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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Centenary of the International Reply Coupon: 1907 - 2007

I. Introduction

The International Reply Coupon (IRC) was introduced at the 1906 Universal Postal Union (UPU) Congress in Rome. First issued on October 1, 1907, an IRC at that time could be exchanged at any UPU-member-nation post office for the postage required to prepay a single-rate, surface-delivery letter. Today, one hundred years later, an IRC can be redeemed for the minimum postage required for an unregistered priority airmail letter. UPU-member postal services must exchange an IRC for postage but are not required to sell them. IRCs remain popular with philatelists, autograph collectors, and radio amateurs exchanging QSL cards, who want to prepay return postage from a foreign country without sending cash or obtaining foreign postage in advance. They are sold in more than 70 countries.

Collectors classify IRCs by design (or “frame”), with the design taking its name from the city where the UPU Congress was held that adopted the design. Table 1 summarizes the five basic designs that have appeared over the past 100 years:

Luxembourg has issued IRCs in each of the five designs (including both Beijing models) and is one of only 35 countries to issue the recent Beijing Model 2 commemorative Centenary design.

The available information on Luxembourg’s IRC tariffs is summarized in Table 2.

II. Rome Design (1907–1930)

During this nearly 23-year classic coupon period, Luxembourg issued five Rome-design IRCs. They paid four different tariffs. Moreover, when the tariff was increased, some of the coupons were uprated with the new value in manuscript. All of the Rome-frame coupons are very scarce.

IRC-LUX 1

Luxembourg-Gare,
January 11, 1910.

IRC-LUX 3

Roodt, December 26, 1919,
and uprated in manuscript to 55 centimes

III. London Design (1930 – 1965)

During the 35 years that the London design was in use, Luxembourg issued IRCs in five different denominations. As the IRC tariff was increased to 2.75 F at the same time that the London design was released (i.e., July 1, 1930), Auguste Wéry, on the basis of reports in the philatelic literature, states that a 2.25 F IRC might have already been ordered but never put into circulation. Whether a 2.25 F IRC exists remains an unsolved philatelic puzzle.

Unlike the Rome design, inexpensive examples of the London design appear frequently in the philatelic market. But in acquiring examples, don’t overlook the fact that 14 varieties have been documented! They are summarized in Table 4 below.

IRC-LUX 8

Postmarked Luxembourg-Ville, September 1939
Redeemed,
Shanghai, China, February 14, 1940

IRC-LUX 9

Luxembourg-Ville, August 29, 1947


IV. Vienna Design (1965-1975)

The four different Vienna-design IRCs known for Luxembourg are summarized in Table 5. A Vienna printing that I have not seen listed for Luxembourg reads in French on the front “letter ordinaire de port simple” instead of “premier échelon … par voie de surface.”

IRC-LUX 20
Luxembourg-Ville, December 28, 1973

V. Lausanne Design (1975-2002)

The Lausanne design first appeared on February 1, 1975. The price is not shown on this design; however, when Luxembourg increased the IRC tariff from 10 F to 16 F on January 1, 1976, postal clerks sometimes indicated the new price in manuscript in the center box.

Varieties that I have not seen listed for Luxembourg include Lausanne printings with (i) “par voie aérienne” instead of “par voie de surface” on the front, and (ii) “CN01” instead of “C22” in the front upper right corner, and (iii) printings without the broken circle in the box on the right. The only known varieties are summarized in Table 6.


IRC-LUX 20
Luxembourg-Ville, July 31, 1979
Horizontal UPU watermark

VI. Beijing Design: Models 1 & 2; Centenary Printing

2002 - 2007

Shown below are the two Beijing-model IRCs. The first appeared in 2002 and was valid for exchange until December 31, 2006. The second appeared in 2006 and is valid for exchange until December 31, 2009.

Beijing Design – Model 1 (2002)

Luxembourg-Ville, February 14, 2006

Beijing Design – Model 2 (2006)

Luxembourg-Ville, October 18, 2006

In February 2007, a special printing of the Beijing Model 2 IRC appeared to commemorate a century of IRC use. The Centenary IRC has the inscription “1907 – 2007” added, as shown below in a cut from the specimen posted on the UPU website. Since February, only Luxembourg and 36 other countries have ordered and placed on sale the Centenary IRC. A total of just over 180,000 Centenary IRCs were printed for the entire UPU membership, and the UPU states that this special commemorative printing will not be reissued. As some countries have ordered as few as 500 or 1,000, the Centenary IRCs will undoubtedly be much sought after by collectors. I have not yet received an example from Luxembourg, nor do I know how many the Luxembourg PTT ordered.

Centenary Inscription “1907 – 2007”
on the Bejing Model 2 Special Printing

VII. IRCs & Ponzi Schemes

IRCs gained international attention early in 1920 when Charles Ponzi (1882-1949), a renowned international swindler, touted them as the inspiration for what is now commonly referred to as a “Ponzi scheme.” The phrase denotes an investment scheme in which the investor’s returns are paid not from profitable investments but rather from the inflow of cash from new investors.

In August 1919 a Spanish businessman enclosed an IRC with a request for a publication Ponzi had been promoting. Upon seeing the coupon, Ponzi realized that based on post-war exchange rates, IRCs bought in much of Europe were worth more when redeemed in the United States than what they cost in Europe. This realization led Ponzi to offer to enrich investors by buying IRCs in Europe and selling them at a profit in the United States. He successfully convinced investors to give him money in exchange for a promissory note, promising them a 50% profit in 45 days based on his (supposed) transatlantic trading in IRCs.

In fact Ponzi never used his investors’ money to engage in IRC arbitrage. He quickly learned that the IRCs could only be exchanged for stamps, not cash, and that they were not intended for financial speculation. But by July 1920, Ponzi was taking in $250,000 a day in investments, and his success continued until Post magazine revealed that to cover the investments made with his company, 160,000,000 IRCs would have had to be in circulation—in fact, at that time only about 27,000 were actually circulating.

When federal agents shut down Ponzi’s company on August 10, 1920, they found that he indeed had no large investment stock of IRCs. Eventually, Ponzi was arrested, tried and incarcerated in federal and state jurisdictions for mail fraud. In 1924, his bankrupty estate was the subject of litigation in the United States Supreme Court brought by some of his defrauded investors. In the case report, Chief Justice Taft notes that Ponzi began his fraudulent arbitrage enterprise with capital of $150. (Cunningham v. Brown, 265 U.S. 1 (1924).) Similar schemes abound today on the Internet and through the mails. What was it that P.T. Barnum once said?

VIII. Conclusion

After a century of use, the IRC remains a viable means for writers to prepay the return postage for letters from their correspondents. And finding Luxembourg IRCs − particularly the various Rome and London designs used between 1907 and 1965 − continues to provide formidable challenges for postal history and postal stationery collectors. Don’t pass up an opportunity to add them to your collection.

References

Basien, Dieter & Hoffkamp, Fernand, Tarife der Briefpost in Luxemburg 1852-2002, (Luxembourg: P&T, 2002), pp. 160-162.

Hurtré, André, website: “Postal Reply Coupons—International Reply Coupons,” http://www.couponreponse.fr/

Paul-August Koch, Wim V. M. Wiggers de Vries, and Auguste Wery, Die Internationalen Antwortscheine von Belgien und Luxemburg (Krefeld-Traar: Bund Deutscher Philatelisten e.V., 1984).

1 comment:

Peter Robin said...

This is an excellent precis of a fairly involved subject.

Collectors with interests beyond Luxembourg (and even such specialists) are advised that there are periodic mail bid auctions containing only reply coupons available from Bremen, Germany and Bala Cynwyd, PA. USA.

There are also currently available two books on the subject: "International Reply Coupons / an Illustrated Guide to all Types" and "An Illustrated Guide to Imperial and Commonwealth Reply Coupons" which lists and describes all reported examples in this series.

The German collector group FIAS has also published "Die Internationalen Antwortscheine von Belgien und Luxemburg" in 1984. Copies MAY still be available.

Any collector desiring further information may contact peterrobin@verizon.net.

Peter Robin