2. From the young Giovanni to the adult Jean de Sperati


Giovanni de Sperati was born in Pistoia, near Florence, on 14 October 1884, the fourth son of the retired Colonel Henri de Sperati (1838-1903) and his wife Marie Arnulfi, a daughter of the Italian General Trofimo Arnulfi. One of his brothers, Emilio, also served in the army, his eldest brother Massimo was a stamp dealer in Pisa, and another, Mariano, was a photographer in Bologna. Giovanni spent a lot of time with Mariano during his youth and learned a lot about photography, photographic developing and chemical processes at school - he attended a technical school in Bologna.

His early interest in chemistry prompted him to purchase a 12-volume encyclopaedia of chemistry "Enciclopedia di chimica scientifica e industrial", written by Dr. Selmi, at the age of 15 in an antiquarian bookshop. The work was to cost 50 lire. In order to pay the high amount, he paid a deposit of two lire, used his savings of 42 lire, borrowed another six lire from his mother, who was rather sceptical about such a project, and thus laid another foundation stone for his later knowledge of chemistry. He then experienced the practical implementation again and again with his brother Mariano, whose business was constantly growing. He now had two workshops in Turin, one for contact photography, the other for heliography.

Giovanni de Sperati was also helped by other fortunate circumstances, as a cousin owned a paper mill in Guarcino, where he was able to work during the holidays and learn the complicated processes of papermaking and everything about manufacture and production. He was also fascinated by the warehouse, from which he took a large number of paper samples even then which he could later use for his work.

Even at a young age he had a very remarkable ability to imitate other people's handwriting almost perfectly. To the delight of his classmates, who could not believe it, he forged his teacher's signature so perfectly that the teacher himself did not recognise it as an imitation. He was then only ten years old!

In 1909, even the German specialist press published news of a Sperati forgery workshop in Pisa, where Giovanni had been working with Massimo and Mariano for more than ten months on a thriving business in fine, artistically made forgeries. At times the company also operated from Lucca as "Borsa Filatelica Tosacana", whose "director" was Giovanni. On 12 March 1909 Mariano, who was rarely in Pisa on business and had shortly before had to undergo a house search in Turin, warned the brothers by telegram of a search that was also foreseeable for them, and which actually took place a short time later; but the "birds" had already flown! In contrast to Mariano in Turin, the police in Pisa were more successful: they confiscated two truckloads of forgeries, printing and manufacturing equipment, "including printing presses, paper supplies, chemicals, photographic equipment and about a hundred photographic negatives of domestic and foreign stamps".[1]

Jean de Sperati and his wife Marie Louise Corne. The photo was taken on the occasion of their wedding in Paris in 1914. From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_de_Sperati
Jean de Sperati and his wife Marie Louise Corne. The photo was taken on the occasion of their wedding in Paris in 1914. From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_de_Sperati

Mariano defended himself after his subsequent arrest, pointing out that his brothers had been running a photographic reproduction studio for six years and that the negatives were intended for reproductions in trade catalogues. Massimo was arrested a little later with a suitcase full of stamps, while Giovanni initially went abroad to Paris, as he was not directly affected by the trial. His brother Mariano had opened a new photo studio in Paris, for which he then worked as a representative for his photos and accessories nationwide. In 1910 the trial of the trio opened in Pisa and they were all convicted, but a year later in Lucca an appeal was lodged, at which the accused were acquitted. Giovanni, who was not personally present at the trial, had made his point in a letter to the Turin daily "Stampa": "Dealers would always have stated that all the stamps offered at 40 per cent and more under catalogue price were forged or repaired. So if he offered stamps at 70-80 per cent discount, collectors would have known what they were buying. He would also have offered his customers a refund for the items supplied, but no one would have done so. As a result, they would probably prefer cheap forgeries to expensive originals".[2]

At this time Giovanni had already passed his first tests, because years earlier Massimo had asked him to forge old San Marino stamps. Jean de Sperati himself later described his first results as meagre, and compared them with the quality standards of later times. In 1909 in Paris he tried again with replicas; a dealer customer of his brother had encouraged him to do so. An old German stamp that he had forged was then presented to the German expertiser Max Thier in Berlin, who certified it as genuine. Sperati's art had succeeded for the first time in deceiving one of the best and most famous experts of that time! This motivated him to further projects of this kind.


[1] DBZ 1909, p. 62

[2] DBZ op. cit., S. 62