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Taming The Golden Dragon

Museum Staff Hopes to Finish Inventory of the 60,000-Object Eckhardt Collection

by Mary Lawson

Volume 4, Issue 1
January–March 1995

An NPM volunteer, Sy Stiss, bends over his desk with a magnifying glass, but even that doesn't help when confronted with a stamp whose central design has lost all definition. The only "landmarks" remaining are a trellis border along the left margin and the inscriptions "POSTAGE" and "TWO PENCE." The only thing that's certain is that it's a British colonial stamp.

The museum specialist holds a stamp two inches away from her eyes and still appears to have trouble discerning features partly obliterated by a cancellation. Instinctively she reaches up to remove her glasses for a better look, but they're already off. 

What are these people with less than superhuman eyesight doing other than quickly becoming blind? The Collection Management Department is inventorying the National Postal Museum's Eckhardt Collection of almost 600,000 objects. 

Voluminous and complex, the collection represents most of the stock left by New York stamp dealer William J.Eckhardt at his death in 1978. Comprehensiveness is the collection's trademark, which was perhaps what intrigued Franklin R. Bruns Jr., then curator of philately at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Reidar Norby, the museum's curator of foreign philately, and Robert J. Tillotson, executive director of the National Philatelic Collection, the three who accepted the bequest. The collection includes not only philatelic material (stamps, covers and the like) but also reference books, personal business papers, coins, foreign bank notes and other miscellaneous documents. 

The collection was among the museum's last large acquisitions before museum practice required that curators justify the collection of objects by defining the scope of their study in written mission statements—a policy that sets limits on the size and scope of collections. 

As it is, the Eckhardt Collection is like a compendium of the five-volume set of the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, and then some. Practically every country, colony, protectorate, or state which has issued stamps is represented variously by mint, used and overprinted examples of regular postage, and "back of the book" stamps from the mid-1800s to approximately 1955. 

Rarities such as Japan's first postal issues of 1871—unique because they pre-date Admiral Perry's arrival—are found interleaved with vast quantities of the mundane. Then there are objects that one will never find in Scott such as the counterfeits, cinderellas, private post labels and seals. Notable among these is the large collection of World War II O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services) counterfeits of the 1941-1943 German issues depicting Adolph Hitler. Intended to undermine morale, infuriate enemy officials and defraud their post, three designs were issued by the O.S.S. in panes of fifty stamps each. 

The first is the same design as the German original. The second is a close imitation with the exception that every 47th stamp depicts Hitler in profile with a white bullet hole through the temple. The third design is a macabre parody of the original in which the lower portion of Hitler's profiled face is skeletal, and though fleshless, still sporting the distinctive mustache. 

It is believed that there are still more treasures to be unearthed in this mountain of objects. According to a recent appraiser the collection includes principality of Trinidad stamps—rare 1894 philatelic phantoms that were never used because the self-proclaimed prince, James I, could never make his island utopia a reality. 

The opportunity to uncover rarities such as these is what fuels the enthusiasm for this rather daunting task. Since receipt of the major portion of the bequest in 1980 and the last installment of 19,630 objects in 1984, only an object count by country had been attempted until now. At this time, an item-by-item identification is being completed for material considered potentially valuable to the permanent collection, while the more mundane, duplicative philatelic items and non-related materials will be batched by country and type. 

Despite commitments to other large and pressing collection projects, the Collection Management Department has determined to make 1995 the year to tame this ominous, awakened golden dragon.