Cinderellas, part four: Illegal stamps! LAST PART — 5. ‘Real’ Cinderellas: A nightmare of abuse and excess

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My first thought on seeing this stamp was: How absurd! Tobogganing in Yemen, an arid Mideast nation? Forgive me if it turns out Yemen had a bobsledding team in the Olympics or something. I still wonder about a stamp like this, how the average Yemeni would relate to it as an emblem of national character. Illegal? Excessive? Abusive? Undesirable? Irrelevant? Take you pick. There are just too many stamps these days that deserve such labels.

I can hardly wait to bring this extended discussion of so-called Cinderella stamps to its long-awaited conclusion, so this essay will be mercifully short. The whole topic is kind of creepy. It started out innocently enough, with fake stamps, satirical stamps, even artistic imaginings. But it veered into forgery, propaganda, self-dealing, deception, political intrigue and cynical commercialism. In recent years, philately — stamp-collecting — seems to have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stamps deemed “undesirable” by sensible philatelic authorities.

To bring us up to date, what has happened to Cinderellas/Illegals is what has happened to stamps themselves. The proliferation of topical sets saturates a market of collectors who, to the extent they still are collecting, pay attention not so much to the country of origin as to the theme and artwork. Stamp presses churn out sets and souvenir sheets that never get close to a post office in the land they are nominally from. It’s a stamps-by-contract proposition, and I think it stinks. But who am I to complain? I just get to brush past the phenomenon with a few more observations and detail about “abusive” and “excessive” and “undesirable” stamps. Then, at long last, I can return to my appreciation of stamps that really are, well, stamps.

Below is a quick overview of abusive stamps, gleaned and adapted from online posts by the Philatelic Web Masters Organization. The PWMO also presents a useful case study of an abusive stamp issue — celebrating ping pong, of all things.

According to the PWMO, abusive issues are those that were legally issued by postal administrations, but which do not comply with the terms of the ”Philatelic Code of Ethics,” for use by member countries of the Universal Postal Union. The code was established by the World Association for the Development of Philately. WADP in turn is the group that worked with the UPU to create the WADP Numbering System [WNS] for stamps in 2002. The Code of Ethics was approved in 2008 by all member countries of the UPU.

Key provisions of the code of ethics call out stamps that do not meet the internal needs of the countries for their postal traffic, and sometimes are not even sold in the countries themselves. (For more detail, see blog post, September 2017.)

The PWMO, writing in 2013, did not know of any special reporting procedures for code violations similar to those set up by the UPU to detect and expose illegal issues. Indeed, as the PWMO points out, postal administrations are not about to acknowledge having signed contracts that do not comply with the Philatelic Code of Ethics. The important and sometimes difficult task of holding postal authorities accountable thus falls to organizations representing collectors, such as WADP, and its component International Federation of Philately (FIP).

Unfortunately, the PWMO goes on to say, “we haven’t seen any action or reaction from WADP in the field of abusive issues, despite its existence for over 15 years. … Collectors are presented with a fait accompli — the many abusive issues on the philatelic market — and we observe that we are among the few who deal with these issues. …”

The ping pong issue of 2013 came to light thanks to a topical collectors’ group — the French Association of Table Tennis Collectors (AFCTT), which keeps up with new issues on its topic, worldwide. The issue from the west African nation of Niger was  listed on the website of the Lithuanian company Stamperija (Motto: “Production & Trade in Philately”); it consisted of four stamps in a souvenir sheet, both perforated and imperforate.

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Here is an image of the offending souvenir sheet from the Republic of Niger, which appeared in 2013. Postal authorities in NIger claimed it was a legitimate issue, but only available through the printing firm in Lithuania. Hmm. Could it be that table tennis, like butterflies, is a topic that invites spurious stamp production? I include more illustrations of gaudy ping-pong stamps from a hodgepodge of nations, below. There are many more. I ask you: Are they all legal? Are they excessive? Undesirable? How is a collector to tell which issues are legitimate, and which are the product of stamp mills producing for the topical market? The French Association of Table Tennis Collectors has done heroic work in exposing this fraud. But I fear they are outmatched by the sheer volume of undesirable philately. 

“Because it could not find these stamps on the website of the Post of Niger,” the PWMO reported, “the Association contacted the postal administration of Niger to inquire about the legality of this issue … The Director General of the Niger Poste replied, stating that they were legitimate stamps that could only be purchased through the company Stamperija. In a second message, the Niger correspondent used the term ‘legal copies,’ not ‘stamps’!”

The French topical collectors group appealed to the UPU, and received a prompt response from Louis Virgile, Programmes’ Manager for Philately, who dismissed the ping pong issue as “a practice which, although legal, is nonetheless curious, and can be characterized as an abusive issue.”

The AFCTT then blacklisted the stamps and alerted members on its blog:
”… please be advised that the issue of Niger will not be provided to members, and that in defense of true philately, we ask all of you not to buy this type of issue. ”

When I last checked, the sheet was selling online for $13 and up — a strong price, particularly for a stamp deemed “abusive” by the UPU. Exactly what kind of issue are we talking about? How does one “abusive” issue stand out, in contrast to another fullsizeoutput_209a“legal” issue? How can the average collector distinguish one from the other in this philatelic hall of mirrors?

Three years earlier, in 2010, the PWMO posted another useful essay, “So Many Stamps,” noting how a few countries had gone plum loco in the number of stamps issued: Gambia (632 stamps in 2000), Tanzania (581 in 1999) and Liberia (771 stamps in 2000, a record number for a single country in a single year, prompting the PWMO editor to observe that the country was going through a civil war at the time).

The PWMO had been tracking this over-issuance of stamps for years. The fine point is to distinguish which stamps — legal stamps — are way in excess of what is needed: “(T)here is a certain fight against illegal stamps,” wrote the PWMO in a plaintive note from 2002, “but what will be done about the exaggerations?”

fullsizeoutput_209fPerhaps the editor need not have worried. Natural market correction serves the interests of philately. By 2009, it seems, most countries were well below 200 in new stamp issues for the year. They may have discovered the diminishing returns of
excessive stamp production. There also was the new code of ethics that all UPU members had ratified in 2008.

Still, the PWMO could not resist another tweak at Liberia. It pointed out that it would cost a collector $491 to buy each of Liberia’s new stamps in 2009 — at face value. fullsizeoutput_20a6This, in a country with “poor economic performance,” “a fragile security situation,” “lack of infrastructure,” and so on. Indeed, what was Liberia thinking?

In another posting, the PWMO’s impeccably informed Victor Manta complained about stamps for legitimate (or at least sovereign) states that are not produced in-country, but by “agencies and private companies.” The stamps were not only printed but sold outside the issuing country. “They do not correspond to the internal needs of the country for postal traffic,” Manta wrote, “and are often not even on sale in the fullsizeoutput_20abissuing countries!”

Manta went on to chastise reputable stamp catalogue publishers like Scott, Michel and Yvert, which continue to list “huge, never-ending stamp hyper productions.” He continued: “The last example was that of the little Salomon Island (sic), that issued on average roughly 500 different stamps and 150 different S/S (souvenir sheets) per year, as well in 2013 as in 2014, this according to the Scott catalogue that listed them in 2015!”

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Here is a remarkable example of a stamp, or souvenir sheet, that is suspect for multiple reasons. The first clue is that it comes from St. Thomas and Principe, a tiny island nation off the west coast of Africa. Next, it celebrates the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, an anodyne enough topic but a reliable target for the topical stamp mill. Can’t tell if the athletes involved have anything to do with St. Thomas and Principe, though I doubt golf is the national pastime. I wonder what 96,000 Db are worth — enough to mail a letter, one hopes. The oddest thing about this issue is the way the woman ping pong player is holding her paddle. The online stamp dealer helpfully provides an enlargement showing her hand covering about one-quarter of the paddle surface. Impossible! What a fraud!

By the way, the web masters site notes that as early as 2000, when 17,836 stamps and souvenir sheets were issued worldwide, the face-value cost of buying one of each surpassed $17,000 for the first time. Are these numbers too big? Who’s to say? I say: Listen to the market.

Let’s return to that word “abusive.” A country like Liberia that issued 771 stamps in a single year — that is, legitimate stamps, not illegals or Cinderellas — is abusing stamp collectors, or at least inundating them in a philatelic phlow that threatens to drown any residual pleasure they still get from the hobby. An illegal Olympics set put out by some slick stamp mill is certainly undesirable. But so is an Olympics set from a country like Liberia, whose “fragile security situation” makes the Olympics hardly worth celebrating — particularly when such sets of stamps are part of a blizzard of other sets which, like winter snow, are never seen in Monrovia, or at post offices anywhere else in that benighted land.

In 2013, the web masters (PWMO) offered a long list of “Undesirable / Abusive Stamps.” Actually, there were two lists. The first was compiled years earlier by Bengt Bengtsson, who is described as “a philatelic judge from Sweden.” Bengtsson’s list, he declared in 2001, covered “undesirable stamps” he believed should not be included in philatelic exhibitions. The list included some of those “For the Record” countries listed in my previous essay/blog post (Ajman, Was al Khaima, Grenadines and the rest), along with others like Wikingland, Nagaland and Iso, which were never real countries. He also usefully listed the interval of years when the spurious issues appeared — often continuing to the present day (“Fujeira/since 1967; Yemen, Republic/May 20, 1967-Oct. 31, 1972; Redonda/all”)

The second list issued under the auspices of PWMO added a host of new names. The reason for the expansion, the editor explained, was to include “stamps from countries that have issued too many and too expensive stamps.” That is, even if they are officially legal, they ought to be illegal! Again, the list provides bracketed years when the offending stamps appeared.

It’s a long list. It includes Antigua and Barbuda (all stamps since 1984); Bhutan (everything since 1964); Gambia (since 1985); and Togo (1965-90). Check out the lists yourself if you like: Go to the Philatelic Web Masters site, PWMO.org, and search for undesirable/abusive stamps.

The days of postage stamps may be numbered, so this whole anguished discussion about what is illegal, undesirable and abusive will become a moot point, a philatelic phoot-note. What is or is not excessive may be lost in the mists.

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Look at this gorgeous pair of engravings, depicting Abraham Lincoln and Ben Franklin. Released in 2016, they are modeled on classic U.S. designs of the mid-1800s — every bit as elegant and authentic now as they were then. In this and a few more images on the next page, I start to return from the unsettling parallel world of Cinderellas to the reassuring realm of “real” philately. Yes, stamps are still being made the “old” way — carefully, artistically, with attention to relevant themes, accessibility and ease of use.

My hope, however, is that philately’s phirm phoundations ultimately will stand the hobby in good stead; that the sheer usefulness of stamps have made them authentic emblems of every nation, thus creating universal allure and enduring value for collectors. At this writing, “legal” stamps, which started to appear in 1840, continue to be issued around the world. At their best they are absorbing, often beautiful cultural artifacts. They reflect the individuality, creativity and national character of their sovereign states. Why should this charming practice ever end?

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I wonder if many of you have even seen these beautiful U.S. stamps put out to celebrate the centennial of our national parks. They come from a sheet of 16 stamps the USPS bestowed on us in 2016 (still available at face value from USPS.com — or at your local post office). I think they were printed a little too small — these images are enlargements of the originals. Still, they are exquisite, aren’t they? Considering how they slipped by us with little notice, I wouldn’t wonder that cancelled copies might be worth something in the future — that is, if stamp collecting has a future!

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France has been issuing beautifully engraved stamps for many decades, and the image above from last year is a fine recent example. Immediately below, the arresting portraits of wildlife on these recent stamps from South Africa are splendid emblems of that proud nation. At the bottom, a new British stamp pays tribute to the video masterpiece, “Game of Thrones.” It is one of a series of artistic vignettes based on the blockbuster fantasy series filmed in Northern Ireland and Scotland, among other places. You will note that there is no country name on the stamp, just a white silhouette of Queen Elizabeth II. Thus Great Britain carries on a tradition established in 1840, when it issued the world’s first postage stamp — a black-ink engraving of Queen Victoria in profile, with the sole inscription,”One Penny.”

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TO BE CONTINUED — ONWARD AND UPWARD!

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