©Lin Yangchen

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Mutant Ninja Turtle

The BMA Malaya 50 cents was famously forged by dyeing green the paper of the black 1c, reportedly with chlorophyll extracted from pandan leaves as was a familiarity in local cuisine (Cockburn 2015, comm. 2021), and altering the denomination tablets. The perpetrator was a Chinese employee in the post room of the National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) in Singapore (Cockburn 1998, comm. 2017), who was eventually caught and jailed (Cockburn 2015). The forged stamps were used mostly on parcels. They attained a sort of celebrity status and have been documented many times over the year by The Stamp Lover (1949), Fletcher (1977), Rosevear (1981), Cooper (1982, 1992), Cockburn (2015).

How exactly did the forger remove the 1¢ inscription? The tablet has a slightly rougher surface where the coating of the striated paper is gone, but the exposed fibres look fairly intact. Did he use an abrasive implement like sandpaper, or a chemical process? An appropriate solvent, rubbed in with a small bud of cotton, might have done it more easily with less damage. Next, he added the 50¢ inscription (see below) and apparently dabbed on additional green colouring.

Lin & Cheah (2016a) first reported the existence of shade varieties of the forgery. In contrast to the turquoise "coral sea" of the previous example, this one exhibits the chlorophyll green of a phytoplankton bloom. The front of the stamp has been bleached by prolonged exposure to light.

An apparently hybrid tablet. It is not clear whether these varieties were due to the use of different colouring substances or simply inconsistencies in handiwork.

A “hybrid” stamp with one tablet in turquoise and the other in yellowish green, which makes it less likely that the difference is a colour changeling (Lin 2021b).

Some of the tablets’ outer frames, such as this one, seem to have been further touched up with a violet-tinged black ink that reminds me of a ball-point or fine felt-tip pen (Lin 2021b). This is additional to the thin reinforcing frame lines of pure black ink also visible here. It looks crudely applied by hand, especially along the top edge where perhaps the soil above it helps hide the mess. In some cases the pigment has bled through to the back. But most cases of this violet-tinged touch-up are almost impossible to see without a bright white light and a good loupe.

The alteration of the tablets was a painstaking and, as it turns out, quasi-expressionistic endeavour. Yet the author knows of some 40 forged stamps, including 14 on a single piece that auctioned for £8500 in 2016. This means he did it 80 times—twice on each stamp. One could imagine him poring over the stamps with a loupe, like a jeweler or watchmaker. The "revenue" from each stamp was about a day's wage for the clerk, before debiting the time, energy and materials spent fabricating it.

If the forger had to hand-draw every tablet at such a small size, it would be unimaginably hard work. Lin & Cheah (2016) reported that the font style was quite consistent across examples, but it was Alan Chong (pers. comm.) who had the idea that the forger might have used a die to print the tablets.

To investigate this (Lin 2021b), I made high-precision planar photographs of 10 forged tablets from eight stamps. I chose tablets where the 50¢ inscriptions were not obstructed by postmarks. I used graphics editing software to remove the green areas from the tablet images, convert the areas of black ink into pure black and stack the tablets on top of one another such that the 50¢ inscriptions are aligned as closely as possible (see Mustacich 2015a, 2017 for automatic alignment). Each tablet was set to 75% transparency in the composite image. The effect of this is that if the inscriptions are very similar in font shape, the overall image will look sharp with high contrast because all the translucent inked areas coincide, forming well-defined dark areas. If the inscriptions are very different from one another, they will all overlap in different places making the overall image fuzzy.

The resulting high-resolution digital stack of the 10 tablets shows that the inscriptions match one another very closely, despite variations caused by inking differences and the micro-scale unevenness of the paper surface. It seems reasonably certain that the forged tablets were printed from one die (or at least one master die that could have been duplicated), and its positioning with respect to the rest of the duty plate is remarkably accurate. The digital stack can be considered an “average” tablet that shows the essential font characteristics of the forged inscription.

Two distinct and highly consistent features here are the bulge and nick at the top of the hole in the “0” (indicated by red circle). Of the roughly 20 forgeries I have seen (either physically or in high-dpi scans), some have both the bulge and the nick while others have the bulge but no nick. Could the nick be the BMA 50¢ postal forgery’s very own “plate flaw”, caused by accidental damage during the production period?

Another consistent feature is the variable thickness of the lower vertical stroke in “5” (indicated by red rectangle) that makes it look somewhat clumsy. Other, more subtle, distinguishing characteristics could potentially be used as supplemental authenticity checks, such as the more angular lower right corners of “5” and “0”.

If the tablets were in fact forged using a die, they make me curious whether the bank clerk had engraved the die himself. Engraving such tiny characters is not a trivial exercise.

For all his efforts, the tablets' crudeness makes one wonder if the forger did not realize only until after the fact that evidence of his pranks would remain indelibly etched on the stamps and eventually bring about his downfall.

Almost all copies of the forgery seen by the author were fabricated from 1¢ stamps printed on striated paper (above), an observation first made by Peter Cockburn. This dates the 1¢ to 1946 (see Cameron 1950).

Lin & Cheah (2017), however, uncovered a single copy of what appears to be a fabrication on substitute paper.

The typography of the tablets on the substitute paper is even cruder; the glyph shapes are indistinct while stroke thickness is inconsistent. Furthermore, the inscription "spills over" into the vertical white margin on the right-hand side of the tablet, which alludes to poor judgement of space constraints while working from left to right.

The bottom portions of (upper image) the suspected forgery of the forgery and (lower image) a genuine forgery, showing the stamps as they appear in daylight (left) and under 365 nm ultraviolet irradiation (right). The suspected fake has tablets that glow brightly under UV (Lin & Cheah 2017).

Was this simply a case of traction problems on substitute paper, or a modern-day forgery of the forgery? We only know that this had been manufactured some time prior to the 1980s, when one of the authors bought it from Derek Clayton.

De La Rue had earlier suggested updating the 50c to a bicolour on white paper for post-war printings, but the Colonial Office rejected it (Cockburn 2015). Now it was too late. Soon after, the postal service would be hit by the Singapore 1948 postal forgeries.

The 50¢ forgery remains as much of a maverick as ever. While some philatelists nostalgically recall the occasional copy lurking in flea markets for a few pence in days gone by, collectors nowadays face wildly fluctuating prices for the privilege of ownership. There have been been lucky strikes on eBay for prices as low as £1.99 from unsuspecting sellers, while the author witnessed a nuclear bidding war for a single stamp at a major auction house in 2015 that reached £2000 before buyer's premium and taxes.

The real 50 cents and its botanical counterpart, the orchid Coelogyne pandurata, a native of the Malay Archipelago. Orchid photo: Azhar Ismail (Creative Commons license)

I am grateful to Cheah Jin Seng, Peter Cockburn, Alan Chong, Ong Kuee Hong, Gerald Brown, Chang Kok Kay and the Singapore Philatelic Museum for providing material and valuable insights.


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