One 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 the 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?
Well, 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.
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 were 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 1968, 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.
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.
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.
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 great 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
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
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.)
MORE IMAGES AND NOTES FOLLOW