In The Spotlight

GBCC President Tim Burgess interviews Karl Louis,
Philatelic Expertizer and Sleuth

Published in the July, 2006 issue of The Chronicle,
the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.


Karl Louis (right)
Karl Louis (right) and Michael Lockton (left), past President of the Great Britain Philatelic Society, discussing Michael’s “Exeter Postal History” collection displayed during the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the GBPS in December, 2005 in London.

Burgess: First, I would like to welcome you on board as a new member of the GBCC. It is an honor to have you in our group. I would like to inform our readers about your many activities in the philatelic community, including your expertizing position with the BPP (Bund Philatelistisher Prüfer e. V. / Association of Philatelic Examiners, a German expertizing organization, site is in German) and AIEP (Association Internationale des Experts en Philatélie / International Association of Philatelic Experts, a worldwide group of experts for different specialist areas in philately), your fantastic database containing over 60,000 Great Britain entries, and your contributions as a scholar and author to the FgGB (Forschungsgemeinschaft Grossbritannien e. V., a group of Great Britain collectors based in Germany), the RPSL (Royal Philatelic Society London), the GBPS (Great Britain Philatelic Society), the Fakes Forgeries Experts Journal, and others. You also maintain your own web site.

Please provide us with a little background information about yourself. How did you become interested in philately? What were your first areas of interest, and how did you become interested in the stamps of Great Britain?

Louis: Born in 1961, I am 44 years old and started stamp collecting as a school-boy. My father, collecting the early issues of the Netherlands, taught me how to collect. When I was about 11 years he said “concentrate on one country.” But what country? He continued “any country you want, but not the Netherlands,” anticipating that we would end up competing over the same philatelic items in future. So I went through my worldwide stockbook and found that the largest collection I had at present was of Great Britain. This is the simple story of how I started collecting Great Britain.

At age 14, I joined the Forschungsgemeinschaft Grossbritannien e. V. (FgGB), the GB study group here in Germany. In the following year, 1976, the FgGB visited the STAMPEX Exhibition in London and the Great Britain Philatelic Society. I sold my miniature train collection and had about £150 to spend at STAMPEX for early Victorian issues. During our visit we attended the GBPS dinner.

That evening the very experienced GB specialist R.A.G. Lea (“Maximus” collection) struck up a conversation with me. He told me the secret how to distinguish the rare 1864 Penny Red plate number 77 from the common plate 177 in the case the ‘1’ is not clearly visible or is covered by an obliteration. I was fascinated !! I will never forgot this evening. And since then I have never lost fascination for the early stamps of Great Britain. I joined the GBPS during my stay in London in 1976 and later, in 1982, the Royal Philatelic Society, being elected as a Fellow in 1995.

Burgess: What do you think it is that makes stamp collecting attractive?

Louis: I think people are attracted to the beauty of stamps as art objects as a result of the artistic design and printing process used to create them. However, stamps also serve as historic documents, as a record of past times and events. A stamp is a historic witness of former revolutions and wars, recording the endlessly shifting borders of nations. Countries have come and gone, but the stamps remain as reminders. Stamps have also played a dramatic role in the expansion of world communications. Especially through the postal history of England and its colonies which reached around the world. In about 1830, a businessman in England would need to wait seven months for a reply from his partner in India. But the improvement of technology and lower postal rates brought the British Empire closer and closer together and had a dramatic impact on the British economy. In my mind, a postal history collection is like a story teller, weaving a fascinating story of the political, economic and technological changes that took place since the 19th Century. This is what I find exciting about philately, especially GB postal history.

Burgess: I have always been impressed with the high quality of philatelic scholarship in Germany. German philately has a heritage of excellent catalogs, periodicals, and bibliographies. A case in point is the Kohl Briefmarken Handbuch (Kohl Stamp Handbook), the 1931 edition. Volume III contains a very in depth study of Great Britain. If I am not mistaken, the contents of the Kohl Briefmarken Handbuch made a significant contribution to the contents of The Postage Stamps of Great Britain, which was later published by the Royal Philatelic Society, wasn’t it?

Louis: Yes, the Kohl Handbook is fantastic and I find it useful even today after being published so many years ago. It contains a lot of background information you can not find in English handbooks, and I do not know why the information was lost. For example one of the most exciting stories told in the Kohl Handbook, which to the best of my knowledge has never been published again, is the “History of the Plating of the Penny Black,” by J. Bornefeld in London and a group of the best specialists at that time who formed a pioneer study of plating the Penny Black. [Note: “Plating” a stamp is to study the very tiny differences between stamps that were produced from different plates, so that it is possible to look at a stamp and identify which plate it was printed from. For example, the Penny Black was produced from 11 different plates, and by carefully examining a single Penny Black and identifying certain characteristics, it is possible to determine which of the 11 plates it was printed from.] The Kohl Handbook mentions many famous philatelists who are now nearly forgotten: H.S. Hodson from London, L. A. Burd-Repton, W. R. Lane-Joynt from Dublin, Bertram McGowan from Dumfries and Dr. Floyd from Manchester.

The Kohl Handbook described how the group started: with illustrations from the few then existing very large multiples in the Earl of Crawford collection, supplemented by some other multiples in the collections of the researchers. And how everything, after completion of the work, came to Charles Nissen, then the leading dealer, who published the famous Plating of the Penny Black in 1922 with the photo plates showing the entire 2880 letterings from plate 1A-11!

However, the Great Britain section of the Kohl Handbook was not written by a German. Dr. Munk was translator and editor. The author of the Great Britain section was J. B. Seymour of London, whose collection, formed between 1938 and 1950, was without doubt the most important GB collection in existence at the time. The content of the Kohl Handbook became the basis of the The Postage Stamps of Great Britain, published by the Royal Philatelic Society in 1934. But for reasons unknown, some interesting background information was eliminated and never surfaced again in the English handbooks.

Burgess: I first learned about the FgGB through the GBPS Newsletter. There were a number of details about visits between the two groups. When was the FgGB organized, and how many members are there? Are there many exhibitors amongst the FgGB? I also noted that the FgGB has regular interactions with the Swiss GB society, The Great Britain and Commonwealth Philatelic Society (GB&CWPS).

Brauers book Louis: The FgGB was founded in 1970 and has presently nearly 200 members. Some members show their GB collections at the national and even international stamp exhibitions. Others do not exhibit but work as authors of FgGB publications. The best FgGB publication is Theo Brauers’ book Scarce Victorian Postage Stamps on Cover (pictured at left). It is a bi-lingual 200 page book listing and illustrating the use of the rarest stamps from Great Britain on cover. It is a joint work of FgGB members supported by our friends from the GBPS trying to record every existing cover. The FgGB published the book in 2003, and it is still available.

There is a long time friendship between the FgGB and the GBPS in Britain. Many members of the GBPS have supported the FgGB through visits and displays of their fantastic collections. From time to time we are invited by our British friends to display our collections at their meetings, too. It is always a highlight for us German GB collectors to show our collections in Britain!

For a few years now the GB&CWPS has been very active, but in a much wider philatelic field, not only focused on GB but also on the British Commonwealth. Thanks to Heinz Graf from Switzerland, the GB&CWPS has become very active. Many FgGB members, including me, are members of the GBPS and the GB&CWPS as well. Perhaps we will in the future have a visit with the GBCC in USA. Regrettably, we do not know very much about the GBCC in the U.S. But to change this situation, I decided to sign up as a member!

Burgess: Not only have you focused on Great Britain, but our paths crossed when I learned through our mutual friend Phillip Robinson about your interest in experimental separations, including the Archer and Treasury Roulettes. Why does this area appeal to you? Please tell us about your work in this area.

Louis: The experimental separations are a very important field in GB philately. I was always fascinated by Archer’s perforation experiments with the Alphabet I plates of the Penny Red. Because I learned to distinguish the different alphabets very early as a school boy, I was lucky to identify a number of Archer trial perforations which went unidentified here in Germany. When I started my Card Index Register, I noticed that the rare Archer Roulettes plate 70 and 71 came from a very limited number of positions of the two Post Office sheets.

I explored more and more deeply into the subject, uncovering new information that was previously unknown to specialists. I thought it might possibly be an interesting talk and display for the GBPS. It was during this display I first met Ray Simpson and Peter Sargent. They are preparing the most extensive publication on British perforations ever done. And I was a pleased that I was able to support their research with the one or the other information from my records.

Burgess: Although you live in Germany and belong to the FgGB, you speak and write fine English, and you also belong to a few British and now one American GB society. You also have written articles for Fakes Forgeries Experts, are a member of the BPP and AIEP and worked for an auction house in Germany. In other words, you are a cosmopolitan or international member of the philatelic community. Was this intentional? What kind of perspective have you obtained from working with people in so many different countries?

Louis: It is fascinating to have friends in various countries having the same interest in philately. This is also an aspect I learned from my father! He was in a group of collectors in the 1970s and 1980s that successfully carried out the plating of the first stamp issue of the Netherlands, issued in 1852. The group’s members lived in Holland, Switzerland, Great Britain, Luxemburg and New York. They met from time to time in the one or the other country, and their friendship still continues today!

Twenty years ago I was deeply impressed with the power of philately and what it is capable of doing. It was during the 1980s that my father, who had previously been a seventeen year old soldier in WWII, visited the prisoner of war camp in Somerset, where he had been arrested only a few days after D-Day in 1944. The visit was more than 40 years after his capture. He was accompanied on this journey by his philatelic friend from New York, who had escaped the terror of the Nazis by fleeing from Germany in the 1930s. What a wonderful demonstration of how philately brings people together.

Thanks to philately, I also have a second home! This began a few years ago in Spain. I visited Don Madden, well known to many of us as a Penny Red specialist, in 1998 in Denia, Spain, where he has lived since retirement. My wife Birgit and I love the Mediterranean area, so that we decided after a second visit to purchase a house in Denia. Whenever we are in Spain, I visit Don, who lives only 5 minutes away by car.

We discuss stamps, motivating each other to explore different areas of research. As a result and a highlight for me, we will publish a small 50 page book about “The Dublin Find,” the fascinating story and an account of the stamps found there. After my publication about the Crawford sheets in the London Philatelist in January 2005, Don has found sensational new original documents, marked as “confidential” in 1904 by the postal authorities, which meant that most of the story had to be rewritten. And I can promise: many more stamps then the three 1840 sheets were found in “The Dublin Find” in 1899, and there is a fantastic story behind all this. I think our book will be available in May or June.

Burgess: This is I believe, the first time the GBCC has interviewed someone on an expertizing committee. I understand from my visit to the Official Website of the International Association of Philatelic Experts (AIEP) that you issue certificates as well. Readers can review the website at How did you get involved in this field? How does one train for this work or gain recognition? Please also describe your work with the Association of Philatelic Examiners (BPP).

Catalog and certificates
Several of the certificates issued by Karl Louis surrounding his Card Index Register (discussed below).

Louis: I am member of two expertizer organizations, the Bund Philatelistischer Prüfer (BPP) and the Swiss based (but more international) AIEP. But in deference to the British and American expertizing organizations, both the BPP and the AIEP have elected single experts for the various philatelic areas. The experts issue certificates on their own but based on the rules of the experts’ organization. The BPP and AIEP do not issue centrally organized certificates of a committee’s opinion. Every expert is allowed only to expertize stamps of his own very limited philatelic area.

My certificates for Great Britain, 1840 – 1901 are those designed by the BPP or AIEP but with my name and address as well as my allowed area for expertization on it. Some examples can be seen on my internet homepage My expertizing activities are a leftover from my time as a professional philatelist. After my studies in business administration at the Cologne University, my first job was from 1986 – 1991 at Heinrich Köhler, the most important stamp auction house in Germany and a leading one in Europe. During this time I learned how useful a Card Index Register for the important stamps of a philatelic area can be.

The Köhler-Register for Old German States fascinated me, and after a while I thought I should start a register for Great Britain as well. It supplemented my general knowledge in this field and I applied successfully for membership at the BPP in 1991. By the way, registrations and records of all the better stamps, their existence and their philatelic provenance, is an important requirement for the takeover of a philatelic area for expertization in the BPP. In the Expert Committees Organizations, which certify every philatelic area, it is nearly impossible to build those records of all the philatelic areas they issue certificates for! And for a certain areas, members of a committee in general do not feel responsible to build up such records. It needs thousands of hours to build up such records of a certain high level. And the importance of such records is not always seen by the experts. I believe these databases are a very important aspect for serious philately in the future. And it is especially the younger group of philatelic researchers who are building up and using such records.

Image from The Secret of the Crawford Sheets
An illustration from Karl Louis’ article “The Secret of the Crawford Sheets.”

My database, or the Card Index Register, is a record with about 60,000 entries of rare or valuable items in classic GB philately. The records cover auction results for the last 80 or so years, illustrations, auction or trade descriptions, or at least only photos and reports. The goal of the Register is to answer the following questions: When, where and for what price was a rare philatelic item offered or auctioned? In which famous collections had it previously been a part? How many similar items are recorded? How was the quality judged in the past, e.g, when offered at auction? I would estimate to have records of about 90% of all existing top items of GB philately existing in a number less than 20 stamps. For items existing possibly in a few hundred in number, I have recorded about 50% or 60% of them. More common items are not being recorded. I get more and more complete, but I know that my records of rare GB stamps will never be 100% complete.

Burgess: Perhaps the most exciting element of your work and a result of your tremendous database culminate in your studies, “Wundersame Wandlungen” (Wondrous Transformations), which appeared in Fakes Forgeries Experts, and “The Secret of the Crawford Sheets” and “Great Britain 3d Plate 3 with Secret Dots” which appeared in the London Philatelist in 2005. All three of these studies are built upon the database and are applied in different ways.

Before repair After repair
Two illustrations from “Wondrous Transformations.” On the left is a block of Penny Blacks with damage to the upper right corner and the left and right margins. On the right is the fraudulently repaired block. Although the image on the right is darker, you can see by the cancels that these images are of the same block.

“Wondrous Transformations” is a wonderful philatelic detective mystery which reveals the less than perfect past of many important stamps and covers as they passed through time, one auction after another. Your article on the Crawford Sheets reaches back through time and, like a movie in rewind, reassembles the Crawford Penny Black, Twopence and VR Official sheets before the readers’ eyes. The article on the 3d Plate 3 amplifies the results of a previous work while correcting some of its erroneous findings.

Louis: Thank you for your positive comment.

Burgess: I wish to thank you for kindly spending time sharing your experiences with fellow GBCC members. Inspired in part by your cosmopolitan approach to philately and your involvement with the German, Swiss, British and U.S. GB societies, the GBCC has initiated a journal exchange with all of these mentioned groups. We hope that you and other members of the FgGB will feel free to provide us with articles and visit our meetings held at various U.S. national philatelic exhibitions in future.