Stamp of deceit

January 30, 2015

Thanks to the curiosity of a Belgian philatelist, the Canadian Museum of History acquired a rare copper plate used for forging New Brunswick and Nova Scotia one-shilling stamps, as of 1851.

The philatelist was not a collector of Canadian stamps and didn’t know that the plate, found in a flea market in Belgium, was created to print forgeries. However, he bought it because he guessed that it had historical importance. After contacting several European museums, he was directed to the Canadian Museum of History, to which he donated the plate in 2013.

At the Museum, the plate was examined by a stamp expert who was immediately struck by its high quality. “It’s the work of a master,” concurs Bianca Gendreau, Manager, Contemporary Canada and the World. “The engravings are miniature works of art. There’s a lot of minute detail and you need a magnifying glass to see the difference from the original stamps.”

The plate was especially interesting to the Museum because no one knew it existed, although the forgeries of these stamps were first identified in 1897 and are well known. “Stamps have been forged for centuries but few forgery plates have survived because of course they are evidence of criminal activity,” Ms. Gendreau explains.

Forging first editions

The New Brunswick and Nova Scotia stamps forged on the plate were the first stamps issued in both provinces. The British imperial government transferred responsibility for the postal administration to the Province of Canada (present-day southern Ontario and southern Quebec), Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland in 1851. “It’s important to have this plate out of circulation because the 1851 stamps are extremely valuable and we don’t want high-quality forgeries on the market,” says Ms. Gendreau.

The forged stamps from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were only seen separately, so no one knew that they came from a single printing plate until the plate was discovered at the Belgian flea market more than a century later. The plate is 20 centimetres long by 15 centimetres wide and is in excellent condition. Unlike most of the modern printing plates, it’s made of copper rather than steel. “Large-scale production requires steel, but steel is heavy,” notes Ms. Gendreau. “Copper is light and more portable — ideal for a forger.”

Foiling the forgers

Even in an era of high-tech printing, stamps continue to be forged in Canada and around the world. To make the forger’s job as difficult as possible, Canada Post incorporates unique graphic elements and features into its stamps.

For example, an $8 grizzly bear stamp from 1997 was, like these earlier stamps, printed from a steel engraving, making its texture and exquisite detail difficult to replicate. Other security features are less obvious. With a magnifying glass, you’ll see that the grass and the sky are composed of very small bear images. A tiny 8 appears in the bear’s rear right leg. And the date of the stamp appears in tiny letters under its left front leg.

“Look very closely at today’s stamps and you’ll likely notice security features in their design, the paper or the colors used in their production,” says Ms. Gendreau. “Security continues to be a major concern.”

Image: Copper plate used for forging New Brunswick and Nova Scotia one-shilling stamps as of 1851.
© Canadian Museum of History