The Mystery Box

fullsizeoutput_183dOne of the sustaining narratives of stamp-collecting is the story of the Mystery Box — a philatelic hoard left in the attic by some collecting ancestor.  When someone who knows about stamps — like me! — discovers the box and looks inside, behold! There lies a trove of rarities.

I almost called it a sustaining myth of the Mystery Box in that first sentence. There are indeed true stories of such scenarios unfolding. (See. for example, “No. 10 or No. 11?” posted 3/15/17.)  However, they are rare. I have been offered numerous so-called philatelic hoards over the years, and after inspecting a few have concluded  that there is mostly dross and seldom gold. These “troves” tend to be filled with  common American and foreign stamps of the last 50 to 75 years. Even the uncanceled (“mint”) stamps  usually are worth no more than the few cents paid for them back in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. This deflating information, however, has not reached the non-collectors who still harbor the fond fantasy that there may be some stamps of great value hiding in that dusty box. So friends and loved ones who know of my philatelic bent thrust their “finds” on me. “Hey Fred, take a look at these stamps and tell me what they’re worth!” …  “Some of these have got to be really old!” … “No one has looked at these for decades. They must be worth something after all this time!”  Don’t they realize how easy it is to find your way to a stamp catalogue or an online site and figure out the value of your stamps? Well, maybe not that easy …

My friend Renee conferred on me her late mother’s collection — which included some early British colonies stamps, some in so-so-shape, of no more than modest value. I added the few I didn’t already have to my albums, with an appropriate notation. My friend Vicki laid a box of stamps on me, inherited from her parents. There were stamps from — where? Oh, say, some Portugueses colonies, Holland, Formosa and all over the lot, in addition to lots of low-value U.S. stamps. I admit the collection’s significance eluded my grasp. I’m trying to remember if I persuaded my colleagues at the Syracuse Stamp Club to take a look. Some club members volunteer to evaluate donated collections. When I last opened the trunk of my car the other day, I found a box of stamps donated by some friend or other — overturned, with a few stock pages spilling out of a bag and cheap stamps strewn about. Clearly, I am not the guy to be evaluating donated collections!

What the forgoing also means is that the short tale I want to share with you now is not likely to have a very exciting end. The Mystery Box has been sitting over there in fullsizeoutput_183cthe corner of my office since February, and it’s now July.  It is almost obscured from view by diverse paraphernalia “stored” on top of it. You can just make out corners,  and part of a mailing label.

The box is from my Cousin Gordon. He is not a stamp collector. His mother, my late Aunt Eleanor, was a world traveler over half-a-century, and accumulated masses of stamps along the way. Among other things, she specialized in United Nations issues. Years ago — perhaps it was soon after her death — Eleanor’s daughter Margaret sent me her mother’s collection of U.N.  postal stationary. I thought it unusual enough to make inquiries at the Cardinal Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History in Weston, near Boston. It seems the Spellman specializes in U.N. issues — so much so that the curator welcomed our donation of Aunt Eleanor’s postal stationary collection. I had fun making an appointment, visiting the museum and handing over the goods. (I think I told Cousin Margaret to take a $300 tax deduction for it.)

I recall also seeing elsewhere (at Margaret’s, perhaps?) more envelopes from Aunt Eleanor’s collection; envelopes stuffed with stamps and envelopes from all over the world — great bulky, dusty packets. Could any of those be worth something? Any gold amid the dust? And what has become of them, anyway?

This summer I was visiting my Cousin Alison (Eleanor’s other daughter) at her house and she brought out her mother’s album of plate blocks — page after page of those mid-century U.S. stamps that just don’t ever seem to be worth much more than to use for postage.  Could some of those plate blocks be more valuable than others? Sure. Wanna check?

After I left Alison’s, she told me she had forgotten to show me the rest of Aunt Eleanor’s collection. The rest? Does it really go on and on? Were there philatelic  nuggets after all? More to the point, could there be gold in the Mystery Box, sitting over there in the corner?

Why have I waited so long to open the Mystery Box? So long, in fact, that I decided Cousin Gordon and his wife Grethe deserved a note of explanation, if not apology: Dear Gordon and Grethe — Chris and I are about to leave on a long driving trip, and I still haven’t opened the box you sent me with Aunt Eleanor’s stamps. Forgive me. The reason is that I am afraid I will not be able to report back that there is much of value in the box. That will be disappointing, so I guess I am trying to put off the inevitable. Nevertheless, I vow to look inside after we get back home.  Love, FMF    (I think that’s the gist of the note I would have written, though I can’t seem to find a copy of it in my “send” file …)

Now here it is, well into July. Chris and I have finished our trip (it was great!),  and I am about to remove the pile of debris from the top of the box and take a closer look. Brace yourselves …  The first thing I notice as I observe the box is that Cousin Gordon used a mailing label for postage instead of stamps. The cost was $7.01. Tsk! He could have slapped a $5 stamp, $2 stamp and 1-cent stamp on there. That would have been more fun, not to mention appropriate, given the philatelic contents of the box.

Next I noticed that the box is rather heavy. There is more than a bag of loose stamps in there. Possibly covers, perhaps albums. Perhaps — who knows what?

fullsizeoutput_183eWell, here goes …






(three hours later)

OK, I’ve been through it — given it my best. As I believe I made clear  before, I am not a very careful evaluator — though I do think I can spot value when I see it. Now I’ve been through the Mystery Box, and while I would be hard pressed to put a value on its contents (a couple of hundreds? Maybe more?), I’d like to share some observations about it.


Here is a typical selection from one envelope in the box — U.N. stamps, first day covers, and assorted stamps from around the world honoring the U.N.

As expected, the material focuses on United Nations stamps and covers.  I thought there might be some  international stamps, and I’ll say more about that in a minute. These issues ranged from  the 1960s to 1970s, with an emphasis on “universal” observances — like the 20th anniversary of the U.N. in 1965, the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1968), and the 100th anniversary of the Universal Postal Union (1974). Working through a dealer in her home town, Aunt Eleanor arranged to receive a steady stream of packets containing not only the latest U.N. stamps,
souvenir sheets and first-day covers, but also new issues from around the world marking the U.N.’s 20th, the Universal Declaration’s 20th and so on. The envelopes fullsizeoutput_1852were neatly packaged and stacked in the no-longer-a-mystery box. Each envelope was inscribed in black ink with a neat hand, listing the contents and the prices, usually totaling less than $20. (Cousin Margaret says the dealer was a neighbor of Aunt Eleanor’s  — “… a displaced person living in a furnished room a few blocks away.  Mother thought that he derived a little much-needed income from his small dealings in stamps.” Margaret continued: “I am convinced that she liked giving him a cup of tea and kind of checking up on how he was doing. Alison and I were a little afraid of him as he had a gruff manner and a thick accent.”) Inside the envelopes were arrays of artfully designed first-day covers, cards, explanatory materials, booklets and souvenir sheets as well as regular issues from U.N. headquarters in New York City, and U.N. offices in Geneva, Switzerland.

All the stamps and sheets were still in their glassine envelopes and mailing covers — in pristine condition, I hoped, apparently untouched since the 1960s and 1970s. I felt obliged as a cousin/evaluator to check if the stamps were indeed in good condition. Alas, a few of the mint, never-hinged stamps had stuck together and were ruined. Most of the others were OK, though.  As I sorted idly through the stamps from all over, I was struck by some of the ironies — like Laos celebrating human rights in fullsizeoutput_18491968, just as that hapless nation was being engulfed in the U.S.-led war in southeast Asia. Examining the stamps from Nicaragua, China, Yemen, Bulgaria and elsewhere, I reflected on how many regimes failed to live up to  tenets of the United Nations.


These stamps honoring the U.N.’s 25th anniversary come from communist Czechoslovakia, Peru, Kuwait, Pakistan and elsewhere. Not all nations paying tribute in these “universal” stamp issues had regimes that respected U.N. principles.


OK OK, Czechoslovakia was a communist state in 1970, two years after Czech authorities brutally reacted to Prague Spring. But their artists sure knew how to design pretty stamps. I must include a closeup of this gorgeous engraving, which superimposes a cityscape of world landmarks next to the U.N. skyline in New York City. While I’ve never made a point of collecting Czech stamps, I have accumulated enough examples to appreciate the fine work of Czech stamp makers.

As the number of stamps I examined accumulated into dozens, then scores, I began to see something else. Yes, nations like Pakistan and Jamaica may have their shortcomings. Some of these stamps professing high principles may be dismissed as lip service (lick service?) rather than real commitment. Think of it this way, though: These are universal aspirations, not necessarily accomplishments. The Declaration of Rights is worth defending, worth promoting, worth every effort you can manage. However, it is not up to you alone to make its principles a universal reality. Nor is it up to a Jamaican, a Pakistani, an Iranian or Jordanian. That recognition doesn’t make the principles any less worthy. And expressing those principles is never a bad idea.


Among the wittiest stamp issues marking the centenary of the Universal Postal union in 1974 is this oversize set — beautifully engraved and gorgeously colored portraits of a seagull with a letter clasped in its beak. (I still don’t know exactly where this French oceanic territory is located … I suppose I should go look it up … I do know that this tiny island group has issued gorgeous stamps over the years — oversize, engraved, brightly colored renditions of nautical subjects. Many of the stamps are rather dear — this pair, for example is selling online for a respectable $8.)

Sorting through the stamps marking the centenary of the UPU, I was impressed by what an accomplishment the postal union has been. Since 1874, the nations of the world have sustained an agreement on rules and terms for handling mail and other correspondence between countries. Considering the various bouts of unpleasantness  in those intervening years, it’s a blooming miracle the UPU survived!

I expect Aunt Eleanor would enjoy reading all this if she could — and join the conversation. Like her mother (my grandmother), she was an ardent fan of the U.N, its declarations and principles and aspirations. My aunt and uncle lived up to those principles in the international development work and other efforts they undertook during their busy lives. I suppose her stamp collecting was as much an affirmation of the value she placed in the U.N. as it was a hobby.


Eek! Look what I found when I opened a dusty folder of stamp material in Aunt Eleanor’s collection. What is that stuff? It looks like paper or cardboard that some big worm has chewed up. You don’t suppose it’s alive …?

Truth be told, Aunt Eleanor had some shortcomings as a stamp collector, at least in these decades.  Leaving uncanceled stamps in their envelopes, lying flat in a box, may seem prudent and safe, but it’s not a good way to store stamps. Over changing seasons, they may compress and stick together.

To be sure, the debilitating stroke my dear aunt suffered, which shadowed her last years, limited her ability to enjoy her stamps later on.  (Says Cousin Gordon: “If she had not had the stroke she would undoubtedly have done a fullsizeoutput_184egreat deal of organizing and perhaps unstuck many of the items that became neglected, due not so much to her but by us who inherited them.”)  Included in the box are two supplements of White Ace Album pages, one to update U.N. issues, the second to accommodate stamps from around the world honoring the UPU in 1974. I wonder if she was frustrated not to be able to add those pages to her U.N. album, then fill them with the stamps sent to her in all those little envelopes? Once safely mounted, they never come to harm, and

This is catnip for collectors: An illustrated album page, and stamps to fill every space; go to it!

can be enjoyed any time.  The attractive presentation adds a premium to the value of the collection.

And speaking of value … how about it? Is it really worth the time and effort to sort through all those stamps, figure out where they go on the album pages, get the mounting strips, cut and paste … ?

Hey! This is stamp collecting we’re talking about. Of course it’s worth the effort. United Nations stamps may not be at the top of the must-have market at the moment (if they ever were), but they still are interesting in the way they express and reflect aspirations for a better world. They celebrate universal human accomplishments in the war against disease, in forming international agreements to limit chemical weapons, deter nuclear proliferation, improve the environment and


This charming UN/Geneva stamp and first-day cancel expresses a splendid aspiration — to live in peace with one another.

promote the welfare of children. The designs are elegant and creative, some dignified, some light-hearted, many colorful. There are declarations and exhortations, striking images and attractive sets. At the end, I found my time with these U.N. stamps uplifting. This collection isn’t going to make anyone rich. And I know it’s not in fashion to get starry-eyed about the United Nations. But it is rewarding to review this rich chronicle of human hope and potential. Aunt Eleanor has assembled an authentic philatelic narrative, expressing her own convictions through the stamps of this unique organization, one that represents all the world’s nations, united since 1945 in a high mission.

Postscript: … all of which leaves me wondering: should I be collecting U.N. stamps along with everything else, if just to show solidarity with the world body — and Aunt Eleanor? Uh, no. I already am way too far into what I am already collecting to take on much else.  Besides, I anticipate the Spellman Museum will be glad to make a home for this new installment of my aunt’s collection. (If so, I suggest Cousin Gordon take at least a $400 tax deduction for this charitable contribution in honor of his mom.)



This may be one of the better first day covers in Aunt Eleanor’s collection. It includes the high-value, 10-franc definitive from UN/Geneva.


This illustration bears out the famous old adage. Beware of wolves in first-day-cover clothing. Look at these two covers; one is dated May 31, 1968, the other June 18, 1969. They both claim to be FDCs, and they both carry the same 6-cent definitive stamp. How could the dates in the “first day” cancels be more than a year apart? Stay with me on this for a moment. Examine the two envelopes. Notice that the lower envelope with the earlier date includes in the official cancellation the words: “FIRST DAY OF ISSUE,” On the upper envelope, the cover claims “FIRST DAY OF ISSUE,” but only in the design cachet. The cancellation itself does not contain the affirming words. Thus I conclude the lower cover is genuine, while the other makes a spurious claim! (The correct date of issue — May 31, 1968 — is confirmed in a handy-dandy official guide, “Postal Issues of the United Nations, 1951-1974,” included in the box.)


This cover caught my attention because of the odd “correction” in the cachet. In the heading, “FIRST DAY OF ISSUE,” the word “FIRST” is crossed out and the word “LAST” is typed above it. Last day of issue? I didn’t even know there was such a collecting category as Last Day Covers. For starters, how do you figure it out? Next, who even cares? But wait! It so happens that Aunt Eleanor’s official listing of U.N. stamps includes the final date for each stamp withdrawn from circulation. So that should answer the first question at least. Let me look up that issue, which celebrates a coffee trade agreement … There it is: “Coffee Agreement, 11 cents. Issue date — Dec. 2, 1966. Now to follow the column across to the “Last Day of Sale” — Nov. 30, 1967. What?! The date on the cover’s cancellation is Oct. 27, 1967. That blooming stamp was on sale for more than a month after what the cover asserts is the last day of issue. Spurious! A corollary to the earlier adage suggests itself: Beware of wolves in last-day-cover clothing. All my philatelic sleuthing, however, couldn’t come up with a plausible answer to the second question about Last Day Covers: Who even cares?


I was touched by this issue from the west African nation of Togo in 1965, marking the U.N.’s 20th anniversary. It look the occasion to pay tribute to Adlai Stevenson (see inset portrait). Stevenson, the former Illinois governor, presidential candidate (1952, 1956) and U.N. ambassador, died suddenly while walking down a London street. I admired Stevenson, as did my parents, and I mourned his loss. Why Togo in particular chose to honor him I don’t know. Surely there is a story involved …


A little offbeat: Here’s a first day cover of an aerogramme. Remember those?


This is about the only non-U.N.-related stamp material in the box. I include it not because it has any value — the stamps are common enough issues of Thailand, the kind that were readily available at the local post office in the 1960s. A good many of them are stuck together. But it is a great memento of Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Geoff: a haphazard clutch of stamps they bought, stuffed in an envelope, then stored and forgot. This philatelic artifact connects me to a time when my aunt and uncle were doing vital work abroad that, like the United Nations, aimed to make this a better world.


This envelope is interesting chiefly because of the return address. Was it really sent from Indonesia, using a U.N. stamp? Was it carried by diplomatic or official pouch from Jakarta to New York City, where it received the U.N. cancel and continued on its way? My understanding is that U.N. stamps are only valid for postage on mail posted at a U.N. facility. Indeed, I believe that restriction is one reason canceled U.N. stamps have kept some catalogue value — because relatively few of them are ever used on actual letters or packages. A footnote on U.N. stamp values in general: Most U.N. issues are quite inexpensive, even those dating back to the first definitive set in 1951. A few stamps from the early years have spiked in value — a souvenir sheet from 1955 commemorating the 10th anniversary of the U.N. charter is selling on eBay for up to $100! In general, however, U.N. stamps are valued in cents rather than dollars, often selling below “face” value. For example, you can purchase a mint, never-hinged copy of the $1 definitive from 1951 for 65 cents. This devaluation may have something to do with the fact that the U.N. is not a “nation,” so some collectors are not comfortable accepting the stamps as legitimate collectables. But no — wouldn’t some collectors single them out as desirable and unusual for that very reason? I think it more likely that many stamp collectors share a general mistrust of the U.N. — whether it’s the radical right-wingers who shudder at the thought of “world government,” or those disillusioned by the inability of this world body, with its bickering ambassadors and pampered international civil servants, to keep the world safe.




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