World Stamps

The murky Austrian roots of Iceland’s Althing Millennium stamps

Apr 29, 2021, 6 PM

Nordic Stamp Scene — By Christer Brunstrom

Iceland in the North Atlantic was populated by Norsemen in the ninth century. Frequently, they had been sent to the island into exile for crimes committed in what is today Norway. 

Despite their background, the new Icelanders obviously felt that there was a need for law and order, and hence leading inhabitants met for the first time at Thingvellir in 930 to discuss matters of common interest and to settle all kinds of legal disputes.

This meeting has been described as the world’s very first parliament, known as the Althing. This national parliament has since moved to Reykjavik, the nation’s capital, and nowadays the Althing is in session for many months each year.

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Already in the mid-1920s there was much talk about the upcoming Althing millennium and how to celebrate it in style. A committee had been established in 1926 to organize the festivities.

This is where the Society of the Friends of Iceland (Verein der Islandsfreunde) in Vienna, Austria, enters the scene.

This group is unrelated to a similarly named group that exists today.

Not much is known about the earlier society, which came to play an important role in Icelandic philatelic history. Actually, as the following story will reveal, it was apparently behind a rather shady business enterprise.

In 1928, the Icelandic post office received a proposal from the Viennese society. Simply expressed, the society offered to supply a set of commemorative stamps free of charge, provided that the group could retain a certain quantity to cover the costs of designing and printing the issue.

Sigurdur Briem, the head postmaster in Reykjavik, flatly refused the offer, but the Friends of Iceland didn’t give up that easily. They contacted the Icelandic government, which held a different view on the proposition from Vienna.

A contract was drawn up between the Icelandic authorities and the Society of the Friends of Iceland. According to the contract, stamps of the value of 813,000 kronur were to be produced, and stamps with total face value of 600,000 kronur were to be delivered to the Icelandic post office well ahead of the millennium anniversary in 1930. The remaining 213,000kr worth of stamps were to be retained by the Friends. 

This actually happened. In late 1929, a man named Ludwig Hesshaimer arrived in Iceland with the stamps, which were duly handed over to the post office. 

It was also Hesshaimer who had been in charge of the design of the 15 regular issues and one airmail stamp. He had been responsible for the frame on some of the designs while a number of Icelandic artists had supplied most of the vignettes (central designs). 

The complete design, both frame and vignette, of the 5 aurar, 25a, 40a, and the 1kr denominations and the 10a triangular airmail stamp were the work of Hesshaimer. 

The stamps were printed by Elbemuhl A.G. in Vienna in sheets of 120. The entire set also exists overprinted to be used as Official stamps.

Postal officials were rather hesitant about the Millennium set, and only the lower denominations received general distribution to local post offices throughout Iceland. 

Higher denominations had to be requested from the head office in Reykjavik. 

The issuing date was Jan. 1, 1930. Note that on June 1, 1930, a set of five airmail stamps was issued marking the millennium, but this set (Scott C4-C8) was ordered by the Icelandic postal service and had no connection with the Friends in Vienna.

Today the Friends of Iceland stamps — Scott 152-166, C3, CO1 and O53-O67 — are highly valued in worldwide stamp catalogs, which mostly fail to note their rather shady background.

It seems someone in the society forged the contract by adding the number “1” in front of the total amount agreed upon. Thus, the face value of the printed stamps is probably in the neighborhood of 1,800,000kr.

Misprinted stamps as well as imperforates have reached the marketplace. The Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940 notes that “Imperfs were privately printed.” It is quite clear that the Icelandic post office had no control either of the quantity printed or of the stamps that should have been destroyed due to poor printing quality.

The Friends of Iceland might have made a lot of money from this rather sophisticated scam, though it has been reported that many of the additionally printed stamps were confiscated by authorities.

I have always wondered who the Friends of Iceland were. One philatelic researcher has written that Ludwig Hesshaimer, though involved in the design and printing, was not aware of the rest of the scheme and was devastated when he learned about it.

Hesshaimer was born in Kronstadt, Germany, in 1872 and initially was a career officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. 

Recognizing his artistic talent, his superiors commissioned him to document World War I in pictures. 

After the war, Hesshaimer pursued a very successful career as a painter and graphic artist, also including the design of both postage stamps and poster stamps. After World War II, fed up with Europe, he emigrated to Brazil. Hesshaimer died in Rio de Janeiro in 1956.

While the Althing issue was duly authorized by the Icelandic government, there is much to suggest that fraud was involved in the marketing of the stamps. 

However, it is quite an interesting issue, with many colorful designs portraying elements of more than 1,000 years of Icelandic history. The stamps are quite scarce on commercial covers and postcards.