Ottawa·Hidden Treasures

Secret in history museum's archive has an illegal past

Deep inside the Canadian Museum of History is an artifact with a shady past — a brass plate used to create forgeries of some of the first stamps ever produced in Canada.

Canadian Museum of History has a plate used to forge some of Canada's oldest stamps

Bianca Gendreau, a manager in the Canadian Museum of History’s research division, holds up a forged stamp plate inside the museum's archive. (Ryan Tumilty/CBC)

This is part of our series Hidden Treasures, where we delve into the storage rooms of museums across the National Capital Region to find out what weird and wonderful things they have tucked away there. We'll post a new story every Wednesday throughout the summer, and you can find them all on the CBC Ottawa website.

It isn't the first time this artifact has been hidden away, shielded from public view.

Deep inside the Canadian Museum of History is an item with a shady past — a brass plate used to create forgeries of some of the first stamps ever produced in Canada.

Bianca Gendreau, a manager in the museum's research division, said the plate was used to create fakes of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick's first stamps issued in 1851.

Collectors had been coming across the forgeries for years but didn't know how they were being created, Gendreau said.

"We knew that the forgeries existed on the market of those stamps and we never knew that the New Brunswick stamps and the Nova Scotia stamps were made on the same plate."

The plate was used to create forgeries and is highly detailed. (Ryan Tumilty/CBC)

The plate was donated to the museum in 2013 after being found at a flea market in Belgium, she said. 

When the forgeries were first created they would have been used by people trying to treat them as postage, but today the plate could be used to create stamps that are quite valuable to collectors.

"I am glad this is out of the market, because even today you could reproduce these stamps. It is a good thing this is out of circulation," Gendreau said.

But she has to admire the plate as a piece of art in its own right. "There is only [a] one-millimetre difference between the real one and the forgery. These are very nicely done and very accurate."

The museum has authentic versions of the stamps on display in the postal section of the museum. (Ryan Tumilty/CBC)

Researchers don't know who created the forged plate or how it ended up in Belgium, and are hoping anyone with information can come forward. 

The museum has two authentic versions of the stamp on display, but the forged plate is being kept in the archive for now.

Gendreau said stamps are important milestones in a country's history, which is why the museum keeps them.

"Stamps tell you a story about Canadian history, about Canadian society. Even today they're a reflection of what is happening."

Printing plate helps museum solve mystery of forged stamps

7 years ago
Duration 1:31
Researcher Bianca Gendreau explains how a printing plate acquired by the Canadian Museum of History solved the mystery of how stamps were being forged in 1851.