Stickman Readers' Submissions October 20th, 2020

The Collector (Part 1)

Corona related restrictions ongoing it is not surprising for Stick to fall back on other, subjects or topics unrelated to LOS. Healthcare for one. While I cannot match Stick’s exemplary way taking care of his wellbeing as described in a recent opening piece, including his monthly or yearly consumption of toothbrushes, I find myself in a similar spot. Thus, I am telling a story today where the Thai element is at best borderline, plus for a change not Corona related.

I do not collect stamps, don’t play golf, keep political views and orientation mostly to myself and am currently no member of any kind of club. I do have hobbies. Cooking and baking are two of them. Periodical exchanges relating to our culinary creations, accompanied often by pictures or recipes with a friend in Adelaide take up part of my weekly internet time.

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Keeping fit and healthy is of course a main concern at my age. I used to cycle and walk quite a bit when I lived in Trang. Now living in Bangkok walking in parks is pleasant if somewhat restricted. Mostly I swim, almost daily in the pool. In the morning. Early before breakfast, often being the only person in the pool at that time. Medics will tell you that any sporting activity intensifies oxygen flow to the brain thus increasing mental productivity. It’s true, often I get good ideas or mentally compose answers to outstanding correspondence while swimming. Back up in the condo even before showering I make a note lest I forget! When enjoying my aperitif later in the day I develop on the original thought and add further clips or mementos. Then I file it for further use, forget or I act upon it in due course. Often in letters. Yes, letter writing remains my preferred means of communicating with family back home, old friends and other acquaintances.

I had an e-mail from Franz last month. A rather lamenting piece of writing. He informed me that given the situation he has finally abandoned his projected Thailand holiday for the third time this year. For two confirmed and paid bookings with THAI he has received coupons or credit notes but no refund. Even so he has now booked for February 2021 hoping the situation will have improved and allowing unrestricted travel by then. But the stalled bookings were not his main concern. These were on a different although somewhat related level. It’s best described in the universally known phrase attributed to French poet Alexandre Dumas that has become a cliché in detective fiction “cherchez la femme”!

But there is no criminal element involved in this submission. Finding the lady will not be the key to discover or solve a murder investigation. The meaning of the phrase is not figurative as intended in detective fiction but should be taken literally as in: “I need to find this woman!” Also, this submission diverges from my usual Thai related subs as the Thai factor is marginal. However, my reference to stamp collection in the introduction is not entirely at random. Franz is a collector, though more like by accident. He recently inherited a fairly elaborate stamp collection from his father. Until such time his interest in stamps seemed to be limited and only rarely mentioned. Recent events have changed his attitude and he became much more attentive in the matter.

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Days after the elder Franz senior’s passing earlier this year, he went to look for the collection. Stowed away in a box he found two medium-sized and dated collector books with rows of stamps artfully arranged. Franz’s interest was now roused. It also contained an envelope with more old stamps. Apparently waiting to be classified and placed in the not yet fully completed book. Another folder, smaller, with stamps dating way back from the past century or possibly even older in a separate file. They had a particularity. While they were clearly rare stamps, they lacked the postage overprint that cancelled their value.

Franz had told me about his father’s hobby years ago. Casually he added that since his retirement from his job as a typographer at a large printer’s shop in town he had also taken up dealing with stamps. First locally, later on a larger scale, eventually on a few occasions internationally. A more than sustainable pastime he had added somewhat mysteriously when questioned.

Not familiar in the matter I asked Franz to explain. Being old and outdated years ago these unused and outdated stamps surely had no more value anyway, I observed. No face value, I was corrected. But collectors’ value, a commodity that could be traded in large sums. But only, Franz emphasized when continuing his lecture, if they had the clearly dated overprint by the postmaster indicating cancellation.

Hidden in father’s bedroom he kept another box of strange looking tools. Short wooden sticks. Not unlike sawed off pieces of a broomstick. At one end plastic or silicon molded motives partly blackened by ink were visible. Franz knew what they were. Years ago, his father had introduced and initiated him to the artful forging of overprint seals. An elaborate and time-consuming process using legally overprinted stamps as models. Some of the stamps were so old and rare that a single and unique overprint seal had to be created for just one stamp. An undertaking that could take several days and up to a week. Obviously the previously “virgin” stamps with the now artfully applied overprint had increased in value a hundredfold or more.

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But that is forgery I interjected. Came to mind the several Farang in Thailand years past forging immigration related stamp-seals for use in passports. And one more recent case of a foreigner arrested over the same offence as reported in the Thai press only weeks ago. Yes, Franz agreed. That is forgery, as is forging banknotes, passports, checks, certificates, or any counterfeit of valuable documents. As for cancelling valueless stamps the verdict is still out. Some countries regard overprinting of old, unused stamps with no apparent face value as no more than creating a kind of nuisance value. Police or authorities do not necessarily act upon it.

International stamp dealers of course see that different. That is why a well-known Philatelic Association bought out a French postage-stamp overprint forger in the 1950’s for an unknown sum. To protect their interest and obviously stamp collectors’ interest who are their clients.

Ironically, Franz was employed at one of the large credit card issuers and on a few occasions had participated in operations to discover and track-down fraudulent credit card charges. He was also, or rather still is married to a Thai lady he had met years ago on a holiday in Phuket. Let’s call her Lek. The marriage did not turn out to be a happy reunion. For a year or more his wife had informed him that she wishes to obtain a divorce and return home. Franz did not object, but no official proceedings had been initiated so far.

Given the unhappy situation Franz took to spending weekends away from home in search of other distractions, amusements or often just meeting with friends. Returning from one of his recent getaway weekends Lek was gone. Also gone was her passport, several suitcases, and a fairly large amount of cash that he kept (or thought he kept) in a safe place. Further missing his dad’s, or rather now his own stamp collection.

On a Skype conversation a week or two after his initial e-mail he seemed to have taken the past events in stride. With a hearty laugh he even produced the now totally useless stamp overprint sticks! He did have a question. A favor, he said. Was there a way to find out if, where and when Lek had re-entered Thailand to absolve the compulsory two weeks quarantine. Assuming of course and logically that Lek had returned to her former home in Thailand the stamp collection included.

I said I will try, knowing that it was useless. Thai immigration would not give information on an esteemed Thai citizen to a lowly farang. But Franz knew where Lek lived. Her family’s village. He could even locate the house having been there years ago on more than one occasion. His intention of course was to try and recover the stamp collection. His guess was that Lek knew the collection was valued but not how much it was really worth in money to a devoted stamp-collector. And naturally more so in sentimental value to Franz for what was to him his father’s life’s passion. He was even prepared to fork out another sum of cash to get it back, he told me. To put my mind at ease I contacted a former staff member of mine asking her to contact immigration and find out Lek’s current whereabouts. Same result though. No information would be forthcoming. Only family members could be informed, and that she was not.

If he could recuperate the stamp books and envelopes, would he continue his father’s somewhat shady tampering and possibly trading with stamps enriched through overprinted, homemade cancellation seals? My question to Franz on a subsequent Skype-call. He could not say at this point not being in possession of the “raw material” he said. Given my knowledge and the financially rewarding prospects, it’s tempting. Do I take this as a yes? A short silence followed. Then Franz said: In view of the story you intend to write about it, no. Take it as an absolute no.

A week later Franz received a mysterious telephone call. It would change everything. Physically Franz is of massive stature. He is also an educated man. He studied and obtained a degree from the well-known and respected ETH University in Zurich. And of course, due to his professional assignment he is often obliged to use English. A language he masters flawlessly. More so. He can easily tell the origin of interlocutors even telephone callers. English-English or American-English and so on. But this caller was neither. It was Indian or Pakistani-English he continued. Never mind, I interrupted; What’s this about, what did he want? He said: We have your stamp collection. We need to meet, talk to you in person.


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