invert of 1959. The genuine error sells for more than $10,000, with a well-established number of copies in existence.
Frodel also made a type of fake stamp known as a fantasy: something that does not exist in genuine form but looks like it could.
Frodel died in poverty in 1963. At the time of his death, he lived as boarder under Lieutenant Colonel Frederick E. Eaton, who owned a stamp shop and was a stamp dealer for whom Frodel was probably making counterfeits and forgeries. Eaton likely had others working to produce materials for him to sell as genuine. Eventually, the RCMP began investigating Eaton and his shop. As with Wrigley, Eaton donated his fraudulent stamps to the National Postal Museum, but in doing so he appears to have falsely attributed all of them to Frodel, who being dead made for an excellent scapegoat. Many of these items were marked on the verso as being forgeries by Frodel to misdirect authorities and philatelic researchers.
Evelyn Arthur Smythies was born in 1885 of British parents in India and was later educated at the University of Oxford. Although he never lived in Canada, his wide-ranging philatelic collecting interests included a strong focus on the stamps of British North America. Smythies collected some of the highest-quality known fakes, forgeries and counterfeits. He spent years studying the details of different fakes, forgeries and counterfeits to identify their creators, but research ongoing to this day has questioned his attributions. Smythies died in 1975. Material from the E.A. Smythies collection is featured in our Unexpected! Surprising Treasures From Library and Archives Canada exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, until November 26, 2023.
The cat-and-mouse game of making and detecting fakes, forgeries and counterfeit stamps is still ongoing, both for users of the postal system and for collectors. In recent years, one expert consultant for Canada Post estimated that counterfeit stamps defraud the postal system of millions of dollars annually. For collectors, the risk of unknowingly purchasing fraudulent stamps is mitigated by authentication services: items are submitted to a committee of experts who specialize in identifying the false from the genuine articles. By maintaining a collection of known faked, forged and counterfeit stamps, Library and Archives Canada is able to assist in this highly specialized field.
- “Expect the Unexpected!” blog by Forrest Pass
- Unexpected! Surprising Treasures From Library and Archives Canada, Library and Archives Canada website: plan or complement your visit to the Unexpected! exhibition
James Bone is a philatelic and art archivist in the Visual and Sound Archives section at Library and Archives Canada.
What an excellent, eye-opening essay! Thanks!