The Szekula Family of Stamp Dealers

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This website is dedicated to the Hungarian born stamp dealers Béla, Géza, Eugen and Frank Sekula. Each one of them ran his own stamp business with emphasis on international stamp trade, most likely driven by money rather than the love of stamps. All four assumed Swiss nationality and were at one time based in Lucerne. Especially Béla’s creative business ideas provoked more than one philatelic scandal during his career. However, the history of philately would arguably be poorer without the Sekula brothers.


Béla Sekula

 
I think it is a nice hobby, it keeps men out of mischief. But I am not interested in stamps.
(Béla Sekula, September 1937).

B/W photo of Béla Szekula at age 40
Béla Szekula at age 40
Newspaper ad
Advertising war stamps
(Schweizerisches Handelsamts-
blatt May 27, 1915)
Béla Sekula (1881—1966) was born on Feb. 9, 1881 in Szeged, Hungary, as the first son of soap boiler Julius (Gyula) Szekula (1850—1932) and Róza Szekula (née Fürst, 1854—1908). According to his own memories, at the age of sixteen he jumped a ship at Fiume believing it was going to Australia, but he landed in Mombasa, Kenya instead. He made his way to Zanzibar and — eventually — Madagascar, where he saw some old French stamps offered for sale. Following a hunch he bought them for 200 francs and sent them to Paris where they sold for 20000 francs — the start of his career as a stamp dealer.
In 1898/99 Béla opened a business in Budapest as wholesale and retail merchant of postage stamps. While expanding his business activities Béla Szekula quickly gained a negative reputation for sending abroad unsolicited approvals, and first warnings against him began circulating in the international philatelic press. Around 1901 he married his first wife, Lujza Bihari (1883—1964). On July 1, 1901, he published the first issue of his new stamp magazine Szekula Briefmarken-Verkehr (1901—1912). The first three issues appeared in Budapest, but issues 4 to 37 came out in Geneva, Switzerland, where he had moved his business in November 1901. Only eight months later, in July 1902, Béla and his wife moved to their new residence, the Villa Philatélie in nearby Chênes-Bougeries. In late 1902 they were joined by Béla’s brother Géza. During Béla’s first stay in Switzerland he continued to provoke warnings against him in philatelic journals, and not only because of his business conduct in general. In 1903 he received a negative echo for extensively advertising certain stamps of Puerto Rico that had been surcharged HABILITADO 17 OCTUBRE 1898 but were never valid for franking, and therefore were generally regarded as fraudulent (needless to say that today these issues are expensive collectibles for specialists). In the same year he also offered the 1902 commemorative stamps of the Dominican Republic, issued on February 25, for sale, in full sets on and off piece … and canceled with fake postmarks of Santo Domingo dated 20 January 1902 — perhaps the earliest truely black spot in his career.
In February 1904 the Szekulas left Switzerland and returned to Hungary, most likely because Lujza had realised that she was pregnant. Back in Budapest Béla began to operate under the name of Internationale Philatelisten, an international society of philatelists he had founded in 1901, by now grown to more than 400 members. In the same year he (unknowingly?) offered some forged Guatemalan stamps as genuine, which is probably the main reason why he was later referred to as a forger. On September 16, 1904, Lujza gave birth to the twin sisters Agnes and Maria in Budapest. On September 23, 1908, Béla’s third daughter Hedwig was born in Vienna, Austria, and on March 30, 1910, Béla’s son Karl Béla was born in Budapest — both outside marriage, the result of a long-term affair with Antónia Heller which lead to Béla’s and Lujza’s divorce. In February 1912 Béla landed his biggest deal so far, the acquisition of the prize-winning Robert Holitscher collection at the price of 840,000 K., roughly USD 4.8 million in today’s (2020) currency. He then sold the collection country by country at a profit of 10%.
In January 1913 Béla (or rather probably the whole family) moved to Switzerland again, this time Lucerne, where he opened the Briefmarken-Grosshandlung (= stamp wholesale business) Béla Szekula. On October 9, 1916 he married Bertha (Berty) Huguenin (1896–1980), and on November 4, 1916 Béla became a naturalized Swiss citizen of Kriens. In the same month the British Foreign Trade Department declared Béla Szekula (incl. his alias Elise Bieri) an undesirable person for firms and persons in the British Empire to deal with and put him on the black list for trading with the enemy. On April 8, 1918, his fourth daughter, the future artist Sonja Sekula was born. In March 1923 he and his relatives were officially granted permission to change the spelling of their last name to Sekula.
Despite the occasional negative press and complaints from end customers, Béla’s business and the number of its employees grew steadily over the next years, and in the stamp trade he was perceived as a reliable, straightforward and fast distributor. In September 1929 Béla renamed his company to Béla Sekula, Cosmophilatelist and started the magazine Cosmophilatelist. One year later, newspapers reporting on the IPOSTA (Internationale Postwertzeichen-Ausstellung = international postage stamp exhibition) held at Berlin in September 1930 referred to him as the world's biggest stamp dealer. In August 1931 he founded the Cosmophilatelist AG Luzern (Cosmophilateliste S.A. Lucerne, Cosmophilatelist Ltd. Lucerne) with himself as sole board member. Two months later Béla removed the affix Cosmophilatelist from the name of his first company changing it back to Béla Sekula.
During these years Béla Sekula also gained reputation as auctioneer with his World Stamp Auctions held between 1927 and 1932 in the noble Schweizerhof hotel in Lucerne. At these auctions, which could last up to two weeks, several collections from well-known philatelists and dealers fell under the hammer. Special mention should be made of material from the world-renowned philatelist Lars Amundsen (June 11—19, 1928), Ludvig Lindberg’s first-class Finland collection (Dec. 7—15, 1928, and Mar. 11—19, 1929), the collection of the Belgian liqueur producer (Elixir d’Anvers) Louis-Xavier de Beukelaer (Sep. 16 — Oct. 5, 1929) and that of Paris-based stamp dealer Joseph Thumin (June 16—19, 1931).
As for the later image of Béla in philatelic circles, it is largely determined by two events that took place in the first half of the 1930s. The first was the affair that developed around Jean Adolphe Michel, the former postmaster in Ethiopia. Michel was sponsor of the Ethiopian 1919 Animals and Rulers issue and owner of the original dies and plates. In accordance with his original contract with the Ethiopian government allowing him to get compensation for his investment by reprinting and selling these stamps ten years after the first edition of 1919, he commissioned Béla Sekula to arrange for the production of a second edition in 1931. When Béla began offering these stamps as originals, he and Michel were furiously attacked by a group of stamp dealers in Bern, who initially regarded the stamps as forgeries, later as unauthorized reprints and finally as philatelic reprints because the stamps had been printed after their validity had expired. Whether this was actually the case is debatable. In any case, these attacks culminated in criminal charges brought against Béla in Bern in 1933, which were dropped after three years of investigation, and a lawsuit against Michel in 1935, which ended in 1936 in favor of the defendant. By that time Béla was already preparing to leave Switzerland, albeit for a different reason.
Photo of Béla Sekula at age 54
Béla Sekula at age 54
Béla Sekula is believed to be the driving force behind the exotic looking stamps of Tannu Tuva issued between 1934 and 1936. Although there is no hard evidence to support this theory he was definitely one of the main promoters and sellers of these issues. In autumn 1934 the German stamp dealers association used Béla’s ads offering magnificent picture stamps as specious grounds to ban his advertisements from all their publications, and he was given to understand that he was not welcome anymore at any of their public events. The ban extended to the other members of the Sekula family including their brother-in-law Max Goldberger, who were now all regarded as Béla’s accessories and vermin of philately. However, the timing of these measures during the Nazi rise in Germany suggest they had little to do with Béla’s business conduct — the World Stamp Auctions had always been well attended by German stamp dealers — but rather with the fact that the Sekula brothers were Jews from their mother’s side.
The attacks against the Sekulas also had financial repercussions. In April 1933, bankruptcy proceedings were instituted against his stamp business (and that of his brother Eugen), but he was able to fend it off with the help of a bank loan. He then founded two more companies as stock corporations: In January 1934, the short-lived Briefmarkenhandels AG Globus (Stamp Trading Corp. Globe), and one month later the Briefmarken-Import und Export AG (Stamp Import and Export Corp.), a name he would eventually adopt for his business in the USA. In March 1935 Béla left the Globus AG, and in April Béla also resigned from the board of Cosmophilatelist AG Lucerne. The latter was taken over shortly thereafter by Béla’s long-time colleague and friend Hermann Wiederhold, who renamed it to Ocean Stamp Ltd. and successfully continued business until 1948. The Globus AG, however, already went bankrupt in June 1939.
On September 23, 1936 the Sekula family moved to New York, where Béla continued his business under Stamp Import & Export Corp. — initially from Hotel White, on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 37th Street. In February or March 1937, his company address changed to Woodstock Tower, 320 East 42nd Street, Manhattan. In June 1938 he finally closed his stamp wholesale in Lucerne, and in July he left the Swiss Briefmarken-Import und Export AG, which was liquidated in April 1941. On June 26, 1940, Béla Sekula applied for naturalization, and on March 14, 1944 he became a citizen of the United States of America.
Unlike his earlier activities in Europe his time in America seems to have produced no notable scandal. He concentrated on wholesale and big deals with only a handful of customers. His private life, however, was overshadowed by recurrent mental health issues of his daughter Sonja who repeatedly had to undergo treatment. In 1949 Béla sold his stock of 50 million stamps through J. & H. Stolow in New York (with estimated proceeds of $250,000—$300,000). He continued his business, however, now again from a hotel on the corner of 22 East 29th St. and Madison Avenue. Eventually, after almost twenty years in the US, the expenses for Sonja’s many hospital stays became too much and in 1955 he returned to Switzerland with his family, first to Zurich and a short time later to St. Moritz. He resumed business with the foundation of the Philatelie AG, St. Moritz in September 1957, again with him as sole board member, starting with stamps worth Fr. 19200 acquired from Berty Sekula-Huguenin (Béla and his wife had separate property). In April 1958 Béla moved back to Zurich managing the business from his new home address at Steinwiesstr. 18, while the registered business address stayed in St. Moritz. On April 25, 1963, the Sekula couple was struck by a personal tragedy when Sonja committed suicide in her studio. Béla himself died on July 20, 1966 in a hospital in Zurich at the age of 85 — after spending 68 years of his life as a stamp dealer. His ashes are buried in a family grave in St. Moritz next to his wife Berty and his daughter Sonja.
Béla S(z)ekula is mostly remembered for the philatelic scandals he was involved in, but reducing him to his misdemeanors doesn’t really do justice to the colorful character he was.


Cover — September 14, 1923

Out of necessity, locally produced fee paid stamps (aka local issues) were officially approved during the hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic and were therefore valid for postage. However, some dealers also seized the opportunity and produced their own labels. The fee paid labels used on this cover were privately produced by stamp dealer Walter Behrens, Braunschweig, and went through the postal system for three weeks without objection before their use was prohibited. See also this cover to Eugen Szekula.

Registered and canceled on September 14, 1923, in Braunschweig, Germany, and sent to Béla Sekula in Lucerne, Switzerland. item item