Foreign Catalog Reviews


 

Michel

Michel is a German publication, and, unsurprisingly, it is all written in German.  This is not a fatal flaw for those of us that don't speak German, because much of it is obvious, and there is a translation table for some (but frustratingly not all) of the terms they use.

Michel publish a large number of catalogs on an annual basis, including an East European catalog.  Their current 1999/2000 catalog lists for 62DM (about $28) which compared to the other catalogs makes it a good value.

Without a doubt, Michel sets the standard that the other catalogs all struggle to equal.  Its prime strength is the fact that it provides a photo of every stamp.  I don't want to make this into a bigger deal than it is, but to my mind, for the average Russian collector, this is close to essential in order to be able to 100% accurately identify every different stamp, particularly in sets that have many stamps all with the same value and very similar designs and no obvious other way of distinguishing between the stamps.  It is wonderful to have such a profusion of images, but unfortunately, they are generally of poor quality and small size compared to the Stanley Gibbons Specialist Russian Catalog.

Similar to SG, and unlike Scott, it does not separate out airmail stamps and semi-postal stamps, but lists them in sequence with all other issues.

They provide information on who designed each stamp.  A major bonus piece of extra information is the size print run for each stamp - this is really interesting information and gives a bit of a feeling for what is more likely to be scarce and what is very common.  A quick glance suggests that stamp number 45 (Scott 50) is the most prolific, having been printed in two runs, one of 1.65 billion and the second of 1.59 billion.  Is it any wonder that this stamp has a very low value!

Michel uses a minimum value of 0.10DM - about 5c.  However, very few stamps are shown at this minimum value (after a lengthy search I found one definitive, a 1966 1k #3279, at this price) with most being valued at 0.25DM and above.

Michel could be more "user friendly".  It would be nice to see them add year information at the top of each page, the same way that SG do.

I also find their sequence somewhat confusing - they have a section for Russia to RSFSR, then goes straight to the new independent Russia (as part of their "R" countries), and then later on in the book (as part of their "S" countries has the Soviet Union).  The Soviet Union numbering continues on from the end of the RSFSR section, but so too also does the new independent Russia post 1991!  This means that there are multiple Michel numbers for the series from 220 onwards - some referring to the USSR and also, at the same time, referring to Russia.  Confusing, and very hard to understand why they didn't do the same thing that SG and Scott do and simply continue the numbering in sequence from the end of the USSR.

I have two copies of the Michel catalog.  One is a special reprint containing only Russia and related countries, with some Russian language material and glossary as well.  This contains 95/96 data, and is a convenient slim volume of 448 pages, slightly slimmer and smaller than the Stanley Gibbons specialised catalog.  My other copy is the current (at the time of writing!) 1999/2000 East European catalog that contains data not only on Russia but on other East European countries such as Albania, Poland, etc.  This is an awkward 1906 pages in size, and is difficult and heavy to use, making it a less preferred option.  The most recent stamp it includes was issued on 25 Feb 1999.

A problem with their East European catalog is that it does not contain some countries that most Russian collectors would normally be interested in, such as, eg the Trans-Caucasian Republic and Tuva (these are presumably in an Asian or other regional volume).  This is a disappointment, as few people would wish to spend another costly sum on getting at least one more volume of Michel, and is a weakness compared to SG.  The special Russian only reprint does include Tuva.

I've spent some time comparing the information in SG and Michel, and it is a close call for which is the more detailed and comprehensive - so close that I'd hesitate to pass judgement without doing some more detailed line by line analysis.  Both have some strengths and weaknesses, and for the really serious student of Russian philately, both are probably necessary.

Michel also tends to be more accurate with perforation measurements, whereas SG rounds to the nearest half unit.

All in all, if I spoke German, Michel would get my vote for best catalog, and at an excellent price too.  It also seems to be the most commonly used catalog by stamp collectors and dealers in Russia.  Now if only it would print an English language version (regrettably there isn't a single word of English to be found anywhere in their East European catalog)!  However, (and in common with most readers of this review, I suspect!) being handicapped by having very limited command of German, I find that I tend to use SG as my preferred reference work, and only turn to Michel when I need a second source of information.

Standard Collection Catalog Part 4 (1918-1923)

This is a Russian catalog, published by a St Petersburg based stamp company, "Standard Collection".  I have a copy of their 1997 edition, which to my knowledge is perhaps the only edition published.

Some of it is in English, but most is in Russian.  As with Michel, however, the "international language of stamps" takes over and most is reasonably explanatory.

This is a small publication of 135 pages, but when you consider that it only covers a five year period, to which Michel devotes six pages and SG only a few more, you get a feeling for its comprehensive nature.  Best of all, it includes high quality color photos of stamps, including varieties and errors and cancels and all manner of things.

This time period is part of the most complex part of Russian stamp collecting (the period of the transitional RSFSR, which occured after the revolution and before the settling in to the Soviet Union subsequently.  It is an invaluable and essential reference tool.

Tantalisingly, it is Part 4 of a series.  They have also published Part 6 (see below), which covers the period subsequent to the fall of the Soviet Union.  Parts 1, 2, 3 (I believe that Part 1 will cover Zemstvo and local post, part 2 will be Czarist Russia, and I'm not sure what the other part will be) and 5 (the Soviet period) are all still in the process of being published.  I believe that Part 5 may have now been issued, but am not certain.

Note - I managed to purchase a few extra copies and can make them available to you for $25 each plus shipping.  Let me know if you'd like a copy.  (Update :  I see to my horror that Loral Stamps in New York are selling this same book for $40!  I should confess that selling my extra copies at $25 includes a fair to generous element of compensation for myself (!) and the thought that Loral have doubled my already high price really saddens me.)

Standard Collection Catalog Part 5 Section 1 (1923-1940)

Currently (October 2000) $7 in Moscow is enough to pay for a high quality hardcover first edition copy of the latest autobiography of Boris Yeltsin, which was printed in a limited run of 8,000 copies, and also represents the official "minimum monthly wage".  But if you want to get a copy of this stamp catalog, you'll have to spend as much as you would on seven or more copies of Yeltsin's book, just to buy a single paperback copy of this book!  My copy was obtained from a Moscow bookshop by a native Russian in October 2000 at a cost of almost US$55.

Does that sound fair to you?  To put it another way, you have to pay as much for this book as most Russians earn in a full month - that is a bit like, in the US, paying $2500-5000 for the same book!!!

No, this is nothing other than outrageous daylight robbery, but surprisingly, we probably have no-one but ourselves to blame.  One has to believe that the publishers of this book have taken careful note of how their earlier volumes in this series have been bought cheaply in Russia by western dealers and then sold for huge profits in the west (ie 400% markups!!!), and they have decided to simply price to what the market can apparently absorb, in the finest manner of the new "private enterprise" principles that are sweeping across Russia.  With an initial print run of 3000 copies, which will probably sell out quickly based on how rapidly the Liapin book (below) sold out, someone is making a huge amount of money on this book.

Now that I've got that tirade off my chest, I have to reluctantly concede that this is a lovely book.  It has 280 pages, all lavishly illustrated in highest quality color, and exhaustively covers the issues of this seventeen year period.  In addition to stamps, plenty of photos of stamps on covers with lovely cancels, and also a section on postal stationery add to the comprehensiveness of this book.  Then there is a section on essays and cinderellas, and another section on cancel markings.  As well as a complete section on essays and cinderellas, information on specimen stamps and proofs is included throughout the text.

Another interesting section at the back lists city names as they were in imperial times, then shows the date they changed to a Soviet name, what that Soviet name was, and the current name that the city is now known by (although it doesn't give dates for when the name changed again).

Add to that details on applicable postal rates during this period, and indexes of stamps by theme and by the name of people/places featured, and you start to understand just how comprehensive and complete this book is.

Interestingly, many of the beautiful illustrations don't show perforations on the stamps which suggests that they may be pictures of proofs rather than of final production stamps.  This would also explain the high quality of the imagery.

Prices are given in US currency, and are variously shown for MNH, MH, used and on-cover.  Pricing seems to be generally higher than that given in Scott, and much more pricing is provided for minor details - for example, Scott series 265-8 has a comment "three printings differ in size of red frame" in Scott's catalog with no mention of different pricing, but in this an entire page is taken up splitting out the various different types and their values, which are suggested as ranging from closely the same as Scott to as much as $300 (for MH Scott 265 in the smallest frame size) and $400 for MNH of the same stamp (not bad for a stamp that Scott values at $2.50 without any further comment!).  Who knows what treasures in your collection you might not uncover with this book - although then you have to persuade someone else to actually buy them from you at these premium prices to "cash in" on them.  I suppose it could be argued that if this book identifies just one such treasure, it will have paid for itself, and while I don't want to give in to the rapacious pricing, there is a certain logic in using this line of reasoning so as to justify, to oneself (or, more importantly, to one's spouse!) the purchase of this very expensive reference work.

This is one in a series of works, which is being published in stages and not in the order of their numbering.  The first two volumes were Parts 4 and 6 (also reviewed here).  Plainly the planned numbering system did not work out as expected, as it appears that Part 5 is to be not just one volume but three (oh dear - three lots of presumably $50+ a piece!).  Part 1 will be about pre-adhesive covers, Part 2 about Imperial issues, and Part 3 will be tremendously exciting for zemstvo collectors, as it will be all about zemstvos (due for publication in 2001).  The thought that the entire three volume Part 5, produced in the low cost economy of Russia, will be priced in the order of $150 is truly staggering and bad news for the hobby and its hobbyists.  It would appear that Part 3 (on Zemstvo issues) is also projected to run into three volumes.

The runaway cost of reference material in our hobby is really frightening, and I know of several collectors who have spent over $1500 (to date) in amassing a reference library.

Now for more bad news.  No English.  If you want to know what all the commentary about the various issues is about, you're stuck with having to learn Russian!

You're going to hate this book for its lack of English, and you're going to hate it for the price, but you're also definitely going to buy it nonetheless, because it is such a lovely reference work!  Loral Stamps (see the links section) are selling copies of this, last time I looked, for "only" $45.

Standard Collection Catalog Part 6 (1992-1996)

Some day all catalogs will be like this one.  What a delight it is!  But, of course, there is a fly in every ointment, but before describing that, let's talk about what is good about this publication.  Every stamp is illustrated - this is good.  And now, for what is great - the illustrations are close to full size, and all in color.  Wow.  What a wonderful feeling it is to open a stamp catalog and to be greeted by a kaleidoscope of brilliant color!  And, even more good news, it is printed on nice reasonably thick good quality glossy white paper, not the thin yellowy glorified newsprint of some of the major catalogs.  It gives comprehensive information for each stamp, including designer and quantity printed.

Now for the not so great news.  English.  There isn't any.  Unlike Part 4, there isn't a single word of English anywhere at all.  This does complicate matters somewhat!

It is a very slim volume, understandably so because it only covers not quite four years of stamp issues, and only Russian issues, not those of the other CIS countries.  This is either an interesting or boring period of Russian philately, depending on your opinion - interesting because of the inflationary effects, clearly exemplified in a table in the back showing the changes in postal rates during the period under review; or boring because of its modernity and reasonably thoroughly documented nature.  However, be that as it may, if you want to see a wonderful quality stamp catalog, grab a copy of this should you come across one.

Catalog of Russian Postage Stamps 1857-1995

This is published by "Tsentr Poligraph" in Moscow, in 1995.  It is a hard cover book of 475 pages, about 6"x9" in size.  Now for the truly amazing thing.  I bought my copy, two years ago, for 47 rubles - just under $8 (from a local store in St Petersburg).  I've seen it recently advertised on US stamp dealer web sites for $50, and at the same time I've seen it advertised on Russian web sites for $13.  Asking $50 (plus postage) for a book that clearly cost something under $10 (plus shipping)?  Truly, the greed of some dealers give them, and the hobby as a whole, a bad name.

Anyway, what do you get for your $8-50?  Quite a lot is the answer.  Just about every stamp issued has its own clear image printed at a decent (but not full) size.  Each issue has information on when it was released, who designed the stamp, and quantity printed as well as the usual information.

The catalog is clearly laid out with plenty of white space, making it easy to work through.  The catalog groups most stamps together apart from a very brief section at the back that has a few revenue type issues and one set of semi-postals.

It values stamps down to a minimum of 1 ruble per stamp.  When the book was printed, this equated to about 25c, these days a ruble is worth about 4c.  Valuations aren't very helpful, but it is another reference point to use when trying to determine what stamps might truly be worth.

It shows 126 different principle catalog entries up until the March 1917 revolution, which contrasts with Stanley Gibbons that shows 176, Scott that lists 118 and Michel that lists 108.  These may or may not be fair comparisons, because possibly what one catalog shows as a separate numbered stamp another catalog may show as a type variant of the same catalog number as a different stamp.  As another comparison, but of very little merit, up through the end of 1994, it lists 6738 catalog entries; Scott has 6239 (plus its B and C semi postal and air stamps, of course), Stanley Gibbons has 6506 and Michel has about 6660.

One might think that a Russian catalog would be the best source of information on many of the issues, particularly around the Civil War period, but this catalog betrays its Soviet past by ignoring everything like that entirely.  It is, regrettably, completely useless for this complex time period.

Sadly, there isn't a single word of English to be found anywhere between its covers, although much can be guessed at without the need to read Russian.

I've been intermittently using this as a back-up reference source for two years.  In a few rare cases it has provided information on a stamp that was not available from one of the other catalogs.  As such, if you already have "the big three" catalogs - Scott, SG and Michel, you really don't need a copy of this as well (especially at $50!), but if you find a copy at a good price, then for the sake of having a real genuine Russian catalog, well, maybe you might be tempted.  :)

Liapin Catalog Vol 1 :  1918-1940

This is a wonderfully comprehensive and scholarly work, written by Victor Liapin and published in Russia in 1999.  The main part of the catalog has a limited amount of material in English as well as in Russian (relating to the basic nature of the issue of each stamp), making it somewhat helpful to non-Russian (ie English) speakers.  However, little or none of the discussion of variants and sub-types has any supporting translation at all.  A table of Russian/English equivalencies at the front will help the dedicated researcher struggle to match up various symbols used in the text with their English written equivalents, but alas there is no table of word translations - how can one then tell if an untranslated comment about a stamp (of which there is such a glorious, but alas puzzling, profusion!) comprises a trivial note or a key reference?

One can choose to see this glass as either half full or half empty - should one be appreciative of Liapin for including some English translation, or should one be frustrated at the incomplete and partial nature of the translations?  Being the perfectionist that I am, I'm afraid I'm more frustrated than appreciative.  My viewpoint being that when one considers the hundreds and thousands of manhours of work that must have gone into writing this book, the relatively trivial amount of extra time to include additional translated material would be so minor, but the increase in useful value of what is a very good reference piece is so potentially huge.  It is a terrible shame that more is not in English, thereby depriving the non-fluent Russian speaking majority of philatelists of convenient access to this otherwise essential work.  Plainly the author intends this book to become the definitive reference work for Russian philatelists, and the disproportionate amount of time spent on translation contrasts amazingly with the huge amount of time spent in researching and writing the Russian language manuscript.

The book had an initial print run of only 3000 copies - one can only guess as to how many more it could potentially sell if more extensively translated, which really is the ultimate issue and deciding point for the author - is he writing exclusively for the local Russian speaking market or is he writing for a larger international market?  Most writers are keen to expose and sell their work as widely as possible, and when you think about the great number of Russian philatelists in Russia that would gladly translate the entire book for probably little more than $200 (which while several months wages is also the gross sales value of perhaps a mere four copies of the book!) one really feels that as a business decision as well as a charitable act, more translation could have been added.  Yes, I am being more critical of the lack of supporting English text in this book than I am, for example, of the lack in the Tsentr Poligraph book reviewed immediately above, and there are two reasons for this.  First, there is so much more textual information in this book - the lack of comprehension is all the more apparent accordingly.  Secondly, this book was obviously prepared to a much higher standard than the previous catalog, and so deserves to be judged according to that higher standard.

Anyway, let's look now at the underlying riches contained within the book.  By way of immediate example, the first stamp it covers (the 35k and 70k sword breaking chains issues of 1918) are listed in eight and nine principle varieties respectively, and are priced in six different categories (used, mint, on piece, etc).  By contrast, Scott has two varieties of each, SG offers three and two, and Michel two varieties.  Convinced?  Well, there is still more.  Liapin then goes on to analyse another 25 variants.  Convinced now?  Wait - still more to follow!  He then works his way through 35 proofs and two specimens!

Not everything is priced six different ways and analysed into such exhaustive sub types, but some is even more comprehensively reviewed.  For example, the 1933 Lenin anniversary issues have pricing six ways plus additional pricing for pairs another twenty ways!  Wow.

The catalog becomes invaluable when trying to identify the pesky definitives of eg 1923-28.  It provides a wealth of extra ways to distinguish between them that are not available in the other catalogs, indeed in total there is close on 40 pages of information about these issues!

All pricing is expressed in US dollars, this being, in the author's opinion, a more stable valuation basis than using rubles.  He is probably correct - at the time he worked his pricing out he was using the basis of 16 rubles to the dollar - only a couple of months before that it was 6 rubles to the dollar, and at present it is almost 28 to the dollar.

The catalog covers stamps issued between the start of the RSFSR period through to late 1940 (Scott number 816), and in total comprises 445 pages bound into a good quality hardcover book measuring 5.75" x 8.5".  Paper is bright white, but not coated/glossy, and the black and white stamp illustrations are printed with a high resolution screen and are about as high a quality as this type of paper can allow.  With one or two trivial and very rare exceptions, every stamp is illustrated, with a generous quantity of enlarged illustrations to indicate type differences, plus additional illustrations highlighting cancels and other related information.

The book starts with two sections on regular issues (for RSFSR and USSR), then a section for postage due stamps, another for "Official, Local and Special Stamps" (which includes Airmail issues) and then a fascinating 42 page section on essays which, alas, doesn't have any English in it at all.  There is then a table showing the main applicable postage rates between 1917-1940, and, lastly, a conversion table that lists each stamp by the catalog number Liapin assigns it and then showing its equivalent number in five other catalogs - Scott, Michel, Yvert & Tellier, Tsentr Poligraph, and another Russian catalog that I don't recognise, abbreviated TsFA 1983.  Ooops.  Spot the omission.  No Stanley Gibbons.  I was surprised by this table, as somehow I'd formed the opinion that maybe such tables couldn't be published and sold for profit, but perhaps the (ahem) slightly laxer interpretation of copyright issues in Russia allow for this to occur, no matter what Messrs Scott, Michel, et al, may think!  :)

I purchased my copy from the Stanley Gibbons shop in central London, where it was selling for 38 in July 2000 (about $57).  I don't know what its selling price in Russia is/was - an attempt to buy copies at several Moscow dealers in October 2000 brought the surprising response that it has completely sold out and is no longer available!  At its western price it is hardly inexpensive, but it is definitely value for money if your interests lead you "off the well traveled path" and if you are keen to better understand the stamps in your collection.  Highly recommended, and even though much of the material is inexplicable to the uninitiated (ie non Russian speaker) it at least hints at some of the underlying issues and differences in stamps.

A brief note at the beginning advises that the second volume in this set is ready to be published.  It will cover the period from 1941-1960.  I'll be looking forward to it.

Yvert et Tellier

This is a French company that also issues a range of annual catalogs.  Sadly, their web site reflects the general French belief (desire) that French is the only language spoken in the world and so it is hard to know much more about these catalogs.  I've never seen a copy, but am lead to believe that it may be a useful publication, but perhaps not quite as definitive as Michel.

As a historical note, back in the 1920s the Russian government used valuations taken from this catalog as a way of determining duty on the import/export of stamps, so obviously - at least way back then - it has occasionally been considered an authoritative source.

If anyone can sell me a copy, please let me know!

 

This page last modified on May 15, 2010