The Arthur Salm Foundation
Report No. 6
Counterfeit U.S. Airmail Covers
(The Flying Fakes)
The information detailed in this report was uncovered because of a speech presented by Susan E. Morton, of the U.S. Postal Service Crime Laboratory, San Bruno, California, at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, in New Orleans, in 1986.
The dealer involved in the investigative process is not identified, since he, and his wife, entered a successful murder-suicide pact, apparently initiated by Mr. Doe, rather than submitting to a federal trial. Under such circumstances, they never were found guilty, nor were they declared innocent. To maintain their anonymity, the dealer and his wife will be referred to a ‘Mr. and Mrs. John Doe’.
The Collectors Club of Chicago (CCC) notes that many of these fake covers are still abundant in the philatelic market to one degree or another, and that purchasers of such items should request extensions for expertization purposes.
Background and Discussion
The terms ‘Fakes’, ‘Forgeries’ and ‘Counterfeits’ all are synonyms having the same meaning: an item that is not genuine, a sham. In order to maintain a grammatical continuity, only the terms ‘Fake’ or ‘Fakes’ will be used throughout this report.
Virtually every collectible of value has spawned its fakes, and philatelic items are not an exception. The faker of such items faces a number of difficulties, many of which were well illustrated in the case brought by aerophilatelists to the attention of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
For several years, a national aerophilatelic society had been concerned because of the fake airmail covers appearing in the market, all of which appeared to emanating from a single source, a dealer located in Santa Cruz, California. Confrontations with the dealer did not result in the cessation of the fakes. The aerophilatelists then sought the assistance of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
The aerophilatelists not only pursued their complaint, they supplied the materials and documentation fundamental to the investigational procedures.
Three professional dealers provided numerous expensive airmail covers that were purchased from Mr. Doe. The aerophilatelic society then identified the owners of the same type of covers that were indisputably genuine. Six of the genuine covers and their relevant supporting documentation were loaned to the Inspection Service for their comparison purposes analysis. The stipulation was made that only nondestructive laboratory techniques were to be employed on the genuine items during the testing procedures.
A note in historical prospective will be helpful in understanding the type of documents in question, and the problems faced by both the forger, and the laboratory.
As soon as the news of the Wright brothers’ 17th December 1903 first successful sustained flight with a powered, controlled aircraft, the Wright Flyer I, spread throughout the U.S. Post Office Department, the possibility of transporting mail via the ‘aeroplane’ was quickly recognized, and immediately was energetically pursued.
The Wright brothers were not the lone inventors pursuing a proverbial dream. They simply were the first to achieve a feat long recognized as being feasible, but difficult to accomplish.
After the success of the Wrights’ first successful sustained flight with a powered, controlled aircraft, many other potential aviators and professional aviation devotees attempted (and most achieved) similar accomplishments, and not only in the United States.
With some carrying souvenir mails, pioneer-era flights in other countries, include those in France (1906, made by Brazilian Alberto Santos Dumont in Paris, being the first ‘aeroplane’ flight in Europe; 1909, first flight of the French-manufactured Voisin-Farman I), Austria/Austro-Hungarian Empire (1908, Etrich-Wels mono-plane), Denmark (1908, Ellehammer IV bi-plane), England (1908, the British Army Aeroplane No. 1, flown by American-born Samuel F. Cody), Germany (1908, the Libelle [Dragonfly]), Italy (1908, French-manufactured Société Anonyme des Aéroplanes G. Voisin Voisin bi-plane, piloted by Ferdinand Léon Disarrange), Switzerland (1908, Armand and Henri Dutau-designed Dutau tri-plane), Australia (1909, Wright Model A bi-plane), Belgium (1909, Tips Pusher bi-plane), Canada (1909, the Aerial Experiment Association Silver Dart, piloted by John McCurry), Ireland (1909, Ferguson mono-plane), Romania (1909, the Airplane, the first airplane with a tubular fuselage), Russia (1909, Voison bi-plane at Odessa, piloted by Dutchman Van den Schkrouff), Spain (1909, Brunet-Olivert bi-plane), Scotland (1909, Frank & Harold Barnwell-designed Barnwell Canard bi-plane), Sweden (1909, French-manufactured Société Anonyme des Aéroplanes G. Voisin Voisin-Farman bi-plane, piloted by Frenchman Georges Legagneux), Hungary (1910, the Strucc [Ostrich]), Poland (1911, a French-inspired Blériot XI-type bi-plane designed by Stanislaw Cywiński, and piloted by Stefan Kozlowski).
The numerous ‘aeroplane’ designs were as varied as were the inventors’ imaginations, but all of these early designs were fragile, and none had the stamina or range for a reliable and consistent mail delivery. The U.S. Post Office bided its time, and lent support to aviation where it could. One way it could lend support was to issue special cancellations to commemorate various aviation events.
The Faked Souvenir Covers and Postcards
In the United States, a ‘barnstormer’ is defined as being a stunt pilot performing dare-devil and otherwise intricate flying procedures either individually, or in groups nick-named as being the event’s ‘flying circus’. Such aerial exhibitions, whether taking place in the United States or elsewhere, were conducted at county, provincial or similar fairs, or at metes organized specifically for aerial flight demonstrations.
The aviators exhibited their specialized barnstorming techniques (also named ‘demonstration flights’, primarily in Europe), and would place a bag of properly franked mail from the temporary postal stations established at the event aloft, and then drop the mailbag out of the plane over an empty field, or an alternate designated drop area.
The mailbag would be retrieved, the mail was stamped with a commemorative cancellation documenting and detailing the event, and the mail would be forwarded to its designated addressees via the regular U.S. Mail postal systems.
In the U.S., during the 1910-1916 period (known as the “Pioneer Air Mail Pioneer Period”), there were almost one hundred such special events, each having a special cancellation to commemorate the occasion. Many of these flight commemorative covers are rated very scarce-to-rare, especially the earlier flights, and all of them command premiums when offered on the philatelic marketplace.
During the same years that the U.S. barnstormers were entertaining attendees at the air shows, beginning in 1908, the first Zeppelin flights were being conducted in Germany. The flights were provided with special ‘On Board’ (An Bord) cancellations; these flight covers also sell at premium prices when offered on the philatelic marketplace.
The advent of World War I further advanced the technical development of the ‘aeroplane’. The planes’ construction much improved through aeronautical research, and by 15th May 1918, the U.S. Post Office Department established regularairmail routes. The government purchased planes specific for the transport of airmail deliveries, contracts were negotiated with landing fields, and pilots were employed. Unfortunately, approximately forty percent of those pilots hired to carry the mail eventually died in crashes.
The Faking of the Souvenir Covers and Postcards
The historical perspective having been detailed, the first groups of the faked special cancellations to commemorate aeronautical occasions are considered.
Thirty-three suspect pioneer airmail and other airmail event covers, as well as 1911 through 1920-dated Zeppelin flight covers, were submitted for expertization procedures, being accompanied by six companion covers documented as being genuine.
From an investigative perspective, it was necessary to establish not only that the covers were fakes, but also that they were uniquely connected to the subject, the alleged offender being referred to in this report as a ‘Mr. John Doe’.
Mr. Doe had asserted to the investigators that the fakes he had been caught selling were items that he had purchased in good faith from other sources. The identities of the ‘other sources’ had escaped his memory. Under such circumstances, the assertion was difficult to disprove, and a search warrant could not be obtained without evidence that Mr. Doe was the actual and only source of the faked material.
A fortunate circumstance aided in establishing an association. Mr. Doe was a very fluent penman, being able to impart different appearances to his writing by adopting flourished letters or a rigid vertical slant. However, he was afflicted with regular habits as to the formations of many of the small letters. These were sufficiently unusual to permit ready identification of his handwriting on many of the covers.
The Analysis of the Covers and Postcards
Ample handwriting examples were available from correspondence mailed to a Postal Inspector in connection with the undercover purchases of the faked covers. Having crossed the hurdle of establishing that Mr. Doe was the source of the faked covers, it now had to be documented that the covers that he had been selling actually were fakes.
It was helpful to consider the matter from Mr. Doe’s perspective. He was attempting to prepare documents being at least seventy years of age, so he required five items to successfully complete his scheme: (1) proper Paper products, (2) proper Ink products, (3) correct Postage Stamps for the period, (4) Cancellation devices, and (5) a clientele willing to purchase the fakes as genuine items. The final requirement apparently did not presented a problem, as it appears that there always is an abundant supply of unsophisticated collectors willing to purchase pricey items without requesting expertization procedures. The other four items, however, were fruitful areas for investigation.
The faked covers and postcards were made using genuine old envelopes and postcards. Such items are readily available from estate sales, and often are for sale at meetings of stamp collectors. Mr. Doe’s difficulty was not in the finding of old postcards, as much as finding the appropriate postcards for the items destined to be faked.
Many of the picture postcards exhibited a peculiar feature — the stamp and faked ‘cancellation’ were on the picture side of the item. Examination of the reverse side explains the reason – they had been glued in albums, and were damaged when removed. Travelers or tourists would purchase picture postcards and paste them in albums much as currently done with photographs; the picture postcards obviously were removed from such an album. They were never mailed, nor were they really intended for mailing —several were found decorated with pressed moss, ferns and edelweiss blossoms.
Since only non-destructive analytical techniques could be used in the testing procedures, the study of the inks on the cards proved to be only moderately successful, The questioned penmanship was written in fluid ink, or in pencil.
Ink pen nibs have changed in their properties over the years. At the turn of the century, the nibs were springy, so as to produce a shading affect; modern writers using nibs are not accustomed to this effect. Except for the specialty types, modern nib pens are stiff, and produce a writing line very similar in appearance to the current-day fine-tip fiber pens.
William Mitchell, an established authority on the chemistry of inks, and the manufacturer of the modern-day Acrylic Calligraphy Inks, indicates that Iron Gall Ink was the ink of choice during the early 1900s, but that nigrosine and aniline dye inks also were in use during that time.
Iron Gall Ink would have lost most of its blue dye at this late date, and would have a brownish cast. Aniline dye inks would have faded. Nigrosine would still have a saturated black color, but it is not true fluid ink. Nigrosine is a black, particulate dye suspended in water — it washes off with the slightest amount of water.
Knowing the appearance of old ink, it was possible to verify that the inks on some of the cards were fresh. However, since all of the testing methods had to be non-destructive, the ink studies were of limited usefulness.
The purchase of old stamps posed no problem to a stamp dealer. However, Mr. Doe appeared to have trouble finding uncanceled small denomination issues. Many of the stamps on these covers show prior cancellations and extra glue. Where these prior cancellations abruptly end at the edge of the stamps, Mr. Doe had used pen and ink to make it appear that the cancellation extended onto the card.
Being in possession of the required paper, ink and postage stamps are all very well and fine, but to manufacture a fake of a valuable aerophilatelic cover or postcard, Mr. Doe had to apply an impression of the appropriate circular date stamp. All of the dates tampers used to postmark the genuine items were made either of metal or rubber.
Aerophilatelists suggested the American Air Mail Catalogue, an official publication of the American Airmail Society, could have been the possible source of the date stamp illustrations used to produce the fake date stampers. The catalogue illustrates most of the date stamps in actual size, but several are depicted as reductions.
In each case where Mr. Doe used the catalogue’s reduced size date stamp image for his replicates, his are the same size as those illustrated in the catalogue, rather than being their actual size. Since most commercial rubber stamp manufacturers are apprehensive to reproduce anything resembling a circular date stamp, it appears that Mr. Doe was preparing the fake date stampers himself. Given some experience with photography and a modest amount of equipment, creating rubber date stampers is not a formidable task.
By considering the various types of available evidence, each of thirty-three covers being investigated was declared as being obvious fakes. Many of these covers were traced to Mr. Doe through hand- writing analysis and identification. The Inspectors were confident that a search warrant could now be obtained, but due to the unusual materials to be sought, the U.S. Postal Service Crime Laboratory assisted in drafting the warrant. A federal judge found the evidence compelling, and signed the document.
The Inspectors requested further assistance from the Crime Laboratory to identify the listed items. Descriptions were offered by aerophilatelists assisting in the investigation, but the Inspectors preferred an alternate action. After making inquiries as to appropriate attire for a lady attend- ing a federal police raid, and establishing that she would follow well behind the armed agents, the aerophilatelist officially assisted in executing the search warrant.
The Serving of the Federal Search Warrant
Upon the serving of the federal warrant, the agents discovered that Mr. Doe had a Mrs. Doe, and that the two of them kept six monkeys at home as pets.
When it appeared that Mr. Doe began to understand the nature and seriousness of the search warrant, he began to cooperate to some degree. A large cache of rubber stamps was found in his desk drawer — surprisingly to all concerned, they were of commercial manufacture.
Mr. Doe stated that he had never encountered difficulties in securing the fake rubber date stamps, although he was careful to deal only with the establishment’s clerks, rather than the owner at his favored company.
The appropriate American Air Mail Catalogs were discovered resident on his bookshelves. These are relatively expensive handbooks, and the presumption was made that the fake rubber date stampers were produced using photographs from the catalogue. Mr. Doe was not careful with his reference books, as he sliced the desired images from the handbooks, taking them directly to the fake date stampers manufacturer’s premises.
A number of handmade stamping devises consisting of killer bars oblits hand carved from champagne corks were found. Several homemade-appearing metal date stampers also were found; they were heavily corroded, but appear to have been used to create some of the questioned impressions.
Fourteen purported, later proven to be faked, first-day covers were confiscated during the search. These covers exhibited the same defect as those examined earlier, but lacked the finesse of the earlier examples. Either Mr. Doe had held these back, realizing that they were not well done, or his sales successes had made him careless.
One card was ‘postmarked’ 1911, in Louisville, Kentucky (to be representative of the 3rd-4th November 1911 Aero-Military Tournament taking place in that city). The postcard was, in fact, a reminder postcard referencing a meeting to take place in Springfield, Massachusetts, on 8th April 1879. Although this card was still available in 1911, its time and place are so out of synchrony with its purported cancellation that it qualifies as an outstanding anachronism. A more traditional inconsistency was found on another postcard, It being a picture postcard featuring the family of President Ulysses S. Grant, purportedly cancelled in 1912. A legend on the card indicates that the Ohio Historical Society printed it.
The Turn of the Events
Approximately one month after the search warrant was executed, the Santa Cruz Police Department notified the U.S. Postal Inspection Service that Mr. and Mrs. Doe were dead, victims of an apparent murder-suicide initiated by Mr. Doe. It is for this reason that Mr. Doe has been assigned a ‘Mr. Doe’ pseudonym, and is not mentioned by his real name. Although evidence of his guilt is more than ample, if not overwhelming, Mr. Doe was never tried by a court of law, and thus never was found to be guilty.
Some aerophilatelists and others have taken a somewhat curious attitude when decussating this nefarious affair. Those who expended thousands of dollars for fake aerophilatelic postal history items don’t necessarily appear to be too dismayed. They consider that are the owners of ‘authentic’ Mr. Doe fakes, expressing the feeling that the fakes eventually may be more valuable than are the genuine covers.
From a pioneer aerophilatelic covers standpoint, the fakes are relatively crude, and easily detected by expertizers, as well as by seasoned collectors. Apparently, Mr. Doe was not attempting to deceive aerophilatelic cover examiners —his primary goal was to sell his fakes at a major profit to the unwary.
Thirty-three confirmed pioneer aerophilatelic cover and postcard fakes were recovered, and another fourteen were confiscated during the search of Mr. Doe’s home.
What is not known is the total number of fakes that Mr. Doe manufactured, he declining to comment on that number when giving his statement to the authorities. The questions remain as to how large of a nefarious legacy did he leave, and if in existence, in which collection, dealers’ stock or bank box do they repose?
- Angers, George W., Chief Editor, American Air Mail Catalogue,
- 1st Edition, Publ.: American Air Mail Society, 1940.
- Eisendrath, Joseph L., Editor-in-Chief, American Air Mail Catalogue,
- 5th Edition, American Air Mail Society, 1974.
- Gatchell, L.B., Editor-in-Chief, American Air Mail Catalogue, Vol. 1,
- 4th Edition, American Air Mail Society, 1966.
- Mitchell, C. Ainsworth and T. C. Hepworth, Inks: Their Composition and Manufacture,
- 2nd Edition, Charles Griffin & Company (Glasgow, Scotland), 1916,