A titan of the philatelic world, Alfred “Al” Kugel was one of the community’s most prominent writers, exhibitors, and leaders – but was perhaps best known as a military postal history expert. With more than 100 meticulously researched single and multi-frame exhibits in the subject and scores of articles published in “The Military Postal History Society Bulletin,” The American Philatelist, Rossica, and more, Kugel was undoubtedly one of the most distinguished scholars of military postal history of his time – and had the award-winning collection to prove it.
When Kugel passed away in May 2022 at the age of 91, he extended his incredible generosity to the APS one final and impactful time by donating the vast majority of his award-winning collection to the society. The collection primarily covers global wars and military mail from the late 1800s to modern times, focusing on the Ottoman Empire, Turkish wars, Spanish American and Mexican wars, World War I and II with some post WW-II items. Though some of Kugel's greatest prizes were his regional military covers from the United States, Germany, France, Poland, Great Britain, Russia, China, Japan, and more, the Kugel collection contains plenty of hidden gems to delight any collector. The APS will offer the philatelic material for sale through the bid process, while Kugel's library of philatelic literature will be transferred to the American Philatelic Research Library to be added to circulation or sold to members and the general public.
Since May of 2023, one volunteer has been diligently sorting, inventorying, and assessing the donation for the APS in preparation for the sale. That volunteer is Gerry Robbins, longtime philatelic dealer, President of the Mt. Nittany Philatelic Society, and familiar face around the APC, where he regularly volunteers with his wife, Karen. Robbins kindly sat down with me last month to talk about his experience documenting the Kugel donation and to share some sneak peeks inside before the collection goes to auction.
The Kugel collection arrived at the APC earlier this year, shepherded from the Chicago area by APS staff. Then, in May, Robbins was called in to lend a hand – aside from being a regular APS volunteer, he is the proprietor of Bellefonte’s own Robbins’ Stamps and has over 50 years of professional philatelic experience.
“We’re fortunate to have dealers like Gerry locally to help in times like these,” said APS Executive Director Scott English. “His knowledge of both philatelic material and philatelic literature came in handy for sorting through the Kugel Estate.”
It took about two months of hard work to process the entire collection, opening box after box, reviewing and inventorying what was inside, and safely repacking each item. During the process, Robbins estimates he whittled 180 boxes down to 120.
“Almost every box had empty pages,” Robbins said. “There were also plenty of cover sleeves and exhibit sleeves, and around 40 empty albums and stock books. Those are great quality; they’ll probably end up in the gift shop.”
There were also upwards of three boxes of awards and several of philatelic literature. The majority of the remaining 110-odd boxes contain the meat of Kugel’s extensive and award-winning collection of martial philately.
“It was fun and challenging work to go through it all,” Robbins said. “I kept saying to myself, ‘what’s next?’”
Though he specialized in the philately of the Third Reich, Kugel’s collection contains materials from all corners of the globe, spanning a timeframe from the 1880s until around the 1940s. That’s about when Kugel must have started collecting, Robbins tells me, because one of the many covers he found in the donation was from the Berlin airlift, addressed to a teenaged Kugel.
That cover was just one of countless fascinating finds interspersed with some of Kugel’s better-known exhibits – like “The ‘Prexies’ Go to War,” an exhibit of wartime covers featuring the Presidential Issues of 1938, a.k.a the Prexies, or “U. S. Intervention in Vera Cruz, 1914,” an exhibit featuring the wide variety of postal markings and stamps used during the intervention. Both of these exhibits, and many more of Kugel’s exhibits and articles, can be found in PDF form in the Al Kugel Room on The Military Postal History Society’s website.
Another surprise came in the form of a Christmas card bearing Adolph Hitler’s signature – that item, and many others, will need to be authenticated by subject matter experts before auction. Kugel certainly had a discerning eye, but Robbins told me that he estimates some of the materials in the collection have been off the market for at least 50 years. For the peace of mind of both sellers and buyers, they could use more current certifications.
Though the donation contains many stunning specimens of martial philately, particularly from the World Wars, not everything in Kugel’s collection is related to the military.
“He deviated occasionally,” Robbins said. “He had an exhibit on the Alaskan-Canadian Highway, Arctic and Antarctic covers, exhibits of $2 and $5 U.S. stamps; there was even a casual collection of foreign women’s suffrage. That one was mostly postcards.”
There are plenty of postcards in Kugel’s collection, in fact. Robbins tells me he encountered many real picture postcards, or RPPC’s, some of which he believes to be unique. The APS and APRL plan to digitize these and other rare items before the collection is sold (Robbins has already tackled some of the work himself), so that if the collection is broken up or not exhibited in the future, it can still be appreciated by generations of philatelists to come.
The APS is grateful to Robbins for his work on this project, and excited to continue working on the sale of the donation. Robbins’ final appraisal estimated the total value of the collection at over $1.8 million – but the APS anticipates that that number is the floor, not the ceiling, for the sale.
“Al and Dottie Kugel have long supported the APS and APRL and this estate will allow us to make some meaningful investments in the next decade,” said APS Executive Director Scott English. “We have received numerous proposals to sell the material and the APS Board will do its due diligence to make the best choice to sell this estate. From there, we will begin work on permanently honoring Al for his contributions to the APS, APRL, and the hobby.”
As I was wrapping up our interview, I asked Robbins if he has any guesses (or hopes) about where the collection might end up. As the appraiser, he’ll of course remain impartial and plans on keeping his thoughts on the subject to himself. But he did say he’s excited to see the collecting getting back into the public eye, and into the hands of more collectors and exhibitors.
“This will benefit the entire collecting community,” Robbins said. “I think there are a lot of discoveries to be made.”
The American Philatelic Society owes a great thanks to Al Kugel, his wife Dottie, and the Kugel family for this generous donation. You can read more about the donation, plans for the sale, and Kugel’s philatelic career here.