For a long time, there has been a vibrant market in something Slovenian. And it has been truly global, trading in unexpected places like Mumbai and Las Vegas as well as in less surprising venues like London, New York, or Geneva. Even more interestingly, the prices for this quintessentially Slovenian product can range from a few cents to several thousand euros per square centimetre. Designed in Ljubljana in late 1918, the production went on for only two years, until 1920. Official use ceased in 1921.
Author: Jure Stojan, DPhill
This mysterious product is a special piece of printed paper– the first Slovenian postage stamp. Indeed, it is the only Slovenian luxury item that truly has a global market and a century-old tradition of marketing activities. In fact, it was the international collectors which gave the stamp the moniker still in use today, “Kettenbrecher” in German and “chain breakers” in English, which translates as “verigarji” in Slovenian. No mysteries where the name came from. The lower-denominated stamps show an athlete (nude save for a loincloth) who has just broken the chains of slavery. “Smooth symbolic kitsch, nothing more and nothing less,” was the verdict of the image’s creator, the self-critical academic painter Ivan Vavpotič (1877–1943).
What was driving demand by international collectors? First, the Slovenian stamp stood out among the usual royal busts and castles adorning postage stamps elsewhere. “Here we find a slave in the moment when he breaks the chains attached to his wrists. The man is naked. The struggle imprints his body with violent distortions. His face lets slip a nasty tension. The mouth is wide open.” This is how the motif was painstakingly described by the
In 1919, the chain breakers were as sexy as postage stamps could get. The reason for this was not only its slightly risqué motive, but also for its deficient technical execution – there was an incredible variety of these stamps. “Since this edition was produced using many different types of paper, different printing plates and kinds of perforation, it is precisely in this edition that there have been so many errors and different types of individual stamps that it is difficult even for a connoisseur to know all these differences,” explained the Viennese weekly Neues Montagblatt (14.8.1922). Its verdict? Chainbreakers were “one of the most interesting areas of the newer philately.” In stark contrast to most stamp editions of comparable diversity, this one was born out of honest and justifiable reasons – and not as speculation aimed to defraud as many collectors as possible (for instance, such was the reputation enjoyed 1920s by Croatian and Bosnian stamps which were published only a few months before the Slovenian chainbreakers).
The rich diversity of chainbreakers was due to the general shortage after First World War in which the Slovenes had fought on the losing side. “At the time, just as we did not have bread or most essential foodstuff for that matter, there was no cloth for making clothing in Slovenia, nor raw materials for the industry. Also, we did not have paper for the stamps, no printing colours, nor was there enough of skilled printers. Every day, we noticed how a stamp was very different from the ones which came before, either because of its paper or colour, finally because of its printing, so that people were constantly afraid of falsificates,” the conservative daily Slovenski narod recalled a decade later (September 10, 1929).
So, the very aspect the foreign philatelists were most excited about was also the one that made collectors at home uncomfortable, since it revealed the misery of post-war Slovenia. A good example are the so-called “se-tenants”, stamps with adjoining bits of other stamps of a different value. This happened because for the production to go as fast as possible, stamps of up to three different values (and, consequently, different colours) were printed on one single, very large sheet of paper at the same time. When the paper was consequently cut into selling sheets, bits of stamps in another colour remained on the edges. These stamps are unique in world philately and are still highly priced today. In June 2015, for example, the Geneva auction house of David Feldman sold a collection of about 140 such stamps for an estimated price range from 8,000 to 12,000 francs.
Such sums of course have attracted counterfeiters. Already in the 1920s, there were three centres for the falsification of Slovenian stamps: Brussels, where they falsified chainbreakers for 20 para; Vienna, where the high-denomination stamps bearing the portrait of King Peter I. were retouched by adding false “tears”, that is, highly-priced printing errors was being falsified; and Ljubljana of course, where the entire edition with the king was faked by an employee of the Blasnik printing house (one of the official printers of the chainbreakers stamps). His name was Padevet, and he was sentenced to prison on May 1, 1923 in the philatelic court case of the century, together with the stamp dealers Ivan Jurca and Maks Simonkovič who had commissioned the counterfeits a year earlier.