4. Jean de Sperati's fall


Jean de Sperati assumed more and more the role of the brilliant artist, whose skill he himself considered inimitable. This exaggerated self-confidence was probably also the reason for the new creative line of printing proofs, which he put on the market from 1940. In contrast to the individual stamps that he forged, which were usually artfully cancelled with equally forged postmarks, these proofs were individual prints on paper that did not correspond with the original, and they did not have a watermark.

He signed each sheet by hand (in pencil) and a "REPRODUCTION INTERDITE" handstamp was applied to the upper edge of the sheet. He himself saw these proofs as samples of his masterly art. Precisely because the stamps remained uncancelled, the collector should be able to detect the artistic imitation of the stamps in detail and compare them with real stamps. It is understandable that these products were also in great demand.

A "sample page" from a Sperati selection booklet. From: Michael Burzan

Furthermore, even in time of war, he supplied dealers in Europe with his forgeries, which became his undoing in April 1942 due to statutory export regulations, which had also been changed in France, and the declarations required for this. The customs noticed a registered letter from Jean de Sperati to the Portuguese dealer Ell, in which 18 stamps with a catalogue value of 223,400 French francs were declared at only a fraction of this, namely 40,100 francs.[1] The case - de Sperati, aware of the French laws that allowed imitations, did not attach great importance to it for the time being - was first brought before the court in July 1943. Before that, Jean de Sperati had stated loudly: "Oh, no, the letter does not contain any valuables; the stamps are completely worthless, they are 'art stamps' which were produced by me"[2].

Dr Edmond Locard (photo c. 1915). From: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmond_Locard
Dr Edmond Locard (photo c. 1915). From: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmond_Locard

At the hearing, Jean de Sperati had pleaded not guilty to the charges (tax evasion, infringement of the Export Regulation), but had not yet given any indication that forgeries were involved. He testified to this at trial, but the expert witness consulted, Dr. Edmond Locard, probably the most important criminologist of the time, who first took a closer look at Sperati's "stamps" on 12 July 1943, came to a completely different conclusion: all the stamps were genuine! Locard believed that he knew what he was talking about. Not only was he an expert in the field of forensic ballistics and toxicology, in 1942 he had also dealt intensively with the subject of varieties, forgeries etc. in a "Manuel du Philatéliste" (Philatelist's Handbook).

Jean de Sperati's statements that he could only sell imitations at such low prices and that he had made them all himself, thus not violating the law and export regulations, impressed the court only in so far as it commissioned another expert opinion from Locard. On 8 December 1943, Locard wanted to give Jean de Sperati the opportunity to discuss his "stamps" in more detail with him. However, on 22 December 1943, de Sperati refused to do so; his "stamps" had already been submitted to him and he had already examined them in detail.

On 4 January 1944, Dr. Locard then submitted a further expert opinion to the Court of Appeal in Chambéry and justified his renewed assessment of authenticity: particularly in the case of some stamps which could be classified as very "difficult" from a paper point of view. It was clear that they had been printed on original paper, contemporary paper, which could not be imitated, and therefore the stamps were undoubtedly genuine. They were identical in size. There were no differences in colour under the quartz lamp and even the watermarks, perforations, gum and also the thickness of the paper were identical. Giovanni de Sperati's early visit to his cousin's paper mill and the acquisition of remainder stocks, even then, was to have effect here!

Jean de Sperati and his artist's album (photo 1947). From: WM archive
Jean de Sperati and his "artist's album" (photo 1947). From: WM archive

On the one hand, Jean de Sperati could feel flattered. Despite two expert examinations, the actual status of his reproductions was not recognised. His art was so advanced that his forgeries were considered genuine. On the other hand, the Sword of Damocles of the expected verdict hovered over him. Therefore he offered - now desperate - to produce three more sets of these allegedly genuine stamps. With this he could prove his "innocence" to the court - within the terms of the prosecution. It was of little use to him. The court fined him 5,000 francs because of the missing export value declaration, another 2,477 francs in court costs and 60,000 francs for the alleged tax evasion.[3]

Jean de Sperati appealed against the judgment. In July 1945, the court asked three experts for their opinions, again including Edmond Locard, a Mr. La Flize and Aimé Brun, who at the time was a well-known Parisian dealer and also worked as an expertiser. None of the three thus questioned responded to the court's request; perhaps the facts of the case seemed too "difficult" to them (although Brun certainly knew and must have known about de Sperati's forging activities). It was not until January 1948 that the renowned philatelist Leon Debus - he was not a dealer - declared that all the stamps were forgeries. Thus Jean de Sperati's innocence was actually proven within the terms of the prosecution. But it may be considered a miscarriage of justice or an irony of history that he was nevertheless sentenced in the final trial verdict to a fine now of 5,000 francs, and 20,000 francs for tax evasion (violation of customs regulations) plus the costs of the first trial.

Jean de Sperati at the time of his second trial in 1947. From: WM archive
Jean de Sperati at the time of his second trial in 1947. From: WM archive

Jean de Sperati - whose "story" had been closely followed by the press - had become careless during all these years. Only rarely did he mark his imitations (what was the point of doing so if he was nevertheless accused and faced a conviction?) He left it to his sister-in-law, Miss Anna Corne (the younger sister of Sperati's wife, who moved from Brittany to Paris during the First World War and had lived with the Sperati family ever since) to market such items.[4] This was his final fate, because on 26 July 1946 the French dealers' association[5], represented by the three dealers Roumet, Nitard and Isaac, complained to him that his sister-in-law's agency had supplied forged stamps valued at 400,000 francs between 1943 and 1945, but had not pointed out that the stamps were forgeries.

Here the case was quite different from the first trial in 1943, which later continued almost simultaneously, for he had offered imitations to the Portuguese dealer Ell, which he had also described as such. In this new case, apparently genuine material had been sold without any marking or relevant information. Not only was Jean de Sperati himself accused, but also his wife and sister-in-law. During the trial, Jean de Sperati defended himself by pointing out that these three professional philatelists who complained about him would have recognised forgeries if they had been any - so why inform them?

Der Künstler an seinem Arbeitstisch 1947. Bildvorlage: WM-Archiv
Der Künstler an seinem Arbeitstisch 1947. Bildvorlage: WM-Archiv

His defence was rather weak and made little impression on the court. Ernst Müller, the Swiss stamp dealer and publicist of the "Basel Dove", reported on the five-hour trial and Jean de Sperati's conduct:

"He tries to give even more weight to his 'fiery' tirade, most of the syllables being swallowed by the toothless mouth, by creating an innocent air around him with nervous arm movements. The steel-rimmed glasses on his nose make acrobatic leaps between the tip of his nose and his forehead. Everything and everyone is accused! De Sperati defends himself like a 'beau-bon petit diable'. He wants to be considered the misunderstood artist; he wants to be honoured, not to stand before the judge. He is the sole saviour of philately. Collectors must be protected not from de Sperati, but from the experts!

The president of the court tries several times to interrupt the blather and wants to cut him off. But de Sperati screams, moans, gestures, repeats himself, throws out his arms, his eyes, which are in deep sockets, sparkle - but the president is not given the floor. 'Attendez, attendez! Je n'ai pas fini - enfin, Monsieur le président, si vous y tenez, je vous donne la parole!' Those in the public gallery laugh, the lawyers 'smile' and the prosecutor shakes his head. Finally the de Sperati diatribe is over and everyone present gasps for breath. De Sperati, the misunderstood 'Messiah of Philately', sweats and sits down."

It was all to no avail for Sperati: in the judgement of 27 April 1948 he was sentenced to a year in prison and fined 10,000 francs. His wife Marie-Louise and Miss Corne were each sentenced to four months in prison and fined 1,000 francs. He was also to pay 300,000 francs in damages and also to pay the court costs as well as the cost of publications in ten philatelic journals in which his "misdeeds" were to be presented.

Jean de Sperati's trial made headlines throughout the European press. From: WM archive
Jean de Sperati's trial made headlines throughout the European press. From: WM archive

Jean de Sperati again appealed against this undoubtedly harsh judgment. It was not until four years later that the court made its final decision, which was even worse for de Sperati himself: the court increased the sentence to two years in prison (which, however, were suspended on probation due to his advanced age and poor health). It now specified a total fine of 500,000 francs (including the publications costs) and 137,750 francs in court costs, a total of 637,750 francs. More than twice as much as in the first trial! His wife and his sister-in-law were not punished in this judgement.

Jean de Sperati's printing press was activated again at LONDON 2015. It is now housed in the RPSL Museum of Philately. Photo: Wolfgang Maassen
Jean de Sperati's printing press was activated again at LONDON 2015. It is now housed in the RPSL Museum of Philately. Photo: Wolfgang Maassen

Read More: 5. Sperati's legacy


[1] Chapman writes that the market value of the stamps was between 60,500 and 78,000 francs, but that only a fraction of this was declared. The expert Locard came to the different conclusion mentioned above, but also referred to the catalogue value.

[2] Jean de Sperati verurteilt! (Jean de Sperati sentenced!) in: Die Basler Taube, May 1948, Sp 64

[3] The figures vary in the reporting. Lucette Blanc-Girardet speaks of a 500,000 franc fine for the customs violation. There are also differences in the sentences mentioned later, but the author was not able to clarify them.

[4] Today it seems impossible to identify in exactly which years Jean de Sperati marked his products and when he stopped and resumed doing so. According to Chapman, de Sperati did not publicly identify his imitations as such until 1942 and did not do so 30 years earlier. Other sources say that he generally signed most of his forgeries or sold them as such, which is also supported by the fact that Sperati was in compliance with French law.

[5] Chambre Syndicale de Négociants en Timbres-Poste, abbr. CSNT-P