Collecting unusual stamps to build a remarkable collection

May 25, 2009 12:22 PM

  • Figure 1. A German 800,000-mark-on-200m stamp (Scott 263). Click on image to enlarge.
  • Figure 2. The overprinted numeral "8" is inverted on this German inflation-era postage stamp (Scott 241a). Click on image to enlarge.
  • Figure 3. A German 500,000,000m stamp (Scott 293). Click on image to enlarge.
  • Figure 4. A 50,000,000,000m (50 milliarden, or billion, marks) stamp (Scott 299). Click on image to enlarge.
  • Figure 5. A 4,000,000m German stamp (Scott 312) surcharged "5 Milliarden." (Scott 312). Click on image to enlarge.
  • Figure 6. A German post-inflationary-period 3-pfennig stamp (Scott 323). Click on image to enlarge.

By Janet Klug

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with a mixed group of theater-goers prior to seeing a play calledMauritius.

The play is about the Mauritius Post Office stamps (Scott 1-2) and other rarities, the passion to own them, and the greed of those who wish to benefit from their sale. It is a wonderfully entertaining play.

I began my spiel by talking a little bit about Mauritius, a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. A few of the stamps from Mauritius are highly valuable treasures.

Beyond giving some factual background about rare stamps I do not own, I wanted my audience to understand that ordinary people can collect extraordinary stamps for less than a cup of fancy latte from a coffee shop.

I tried to decide what to take to this unusual show-and-tell session. I remembered the stamp collection of my childhood. It was made up of dime-store packets that seemed to me to be treasures from the far corners of the world. I pulled an album off a shelf, removed a dozen stamps and began assembling the story of hyperinflation in Germany in 1923.

The German hyperinflation stamps have a fascinating backstory. Between 1921 and 1923, German money, denominated then in marks and pfennigs, deteriorated in value, largely because of World War I reparation payments the country was required to make, and missteps by the government. The German government printed and circulated more currency to make the reparation payments. This devalued the German mark against foreign currencies. A perfect storm for inflation was brewing.

By mid-July 1922, the German government was printing currency at a record pace. The value of the German mark plummeted while the government made some silly decisions in an attempt to build confidence in the failing mark.

The government began buying back foreign-held German marks using gold reserves. In the meantime, the government cranked out even more currency, which completely defeated the purpose of buying marks that had been in foreign hands. Valuable gold was being used to acquire worthless paper.

Most of us have seen photographs of German citizens in 1923 pushing heavy wheelbarrows full of currency in the hope of being able to buy a loaf of bread. Businesses paid their staff two or three times a day and the workers would dash out trying to spend the money while it still had some purchasing power.

So how did this affect the German postal system? Pretty dramatically, as it happens.

At the beginning of the inflation period (1921) it cost 60 pfennigs to mail a domestic letter. By December 1923 it cost 100 billion marks to mail a letter. A millionaire at the beginning of 1921 could not afford to buy a postage stamp by the end of 1923.

In 1923 there were 16 postal rate increases, five of which occurred in the month of November.

The German post office was challenged to keep up with the hyperinflation and the ever-changing rates. Old stamps were surcharged in upward spirals.

As a result, there is much to collect today. There are more than 80 face-different 1923 stamps from Germany listed in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue. If you go back to 1921, at the very beginning of the inflationary period, you can double that number. If you add all of the minor-number varieties, you can triple the number again. Go even deeper to a specialized catalog such as the German-language Michel Germany Specialized Catalog, Vol. 1, 1849 to April 1945, and the number of varieties increases yet again.

The German stamp in Figure 1 (Scott 263) began life in 1923 as a 200m stamp. The stamp was surcharged to 800,000m later that same year. That's pretty dramatic by anyone's measurements.

Overprinted or surcharged stamps are called provisional issues. The trouble with overprinting stamps is that mistakes can happen, especially when overprinting so many stamps so often.

The overprinted numeral "8" on the 8,000m-on-30m stamp (Scott 241a) shown in Figure 2 is inverted. Many inverted or doubled overprints occurred on these provisional stamps.

Stamps denominated in hundreds of thousands of marks soon gave way to stamps denominated in millions of marks. Figure 3 shows a 500,000,000m stamp (Scott 293).

In almost no time at all, stamps denominated in millions of marks were no longer enough to pay the postage. Stamps were created with denominations in billions of marks. In Germany a billion is expressed as "milliarden." Figure 4 illustrates a 50,000,000,000m (50 milliarden mark) stamp (Scott 299).

It is almost incomprehensible for ordinary folks to think in those numbers, and yet the German post office still could not keep up with cranking out enough stamps in the new denominations.

More overprints were made in milliarden values over million values. Figure 5 shows such a 4,000,000m stamp overprinted "5 Milliarden" (Scott 312).

November 1923 was also the beginning of the end of the hyperinflation period.The German government established a new bank called the Rentenbank and a new currency called the rentenmark. One rentenmark was equivalent to 1 trillion old marks.

The currency was backed up by and redeemable for real estate and German industry bonds. Remarkably, the rentenmark held steady and in 1924 was replaced by the reichsmark, which had the same value as the rentenmark.

With the introduction of the rentenmark, stamps were again issued in pfen-nigs and marks. New stamps were at first issued with numeral denominations but no indication of currency. Figure 6 shows one of these stamps with a 3pf denomination (Scott 323).

Germany's experience was far from the only massively destructive period of inflation. In 1946, even worse inflation occurred in Hungary. Today, the African nation of Zimbabwe is afflicted by hyperinflation.

The postage stamps remain to document these extraordinary tim