Kihm Vatican

“It was recognized even in the eighteen-sixties that collectors had to contend with not only forgeries of government-issued postage stamps but also stamps whose validity existed only in the imagination of their producers.”– Cinderella Stamps (1970) by L.N. and M. Williams

I love mail, mail art, the post office, postage stamps, rubber stamps. All of it. Mail art is a genre of works sent through the mail, with the postal journey and markings being a part of the process. And in a corner of mail art, you’ll find faux postage a.k.a. artistamps a.k.a. bogus stamps a.k.a. phantom stamps — descendants of advertisers’ poster stamps and “Cinderella stamps” that look like postage but serve another purpose.

Posting faux postage is generally legal, provided the correct, official postage is also affixed to the envelope or postcard, and the faux stamp itself is not likely to be mistaken for a genuine postage stamp.

It’s art that’s meant to be shared, rather than sold; it’s whimsical and surprising. In the 1980s, I dabbled in mail art, decorating envelopes and postcards with rubber stamps and colored pencils, but parenthood prompted me to pause for a time, an artistic dry spell that stretched out to 30 years. But two recent developments have prompted me to pick up where I left off. 1) My Photoshop skills reached a point where I could create images I’m happy with, and 2) I found a Fiskar scissors that mimics postal perforations, a discovery of Holy Grail magnitude. Some artists use an un-threaded sewing machine to make the perforations, but I need my fingers to type.

Early inspiration came from an artist named Donald Evans (1945-1977), who between 1971 and 1977 hand-painted thousands of postage stamps from 42 countries existing only in his imagination, collected in The World of Donald Evans (1980) with text by Willy Eisenhart.

My recent plunge into faux postage was inspired by Henry Denander, and aided by the posts of Lisa Volrath, such as this one.

I haven’t their talent, but I enjoy combining classic borders of old stamps, found via Google Images and Pinterest, with photos and illustrations that have nothing to do with them. And who wouldn’t want a One Centavo Keith Richards in their collection?

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The term “artistamps” was coined by Michael Bidner (1944-1989), a Canadian multimedia artist and stamp collector. His database of artist stamps came to be known as Artistamps. An article in Linn’s Stamp News (“Artistamps combine art and philately” by Denise McCarty, May 28, 1984) noted that Bidner was soon staging an exhibition at a gallery in London, Ontario, that would include more than 7,000 artistamps from 1,000 artists representing almost 50 countries.

John Tingey, in The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects (2010) dates the beginning of mail art itself to the early 1840s in England, when individuals, inspired by the first illustrated envelopes issued by the British post office, began decorating plain envelopes with their own designs.

dentist stamp

Tingey’s book also includes this postcard, with a “publicity stamp” as part of the address. The addressee was G. Forster, a dentist who used the stamps to publicize his practice, and also the cousin of Reginald Bray, the above-referenced Englishman who delighted in sending cryptic postcards. At this time, such stamps were also popular in Germany.

Most recently, Emily Cleaver has written a swell article on Cinderella Stamps for Atlas Obscura.