I first presented the
following article at a seminar of the Western Postal History Society in Tucson,
Arizona in January 1989. It was later edited and published in the fifth edition
It has been my experience that a simple process readily exposes the majority of fake covers. If you ask yourself the right questions regarding a cover or folded letter, the answers often lead to conclusions that either reveal it as a fake, or support its authenticity.
The steps in the process of determining fake covers and the questions to be asked are basic and simple. It is almost as if you are inside the cover trying to understand what is happening to you.
To begin with, what is the actual date or probable period of the cover? Sometimes no precise date is available from a date stamp, a dateline, the contents or a docketing indication. If all of these are unavailable, the period can still be narrowed down by determining the period of usage of the stamps, the postal rate indicated and any other markings that appear on the cover. Narrow down the period during which the cover could have been used as much as possible. Subsequent steps in establishing the authenticity will rely heavily on accurately determining this period.
The next step is to determine if all aspects of the cover are internally consistent with the date or period established. The paper, the ink, the stamps, the markings, even whether the item is an envelope or a folded letter, should all be consistent with the period of use you have established.
Where did the item originate, and where was it sent? Determine if the cover is consistent with the kinds of mail service and the usual methods of handling mail between these two points during the period you have established.
Sometimes the point of origin is unknown, as is frequently the case with steam, route agent and other classes of mail. Even if you do not know the exact point of origin; you can usually determine the most likely area or region of origin. Contents, if present, can often provide useful clues by internal references.
The address may hint at the origin. A letter addressed simply to a town will usually have originated in the same state or territory. Letters sent from abroad to the United States are usually so inscribed, while those originating within the country seldom are.
If the letter was forwarded, returned or not delivered as originally addressed, try to determine why this may have been the case. If the letter is from a known correspondence, comparing the stamps and markings with others found in the same correspondence may prove fruitful. (This point was one of the keys I used in determining that the famous Consul Klep cover with a strip of three 5c 1856 issue in the recent Zoellner sale was a fake [lot #68, it was withdrawn].)
Some items, such as ship and steamship usages almost invariably originated at a point different from that at which they entered the government mails. They may have been carried by an independent mail carrier, a ship captain, a friend, or by any other method of private carriage.
Attempt to determine what other kind of service may have been involved. This may be signaled by non-government rates or pencil notations on the cover which may indicate handling by an express service or something as simple as a favored by notation indicating private carriage.
For the period, the method of handling, the point of origin and the destination of the cover, what should the postal rates have been? Prepayment in whole or part was mandatory for some items and impossible for others. Knowing which is the usual, as well as noting the presence of stamps or paid markings on a cover, becomes an important part of the evidence
In the early adhesive period not all prepayment was by adhesive postage stamps. Some mail went to those who had the privilege of receiving it free, or part of the postage free. Also mail could be prepaid by combination of stamps and cash.
Determining the correct rate for a given item is crucial. Although there were errors by postal clerks, especially where calculations were complicated by compound rates, the vast majority of covers are correctly rated. Overpayments, however, occur frequently in mail top foreign countries especially when different rates applied to different routings and a sender may have paid the higher rate to make sure that the cover would be sent by the first opportunity no matter what the routing.
Were postage stamps required, optional or exceptional during the period for the type of service the item received? Some early stamps were limited in the kinds of mail they could prepay. This information can be important in learning whether a cover is genuine.
If a cover with a postage stamp was sent during a period when the use of stamps was optional, check to ensure that its markings are consistent with stamp use rather than postage due. Markings on a stamped cover that would appear on it if it were posted without a stamp should have a plausible explanation. Otherwise, they suggest that it is a stampless cover to which a postage stamp has been fraudulently added to increase its apparent value.
If stamps were required during the period indicated by a cover that lacks stamps paying the full rate, check for signs that a stamp has been removed or has accidentally come off. Some such covers originated at U.S. territorial post offices, where stamps were often unavailable, and may have been prepaid in cash rather than stamps.
Does the item bear markings consistent with its usage? It should be possible to account for all rate markings and hand stamps on a cover. Date stamps should reflect a logical or explicable progression from the cover's point of origin to its destination.
The markings on the cover should match other known genuine examples in appearance. The inks of the markings should match as well. Cancellations and other postal markings are subject to alteration. They can also be fraudulently added to an item carried outside of the government mails.
If possible, check to see that markings applied at the same post office are consistent with other known genuine examples of the period. For example, some offices routinely used one color of ink for the postmark and another for the cancellation. If both are in the same color, check to see if the inks match. If the stamp is tied by the cancel to the cover, check to see whether the tie has been enhanced or added.
Has the item been altered in any way that might conceal manipulation? If a dateline has been removed, or differs from the remainder of the contents, determine if the markings on the cover could be explained by a different point of origin than the apparent one. Sealing a cover closed also sometimes hides repairs.
Finally, has a consistent and logical explanation been developed for the markings on the item? If any inconsistencies exist it is always possible that they can be explained by starting over in your analysis with a different assumption.
Assume, for example, that a different stamp was originally on the cover, or that the cover was originally a stampless cover. If either premise explains all the markings, you may have good reason to suspect fakery.
If there is more than one logical explanation for the item, carefully review the rates and regulations of the period. If that fails, you may seek information about additional or similar covers that would tend to favor one explanation.
If you go through these steps on several troublesome covers, you will find that you have spent a lot of time reading and studying postal laws and regulations. The more you know about these, the less likely you are to be deceived. Proper reference materials will make your task easier.
Richard Frajola (May 15, 2000)