Apfelbaum's Corner

John Apfelbaum's blog on Philately

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Nicholas Seebeck

Seebeck is a name that one rarely encounters in modern philatelic reading. Yet for stamp collectors of a hundred years ago he was as the personification of evil. Seebeck  was a stamp dealer, then a printer, and in the early 1890’s he bought a significant piece of the Hamilton Bank Note Company in New York. Philately was increasing rapidly in popularity and Seebeck's idea was that since he couldn't make much money selling legitimate new issues that he bought at the post office, he would enter into printing contracts with smaller countries, print their stamps and keep a portion of the stamps himself in exchange for the printing fee and the money he must have paid as bribes to Latin American postal officials. Seebeck had contracts with several of the poorer Central and South American countries. The contracts varied. For some he got paid in stamps; for others he received the rights to reprint the stamps from the original plates. Whatever the contracts stated, Seebeck pretty much did whatever he wanted, creating hundreds of stamps over a fifteen year period for which he controlled the entire supply. Seebeck issued a new definitive set each year for each of the many countries that he printed for. This allowed a new group of stamps to put into the philatelic stream for which he just had to change the date in the design. Thus his costs were low and his profits high.

Seebeck was fiercely criticized by collectors at the time. For years, experizers claimed that they could tell the Seebeck reprints from the stamps that had been sold through the Central American post offices (even going so far as to claim that the direction of the ribbing in the stamp paper was a determinant between what was sold by Seebeck and what was sold through the Post Offices) but later research has shown that this was largely a figment of imagination. Seebeck usually made one printing of each set. He sent a few to the country involved and kept and sold the rest to collectors so the genuine postally sold copies and the Seebeck sold copies are identical. Eventually, Seebeck issues led to the philatelic isolation of entire countries, such as Nicaragua, Salvador and Ecuador, which have still never seen their stamps enjoy much popularity, despite eighty years of legitimate issues since Seebeck. But the Seebeck model, so excoriated by collectors a hundred years ago, has become the model for smaller country new issues of today with no criticism from the mainstream philatelic press. All the British West Indies Disney stamps and items of that ilk are designed and printed in New York for collectors, with sale in the locality that nominally ordered them limited to a few issues to attempt to legitimize them. Tastes change as does what we consider legitimate. Stamps of the type that the 1890’s loathed are actively collected today.

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