Collecting stamps of Eastern Europe

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Introduction

The stamps of Eastern Europe offer one of the most complex and extensive collecting areas of philately with a profusion of issues for every class of collector.  This complexity has been mainly caused by the major events of the 20th Century - two world wars and the fall of the Iron Curtain, which caused many boundary changes as some countries split up and others merged, only to become independent again in the 1990's.  This has left a legacy of anomalies and overlaps which presents the collector with a multitude of choices, some of which can be quite perplexing.  

Time periods

One can divide the stamp issues into time periods, for example:  
 The old monarchies up to 1918.
Independent countries and the Soviet Union to about 1990
Post-communist countries from 1990 onwards

Even that broad classification can be subdivided as the events of World War II led to many occupation issues and even the formation of some ephemeral territories such as Croatia, Slovakia and Bohemia & Moravia.  Another anomaly is that although Austria is today regarded as a West European country, the former dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary extended from parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia in the north to Dalmatia in the South and even overlapping part of Ukraine in the East.

One could therefore build a collection of Poland which extends from forerunner issues of Austria and Russia up to 1918, independent issues to 1939, German issues for the General Government to 1945 and independent issues thereafter.  Another possible example might be Croatia which could start with Austrian stamps with postmarks of Croatian towns, then issues of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (subsequently the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) to 1941, the fascist puppet state of Croatia up to 1945, the Democratic Federation of Yugoslavia up to 1991 and finally stamps of the present-day independent state.

Geographical areas

Another way of looking at Eastern Europe is to subdivide it into geographical areas.  These are:

Russia, the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Central Europe: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland

The Balkans: Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia (including  Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro. Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia)

Stamp categories

Because many of the countries of Eastern Europe emerged during the 20th Century few of them offer truly classic issues.  The notable exception are Russia and, of course, Romania which produced some of the rarest and most prestigious stamps known to philately.  The first issues of countries which began to produce stamps from 1870  offer much to interest the collector of classics, for example Bulgaria, Hungary, Montenegro and Serbia. 

The upheavals of the early 20th Century gave rise to many provisional issues for newly-created countries and here a knowledge of the history and geography of the period is of advantage. Some particular examples would be the fascinating early stamps of Albania, Polish local stamps and Russian Civil War issues.

The outbreak of WW II and the rapid expansion of German control can be seen in the many issues for the occupied territories.  Details of these are generally found in the catalogues for Germany rather than for the occupied territory in question. 

In the modern period Eastern Europe is a rich source of thematic issues. To an extent this is due to the politics of the post-war years.  Citizens of Iron Curtain countries were frequently prohibited from buying or exchanging stamps from elsewhere for reasons of political and currency control.  The stamp issuing authorities in these countries produced a profusion of stamps, frequently with a thematic content, in order to satisfy the needs of domestic collectors.

Some pitfalls to be aware of

The turbulent and chaotic circumstances surrounding the major upheavals referred to above created the circumstances for speculators and fraudsters to produce bogus issues, reprints and forgeries.   In the first category one comes across stamps from non-existent territories or completely spurious issues of countries that were in the process of formation.   The Michel catalogue  illustrates many bogus issues, but in general if the stamp in question is not in any of the major catalogs it needs to be regarded with suspicion in the first instance.  Because so many provisional issues were overprints on genuine previously-issued stamps of the country in question, the process of forgery was made easier and care is needed in some cases.   After WWII one can find various "revolutionary"  overprints of dubious origin on  stamps of Bohemia & Moravia, purportedly issues for various towns in Czechoslovakia.  Similarly, in the early 1990's many bogus issues were produced by a dealer in Lithuania which purported to be local issues of districts in Russia and Ukraine. 

One also needs to be aware of the existence of forged postmarks on stamps which are more plentiful mint than used.  Particular examples are the German occupation issues for Montenegro and Serbia which were issued in 1941-44.

A less serious but sometimes irritating issue for collectors is so-called "blocked values".  These are peculiar to communist countries, most notably Czechoslovakia and East Germany.  In these cases one value of a set, and not necessarily the one with the highest face value, was not available on general sale at post office counters but could be obtained only by members of the national philatelic association.  The other values of these issues later turned up in stamp packets leaving collectors to find the missing value.  In practice these blocked values are rarely found in dealers' stocks outwith the complete sets, of which they comprise the greater part of the value.

The majority of used stamps after 1945  have been cancelled-to-order.  Collectors who particularly require stamps which have been through the post face a considerable challenge to complete their collection.  However, for thematic collectors such stamps are generally at a considerable discount to mint issues.

Catalogs

The most comprehensive catalogs for Eastern Europe are those published by Michel, which contain a lot of information not found in other publications.  They have the advantage of being updated and published annually although one needs six different volumes to cover all the countries of Eastern Europe.  The obvious disadvantage for English-speaking collectors is that they are in German although Michel produce a guide to assist them.  For the less specialist collector Stanley Gibbons catalogs are equally useful and in some cases, e.g. Bosnia Herzegovina and Montenegro, the Gibbons listings are more extensive and easier to use than Michel.  One of the disadvantages of Gibbons catalogs is their relatively infrequent
appearance.  There can be more than decade between editions of their Balkans catalog which can be a major nuisance for collectors of recent issues.

Collectors can get support from various specialist societies which cover most of the countries of Eastern Europe.

http://stores.ebay.co.uk/D-J-M-Kerr-Stamps-of-Eastern-Europe

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