French Spy Stamps

Cloaks, Daggers and Stamps

Most collectors know stamps have played their part in shaping history. They’ve started wars and celebrated peace; they’ve turned hostilities into bloodbaths, ridiculed political leaders and been used as propaganda. Some, like the French “spy” stamp have been used as a weapon of war. The story goes like this…

The Nazis overran France in the early days of World War II. A French underground, known as the Maquis, formed to stop the Germans. Life for the Maquis was extremely hazardous because the efficient Germans had an excellent counter-espionage system. One of their favorite and most successful techniques for uncovering the Maquis was to send a suspected spy a message, like “Be under the Rhone Bridge Tuesday for dynamiting.” A Frenchman loyal to the Germans would ignore the message or take it to the German authorities. Anyone who acted on the message was automatically assumed to be guilty and executed.

The Nazis were especially brutal and losses of French partisans were staggering. So too were the loses of British and allied soldiers who parachuted in to help the resistance or to gather military information.

British Intelligence realized their problem was unsecured communications. Since reliable communications were vital for effective resistance, they couldn’t stop communicating. What they needed was a foolproof way to tell friend from foe. Taking a page from history, an operator remembered that the British had reproduced German postage stamps to mail anti-German propaganda inside Germany during World War I. Why not try a variation on the theme?

M4675 #361 french spy fake copy

Forgery - notice highlights on the nose and eye socket

361 french spy genuine copy

Genuine France #361 stamp

The British chose the 1939 French Mercury stamp, changing it just enough so that those in the know would recognize it immediately while those uninformed would not become suspicious. Namely, more prominent highlights appeared on the left cheekbone, on the neck and over and around the left eye socket of the forgery.

A letter franked with a British-made stamp was to be regarded as official instructions while letters with authentic French stamps would be realized as German traps. If it worked, the underground would be able to communicate effectively with the French post office delivering the letters right under the noses of the Germans – and after they were censored by the Nazis!

The plan was one of the most closely-guarded secrets of the war. Only a handful of people – and only those who absolutely needed to know – realized the stamps were being dropped by parachute along with weapons and supplies. The Germans and the French collaborators never caught on, even though they must have wondered why their traps suddenly produced no victims. In their arrogance, they may have believed they had eliminated most of the resistance movement’s spies. One thing’s for sure, few gave any thought to stamps or stamp collecting during the war.

Ironically, the Roman god Mercury – the fleet-footed messenger of the gods, the god of roads and travel, and the god of crafty, deceptive trickery ­– is the image on the stamp chosen to pull the wool over the Nazi’s eyes. The entwined snakes around his winged staff protected him on his travels just as the counterfeited French Mercury stamp protected the Maquis and vital wartime messages.

Because the resistance could never be sure when the scheme was uncovered, correspondence was to be destroyed immediately. Mint French spy stamps are scarce and used examples, especially on cover, are extremely rare.

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CIA Inverts


U.S. #1610C Invert


U.S. #1610

In 1985, news of a newly discovered U.S. invert stamp rocked the philatelic world. It was the first major inverted stamp in 66 years and said to be rarer than the coveted Jenny inverts. But the details were cloaked in secrecy, hidden in a maze of deception that took two years to unravel.

The story began when an auctioneer specializing in U.S. error stamps announced the discovery of 85 inverted 1979 $1 Rush Lamp stamps. The stamps had been discovered by a “business in northern Virginia” and the finder wished to remain anonymous. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing launched an internal investigation and found that there were no indications of impropriety by its employees.

A few months later, Mystic Stamp Company joined with two partners and purchased 50 of the inverts. Curious about their origin, Mystic President Don Sundman filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Months passed. When the report finally arrived, it was accompanied by a cover letter – from the Central Intelligence Agency! Names were blocked out in the 35-page report, but Sundman was able gather enough information to trace the stamps back to the C.I.A.

Sundman discovered that an on-duty C.I.A. employee had purchased the partial sheet of 95 inverted stamps at a small post office near McLean, Virginia. When he and his co-workers realized what they had, they pooled their money and substituted non-error $1 Rush Lamp stamps for the inverts. Each of the nine co-workers kept a stamp. The remaining 86 stamps, including one that was damaged, were quietly sold to the auctioneer.

The story made headlines across the nation and was featured on every major television network. The CIA launched an ethics investigation and demanded that the co-workers surrender their inverts or face 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine for conversion of government property for personal gain. Five employees returned their stamps, one claimed his had been lost, and three people resigned.

The CIA donated the recovered inverts to the National Postal Museum, where they joined a copy donated earlier by Mystic. Investigations conducted by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving and Justice Department cleared the co-workers of any wrongdoing.

Twenty years later, the employee who purchased the sheet and later claimed to have lost his copy offered to sell the stamp to Mystic. Today these neat error stamps, bearing the words “America’s Light Fueled By Truth and Reason,” retail for $15,000 each.

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History of U.S. Stamps


Roger Brody

The first U.S. postage stamp began a revolution in communication!  And the postal service has been closely tied to our nation’s history ever since – through wars, technological advances and much more.

Now you can trace its evolution in this video of Roger Brody’s presentation at the 2005 Maynard Sundman Lecture.  Click here to begin.

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Mystic’s Finest Stamp Album

Mystic President Don Sundman is excited about the new Premium American Heirloom album!  In this video, Don shows you why this highest-quality version of our best-selling stamp album is a collector’s dream come true.85

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How to Hinge a Stamp

The experts at Mystic have put together a short video showing how easy it is to hinge your stamps.  Just follow these tips and you’ll have your stamps organized in a jiffy!
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How to Measure Stamps for Mounts

Getting the right sized mount for your stamps is easy with the guides shown below.  You’ll learn how to measure accurately and find the correct mount size for traditional, water-activated and self-adhesive stamps on backing paper.

Mystic offers various types of mounts and mount sizes.  Choose from Black Split-Back Mounts, Clear Drop-End Mounts, Self-Adhesive Mounts or Scott Mounts.  We even have a special Mount Kit to provide you with a variety of options to get started.

Don’t want to measure your stamps?  Mystic makes it easy to order the correct sizes.  Simply enter a Scott number into the search bar and click on the stamp you’d like to buy mounts for.  Underneath the conditions offered, click the blue “Mounts” button and the correct sizes will appear!


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