The more desirable and valuable collectables become, the greater temptation for counterfeiting. Of all the notorious, flamboyant, duplicitous forgers and con men of this century, the master of philatelic fakers was Jean de Sperati.
Many of his forgeries, some 566 varieties of stamps from 100 different countries, still lie buried in collections today, cherished by their unsuspecting owners who purchased them through thoroughly legitimate channels. If they knew they were holding Sperati forgeries they would be overjoyed to know, also, that they have become desirable collector items and have realized relatively high prices – in some cases more than the price of the genuine stamp
Sperati began his career in stamp fakery at an early age in the city of Pisa. By the time he was 26 years of age, the business, now a family enterprise, was well underway and thriving. At this time, around 1910, his first fake quietly appeared at a Berlin auction. The unsuspecting victim at that sale was Dr. Heinrich Koehler, a leading German dealer whose highly respected firm still flourishes today.
Sperati’s modus operandi for marketing his philatelic phonies was simple. He would manufacture a few high priced stamps and send them to various well-known experts for their opinion. Many were returned with certificates of authenticity. These he would put up at auction or offer them to a dealer in a city other than where the experts resided.
A few dealers eventually caught on to Sperati’s duplicity, but nothing much happened.
By the 1920’s Sperati devised other methods to fool those who knew his work – he made different handmade cancels to go with them.
During World War II, Sperati’s trade paid off handsomely as stamps became an easily carried and easily hidden hedge against property confiscation. It was an ideal time for a counterfeiter. His luck ran out many times along the path of his crooked career but he always managed to wriggle his way off the hook.
By 1954, at the age of 70 and with failing eyesight he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse. The British Philatelic Association (BPA) – anxious to stop Sperati for good – simply bought him out!
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.
The time for the likes of Sperati to put away his tools was ripe for France and Italy were about to enact laws that would make it impossible for a ‘philatelic artist’ to sell so-called stamp facsimiles. The danger threatening philatelic rarities had finally seemed abated.
However, when Sperati died in 1957, it was discovered he had still been hard at work. “Just for fun”, he confided just before his death.
In the long list of philatelic fakers, con-men, and counterfeiters, Jean de Sperati remains the master of them all.