The Baghdad ISSUE, 1917

First issued:  1st September 1917
Currency: Indian rupee (16 annas = 1 rupee)
Production: Government Press, Baghdad

 100% genuine: I went and got an RPSL certificate for it and everything. Bought, very unwisely, in certificate-less condition off Delcampe, for considerably over catalogue value — I think Gibbons under-values these quite significantly but, even so. Good to have one in nice condition anyway. In the RPSL's opinion the strangeness in the "Baghdad" part is a kiss print rather than a full double-print.

100% genuine: I went and got an RPSL certificate for it and everything. Bought, very unwisely, in certificate-less condition off Delcampe, for considerably over catalogue value — I think Gibbons under-values these quite significantly but, even so. Good to have one in nice condition anyway. In the RPSL's opinion the strangeness in the "Baghdad" part is a kiss print rather than a full double-print.

 Bought at a ludicrous discount owing to the damage at top-right — sans certificate, of course. I make no comments on where the damage might have come from, but I note (from having lurked around online auctions a while) that perhaps a disproportionate amount of unused specimens appear to be damaged in some way? Makes me wonder if some of the stamps were in less than mint condition at the time they were overprinted. I have a vested interest in this being the case, of course. Anyway this was an absolutely invaluable purchase as it allowed me to actually see what the hell the overprint looks like up close, which allowed me to pick up the specimen above with relative confidence. 

Bought at a ludicrous discount owing to the damage at top-right — sans certificate, of course. I make no comments on where the damage might have come from, but I note (from having lurked around online auctions a while) that perhaps a disproportionate amount of unused specimens appear to be damaged in some way? Makes me wonder if some of the stamps were in less than mint condition at the time they were overprinted. I have a vested interest in this being the case, of course. Anyway this was an absolutely invaluable purchase as it allowed me to actually see what the hell the overprint looks like up close, which allowed me to pick up the specimen above with relative confidence. 

 Some of the stamps used were Ottoman postal tax stamps, which had been converted from regular ones by the addition of an ornate overprint reading "tax for the relief of the children of martyrs" — these suffered the additional indignity of having that overprint scribbled out in black pen. This one's corner's been chewed up a little but I'll try not to quibble.

Some of the stamps used were Ottoman postal tax stamps, which had been converted from regular ones by the addition of an ornate overprint reading "tax for the relief of the children of martyrs" — these suffered the additional indignity of having that overprint scribbled out in black pen. This one's corner's been chewed up a little but I'll try not to quibble.

 Statue erected in honour of General Maude sometime in the 1920s. It stood outside the British embassy in Baghdad until the 1958 revolution, during which it was pulled down.

Statue erected in honour of General Maude sometime in the 1920s. It stood outside the British embassy in Baghdad until the 1958 revolution, during which it was pulled down.

The first stamps for Iraq itself, and undoubtedly the most difficult ones. After its grievous defeat in April 1916 the Indian Expeditionary Force spent the rest of the year recovering its strength, before launching a fresh campaign in December. General Sir Stanley Maude, the new British commander in the theatre, made a strong thrust towards Baghdad, and, after much military endeavour, captured the city on the 11th March 1917. 

Baghdad itself seems to have been rather neglected by the Ottomans: De Gaury describes the city, at the time of its capture by the British, as having only one proper street, which had been knocked directly through it only a couple of years earlier at the insistence of the German army.

The post and telegraph offices in the city had been thoroughly ransacked by the retreating Ottomans, but things were cleaned up sufficiently for a civil postal service to be resumed on the 29th March (administered by Major Charles Clerici, who had been seconded from the army postal service). Service was initially restricted to Baghdad itself but was expanded in July 1917 to certain neighbouring areas. Carriage of mail was free at this time, and no stamps were used.[1]

General Sir Percy Cox, Chief Political Officer for the Indian Expeditionary Force, desired to commemorate the capture of Baghdad by overprinting the Ottoman stamps captured there.[2] He had felt (apparently since as far back as the start of the Mesopotamian campaign) there would be propaganda value in "annoying the enemy by overprinting his own stamps"[3] that is to say, the Baghdad stamps seem to have been primarily conceived of as a political gesture, rather than as a response to any genuine postal need (as mentioned above, the British had been able to quickly reconstruct a civil postal service for Baghdad and environs, without the need for any special stamps). Unfortunately few stamps were readily to hand and so Cox was forced to dispatch his best men to search high and low for enough stamps to actually justify the trouble of overprinting them. By August they had rounded up just under 15,000 stamps (in an jumbled combination of current and former issues) and it was decided to press ahead with the overprint. 

The overprinting was done at the Government Press in Baghdad (which we will hear of again in later pages). Dr al-Manaseer, writing in Fakes Forgeries Experts No. 17, quotes a memorandum from General Cox where he explains that the divers sizes of the stamps seized for overprinting made it impossible to devise a single overprint that could suitably fit all of them, and therefore the entire printing was carried out by hand(!). The details get fairly obscure beyond this: Cox, as quoted, describes the overprinting as needing four operations, while Gibbons says only three, and there appears, per Dr al-Manaseer, to be no consensus on whether each operation covered multiple stamps or just one. As to whether the printing was done by some kind of handstamp or something closer to a letterpress machine I have no idea.

Anyway the stamps went on sale on the 1st September 1917 and, inevitably, they were quickly snapped up by collectors (being caught up in the middle of a world war apparently wasn't enough to cool people's ardour for speculating in new issues). Efforts were made to limit sales (Dr al-Manaseer says the limit was 8 annas worth of stamps per person — I've read elsewhere it was eight stamps per person, although that makes less sense) but the entire issue still sold out in under a month, seemingly mostly to enthusiasts. Naturally, these are now very rare and expensive.

Actually acquiring these today is fairly hazardous. I think the biggest issue is the near-total lack of good-quality pictures of genuine specimens: Gibbons has one very small illustration only (of not necessarily the highest accuracy). A Mr Cockrill published a short booklet on the issue sometime in the 1950s: this seems to retail for hundreds of pounds on the rare occasions it appears for sale and suffice to say I don't possess a copy. The only other relevant printed material I am aware of is Dr al-Manaseer's article, referred to above: this is a useful item but is more concerned with showing pictures of fake overprints than genuine ones. I can find nothing useful on the internet beyond grabbing auction photos when they appear (actually very useful).

Additionally, these are very easy stamps to forge. The underlying stamps can be found mint for pennies in most cases, so there's no difficulty in acquiring material for sticking fake overprints onto. The genuine overprints vary wildly in quality: they're aligned all over the place, almost all seem to be either over-inked or under-inked (making it difficult to try to compare the shapes of letters, which is normally the main way to detect faked overprints) and the typeface used seems to have been a very common, generic one. Despite these advantages, most of the faked overprints still manage to be pretty unconvincing, but I don't see any reason why these couldn't be faked to a much higher standard than they currently are. The fakes one sees on Ebay all the time are pretty easily identified; Dr al-Manaseer shows a wider spread of fake types but none of those is particularly credible-looking either. The genuine overprints have a few particular "tells" the fakes never reproduce (I'll be coy and not say what these are, in case any miscreants are reading) but the bigger issue is that the general demeanour of the real overprints is noticeably different to the forgeries: they overall feel different, as aside from any one particular point of divergence. I don't think these are quite (yet) in certificate-or-else territory: I felt pretty confident in identifying the stamp at the top of the page just from comparing my damaged 2 annas to the shitty scan the seller provided. But I have no doubt the fakes will get better, in light of the prices I've seen real ones going for lately. 

31/03/2017


[1] This all per Proud.

[2] In 1915 the British captured Bushehr in Persia and operated a postal system there which used Persian stamps (badly) overprinted "BUSHIRE UNDER BRITISH OCCUPATION". Entirely speculation on my part but these stamps being the inspiration for the Baghdad ones (or at least the wording of the overprint) feels plausible enough.

[3] By a stroke of random fortune I was able to track this quote (which appears in Proud without attribution) to an appendix provided by Cox in Sir Arnold Wilson's Loyalties: Mesopotamia 1914-1917. The appendix in its entirety is short and rather colourful so I reproduce it in full below.