Bonus: Stamps from All Over

Another recent foray into online stamp-buying cost me $99 bucks or so. The sellers were so on-the-ball that the packets started arriving within two mailing days. fullsizeoutput_24c2Way to go! In following days, I received a delightful philatelic cascade of seven envelopes. As it happened, each letter  was from a different state:  Virginia, Washington, Tennessee, Ohio, Arizona, Illinois and Nevada. This was pure coincidence — I was not trying to set a record for sellers in different states, just trying to fill out my Bechuanaland and Somaliland collections. What does this diversity suggest? For one thing, that stamp-collecting is deeply embedded in the U.S. heartland. At least, a lot of folks with stamps they want to sell are living all over the country. Maybe they are selling off their stamp collections, or just having fun in retirement. Maybe some of them are still collecting — selling some stamps and buying others.  I received this poignant note from one seller: “Fred, Thank you for your order. Please keep checking. Every stamp I sell from my collection helps my family buy things we need to get by. May God bless you, Gregory.”

Philatelists are fortunate to have entered a new landscape of stamp collecting — accessible and enriching as never before — through the magical doors of the Internet. In the lively stamp-ing grounds of today you can pick up bargains, no matter whether you collect American, British Colonies, foreign, topical or other specialties.   You can bid boldly at auctions, haggle with sellers, systematically fill out your sets, even sell your duplicates. The Internet also provides virtually limitless opportunities for research and enjoyment of the hobby — its history, stories, and images both stirring and beautiful. It’s never been easier or more fun to collect stamps. What are you waiting for?

These buying sprees of mine have not been a regular thing — maybe once or twice, every couple of years. Perhaps there will be more such sprees, since I have to start cashing in my IRA after age 70 and 1/2. After all, it’s a good investment, right? Plus, it’s lots of fun!

fullsizeoutput_24c3Here’s how I handle my cache of new lots. First I slice the envelopes with my letter-opener, draw out the contents, spread them out on my desk and admire the  resulting philatelic clutter. I harvest the colorful stamps the sellers pasted on the envelopes for postage, and stash them in the large envelope I use for such accumulations.

Then I check the sellers’ manifests to see what is what and make sure I got the stamps I ordered. (This is when I discover today that in my haste, I’ve bought quite a few  duplicate stamps. Oops!)

Carefully, I update my want lists, crossing out the recorded catalog numbers of stamps I am adding to my collection..

Turning to my British Africa album (for Somaliland, Bechuanaland et al.), I mark an asterisk (*) in light pencil on each space to fill on the appropriate page, with a notation underneath of the year of purchase and the price (if over $2.50).

When I’m done, I am free to discard the paperwork and rearrange the new stamps as I choose. The resulting stock cards turn out to be quite pleasing to  the eye —


These stamps from Somaliland Protectorate (above) span the reigns of two kings — Edward VII and George V — and are from three sets, including one with a change of watermark. Don’t they make a pleasing view with their restful colors? The 12 anna (upper right) is described as “ocher and black”; the 2 anna (lower left) is “red violet and dull violet”; the 3 anna to the right is “gray-green and violet-brown.” Such delicious colors! You may notice I picked up two copies of the Edward VIII 1 anna stamp. The cancelled one didn’t cost much, but then why buy the mint one for $3.50? Hmmm. Looks like FMF got a bit careless in his buying spree…

seven early stamps from Somaliland Protectorate, a whopping 16 stamps for my Bechuanaland collection, and attractive items from Sierra Leone and Tristan da Cunha.

The final step, of course, is to “paste” the stamps into my British Africa album, using either stamp hinges (for low-value used


These stamps (above) offer a mini-history lesson. Here goes: Top left is a Victorian stamp of the 1880s, when British Bechuanaland was carved out of the Bechanaland Protectorate. British Bechuanaland eventually became part of South Africa, but Bechuanaland Protectorate continued until independence in 1966, when it became Botswana. You see here a succession of Bechuanaland Protectorate stamps featuring Victoria, Edward Vii, George V and beyond. There is a set (cheap) marking the Royal Visit in 1947, featuring a tired-looking George VI and a radiant young Elizabeth, still six years away from becoming queen. Finally there is a trio of high value Elizabeth II definitives from the 1950s (not cheap!) that completes a set for me. To the right is a high-value decimal surcharge that signaled the onset of the 1960s.

stamps) or black protective  mounts (for unused or higher-value stamps.)

As I contemplate these desirable additions to my collection, I suddenly am struck by the way the vectors of the senders in all those various states converge on my desk, in my house just outside of Syracuse. With two or three lots coming from some senders, up to a half-dozen stamps from others, these mailings produce


I confess: these stamps (above) have nothing to do with filling out my Somaliland or Bechuanaland collections. They just kind of hopped into my basket as I wanderled through the philatelic phorest. If you must know, I’ve been trying like the dickens to add to a handsome 1932 pictorial set of George V from Sierra Leone (top left stamp), with little success; indeed, I think I paid more than $3 for this one @##$%$ stamp! The Tristan da Cunha definitives from the 1950s were much cheaper — and aren’t they gorgeous two-color engravings? Notwithstanding their shortcomings as imperialist oppressors, colonial administrators were at their best when they issued beautiful stamps like these. Oh, and the Red Cross Centenary stamps at the bottom are part of an “omnibus” issue, which means all the colonies put them out. We collectors are left dutifully to accumulate these virtually identical stamps, most of them moderately priced, from all over the empire and place them in their designated spaces in our stamp albums. Hmmm. Did I ever tell you that stamp collecting is completely rational in all its aspects? I don’t believe so.

an exotic, colorful jumble.  Once organized and displayed on stock cards, however,  you find seven Somaliland Protectorate stamps, harmoniously designed and colored, arranged in two orderly rows. On a separate stock card, a small collection of 16 Bechuanaland stamps chronicles a mini-history of the British territory, from Victorian times to the decimal era of the pre-indepen-


Oops! I inadvertently bought all these duplicate stamps during my recent spree. One of them is quite pricey! I must be more careful. I feel like a whale that sucked in too many sardines. I suppose I could return them for a refund. But why bother, for the ten bucks or so they cost? Better idea: put price tags on the stamps to remember what I paid for them, and try to recoup my costs at the next meeting of the Syracuse Stamp Club!

dence 1960s.

You could plot a line on a map to the return address on each seller’s envelope — Washington State, Virginia, Ohio, Arizona — and produce  a pinwheel pattern of no discernible significance. Yet the stamps, once placed in order on the stock cards, unite to convey a coherent and resonant sense of unity, history and artistry.


Bonus: First, You Buy a Stamp …

You know this already if you are a stamp collector, or if you have been reading my FMF Stamp Project blog posts; or you may sense this intuitively: One of the strongest impulses of a collector is to fill in a key blank spot on an album page — say, the one missing stamp that makes a desirable set complete. (See “The Exquisite Pleasure of Filling Out Sets,” April 2017 blog post.)

Version 2That’s how my latest buying binge started. I spotted a long-desired stamp — the 5 shilling from the first (and only) Queen Elizabeth set of Somaliland Protectorate, a small territory formerly under British supervision in the Horn of Africa. It’s a charming little stamp, a two-color engraving, emerald green and brown, issued in 1953. The young queen’s portrait sits next to a delicately etched Martial Eagle perched on a promontory in a rocky  landscape. I recently acquired the 10 shilling of the set, and lacked only this stamp to complete my series. But the stamp is not cheap — prices on the Internet range upward from $11 to $28 for a mint copy. So when I noticed it in a “sale” email, going for $9.50, it got my attention. Not only that: The seller added to his pitch the phrase “…or best offer.” Plus, shipping was free. I shaved 50 cents off the asking price and submitted my offer for $9, which was promptly accepted. (How low should I have gone?) Hooray! My set would be complete.

Then I thought: Well, gee, it’s free shipping. The seller is promoting more of his “British colonial classics.” The one I bought certainly was priced right — and I got it even cheaper in my low-ball offer. Why not take a look? And I was off to the stamping grounds …


Here is the envelope my stamps came in. The seller thoughtfully provided a colorful assembly of vintage U.S. issues.  It’s always fun to get a package like this!

Before I was done, my $9 bargain (with free shipping) had ballooned to $99.50. (I look through walls and see wife Chris rolling her eyes as I write that sen-tence. “But Chris, it’s a good investment,” I protest in my imagination. Then I imagine  another eye-roll. I will only say in my defense that this kind of spending is not an everyday indulgence!) On some of the stamps, I offered 50 cents less than the asking price. On others, a buck, even two bucks off. In every case, my offer was accepted. Cool! Overall, I probably saved about 10 bucks off the already


Here is an entrancing quartet of stamps from the Caribbean island of Montserrat, issued 100+ years ago, when it was a British colony. Notice the subtle color pairings — deep violet and brown orange; carmine and black on light blue paper; blue and violet on light blue paper. The 1/- value I have enlarged (below) to show the badge of the colony (a cross? a lyre? a muse?) is in fetching shades of black on green paper. The seller listed prices on each card. I paid a fraction of those amounts — $34 for all four lots.

reasonable asking prices. Plus, I saved more on avoided shipping costs. Seen another way, I spent about 100 bucks on 14 lots, many of them single stamps. Did I get a good deal? Probably not a bad one, if you think stamps are ever a “good deal.”




Version 2















One thing I know for sure: Roger Fenna from Black Mountain, N.C., sure knows how to move his stamps!

The following is a gallery of other items I picked up — all because I bought  that first stamp …


This stamp is identified as “39u” — which I guess means No. 39, used. No kidding! It’s a heavily cancelled stamp of the Edwardian era from the colonial territory of East Africa and Uganda, one of the many administrative iterations of that imperial region. The seller lists it at $40. I got it for $5.


“Oil Rivers” was an evocative if hardly alluring name, conjuring images of black oil gushing from a steamy tropical delta. Back in the 1880s, it referred to a region of Nigeria exploited by the British for its palm oil. Today Nigeria is indeed one of the world’s richest producers of black oil — a source of great wealth for the  elites, if not for the average Nigerian. When I  get around to reviewing my Nigeria collection, it will be fun to run through the various names that chronicle the efforts of British imperialists to make geographical sense of their vast, unruly colony, or protectorate, or whatever. (I paid $4 for the stamp.)


Postage due stamps (or surcharge stamps) have a long history, both in the United States and around the world. Most of them are pretty boring to look at, but some are surprisingly pricey. Imagine, paying $25 or more for these three black-and-white items from Grenada. (I paid $6 for them, $11 for the Malta set, below). Why do I buy them? Because those empty spaces in my albums taunt me, and the collector’s quest for completeness compells me to fill those spaces when I can.



This early stamp, from Turks Islands (today part of Turks and Caicos Islands) depicts a crudely elegant Queen Victoria in profile (No. 2, 1867). The catalog price is $140, and it is offered elsewhere online at $33.79, “or best offer.” I paid $15.50 for it. Checking a bit further, I noticed there also are expert forgeries for sale on eBay — like the image reprinted below. Gee, you could have fooled me …




I’ll just crowd in these last two items before I close. Above is one stamp in the long, numerous series of George V definitive sets issued during his reign (1911 to 1935), this one from Leeward Islands. “Leeward” stamps were used in a half-dozen Caribbean islands, including Antigua, Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands and Dominica. As you may suspect, it adds to a set I am building, piece by piece, over the years. Ditto for the stamp below from Antigua. A stunning example of two-color typography from 1903, this high-value stamp, like others in the series,  features the seal of the colony in black, surrounded by an elaborate red-violet border. Exquisite craftsmanship! (I paid $7.50 for it, a couple of bucks for the 1/- stamp above.)


Oh yes, one more offering: Here is a visual treat — filling out that Queen  Elizabeth set from Somaliland Protectorate. Watch me add the missing stamp. Ahh! Enjoy it vicariously!



Before …












… after.









Ain’t that set a beauty? Valuable, too. It’s selling online for $50 or more.


Bechuanaland: An Introduction

fullsizeoutput_23deAlthough I am not a “topical” stamp collector, there is one “topic” I have a soft spot for — stamps on stamps. For some reason, the framing of a stamp-within-a-stamp holds special appeal to me, like a trompe l’oeil painting by William Hartnett — a philatelic diorama; not to mention that the reproductions of early stamps are usually very fine on these commemorative issues. I have quite a few of these stamp-on-stamp issues, and would be glad to share them in a post if you wish.

At right is one stamp-on-stamp from the southern African nation of Botswana. Issued in 1985, it commemorates a century of postage stamps — though the region was called Bechuanaland in 1885. I’m struck by the decision of postal authorities in the sovereign state of Botswana, which gained it independence from Great Britain in 1966, to issue these stamps  at all. Stamps appearing in this set were put out during the years when the area known as Bechuanaland was part of the British Empire. Were the tensions of post-colonialism over by 1985? Was all forgiven between Motswana (the name for Botswana citizens) and their former colonial rulers? Were there nostalgic anglophiles in the post office who still valued British tradition? Or were they exercising a fine sense of irony, reprinting these emblems of colonial subjugation with a wink and a nod, with the proud banner of “Botswana” emblazoned at the top?

Such speculation may be idle, but it’s just the thing to amuse stamp collectors. In this short post, profusely illustrated as usual, my plan is to have some more fun with these stamps on stamps. I also must provide as background a short course on the interesting history of Botswana/Bechuanaland across the century prior to 1985. Finally, I expect I will have to share with you my impressions of why Botswana has sustained a relatively sturdy democracy in its first half-century of independence — an anomaly in sub-Saharan Africa.

… All this, by way of circling back to what will follow: a review of my Bechuanaland stamp collection, continuing my British Africa stamp review that was interrupted so long ago, after Basutoland/Lesotho. It’s all riveting stuff. On to Bechuanaland!

By the 1880s, the swashbuckling imperialist Cecil Rhodes was clamoring for the Cape Colony to claim dominion over the arid plains to the north known as Bechuanaland. In 1883 he made his case to “Grandmama,” his irreverent nickname for the Victorian home government. He invoked the shades of Livingstone and Moffat and their missionary roads of past decades. The path north could be the “Suez Canal” of trade to the interior, Rhodes argued. But Gov. Scanlen of Cape Colony demurred, dismissing the sparsely populated region as mostly desert, ruled by squabbling chiefs — in short, not worth the effort.

Still, imperial authorities in London were uneasy. Boer freebooters were streaming across the border of the Orange Free State, seeking new pastures and opportunities in what there was of a Bechuanaland veld. The neighboring Ndebele tribe also had aggressive territorial designs on its longtime Tswana rivals. In 1885, Sir Charles Warren left the Cape Colony with 4,000 imperial  troops. As he moved north, he signed treaties of protection with local chiefs. Among them was the remarkable Tswana leader, King Khama III.

fullsizeoutput_23dcKhama rightfully deserves a biography of his own — indeed, the first account of his life was written in the 1880s, when the king and his entourage visited London to lobby for British protection from the Boers, the Ndebele and expansionists like Rhodes. Khama enjoyed an audience with the queen, and drew enthusiastic crowds at receptions sponsored by evangelical groups who applauded Khama’s conversion to Christianity and promotion of “civilized” values like education,   modernization and monogamy.

Khama had become king in 1875, after prevailing in power struggles  between tribes and family members that included three assassination attempts and a fateful dispute over a lost cow. He earned his title, Khama (the Good)  by his far-sighted policies, which included consolidating and expanding his sparsely populated territory, fostering trade with all comers, and promoting up-to-date farm techniques.   He was particularly adept at blending traditional practices with western innovation — for example, using the voluntary labor of tribal mephato contingents to build schools, silos and irrigation systems.

Khama was a charming, charismatic leader and an effective, multilingual  diplomat. He prevailed in the climactic confrontation with would-be usurpers on his borders.


Above is a map of Bechuanaland before 1885, surrounded by variously covetous neighbors like the Germans to the west, the Cape Colony, Boers from the Orange Free State and Transvaal, as well as smaller state-lets like Stellaland, Griqualand West and East, and the Orange Free State. The map below shows how the crown colony of British Bechuanaland (all pink) in 1885 was carved out of the larger Bechuanaland Proectorate (outlined in pink).. The crown colony incorporated smaller states into what would become provinces of South Africa.

The deal reached in 1885 created the Bechuanaland Protectorate, under direct imperial supervision, shielding the lands of King Khama from schemers and squatters in the Transvaal and the Cape Colony as well as the Ndebele and other hostiles.

The southern region of Bechuanaland, meanwhile, became  British Bechuanaland, a crown colony.  By and by, that southern portion was absorbed by the Cape Colony, then  joined the Union of South Africa in 1910. As the years passed, pressure continued to turn over the protectorate to fullsizeoutput_23f1South Africa or Rhodesia. But Khama and his colonial protectors would have none of it. Thus it was that Bechuanaland Protectorate was spared the blight of apartheid that settled on South Africa after 1948. Those living in the southern portion of the Tswana ancestral lands eventually were consigned to the hollow South African “homeland” of Bophutatswana, one of the last concoctions of the apartheid state in the years before Nelson Mandela ushered in the new South Africa in 1994.



Bechuanaland changed its shape over the years before becoming Botswana, as you can see by comparisons with the current map, above.

In its early years, Bechuanaland Protectorate was largely self-governed; the British ruled with a light hand. In the 1890s, however, local sovereignty was curtailed as colonial officials took over administration of the territory. The protectorate did not escape the racial discrimination and economic exploitation endemic to colonialism.

(Text continues after illustrations and captions.)



Above left is the real stamp of 1897, from my collection. On the right is the image on a stamp from Botswana, issued in 1985 to commemorate a century of postage stamps in the region. Below are images of a British Bechuanaland stamp. I think it’s fun to compare the real thing and the image, don’t you? Early issues from both regions were overprinted stamps from Great Britain and the Cape of Good Hope (a/k/a the Cape Colony). Bechuanaland Protectorate issued stamps from 1888 until Botswana’s independence in 1966. Stamps from British Bechuanaland first appeared in 1886, according to the Scott catalogue. British Bechuanaland was annexed by the Cape Colony in 1897.



The first original stamps of Bechuanaland Protectorate, in 1932, feature a charming engraving of grazing cattle. British King George V, in a three-quarters portrait, gazes out regally and benignly. He is near the end of his reign. It seems the set was such a hit that postal authorities kept the vignette and design for the next two monarchs, simply substituting portraits of George VI and Elizabeth II (see below — does it strike you, as it does me, that the stamp featuring Elizabeth looks more modern than the one with either George?).



I checked in my collection and discovered that the 1965 stamp (top) has eluded me so far. (It’s not expensive.) Issued a year before independence, it commemorates “internal self-government.” The name has been shortened, dropping “Protectorate.” The portrait of the queen is there. So philatelically speaking, the nation of British Bechuanaland came back to life in 1965, from its demise in 1897. Of course, that’s just a stamp story. Months later, the independent nation of Botswana was born. The other stamp illustrated here depicts the “National Assembly Building” in Gaborone. It looks like quite a 1960s-modern monstrosity, but that’s just one critic’s opinion. I was curious, however, to see how the National Assembly Building has held up over the  past 50 years. Is it still standing? Has it been replaced? Expanded? Thanks to the web and Google Earth, I got some answers (see photos below).


Above is a view of the columns, courtesy of the Internet. Below  is a Google Earth image of the National Assembly Building, seen from a brick plaza. It looks well-maintained and accessible — but not quite like the rendering on the stamp! The stamp doesn’t show a tower, or a large central arch. Was that image in 1966 just an architect’s rendering? If so, shouldn’t it have been labeled as such? Tut! tut!


The protectorate’s economic dependence on South Africa was underscored by the fact that its governing institutions were located in Mafikeng, south of the border. (The capital is now Gaborene, within Botswana.) King Khama died in 1923, and was succeeded by kinsmen. After achieving independence in 1966, Botswana’s voters have elected and re-elected Khama’s descendants. Its first president, Seretse Khama, was a legitimate Ngwato heir; his son, Ian Khama, was elected in 2008.

This is a remarkable, inspiring tale — how more than a century ago, a strong African leader forged a nation that survived decades of colonial interference to  emerge as a rare success story in Africa. There is no denying the skill with which King Khama in the 1880s maneuvered among the likes of Queen Victoria and Whitehall, Cecil Rhodes, Boer squatters, rival tribesmen and hostile Ndebele. Also impressive was the record of independent Botswana’s first rulers — Seretse Khama, then Quett Masire — who had to maneuver among the quarreling factions of Rhodesia, South Africa, Angola and other troubled neighbors. That Botswana’s fairly elected leaders kept their nation at peace, with a sound and growing economy and a minimum of corruption, seems nearly a miracle.

fullsizeoutput_23e8There is a fairy tale quality to the story as well — how in 1948 Seretse Khama, then a dashing young law student and tribal prince in London, met Ruth Williams, a white English girl. The couple fell in love. After several months Khama proposed and Ruth accepted. There was a predictable uproar over this fullsizeoutput_23ebinterracial courtship — from the church, from the colony, from the tribe. Just about everyone was against the marriage — except Ruth and Khama. The butt-inskis even persuaded the vicar to cancel the ceremony on the morning of the wedding — but the good cleric reportedly found a way to sneak it in after an ordination ceremony at the cathedral later the same day. Khama then faced the combined wrath of peers and mentors.  “I still want to be your chief,” he told his people. He also declared: “I cannot leave her.” The couple was compelled to live in exile for six years (in England, naturally). Eventually Khama and his bride were allowed home — after he renounced his throne. He arrived to a hero’s welcome in 1956. Kwama was elected Botswana’s first president in 1966, and served with distinction for more than three terms. The couple had four children. Sir Seretse Khama died in 1980, Dame Khama in 2002. Their romantic saga unfolds n the movie, “A United Kingdom,” released in 2016.

Post-script to this anecdote: Seretse and Ruth Khama’s son, Khama Ian Khama, was elected president of Botswana in 2008 and had a successful 10-year presidency. Some day this biracial president-son may be known as Africa’s Obama; or will the former fullsizeoutput_23eeU.S. president — also the son of an interracial couple — be remembered as America’s Khama?

For more than a half-century, the Republic of Botswana has been a model government in Africa, successfully blending democratic practice with respect for tribal ways. It has not seen coups or civil war, and enjoys a relatively robust tourism industry. Per capita yearly income of more than $18,000 is near the top for the continent. Granted, there are only two million people in a nation the size of France; a nation, moreover,  blessed with rich deposits of diamonds.  Botswana has the lowest corruption ranking in Africa, and the highest rating in human development indices.  Botswana’s leaders have broken ranks with their peers in speaking out against corruption and abuses in Zimbabwe, Sudan and elsewhere. While Botswana benefits from certain anomalies, its achievements are real. Indeed, Marvel enthusiasts may wonder if Botswana is linked to the  Black Panther’s mythical kingdom of Wakanda.

In 2017, when former president Ketumile (Quett) Masire died, New York Times obituary writer Amisha Padnani described how he “for nearly two decades helped transform his arid and destitute country into the envy of other African nations.”  In “The Fate of Africa,” author Martin Meredith applauded Botswana’s “enduring multiparty democracy” and “sound economic management,” noting that the government “has used its diamond riches for national advancement and maintained an administration free from corruption.”

And yet, more must be said before we end this African fairy tale.  Consider these qualifying factors (oboy, here cometh the lecture):

  1. The discovery of diamonds soon after independence considerably eased Botswana’s economic difficulties — though responsible stewardship of this new wealth by Botswana’s leaders has been a key to prosperity.
  2. Other than benefiting from this good fortune, Botswana, like the Bechuanaland Protectorate before it, has depended economically and otherwise on its giant neighbor, the Republic of South Africa.  To give a philatelic example of this dependency: In 1961, when South Africa introduced decimal currency, then-Bechuanaland Protectorate had to scramble to surcharge its sterling-currency stamps with decimals, then print its own. Botswana played a nuanced role  before South Africa emerged as a multi-ethnic democracy  in 1994. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Botswana yielded to South African pressures, but also harbored anti-apartheid fighters from the banned African National Congress.
  3. Not to be too cynical, but Bechuanaland is a backwater — nearly as large as Texas, most of it arid plains, with a population of 2.1 million (the Bronx?).
  4. Most telling in my view is that 79 percent of Motswana come from the same tribe — the Tswana ethnic group.  The overlap between voter, tribe and government is commanding.  I don’t want these factors to undermine my respect and admiration for Seretse Khama, Quett Masire and the other honest leaders and civil servants. In that respect, Botswana is a model state. It should be a model for neighboring Zimbabwe (population: 15.6 million), where the Shona tribe has a similarly lopsided majority, and  corruption and political violence are epidemic. If tribal compatibility can foster good civil government, it clearly is not sufficient. And what about Kenya, where five major tribes vie for influence? Or the vast Congo, with hundreds of rival groups? Must an African state be ruled by one tribe to succeed? I hope not. I believe the most successful states are like my own, the USA. Our civic foundation is respect for individuals and their rights,  regardless of tribe. I believe a  diverse society is more dynamic and vital than a mono-cultural one. A diverse society does not countenance a member of one tribe killing another, and outlaws discrimination. This practice contradicts a social system in Kenya that pits Kikuyu against Luo, even as it has little use for a civic culture like Botswana’s, where one tribe runs everything. To rearrange Africa’s national boundaries so that they incorporate, as best as anyone can calculate, the sphere of one tribe’s influence — eek, what a chore! Is it even possible? What next? Alert members of each tribe that henceforth, “their” nation will be over there. So they’d better move if they don’t live there already. And if they don’t move? Will their fate  be like that of the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi? What about folks who  intermarry? What about their children, and grandchildren? In the  multiparty, multiethnic, tolerant model, all struggle together to find a way forward, making what contributions they can to a better life. (Here endeth the lecture.)

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


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.

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!”


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,, 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.


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?


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 — 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!


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.”




Cinderellas, Part Four: Illegal Stamps! 4: A Spreading Stain

fullsizeoutput_1f99Contemplate, dear reader, this image of a (cancelled-to-order) stamp, nominally from Equatorial Guinea, a tiny sovereign state on the west coast of Africa that has been grievously plundered and misruled by its leaders, both under Portuguese dominion and in the half-century since independence. The stamp is pretty enough — though the full-color reproduction of an Auguste Renoir painting of a very naked, very pink, big-bosomed young woman seems a bit, well, over the top. Can you seriously imagine a beleaguered citizen of this outlaw African state finding one of these in her or his local post office, for use on outgoing mail? Not likely. Remember all those rules set by the Universal Postal Union about what constitutes a legitimate stamp? (See blog post, September 2017.) Well, this stamp breaks most of those rules. It certainly has nothing to do with Equatorial Guinea. It’s doubtful it ever went on sale in the country, or if so was widely available for purchase. It is by no possible rhetorical stretch an emblem of Equatorial Guinean culture or sovereignty.

fullsizeoutput_1fa5Ditto with the second stamp portrayed here — an image of Jiminy Cricket, the  animated character from the Disney film “Pinocchio,” painting an Easter egg. Huh? Tell me why this is anything but a crass effort on the part of “Grenada Grenadines” (or better put, the philatelic agents) to cash in on the market for topical stamps. I wonder if there is an envelope bearing this stamp that actually went through the mail …

There was a time, dear readers, when most stamps were legal. Sure, there were plenty of Cinderella fantasy stamps out there, indeed since the very beginning of stamps. (Read about the satirical “Mulready” covers of 1841, in the blog post of August 2017, “The First Cinderellas.”) But these only  masqueraded as postage stamps. Propaganda labels in wartime were something else, as were forgeries. For the most part, stamps were produced under government supervision, readily available at post offices for citizens to buy and use to send mail. The world of extra-legal Cinderellas was pretty tame and innocent — at least until the 1960s.

As late as 1969, my copy of the Scott standard stamp catalogue listed no “illegals” or “undocumented” or “non-standard” items. Neither did my 1971 catalogue. But by 1977 there was a short section, “For the Record,” which  listed “items” that “appeared on the market in the 1960s and 1970s, and have not been listed in the Scott Standard Catalogue.”

There followed 14 pages of fine print listing hundreds of stamps put out under the names of real countries, or at least real territories, as follows:

Aden (three states), Ajman (Manama), Anguilla, Bangladesh, Barbuda, Biafra, Cyprus (Turkish mail), Dubai, Fujeira, Grenada (Grenadines), Jordan, Qatar, Ras al Khaima, St.Vincent (Grenadines), Sharjah (Khor Fakkan), and Umm al Qiwain.

A few comments on this list:

fullsizeoutput_1fb7** The spurious issue from Bangladesh listed in the catalogue came from 1974. It was a suspiciously anodyne souvenir sheet and set of four stamps honoring the Universal
Postal Union. At right is an example from the set, depicting what appears to be a postal runner from Bangladesh. The scene  would argue in favor of this being a legitimate stamp promoting local folkways and sovereignty. Apparently not.





fullsizeoutput_1971Also interesting is one of the first sets issued after East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in 1971 and became Bangladesh. The set of 15 variously depicts a flag, a map and a portrait of Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The catalogue bluntly notes that the set “was rejected by Bangladesh officials and not issued. Bangladesh representatives in England released these stamps, which were not valid, on fullsizeoutput_196fFeb. 1, 1972.”  The same designs appear  in the first official set from Bangladesh  (examples at right) — though the nation’s name is spelled in two words — Bangla and Desh. I have not learned why the other set was rejected, and illegal. I admit I have it in my collection, though. I bought it for a couple of bucks at a stamp show. I wonder if the violent and bloody birth pangs of Bangladesh had something to do with this mixup. Peace had barely been restored and the Sheikh was released from solitary confinement only in January, a month before the spurious stamps were issued.  Things never really settled down  under Sheikh Mujib — earnest, bespectacled, charismatic and a dogmatic socialist. In 1975, he and members of his family were gunned down by army officers during a coup that returned the region to benighted martial law and years of unrest.

fullsizeoutput_1973While we’re on the subject of Bangladesh, how about these provisional overprints of Pakistani

Here is a little bonus, above: This is actually Scott No. 1 from Bangladesh, a stamp I just found on the Internet. It appears to be genuine, if crude — consider, for example the cancellation, which looks authentic, not cancelled-to-order. It is offered online for $5 — a considerable sum for such a stamp these days

stamps? The examples illustrated here are from my collection. How could I resist spending a few bucks to acquire evidence of the first philatelic yowls from a new-born nation? The impression is that these stamps were overprinted — crudely, often by hand stamp — for use during the chaotic time between East Pakistan’s demise and the formal issuing of Bangladesh postage stamps. But if so, where are the envelopes displaying cancelled copies of these overprints? Until I find such evidence, I am inclined to dismiss or at least quarantine these examples as illegals, Cinderellas, or both.


Here is a stamp from Biafra’s first definitive set, which of course is simply a Nigerian stamp with the name crossed out, overprinted “Sovereign Biafra” with the Biafran coat of arms — a peculiarly British holdover custom and barely visible in this crude production.

** Stamps from Biafra, the self-declared republic (1968-71) carved out of the Igbo region of southeastern Nigeria, are in a special category — with ephemeral  philatelic companions such as Katanga, South Kasai and other states whose claims to sovereignty never quite made it past global review  — but who still managed to produce stamps. (For more on Katanga and other breakaways in the Congo, see the blog post “10 Interesting Anecdotes about the Congo,” March 2017.)

I don’t believe the UPU recognized Biafra’s stamps. If you find a cover with cancelled Biafra stamps, save it!





Such was the chaos in Biafra that philatelic errors quickly appeared — like this example from the definitive series where the printers neglected to cross out “Nigeria.” Errors like this still are likely to command double-digit prices — this image is from the Internet, not my collection.


Eventually, Biafra got around to printing its own stamps — probably in England, Germany or somewhere else. Included in these spurious issues was the obligatory butterfly set — a topical issue which seems to raise a red flag for potential illegality, for some reason. Not that Biafra wasn’t still a nation struggling to make its way; I’m just saying that the Universal Postal Union never officially recognized stamps from Biafra. There are some suspicious signs about this set. First off, how many Biafran letter-writers need a 5 shilling stamp, or even a 2/6 stamp? Alternately, if the currency was unrealistically inflated, what good is a 4 pence stamp? Having never seen these or other Biafran stamps offered as cancelled copies from envelopes that went through the mail, I am inclined to side with the UPU and declare these stamps illegal. Sorry, Biafra. (I also confess I have a nearly complete Biafra collection, which may be worth a couple hundred dollars — purely a philatelic collecting oddity, but there you have it.)


These may be the rarest stamps from Biafra, if anyone cares. Someone must, because they are offered online at up to $20 or more for the pair. The stamps honor “Biafra – France Friendship.” They are overprints on the original overprints of Nigerian stamps. One seller describes “the scarce and rarely seen 2-value set overprinted ‘Biafra-France Friendship’ and surcharged 5 shillings and 1 pound respectively.” The seller adds: “Scott does not list this as a regular postal issue but does mention it and places a value of $27.50. … Very difficult to find, and I suspect considerably undervalued.” The seller offered it for $22.95. I still haven’t summoned the reckless abandon to throw $20-plus out there and catch these stamps, reel them in to make by Biafra collection complete. But writing that last sentence strengthens my resolve.…


Biafra issued this startling souvenir sheet to mark its second anniversary of independence. Some anniversary. One could question the use of somber, malnourished, even starving children to celebrate sovereignty, or celebrate anything but the regime’s failure to prevent the misery and death of its people. Maybe the goal was to garner international sympathy (and money). This stamp, and a subsequent re-issue of the sheet overprinted, “Save Biafra!” bear mute witness to tragedy, not freedom.



I don’t mean to put The Palestinian Authority in the same basket as Biafra and other failed states. But it somehow fits at this point in the narrative of illegal stamps, because The Palestinian National Authority (PA? TPA? PNA? TPNA?) is still a work-in-progress. Consider for example: The above stamps were issued in 1994, after the historic Oslo Accords. The agreement established the PA as a governing entity, though of a “state” that barely existed — and exists today, some would argue, more in wishes and dreams than in reality. Consider, next, the issue below:


This souvenir sheet, released 18 years after those first stamps above, announces “A State is Born” — the state of Palestine. It depicts PA President Mahmoud Abbas brandishing a document — presumably the UN’s recognition of the PA as a non-member observer state. Before, I guess the PA wasn’t a state, just an “authority.” After 2012 it’s been a full-fledged … er … about that “two-state solution” — I thought that was still being negotiated, if not all but abandoned by both Israel and the PA. How could there be a Palestinian state already? If so, can we celebrate the end of this long, wearying stand-off?


Above is No. 1 from Fujeira. It looks like a legitimate enough stamp, featuring the ruler and a native fowl. But then look at No. 1 from Umm al Quiwain, below. If these are two different states, why do the stamps look like they are from the same set? Are they legal? I ask you …

** Notice that some of the philatelic phelons putting out illegal stamps  have issued legal stamps right along — like Qatar and Jordan. And what about those seven Arab Trucial states that combined into United Arab Emirates in 1972? (Want a list? They are Fujeira, Ras al Khaima, Umm al Quiwain, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman.) The UAE began issuing  legal postage stamps, though entrepreneurial printers had been churning out philately for years for Fujeira, Ras al Khaima, Umm al Quiwain and others.  Spurious and illegal! warns Scott. Beware of all fullsizeoutput_1fa1those sets honoring Winston Churchill and JFK, the Olympics, famous artists, butterflies and the rest. My Scott catalogue wouldn’t even show pictures of these “non-standard” non-stamps.




Above is part of a set from Fujeira honoring John F. Kennedy. Below are stamps from a JFK memorial set from Umm al Quiwain. Two sets, two postal authorities. Two countries? Who’s kidding whom?



Oh yes, here’s another JFK memorial stamp, this one from Ras al Khaima. Everyone got in on the JFK memorial act, it seems. According to the UPU and Scott, all these stamps are non-standard, spurious, illegal. Get the picture?

fullsizeoutput_1fb0No need to play this up, but is that really a succession of Catholic-approved Pietas in these art stamps from Umm al Quiwain (below) ? It’s downright ecumenical of this Muslim sheikdom to honor Christian icons on its stamps. What next — a celebration of Jewish holidays? At right is the obligatory butterfly stamp, this one from Ras al Khaima, more or less announcing that this stamp, like the others, is pretty much illegal.



No. 1 from Grenadines of St. Vincent, above, features a stamp from St. Vincent, cleverly overprinted above the name with the words “Grenadines of” (though it does deface the image of the heron). Soon enough, this self-declared stamp issuing entity would come out with its own definitives (see example below) — which doesn’t make them any less illegal …

** I have to add at this point: The stamps combining “Grenada” and “St. Vincent” and “Grenadines” inject fresh  Caribbean zest into the fusty realm of Cinderellas, don’t you think? Care for a grenadine? Don’t mind if I do! But a stamp from Union Island, Bequia or Mustique? I’ll pass …

Grenada and St. Vincent are surrounded by a chain of islands known as the Grenadines. St. Vincent claims the Grenadines in its neighborhood — Bequia, Union Island and Mustique, all stamp-issuing entities. The islands in Grenada’s orbit include Carriacou, Petite Martinique, Ronde Island, Caille fullsizeoutput_1fbcIsland, Diamond Island, Large Island,
Saline Island and Frigate Island. Thus far, there is just one  overall stamp-issuing authority for “Grenada Grenadines.” While some of these islands are unpopulated, how long before they, too, become stamp-issuing entities? I shudder to think …



Here is No. 1 from Grenada Grenadines — honoring the 1973 nuptials of Britain’s Princess Anne and Capt. Mark Phillips. Their marriage lasted not quite 20 years, but the stamp — emblazoned with the crown of Elizabeth II, but still apparently illegal — will endure …



Now we come to Bequia, a charming island in the Grenadines of St. Vincent chain. Along with Mustique and Union Island, Bequia began issuing stamps years ago — none of them UPU-approved. And just look at the themes — a U.S. fullsizeoutput_1f78locomotive, a Cadillac … what in the world does any of this have to do with Bequia? As for the pretty butterfly stamps (see below), well, don’t they speak for themselves by now?










The 500th anniversary of Michelangelos’s birth came and went, without philatelic recognition from the United States or most other nations. For some reason, Grenada Grenadines thought it necessary and appropriate to mark the event with this stamp (right). It may have been a hit with topical collectors, but you need more than stamp tongs to grasp the connection between the long-dead Italian artist and the Grenada Grenadines — Carriacou, Saline Island, Frigate Island or the rest.




My next catalogue under review is from 1986, countries A-F. In “For the Record,” it supplies a rather short list of countries whose non-standard items appeared on the stamp market in the 1960s and 1970s:  Afghanistan, Bhutan, Cambodia (Khmer), Cameroun, Chad, Comoro Islands, Congo People’s Republic, Dahomey, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea.

Some notes on this list:


Why on Earth would Cambodia issue a stamp commemorating Interpol in 1973, when it was fighting for its life? That same year the philatelic agents honored Copernicus (see below), presumably in an effort to make a few bucks from the topical market.

** The first thing that struck me was “Cambodia (Khmer).” Were these stamps from the killing fields outside Phnom Penh? I turned to the appropriate pages in the catalogue, and found stamps issued between 1972, in the midst of the fighting, through April 1975 — the very month the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. These non-standard stamps were issued while Gen. Lon Mol was trying to hold Cambodia together in the rogue state known as the “Khmer Republic.”  While southeast Asia was being bombed and bloodied, the stamps blithely paid tribute to the coming summer Olympics, the UPU centenary, Copernicus — nothing else going on around here, folks. Presumably these sets (again, no pictures supplied in the catalogue) were manufactured to be marketed to collectors, somehow. I guess it worked, somewhat. I do wonder who would want these questionable stamps from Cambodia?




The Cambodian stamp above looks forward to the 1976 Olympic games — by which time the Khmer Rouge had sent the nation careening into chaos and genocide. (Images from the Internet.)



And by the way, what does “Khmer” mean, philatelically, in relation to the fanatical regime that came to power in 1975?  Did the blood-crazed Khmer Rouge ever get around to putting out stamps during their three years of nightmarish rule and carnage? Have I asked enough questions?





Now for some answers. The “Khmer Republic” was the ethnic and civic fig leaf for Lon Nol’s military dictatorship — short-lived, as it turned out  ª1973-5). As for Khmer Rouge philately, after 1975, the Swiss blogger Victor Manta sounds authoritative when he writes:

“Many people have wondered what happened to the postal system in Cambodia after the Khmer Route came to power in mid-April 1975 and subsequently renamed the country ‘Democratic Kampuchea.’ With Pol Pot at the center of power, the ultra-Maoist regime is thought by many to have caused the death of as many as two to tree million Cambodians before they were overthrown in late 1978 by Vietnamese military force.

“It is generally accepted that no postage stamps were issued by the Government of Democratic Kampuchea for domestic or international use during their control over Cambodian territory from 1975 to late 1978. The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications was ‘disbanded’ by the KR and no official of Democratic Kampuchea was assigned to oversee the tasks of post and communications during those years of abject terror.

“Collectors of Cambodian philately will be only too familiar with the gap in stamp catalogues for this period. Stanley Gibbons includes three small paragraphs headed, ‘Democratic Kampuchea,’ as follows: ‘… the discontinuance of postal and telegraphic services. In these circumstances no stamps were issued. Five pictorial stamps inscribed “Kampuchea”  without indication of currency were publicized early in 1978. If they exist their status would be propaganda labels.’ (2004) …

“However, written domestic communications did take place in Democratic Kampuchea. Such correspondence was, once again, limited to the senior hierarchy of the Khmer Rouge. Written communications were hand-carried and no postmark or postage stamp was necessary, nor used, as far as is known at present.

“Communications from Democratic Kampuchea to any person or agency outside of the country was only undertaken, as far as is known at present, by Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary. No other people within the country were allowed to enter into any form of communication with the outside world.”

fullsizeoutput_1fbdThere was a time when Cambodia issued some of the world’s most beautiful stamps — delicate works of art that combined expert engraving, rich and subtle coloring, and arresting subjects.  Here are some I captured in images from the Internet:









Here is a stamp issued for use in Cambodia during the Vietnamese occupation. I guess that makes it legal, if you accept Vietnam’s occupation as legal. (I give Vietnam credit for saving the country from the Khmer Rouge.) Whether legal or not, you would hardly say this stamp is beautiful, or finely made. A crude product, in my opinion, right down to the ragged perforations; nothing like the artistry of those old Cambodian beauties …



It is a small philatelic tragedy within the immense Cambodian tragedy that this stamp-producing tradition was lost entirely during the terrible years of Khmer Rouge misrule, followed by the indifferent philatelic efforts of Vietnam as caretaker of the “Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.” Today, 40 years after the Khmer Rouge were driven out of Phnom Penh, with the Vietnamese long gone as well, Cambodia still struggles to recover its philatelic equilibrium, and probably much else beyond that.


Above is Bhutan No. 1, which features a sketchy drawing of a postal runner navigating a snowy, mountainous path — quite genuine-looking, if you ask me. The stamp with the image of a tiger (below) looks like a definitive. It is listed as cancelled-to-order, which makes it only semi-legal because it was never postally used. Why are these stamps deemed spurious? Bhutan is a real country, a member of the United Nations. It is landlocked, one of the most sparsely populated nations on Earth. My guess is that Bhutan became a stamp mill — about which more anon.



** I wonder if it strikes you, as it does me, that the countries either exploiting or implicated in illegal stamp production seem to be among the world’s … sketchiest states. Bhutan? Equatorial Guinea? The Khmer Republic? I wouldn’t want my homeland to be on that list.











Which brings us back to Equatorial Guinea, one of whose stamps illustrated the opening of this essay. Before wrapping up my  narrative, let me share some info from Wikipedia about the last 20 years of Equatorial Guinea’s history:


Sure, this team of U.S. astronauts is worth celebrating. But by Equatorial Guinea? While stamp agents were peddling the item to the global stamp market for topicals, the corrupt regime of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo was stealing the nation’s rich resources. The people still live in misery, half the population without access to safe water.  Surely President Nguema — who somehow has acquired a net worth of $600 million during his 30-plus years in power — and his equally predatory cohort had other things to think about than honoring U.S. astronauts. Perhaps they figured gaudy labels like this would serve as a distraction from their dastardly rule.

“… Since the mid-1990s, Equatorial Guinea has become one of sub-Saharan Africa‘s largest oil producers. It is the richest country per capita in Africa, and its gross domestic product …  per capita ranks 43rd in the world; However, the wealth is distributed extremely unevenly and few people have benefited from the oil riches. The country ranks 135th on the UN’s 2016 Human Development Index. The UN says that less than half of the population has access to clean drinking water and that 20% of children die before reaching the age of five.

“The country’s authoritarian government has one of the worst human rights records in the world, consistently ranking among the ‘worst of the worst’ in Freedom House‘s annual survey of political and civil rights. Reporters Without Borders ranks President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo among its ‘predators’ of press freedom. Human trafficking is a significant problem; the 2012 U.S.Trafficking in Persons Report stated that Equatorial Guinea ‘is a source and destination for women and children subjected to forced labor and FC (sic) sex trafficking.’ The report rates Equatorial Guinea as a government that does not fully comply with minimum standards and is not making significant efforts to do so.”

My last catalogue at hand is from 1997. (I apologize for not consulting more recent catalogues, but for the moment, I think this one will do.) The 1997 Scott catalogue has no “For the Record” section at all.

This does not mean that the Universal Postal Union folks successfully cracked down on illegal stamps, so that today, 20-plus years later, those irritating decoys and impostors are nothing more than a historical nuisance. Sorry, folks.

More likely what it means is that the stream of bogus stamps to entice collectors to part with their money has become a flood  I don’t blame the editors at Scott if they no longer feel inclined, obligated or generally in the mood to confront the whole distasteful topic. I can hardly stand to go on myself. Just one more part, soon to come, and then I’ll be done and eager to move on to uplifting and interesting stories about stamps — legal stamps!


Too Many Georgetowns, Wayward Money Orders, Obedient Servants and the S.S. Arakaka out of British Guiana


In the image above, I am not actually paging through a stamp album, but rather an atlas. It could be that I am deciding where to send my next money order …

While living in Heidelberg, Germany in 1961 and 1962, a fair portion of my busy days at ages 12 and 13  involved stamp-collecting. I got into the fun habit of sending money orders to faraway post offices, asking the postmaster to send me back stamps for the money. I received in return some wonderful sets from Malta, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gibraltar, Cook Islands — all over. Quite a thrill for a young fellow. Today the sets have increased in value, and some of the colorful, stamped covers sent back from those exotic post offices are worth something, too.


There I am, sitting at center, receiving an envelope with stamps from some far-off British Colony. Such events were quite an occasion, as you can see. Even the letter-carrier got into the act.                                 Photo credit: Mother, obviously.

Pa was an avid stamp collector as well, but he didn’t get actively involved in this zany project. Come to think of it, though, he might have been the one to suggest the scheme. Where else would a 12-year-old have gotten the idea? In any case, when I asked him if he’d like me to order a set for him as well, he did go along with the game a few times, adding money to the total to cover his share.

Sometimes I got in a jam, and had to write follow-up letters and check with the post office. A particularly byzantine process started in the spring of 1961. I was planning to send money orders and letters to George Town, the capital of the Cayman Islands, and to Georgetown, the capital of British Guiana. But somehow, things got mixed up.


Above are the first five volumes of my diary, which I began in Pakistan in 1958. I include this image because I will be quoting from my diary in this essay. The excerpts are from Volumes VI and VII, below, which cover the years 1961-2.

I found a typed copy of my letter to the Cayman Islands folded in my diary, dated April 8, 1961. It’s kind of cute:

Dear Postmaster:

My name is Frederick Fiske, and I am a devoted stamp collector. Having said this, I suppose you already know what I am writing about. I would like you to send me, as soon as possible, one variety each of the current issue, as many varieties as the five German Marks that I am sending you in a money order will pay for.  …”

(The letter continues, but I must interject this comment. I already had
purchased the first two stamps in the 1953 series  — the 1/4 penny and 1/2 fullsizeoutput_1e6dpenny varieties — perhaps at an inflated price from the Kenmore Stamp Company approval service, I decided in my 12-year-old, penny-pinching brain that I would try to save myself the cost of these stamps, which would be duplicates. And so I continued:)

“… If the current issue is the issue put out in 1953, would you please leave out the first two varieties … and if a more recent issue has become current, please do not feel obligated to send it to me, 1 each, as many as the money can pay for. Please send the letter back by airmail, as quickly as possible, using my money to pay for the return postage. Please use stamps on the letter.

Thank you very much. Sincerely, Frederick Murray Fiske

I mailed this convoluted and confusing letter April 10. (“please do not feel obligated …”?) A complicating factor was that German postal rules at the time apparently required that money orders be sent separately from the inquiry letters.

My diary entry for April 10, 1961 notes:  Morn headache. Mathias is a bore. Sent m.o. to CAYMAN ISLANDS. People in P.O. didn’t know where it was. …     (Hmmm. That should have been my first clue trouble was coming… )

fullsizeoutput_1e76On April 29, I received a puzzling response from British Guiana, dated April 19. As it happens, I saved the rather undistinguished envelope in my Worldwide Covers album (see right), with the note inside. It was a form letter with some blanks filled in, titled, “British Guiana Postage and Revenue Stamps.” It came from the Chief Accountant at the General Post Office, Georgetown, Demerara State, British Guiana:

“Mr. Frederick Fiske, … With reference to your letter no.  ?  ?  date April 8, 1961, in connection with stamps on sale in the Colony, I am directed by the Postmaster General to forward a List of Particulars and Mail Order Form on opposite page. …”   It was signed:

“I have the honor to be, (Sir or Madam), Your obedient servant

(illegible signature) Chief Accountant”

Though it was flattering for 12-year-old me to be addressed by an “obedient servant,” it made no sense at all that the letter came from British Guiana rather than the Cayman Islands — though today it seems clear enough that those parochial postal clerks in Heidelberg found “Georgetown” British Guiana before they found “George Town” Cayman Islands and simply misdirected my letter (but not my money order?). In my diary entry for April 29, I note: … Had Deutsch test today, and didn’t do too well (or too badly)! Got a letter from Georgetown, Br. Guiana (no stamps) ? Must have stopped there on the way to Cayman Is.  Got new bikes! Mine cost $41.50. In aft. went riding (J, N and I).  Home at 6, and bed at 11. Might send next letter to Africa.

Hold on. Did I really think the letter somehow stopped off in British Guiana en route to the Cayman Islands? I guess my 12-year-old mind figured the fullsizeoutput_1e6cSouth American colony was a way-station for mail steaming from Europe to the Caribbean colonies. Let’s see what a map of that route would look like …

I went to Pa to get help straightening this out. He took the time to untangle the chain of events. Then he drafted the following letter, which I found clipped to my diary, in his neat, careful handwriting (very much like Kingsley Amis’s handwriting, I have discovered):

fullsizeoutput_1e96Philoweg 9


Postmaster, Georgetown, British Guiana

Dear Sir: With reference to your letter No. DPT: 953 c/168,

there has apparently been some confusion. My letter of April 8, to which you refer, was addressed to Postmaster, Georgetown, Cayman Islands, and was accompanied by a postal money order for 5.5 German marks, which fullsizeoutput_1e95amounted to nine shillings eleven pence in their currency. Apparently the money order has gone to the Cayman Islands and the letter to you. Could you please forward the letter to the Cayman Islands, so that the order may be filled. I am enclosing your mail order form, with postal money order for  XXXX German marks. According to German postal authorities, the money order must be sent under separate cover. I hope that the error may be straightened out, and that I may soon receive stamps from both Georgetowns. Yours very truly  (Fred: I’ll take them up to $1. You figure what you’d like, and we’ll add them together)


Thanks to the powers of the Internet, I was able to capture this example of Kingsley Amis’s handwriting, so that you can easily compare it to Pa’s, right beside it. I first discovered this similarity at an exhibition that displayed Amis’s journal. The letters d, m, t, h, etc are very alike. Other letters, not so much. But compare the “Yours …” in the final salutation. Makes me wonder what other qualities Pa shared with the dyspeptic GB novelist …

Have you followed me so far? I typed up a draft letter, and clipped a copy to my diary, dated May 3, 1961. What Pa and I had decided was to take the opportunity to order stamps from British Guiana, as well as get my original letter to the Cayman Islands, where it belonged.

My diary entry for May 5, 1961 notes: …Morn school. Out 1. Had new teacher sitting in at H.A.’s. Looks nice. Home after H-K’s at 5. Practiced. Mowed lawn. Worked with Br. Guiana letter, and bed at 9:45 p.m.

Diary entry for May 6: Morn school till 9:30. Then sent money order with Pa to Br. Guiana. Home for lunch.  … Philohoehe for dinner … Got a little too much to drink … am rather lightheaded as I write this!!!!!!!

So things appeared to be set in tipsy motion toward resolution:  The money order and mail order form were headed to British Guiana, and the Cayman Islands letter was soon to be forwarded from British Guiana to its intended destination. Good luck with all that!

Amazingly enough, everything worked out in the end, though not without further twists to the tale.

By June, I was growing impatient to hear from either British Guiana or the Cayman Islands. My diary entry for June 23 notes: … got new Hi-fi set. Wrote letter to Br. Guiana (again!).

On July 21 a reply came from Georgetown, British Guiana: “July 14, 1961

fullsizeoutput_1e84(To) Mr. Fred Fiske

Sir: I have to refer to your letter of June 24, 1961, enquiring after your order of British Guiana postage stamps of current issue and to inform you that the stamps were dispatched to you on June 2, 1961.

2. The inconvenience which may have been caused you by the delayed despatch is regretted.

I have the honor to be, etc. (illegible signature) Director of Posts & Telecommunications”

What the heck? The stamps were mailed June 2? My diary entry for July 21, the day the explanatory letter arrived, does not seem unduly stressed out, though:  … Letter from British Guiana! …  Hit home run. 2 in math.


These diary entries record my receipt of the two letters from British Guiana, (upper left and lower right) four days apart.

Four days later, on July 25, a substantial envelope arrived from British Guiana. My ship had come in!  The glassine envelope inside contained a  sheaf of beautiful, exotic stamps — engraved, bi-color, mint-never-hinged, post-office fresh. My diary entry for Tuesday, July 25 notes exuberantly at the top: Morn sleep, work, letter from BRITISH GUIANA WITH STAMPS!! …

There was still the outstanding matter of the Cayman Islands stamps to deal with. Another diary entry, for Thursday, July 27, notes: … Aft. to movie, “Mr. Miller Ist Kein Killer.” Was good. Also sent letter to Cayman Islands …

On August 26, I sent a another follow-up letter. My diary entry for Aug. 27 hints at my disappointment at returning from an out-of-town family trip and finding no letter from the Caymans:   … Put my stamps in Europe stock book. Only got a letter from Creech. Wrote him one, and also one to the Cayman Islands. Bed at 10:30.

On Sept. 16, out the clear blue sky and sea, the director of posts and telecommunications in British Guiana sent me the following letter:

“Mr. Frederick Murray Fiske …

Sir,  I have to refer to your letter of August 26, 1961, and to inform you that your money order was received and cashed in British Guiana on May 31, 1961, and the British Guiana postage stamps of current issue which you required were posted to you on June 2, 1961.


I must include this partial image of the letter from British Guiana with its reference to the S.S. Arakaka, or you might not believe it!

2. Although the package was posted to you on June 2, it has been ascertained that the next available sea-mail from Georgetown, British Guiana was on the 26th June, the carrier being the S.S. Arakaka. It is to be hoped that you will already have received the stamps on receipt of this letter.

3. Your letter of June 24, 1961, was acknowledged on July 14, 1961, a copy of which is enclosed for easy reference.    I have the honour to be, etc.”

Are you getting the picture here? Are you seeing how odd this is? It seems that once again, my letter to the Cayman Islands — this one mailed Aug. 26 — was diverted to British Guiana! Is this really standard procedure? (See route on map, above.) Is it something about the trade winds? Or the chronic deficiencies of Heidelberg postal clerks?

I’m not sure that the details of this last letter sank in at the time, but they have some clarity for me now. I am particularly intrigued by the delayed-sea-mail angle. I can just imagine my packet of stamps sitting in steamy Georgetown, Damerara State, British Guiana, starting June 2, waiting day after day for the departure of the packet-ship S.S. Arakaka; being loaded on board to begin the long steam voyage June 26, from the South American coast to Europe …

As I reflected on the preceding, I could not ignore a frisson of deja-vu — a ghostly echo from one of philately’s most famous stories … a story about another ship’s delay in carrying British Guiana stamps. This happened in the 1850s. As the story goes, Postmaster E.T.E. Dalton had 50,000 stamps on order, but the shipment from London in 1856 carried only 5,000 stamps. With supplies dwindling, Dalton arranged for the local newspaper printer to produce a three-value emergency set for the interim. The postmaster was not pleased with the result, however, and very few of the stamps were used. To certify authenticity, Dalton insisted each label be initialed by a postal official before receiving the normal cancel. Within eight to 10 weeks, new stamp supplies arrived from London, and the postmaster withdrew the fullsizeoutput_d4fprovisionals. Today only one example survives of the one-cent, printed on dark magenta paper, bearing the colony’s badge  of a sailing ship in black ink. When this rarest of stamps changes hands, which is infrequently, it goes for millions.

In my case, as in the 1850s, the ship eventually came in. And the director of


By the 1860s, British Guiana had plentiful supplies of new issues. Here are a few from that era in my collection. (The one-cent black on magenta, above, is NOT from my collection, needless to say!

posts & telecommunications in British Guiana (signature illegible) was correct: By the time his last letter arrived in September — by airmail, not sea-post — I had my  stamps. They had arrived July 25, you will recall, and they  deserve words of appreciative description.

The brown envelope inscribed, “On Her Majesty’s Service,” bore two nice examples of the 1954 set. On the back were a pair of thick fullsizeoutput_1e78black wax seals, embossed with a crown and what looks like the letters “STAMP AND PO’S.” The envelope inside contained gorgeous stamps, post-office fresh,  fullsizeoutput_1e79from one cent all the way to the $5. I gave Pa the complete set and kept the second set to the $1, which was as far as my money went.



I think the images above are explained in the text. Below is an image of the stamps I was able to add to my collection as a result of this mailing. As you can see, it is not a complete set — I was still missing three values. Since Pa paid a bit more, he received a complete set — which I inherited when he died. Below is the image of my completed set, along with an enlargement of one of the beautifully engraved and colored stamps therein.




As October unfolded, still with no word from the Cayman Islands, I went to the post office in Heidelberg to follow up. My diary entry for October 12, notes: Morn school as usual. Nance beat me in math test. … Aft. beat her in German test. Home 5, after seeing about my M.O. to Cayman.

I have no memory how I presented my case to the local postal authorities. Perhaps a receipt, carefully preserved? But something got jarred loose as a result.

fullsizeoutput_1e7cOn Oct. 26, a packet arrived from the Cayman Islands. In my Worldwide Covers album I still have the envelope, postmarked Oct. 23. That’s more than six months after I sent that first letter April 10, supposedly steaming toward the Caymans, but ending up instead in … British Guiana.

fullsizeoutput_1e8eMy cover album page also preserves a notification card from the Heidelberg post office that might help explain the delay in the Cayman Islands delivery. To be precise, however, I would have to decipher such phrases as “Nachforschungen nach dem Verblieb,” and “Nachforschungendegebuehr wurden by der Aushaendigung diesen Schreibens erhoben.”  The gist of it, as far as I can make out, is that the  Heidelberg P.O., in response to


The image top right shows the stamps I received in the envelope from the Caymans — missing key values, you will notice. It cost me a bundle to buy them later on. Above is an image of the complete set. (The 1 pound stamp is temporarily removed from the next album page.) Below is an enlarged image of a stamp from this gorgeous set.

my inquiry (“Ihrem Antrag”) of Oct. 12, was able to confirm that my money order (for 5.51 German Marks) had been duly received and processed in the Caymans. Between Oct. 10 and Oct. 23, the international postal bureaucracy was able to pry loose this precious packet of Cayman Islands stamps and send it winging to its intended destination, fullsizeoutput_1e92where it arrived after just three days. By the way, the card with the explanation from the Heidelberg P.O. was sent to me March 30, 1962 — more than five months after I got my stamps, and nearly a year since I sent out my first letter on April 10, 1961.

The post office can work in mysterious ways. …

The envelope from the Caymans was embellished with three of the beautiful stamps from the 1953 set. The cellophane envelope inside contained pretty examples of the set up to the 5 shilling value. All of these stamps have increased nicely in value. I only wish I could have coughed up enough German Marks to buy the set complete to the one pound,  at face value, thus saving me a considerable outlay to acquire the missing stamps from a dealer later on.

fullsizeoutput_1e89I must add this piquant detail:  the itemized list included in the packet (see right) shows that the postmaster (“… your obedient servant, etc.”) had thoughtfully omitted the 1/4d or 1/2d stamps, thus fulfilling my ridiculous request in the original letter of April 8, and saving me three-quarters of a penny for the unnecessary duplicates …

Dear Reader, if you have made it this far, I congratulate you for your patience and forbearance. There is one more little twist to this tale of international philatelic protocol, circumstance and whimsey. It involves yet fullsizeoutput_1e7danother, thick envelope from British Guiana, also preserved in my Worldwide Covers album (see right). This one arrived April 3, 1962.

Before revealing the contents of this envelope, I must provide some context, starting with a request for stamps I sent Oct. 16, 1961 to  Ascension Island, a tiny British Crown Colony in the south Atlantic, hundreds of miles off the coast of West Africa whose capital is … wait for it … Georgetown.

My diary entry for Oct. 16, 1961 notes: … Went to P.O. and sent M.O. to Ascension.
My diary entry for Jan. 1, 1962 notes receipt of a letter from Ascension, as follows: No stamps in the Ascension thing. They said that maybe I could send the money order inside the letter.

fullsizeoutput_1e82The envelope and letter from Ascension, preserved in my Worldwide Covers album (see right) and dated Dec. 4, 1961, reads:  “Dear Sir, Thank you for your letter of the 15th October.

I regret to inform you that you did not enclose the money order mentioned in your letter, and until I receive it I cannot fulfill your order.

There is no airmail service from here to Germany. Yours faithfully, APDunne (sp?) p.p.Postmistress”

My diary entry for Thursday, Jan. 4 notes: … M. sleep till 8:30. Got up early so that I could have breakfast and not have to clear the table. In late morning got off shopping. Sent a correct M.O. (NOT a Postanweisung) to Ascension at the American Express. Aft. stayed around and worked on my album from Pa. …

I presume this means I absorbed the cost of the first money order, which would have been quite a blow, given my limited resources. The next diary entry I can find involving this matter is Tuesday, April 3: M.S.A.U. (diary code for “morning school at usual”). Home about 1:30. Letter from Br. Guiana for Ascension. All messed up. Night bed 9:30-45.

This is the thick letter I described earlier. As to its contents: I presume there was a cover letter, but maybe not. How to explain the bizarre  circumstances of this mailing in terms suitable to an “obedient servant”? The heavy bond envelope went via London, whose circular date stamp of March 29 is on the back. It  contains three items:

fullsizeoutput_1e7e** My envelope mailed Jan. 4, 1962 to “Postmisstress (sic), General Post Office, Georgetown, Ascension.” On the back is a circular postmark inscribed,  “Jan. 7, 1962 — G.P.O., British Guiana.”

fullsizeoutput_1e7f** An envelope “On Her Majesty’s Service,” inscribed, “Jan. 12, 1962, G.P.O. Georgetown, British Guiana,” addressed to “The Postmaster General, General Post Office, Georgetown, Ascension.” This envelope presumably included the envelope I had intended to send to Georgetown,  Ascension, but which ended up in Georgetown, British Guiana — just like my earlier letter to George Town, Cayman Islands. On the back of this second envelope was another circular date stamp, inscribed “22 Ene (Jan.) Aeropostal – Paraguay,”  indicating that my letter had been misdelivered once again, this time thousands of miles south of British Guiana — to Paraguay!

fullsizeoutput_1e80** The third envelope was a larger size, white and flimsy, certainly large enough to contain both my original letter to Ascension and the follow-up envelope from British Guiana. It carried a circular date stamp, inscribed, “Aeropostal, Paraguay, 10 Feb. 1962.” This envelope, like the second one, was addressed to “Postmaster General, General Post Office, Georgetown, Ascension.” Interestingly, “Georgetown” was crossed out — apparently some official decided there were just too many Georgetowns involved! A registration sticker identified the sender’s location as “Asuncion, Republica del fullsizeoutput_1e81Paraguay.” And here comes a real shocker: A rubber stamp in the lower right corner declared: “Missent to British Guiana.” (see enlargement, right;  apparently this happened often enough that it warranted a rubber stamp!) Sure enough, on the back of the envelope from Paraguay was another circular date stamp confirming arrival in British Guiana, inscribed, “Registered Airmail, 21 Feb. 1962.”

“All messed up” is right! Here’s a quick recap: It seems my first letter to Ascension, mailed way back on Oct. 16, 1961, arrived at its intended destination without the accompanying money order. My second letter, sent


The torturous path my letter and money order might have traveled from Heidelberg, Germany to Georgetown, Ascension — via Georgetown, British Guiana, and Asuncion, Paraguay! The final leg of the journey to the tiny island in the South Atlantic is only wishful thinking on my part, since the forwarding envelope from Asuncion ended up — back in British Guiana! To get my stamps, I finally put my case before the Heidelberg postal authorities. Somehow, it worked!

Jan. 4,  1962, with a new money order, went to Georgetown, British Guiana instead of Georgetown, Ascension. (There was no way British Guiana in South America could be a way-station for mail to Ascension Island, well over 2,000 miles away in the South Atlantic Ocean.) Then the letter that was supposed to be forwarded from British Guiana to Ascension ended up in Asuncion, the capital city of Paraguay! (Ascension/Asuncion, get it?) Penultimately, the same letter, forwarded from Paraguay to Ascension Island ended up — back in British Guiana! Finally, postal authorities there disposed of the matter by packing all three letters in that heavy-bond  envelope and sending it back to me, in Heidelberg.

This might have been enough to discourage a less intrepid philatelist. But not FMF! The day after receiving this confusing correspondence,  Wednesday, April 4, 1962, my diary notes matter-of-factly: M.S.A.U. … Out 1. Home 1:30 on streetcar.  … Smoked a cigarette, but it didn’t hurt, cause I didn’t inhale. Bed 9:30, after learning  Deutsch  poem. … Letter to Ascension.

I must have settled in for a patient wait, since the postmistress of Ascension Island already had forewarned me that there was no airmail service to Germany. Happily, the envelope from Ascension — with stamps — finally arrived June 6, 1962. It was worth the wait: In addition to containing a complete Elizabeth II set of 1953 (which has increased 20-fold in value since then), the envelope carried the set complete to the one shilling, with crisp circular date cancels inscribed “Ascension, 21 MY 62” —   perhaps applied by a very accommodating Postmistress Dunne herself?Notice the “By Air Mail” sticker. You may recall that six months earlier, the postmistress wrote there was no air mail service between Ascension and Germany. Notice, too, that I apparently requested the letter be sent via the diplomatic APO address through New York City, which obviously did enjoy mail service from Ascension. My diary entry noted, rapturously: “… LETTER FROM ASCENSION! WONDERFUL. 10 stamps on the cover! Bed 9:30.”


Above is the cover from Ascension, bearing 10 stamps from the beautiful 1953 series., perhaps assembled and applied by Postmistress Dunne. Below is the complete set I paid about $3 for, which currently is selling online for upwards of $75 mint/never hinged, like these examples. In short, I made a philatelic killing. I ask you: Was it worth the trouble? You bet! What a thrill! It’s part of the fun of stamp-collecting.

Version 3





Cinderellas part four: Illegal stamps 3. Cinderellas in the Balkans

The stamps from the Balkans discussed here, many of them illegal, reflect the violent disruptions during the 1990s involving Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks. These  emblems of national aspiration began appearing after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Today, Serbs and Croats enjoy influence within a strangely fractured, multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina. So far, so good: Most everyone is  behaving, and like in Northern Ireland, peace seems to build its own self-reinforcing constituency. Back in 1992-93, however, the Muslim Bosniaks, Croa
ts and Serbs (and later the Kosovars) took up arms. It was awful: Thousands died. The Dayton agreement that ended the bloodshed in 1995 is a high point of the administration of President Bill Clinton, who brought the antagonists to Ohio and kept them there until they had a deal. The attached is a stamp commentary that meanders through this perilous time, profusely illustrated with philatelic artifacts from the harrowing scene. I hope you enjoy it!
Best, FMF
p.s. As you may note, this is only “part 3” of my commentaries on illegal stamps. The 

fullsizeoutput_1a84next two should come together rather quickly, then maybe we can get back to … Bechuanaland Protectorate?








Three postal authorities claim the same bridge! Here are three views of Stari Most (The Old Bridge) in Mostar, a small city in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The scenic bridge dates to the 1500s, and was the work of Mimar Hayruddin, apprentice of renowned Islamic architect Mimar Sinan. A remarkable feat of engineering for its day with its delicate, soaring arch, the old bridge spans the Neretva river in the middle of the multi-ethnic city. Also remarkable is the way it is celebrated on recent stamps from three different postal authorities — one representing Croats (left), another Serbs (right), and a third (center) the federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. How can three separate national entities lay claim to the same bridge? To find out, or at least grope for some answers, read on!

fullsizeoutput_1acdThe envelope postmarked “Mostar 10.2.93” arrived in my mailbox, in response to my international postal coupon, without a legal postage stamp, an illegal stamp or even a Cinderella. Instead, it carried an ink stamp that read: “Postarina Placena / Port Paye” — postage paid.

Inside was a handwritten note — in so- so English, with several cross-outs — fullsizeoutput_1ac3signed “Trajaneski Dragi,” that was as poignant as it was informative. “Dear Fred Fiske,” the note read. “We haven’t eny stamps. If we have it be late. I am sorry.”

I had sent my international postal coupon the previous June (1992), when I embarked on a philatelic adventure. I mailed out letters to 23 newly authorized postal authorities in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. Enclosed in each letter was a postal coupon — I recall it cost 75 cents — which provided for a return letter, using stamps to cover postage from the recipient country. Why did I do this? Because I was interested to see what stamps these new nations and postal officials would use at the dawn of their sovereign journeys. The General Post Office in Mostar was just one of the many GPOs I mailed coupons and envelopes to, from Kiev to Riga to Tashkent. (I expect to report on this in a future blog post, profusely illustrated of course.)

fullsizeoutput_1a9bMostar lies in the southwest of the
confusing nation of
I say confusing,
because part of the
1994 accords that
led to peace in the
Balkans was
establishing three
areas of influence in Bosnia-Herzogovina
— Croatian, Serbian
and the rest of the
multi-ethnic state,
including Muslims.
Serbia staked territorial claims with its sprawling “Republika Srpska.” Croatia apparently didn’t set formal borders, but asserted its sphere of influence in
traditionally Croat areas (including Mostar?), and shared authority in the federation. Each of these three groups has issued its own stamps, through private agencies. BH Posta serves the Bosnia-Herzegovina federation; Srpske Poste makes stamps for the Serbs, while Hrvatska Posta Mostar supplies stamps to the Croatian postal authority. (Note the reference back to Mostar — a Croatian lodestar … ) Some would consider such quasi-commercial enterprises suspect, and place an asterisk against their stamps as potentially illegal, or Cinderellas — even though they have been accepted on letters mailed inside Bosnia-Herzegovina and beyond.

Are all three types of stamps valid throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina? I’ll try and find out … Meanwhile, Croat postal officials seek to have it all ways in their publicity: “Bosnia-Herzegovina-Croatian post Mostar’s postage stamps are guardians of spiritual, cultural, historical and natural wealth … not only of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole. These small works of art travel throughout the world and carry our messages, beauty and also are a source of knowledge and evidence of history.”

fullsizeoutput_1a85The Serbian postal authority — or rather, its private contractor — launched a campaign to have its Europa 2017 stamp (right) chosen as the most beautiful in Europe. In 2017, the multi-nation Europa issue settled on a theme of castles that are still standing. In its pitch, the Serb promoters sounded a theme of peaceful coexistence you don’t hear often enough these days. “Once seen as symbols of power, defence, war and supremacy over other kingdoms, it is extremely positive to see these monuments survive the sociological and political evolutions to have a much more peaceful and beautiful connotation at present times.” The uplift continued: “Today these castles are preserved as monuments that do not only teach us about our own past history, but they can also demonstrate how we no longer need fortified walls in Europe, in order to live in safety.” Then came the hook: “Poste Srpske through this topic are proud to present the fortress Kastel, and we urge you to vote for it via an online competition organized by the Post Europ, the association that represents European public postal operators …” (The deadline for votes was Sept. 9; 2017; for the contest results, go to


fullsizeoutput_1a86In the interests of intra-national good will and fair play, it behooves me to point out that the other two stamp-producing entities in Bosnia-Herzegovina also put out Europa 1017 castle stamps. I don’t know whether they were entered in the contest for Europe’s most-beautiful stamp, but they are pretty nice, don’t you think? Which one of the three do you prefer?fullsizeoutput_1a87

A few more words about these three issues from the separate and distinct postal authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, all issued as part of the 2017 Europa series. Featuring old castles, they include the Serb stamp already shown (Srpske Poste); at right above, the Croat stamp (HP Mostar); and below it the stamp of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BH Posta). It is tempting to impute some national characteristics to each of these stamps. Look at the Serbian image, all angular and spikey and showy, with titles proclaimed from the ramparts. The Croatian entry is in softer focus, with a rustic feel; the castle ruins are rounded and accessible, against pastel greenery and blue sky. The Muslim federation stamp has more of an Islamic feel, with delicate twin arches in an intricately detailed close-up of an ancient castle’s stone alcove. Each stamp is striking in its way. I like all of them, though I remain intrigued and a bit puzzled how this tripartite stamp-issuing phenomenon has managed to continue through the years …

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s stubborn demonstrations of philatelic tribalism pose challenges: Collecting all three sets of stamps is expensive! Doesn’t the whole thing perpetuate unwelcome chauvinism? Weren’t these supposed to be more assimilated, cosmopolitan times for the Balkans? Then again, one might ask: Is one set more “authentic” than the other? My vote goes to the stamps of the multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina federation, over those of the Croatian and

Serbian pretenders. (By the way, Mostar is located in the heart of the federation — which seems to entitle both Croats and Serbs to claim it as their own as well.)

A final thought on this subject: I must admit I’m a bit charmed by all three ethnic groups celebrating a common heritage in their side-by-side-by-side stamp issues. I kind of love the idea that Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks all publicly revere the fabled Stari Most in Mostar — which may lead to acknowledging a shared heritage after all. If you insist on being tribal, I’d much prefer you demonstrate it proudly, through beautiful stamps, rather than by inciting each other with hateful speech, or hitting each other over the head with cudgels, or machetes.

The history of stamps in Mostar is just as confusing as its present status. I have not delved deeply into that history, though I feel I already know much more on the subject that the average reader would be interested to learn. Through the centuries, Mostar was ruled by the Ottomans, then Austro-Hungarians, then Yugoslavs; there was a spasm of fascism under the Nazis, and after World War II, Tito. During the breakup of the Balkans in 1992-3, Mostar was a flashpoint for conflict. First there was fighting between Croat and Yugoslav forces, then Serb and Bosnia-Herzegovina troops.

By February, 1993, when Trajaneski Dragi in Mostar sent me that poignant response to my international postal coupon, I can readily believe there were no stamps available. Many buildings, including historic landmarks, had been wrecked or damaged in the fighting. Postal service was disrupted. Besides, how to decide which stamps to use?! The Yugoslavs had been routed, and were fading into history in any case; the Croats had driven out the Serbs, and were occupying the west side of Mostar; Bosnia-Herzegovina forces were concentrated in the east. Three months later, in May, active fighting would break out again. Quickly, though, the troops settled in for a standoff. By the time the conflict ended, as many as 2,000 people had lost their lives in and around Mostar. In November, 1993, shells from the Croat side destroyed the fabled Stari Most bridge. (The Croats declared the bridge was a strategic target, but scholars and experts scoff at the claim, calling it an example of “killing memory.” The bridge was rebuilt with international aid and reopened in 2004 as a UNESCO World Heritage site.)

During the unsettled times of 1992 into 1993 in the Balkans, Mostar and other cities and regions were disrupted by the pitched battles, sieges and other confrontations involving Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs. Just as Croats contested for influence in the Bosnian region around Mostar, so they challenged Serbia in its northeast province of Vojvodina. Stamps appeared in 1992 with overprints claiming to represent Croat interests in both regions.

fullsizeoutput_1a8fBecause of my
fascination with the
very first philatelic
yowls of national
aspiration (even if
they do not last
long), I acquired
some of these sets
— including a
remarkable cover,
illustrated here,
that I must
describe in more detail. The cover contains a set of Yugoslav definitives, overprinted alternately “Souverena Bosna i Herzegovina” and “Souverana Herzeg-Bosna.” The postmark: Mostar. The date: 06.07.92. — July 6, a month after I sent my letter to Mostar in June, and eight months before the stampless return letter to me from Trajaneski Dragi the following February. Just days before this cover was cancelled June 7, the Croats had consolidated their positions in western Mostar. This set from “sovereign” Bosnia- Herzegovina” (the eastern sector?) may appear legitimate. Indeed, it carries what looks like the same cancellation as the envelope I received from Trajaneski Dragi the next February. Yet this set is considered spurious by the philatelic community.

fullsizeoutput_1a8dAlso considered spurious is another set (right), which is listed by a dealer as “Bosnia-Herze-govina/Croatian overprints,” and consists of eight stamps from the Yugoslav definitives, this time with “Jugoslavija” blacked out and replaced by the checkerboard Croatian coat-of-arms.

fullsizeoutput_1a96Another set,
“Vojvodina /
autonomy for the
northern Serbian province which neighbors Croatia,
and includes a sizable Croat population. This set — 10 overprints of Yugoslav definitives — is also dismissed as Cinderellas.

Yet anotherfullsizeoutput_1a8c
Cinderella set of
five Yugoslav
carries the
overprint, “Hrvatska Republika Vojvodina” (Croatian Republic Vojvodina). Nice try, Croatia — and I’ll admit I paid $25 for my set. Today, Croatia survives as a peaceful, modestly prosperous Balkan nation stretched along the sparkling Adriatic Sea— but without Mostar, which is firmly within Bosnia-Herzegovina; and without Vojvodina, which is part of modern Serbia.

I could go on and on about the Cinderella overprints for other Balkan splinter- states of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s — Kosovo, Istra, Sandjak, Krajina … but I sense your patience is wearing thin, dear reader. So let’s quickly review a few more images from the philatelically phractured Balkans, acknowledging that it remains a fertile field of study for Cinderella collectors and others, then move on. I hope that if you delve into this morass and collect stamps from the region, you don’t pay the prices I did!

A small gallery of (a few) legal and (mostly) illegal or Cinderella stamps from the Balkans


fullsizeoutput_1a92Bosnia-Herzegovina has had stamps since the 1870s, when it was part of Austro-Hungary. These stamps depicting a charming Bosniak girl were issued in 1918, at the very end of the empire. They are not “real” stamps, but rather newspaper revenue labels. You’ll notice there isn’t even a country name on them. After Bosnia-Herzegovina became part of Yugoslavia, the “anonymous” stamps were reissued, also surcharged (example above), and used for postage. Thus we have an example of a Cinderella stamp fullsizeoutput_1a93that was repurposed as a legitimate postage stamp.



And get a load of this stamp, a delicate  engraving also from 1918. It depicts our old friend, Stari Most — the bridge in Mostar claimed by all three ethnic groups in the stamps illustrated at the top of this commentary.

Version 2Here are more examples of Yugoslav definitives overprinted for “local” use by the territories of fullsizeoutput_1ab8Istra (above right), Sandza (right) and Zapadna (below right). I could spend time trying to fullsizeoutput_1ab6figure out if these are cities, or regions, or states of mind in the Balkan universe — but I won’t. I am intrigued by the longhorn in the Istra coat of arms, the Islamic star and crescent moon for Sandzak, and the fleur de lis and banner for Zapadna — they all suggest multi-ethnic aspirations in contention. I appreciate the struggle, and am glad that everyone seems to have worked things out sufficiently to be living in peace. I like to think of these stamps — all illegal, as far as I know — as emblems of a process that has led to tolerance, coexistence and self-expression.


fullsizeoutput_1ab7The breakaway Balkan province of Kosovo is a whole story of its own, which I won’t try to retell here. Instead, I display two philatelic artifacts from its modern history. The first set, above, is a Cinderella issue representing Kosovo’s national aspirations. fullsizeoutput_1a81The stamps at right  were issued on behalf of the NATO peacekeeping force that did so much to keep things from going from bad to worse in Kosovo. Emerging from U.N. supervision, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. Its autonomy remains in dispute — Kosovo is not a member of the U.N. or the Universal Postal Union, so its stamps may or may not be legal …


fullsizeoutput_1abbHere are early stamps from the Serbian side in Bosnia-Herzigovina. In the top row, the stamps are inscribed “Republica Srpskpa,” which corresponds to the name for territory within national borders, but somehow distinct from the federation itself (see map, above). The lower row of stamps add the word Krajina. This refers to Serbia’s claim to territory extending into Croatia, essentially redefining the borders (krajina means “frontier.”) NIce try, Serbia. Eventually the krajina was reaffirmed as the pre-existing border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Krajina label was never recognized internationally, so these stamps are illegals, or Cinderellas — though as you see below, there are postally used examples of these stamps on covers.

fullsizeoutput_1a89Here are a couple of covers I purchased on eBay for a few bucks each. The one on the left features stamps from Republica Srpska which are supposed to be illegal, but were postally accepted just the same on this letter to Italy. The stamps fullsizeoutput_1a88on the the right-hand cover were used internally. As the postmarks indicate, the covers originated in Banja Luka, a city in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina that today lies within the boundaries of the Serbian-claimed territory.


fullsizeoutput_1abdThis oddment at right was listed on eBay as “Travnik probe 1992.” I believe it was issued during the Croat-Muslim conflict around Travnik in the central region of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992. (The fleu-de-lis design echoes the Zapadna Cinderellas, above.) The price on eBay is just a few bucks, but I’d pay more than that for an example of this stamp postally used on an envelope.


fullsizeoutput_1a8aI include these two covers I bought for my collection, both mailed in Mostar, to illustrate how illegal stamps can be used on legitimately posted letters. Both letters were mailed internally — the one below right didn’t even leave Mostar. Something about the postmarks struck me. The envelope above left is dated 30.2.92 — Feb. 30, fullsizeoutput_1a8b1992. The one below it  was postmarked 02.08.92 — Aug. 2, 1992. You may recall that I mailed my international postal coupon to Mostar in June, 1992 — four months after the first cover was postmarked, two months before the second cover was processed. My letter should have arrived in Mostar in plenty of time for a return cover to be embellished with those same stamps, legal or not. OK, I understand postal officials may have been distracted by a few things, including civil war. What may be most surprising is that old Trajaneski Dragi got around to responding to my inquiry at all. By February 1993, it seems there were no more stamps available — legal or illegal. Where did the stamps go? Did they just run out? Were they confiscated by one side or the other?


fullsizeoutput_1abaFinally, here is an image I captured from the internet. The overprint is intriguing: It sets a date — 11.05.1994 — that’s May 11, 1994, more than a year before the Dayton Accords would end the Balkan conflict. The stamps bear the inscription “BiH Konfederacija” — Confederation of Bosnia- Herzegovina — and alternating cities, Vienna and Geneva. What role did these cities full of diplomats and international civil servants play, along the road to Dayton? And what about that word, confederacija? The Dayton agreement established Bosnia-Herzegovina as a formal “federation,” not a loose “confederation” of sovereign states. Thus, these stamps not only are Cinderellas, but they rapidly were superseded by history.


Bonus: Stamp Ramblings and Musings

Active stamp collecting means keeping your tongs in play, enjoying the hobby when time permits. Every now and then I dip into the online stamp market, or go to the local stamp show. I also bid on stamp auction lots at my beloved Syracuse Stamp Club (and occasionally sell a few lots myself). .

Today I received a packet from an efficient stamp-man in Salem, Oregon. I spent an affordable $26.87 for my lots, which resulted from an online pitch from a dealer collective over the internet. I didn’t score any particular deals, or add significantly to my collection. It’s been lots of fun, though. Here’s  what I bought:

fullsizeoutput_1e50** A South Africa set from the late apartheid era. It is not very valuable. though it is a very pretty set of birds, plants and fish — a desirable item for topical collectors, I would think. On second thought, though, it poses a challenge to topical cllectors, in that it combines three specialties — birds on stamps, plants on stamps, fish on stamps. Then again, topical collectors may not care about complete sets. I’ll have to find out some day …

fullsizeoutput_1e4b** A long, incomplete set from the 1980s Falkland Island Dependencies. The stamps were cheap, probably worth little if anything — but oh! What scenes of desolation:  “Shag rocks” … “Bird and Willis Islands” … “Twitchern Rock and Cook Island” …  These stamps purportedly were printed for use on the forlorn islands of Sandwich and the South Shetlands, closer to Antarctica than the southeast coast of Argentina. Interestingly, it was also in the 1980s that Argentina went to war with Great Britain over these islands, along with the relatively nearby Falkland Islands. The British prevailed, and in this set reaffirm their claim to the Falkland Island Dependencies. Argentina, the loser, has never given up its claims. (For more about this, see my post on Stamp Wars, October 2017.)

fullsizeoutput_1e4c** A souvenir sheet from Togo, 1961, This fills a large space on a page of my Togo collection, which is far from complete. Indeed,  I have no great ambitions for my Togo collection. Still, Togo’s role in colonial and post-colonial Africa grabs my interest. The slogan on this set of stamps — Commission Economiques des Nations Unies Pour L’Afrique (Economic Commission of Nations   United for Africa) — sounds poignantly hopeful and naive, even deluded, given what has happened in Togo and west Africa, and Africa generally, over the last 50 years.

Togo has an improbable philatelic history, having endured German, British and French colonial dominion before gaining independence in the 1960s. I pretty much stopped collecting Togo — or many other African countries — after the 1970s, when their stamp-issuing habits starting going off the rails. (For more about this, see my series of posts on illegal stamps, which began in September 2017.)

fullsizeoutput_1e4d** The 250 franc from Upper Volta (1968) cost a couple of bucks. In a beautifully engraved, multi-color cameo, it depicts a satellite in space, over the West African capital city’s relay station. The inscription reads, “Ouagadougou — Station Spatiale.”   There is a spot in my Africa albums for this stamp, though I harbor no ambitions ever to assemble a valuable collection from Upper Vola (now Burkina Faso) or most other countries. What draws me is the history of post-colonial Africa. I cling to the fond hopes portrayed in these stamps of international cooperation, progress, peace and human development. What breaks my heart is that these hopes soared more than 50 years ago, then came crashing down in the ensuing decades.



** These stamps from Pakistan also fill spaces in my stamp book. I started my collection as a youngster after my father, a U.S. foreign service officer,  was posted to Dacca, East Pakistan, in 1957. I haven’t paid much attention to stamps for Pakistan — or what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh — since we left n 1960. On impulse, I decided to add a few of couple of missing issues from the 1950s that were harder-to-get for a penniless, pre-teen collector. They cost me less than six bucks today, thereby filling spaces that have remained blank for decades. Some fun!

Version 2

**   Uhuru Zanzibar 1963! Another fond hope, this time from the east African island nation of Zanzibar. For better or worse uhuru (independence) didn’t last long. By 1964, the sultan had been deposed, and a “revolutionary” government had united with Tanganyika on the mainland, creating the new nation of Tanzania.

fullsizeoutput_1e51** The Guernsey set (1-7) may look pretty dull, but I was attracted by the color varieties and the sense of completeness about this historic set; or rather two sets,  one with watermarks, one without. Notice that these sets, like GB stamps, do not carry the name of a country. In a way that seems somehow ineffably English, it seems Great Britain, having invented stamps, never had to stoop so low as to  flaunt its name on its postage labels — or those of its channel islands (though Guerney, Jersey and the Isle of Man soon did put their names on their stamps.) Indeed, the islands in the English Channel developed philatelic cottage industries, with colorful and fullsizeoutput_1e56collectible stamps down through the years. Guernsey’s first philatelic presence came during World War II, when the Nazis occupied the island, along with neighboring Jersey — so close, yet so far from Winston Churchill’s citadel.  These newer stamps, from the 1950s, featured the pretty young Queen Elizabeth II. They only cost a couple of bucks, yet they seem to herald the modern, post-war era.

These are the kinds of ramblings and musings that stamp-collecting invites. What a hobby!


Bonus: Seychelles and the Key Value!

fullsizeoutput_1da6What a dull-looking stamp!

That may well be your reaction on contemplating the example included here. I hope the digital image does justice to just how ordinary this stamp looks: It consists of a photograph of three men in a non-motorized boat — sort of a mini-barge/gondola/fishing conveyance, presumably native to the Seychelles. The name of the British colony appears on the stamp, along with the value, 1 rupee, and in tiny letters below, “fishing pirogue.” Above left, enclosed in a small oval, is a profile portrait of Britain’s King George VI. Particularly noteworthy — or rather, NOT noteworthy — is the color, a kind of sallow pea-green, of noxious  tone, with a washed-out quality. The Scott catalogue describes the hue  as “yellow green.” Whoever picked this color should have been brought up on charges before the Board of Philatelic Aesthetics, summarily convicted of seditious — or at least, sulfurous — stamp-making and sentenced to Philatelic Purgatory.

All that said, I offer you this startling admission: I just paid 37+ euros for it! (That’s more than $40!)

Let me quickly add that I checked with wife Chris before making this online purchase —  after all, we are retirees, living on a fixed income. I can say as much as I like about stamp collecting being an investment, wise or not. Safe to say, when you spend $40 for a postage stamp, that money isn’t going to pay any bills, or cover other necessary expenses. But Chris was feeling indulgent  — after all, I had checked with her — and she didn’t put up a fuss; just rolled her eyes and sighed.

The letter arrived — from Paris, France, as fate would have it. “Here are your stamps,” wrote Renaud de Montbas (pecheurdetimbres). “I hope  you’ll enjoy them … as I put all my passion in my lots …”  I hope to figure out how to give M. de Montbas a good rating, since not only did this self-described  “fisher of stamps” send me my stamp quickly, he also covered the envelope with beautiful French stamps I could add to my collection.

And the stamp itself — what a prize! Let me explain:

Some of the rarest and choicest postage stamps are not particularly attractive — like the 1857 British Guiana stamp, the world’s greatest philatelic rarity. What makes stamps rare could be any number of things, resulting in their scarcity and desirability to collectors. This Seychelles stamp isn’t really that rare. It’s not extremely old, dating to a set issued in 1938, soon after George VI took the throne and became titular ruler of the colony.  I could speculate that one reason this stamp is rare is that it is so homely — but I won’t. I will make some related observations, however:

I. This 1938 set of stamps was a radical departure from the staid tradition of postage stamps from the Seychelles, an island group in the Indian Ocean miles from Madagascar,


Here are samples of Seychelles stamps through the years, starting with the 1890s set, top, featuring Queen Victoria; to the left are stamps of the Edward VII era (1902-1911). Below are stamps featuring George V (1911-1935). Notice the difference between the top and bottom George V stamps? It’s the side inscriptions — on the top stamps, they read “Postage/Postage” on both sides (who knows why the redundancy?), while the bottom stamps are inscribed with the more sensible “Postage/& Revenue.” Other subtle changes: the lettering below is white on a dark background; and the frame is crimped, not round.

the African coast, Mauritius or anywhere else. The first colonial stamps date back to a design used in many colonies that depicted a   profile bust of Queen Victoria. Essentially the same design — different busts — was used for King Edward stamps, then King George V stamps — across four decades.









II. Seychelles letter-writers must have been mildly thunderstruck in 1938 when their stamps suddenly began featuring vivid photographic vignettes of home.  Giant tortoises! Coco-de-mer palms! Fishing pirogues! To collectors, these were exotic scenes from a faraway island, unfolding under the steady, benign gaze of the handsome, well-groomed young British monarch. After fullsizeoutput_1d90so many years of the same design, now there was something new!  One wonders: If the purpose of maintaining the design was in part to convey a sense of the British empire’s soliditiy, continuity, normalcy and orderliness, then what did the radical departure into gaudy labels in 1938 signify? fullsizeoutput_1da7This shift in the  philatelic paradigm surely was a signal — unconscious, perhaps — that the colonial era was no longer going to be quite so predictable …

fullsizeoutput_1da8III. What a lot of stamps there are  in this set! Between the 2-cent stamp and the 5-rupee value I count 24 varieties — considerably more than the average for the first George VI set in other colonies. (Though I must add that right from the beginning, Seychelles did issue more long sets with color varieties fullsizeoutput_1dcbthan most colonies; please don’t ask me why. Mauritius, an island colony a mere 1,000+ miles away in the Indian Ocean, also seemed to issue long sets — 20 stamps or more, Version 5with different colors. Go figure.)  Over the past 18 years I managed to accumulate a nearly complete Seychelles 1938 George VI set, which is  tantalizing for a diehard collector/investor like me. But an affordable 1 rupee yellow-green eluded me — until now. Believe it or not, 37.99 euros is actually a great price for a decent copy of the stamp — fullsizeoutput_1daaeven a hinged one, like this. Other prices online ranged up  past $50, much higher for a never-hinged example. To have the set complete is a special pleasure of stamp-collecting — particularly if it results from a process of patient accumulation over time.

IV. Why so many stamps in this set?  It seems many denominations appear on two stamps, of differing colors. The first stamps, issued in 1938, are rarer than the second set that appeared in 1941. Particularly valuable is the 75-cent gray-blue, which commands prices 75 times higher than its dull violet successor.

fullsizeoutput_1da9V. The 1 rupee yellow-green could be considered the key value of the set. It is about 100 times more valuable than the 1 rupee gray that took its place in 1941. At least, I figure that’s what happened — all these earlier values were withdrawn, or at least no longer produced,  after just three years. The relatively short circulation lifespan of those earlier stamps no doubt helped to account for their subsequent rarity and inflated value.

fullsizeoutput_1d9eThe remaining set stayed in circulation from 1941 on, until a new set appeared in March 1952, featuring a portrait of a shockingly aged George VI. (Unfortunately, the king had died a month fullsizeoutput_1da1earlier; the resourceful stamp makers simply replaced the portrait of George VI with a cameo of the young Queen Elizabeth II and issued that set in 1954; notice how the stamp-makers kept the same gray-and-white coloring for the 1-rupee stamp right on through. More sets followed; the Seychelles gained independence in 1976.)

VI. Why so many color changes in the 1938 set? Though I don’t know the answer, I’m always willing to speculate. One thought is that in 1941, the exigencies of wartime made it impractical or wasteful to use some inks rather than others. (This theory is not perfect, however; just check above to see the nearly similar color of the 1938 6-cent and the 1941 20-cent. What gives?)

I have another theory as well. I like to think that the colonial philatelic poobahs back in Whitehall decided the original colors were just too god-awful — starting with that 1 rupee pea-green number. Come on, chaps, we can do better than that. How about just a dignified, gray-and-white 1 rupee? That’s the ticket!



Here at the end is an illustration of stamp-collector’s delight — adding the elusive “key value” that completes a set. On the left, the missing stamp sits next to its designated spot on the appropriate page of the Minkus British Africa album, clearly illustrated with a black-and-white likeness of the missing stamp. Below, the set is complete! According to my research, a complete set like this — all mint except for the nine cent — is selling in the neighborhood of $200, with a catalogue value in excess of $300. Wowza!




Bonus: The end of stamp collecting, refuted

Mark Twain called rumors of his death in 1897 “an exaggeration.” Other predictions of the demise of one thing or another also have been exaggerated: that radio would mean the death of conversation; that TV would eclipse radio; that the Internet would sound the knell for newspapers, reading, writing, thinking, whatever. It hasn’t happened yet. (Granted, newspapers aren’t what they used to be; and Mark Twain did eventually die, in 1910.)

What about the decline of stamp-collecting? Rumors that philately is on its last legs (last hinges?) have been circulating for years. There are just too many distractions in modern living, it is said — the Internet, TV, video games, extreme sports, social

This quaint image depicts the intergenerational ritual of philately. Today’s father probably is immersed in Facebook, or cable sports, while Junior is burrowing ever deeper into games and social media — none of which have anything to do with stamps. To which I say: so what?

media, what-have-you; the older generation of stamp collectors is dying off;  the younger cohort is just too busy to keep up with their parent’s hobby; as for the kids, who knows what they’re into these days —  certainly not stamps … or newspapers; life is just too fast-paced for that dry, sedentary, pokey hobby; besides, there are just too many stamps coming out these days, there’s no way to keep up; plus, hardly anybody still uses stamps — they don’t even exchange letters, for goodness’ sake!  How can you collect something you don’t even know exists?

I’m here to tell you different. At least, that’s my mission — whether it’s a fool’s errand, a Quixotic quest, a blind alley or some other metaphor for a doomed itinerary. That’s what the FMF Stamp Project blog is about: I’m on a mission to save stamp-collecting — single-handedly if necessary!

Actually, I suspect stamp collecting will survive, with or without help from  the FMF Stamp Project. If philately is such a dying hobby, how come I get stamp auction pitches via email where the bidding is fierce? LIke, 22 bids for one item! I joined the fun the other day, staking a claim to two lots. One of them I managed to win but on the other, I was finally outbid and lost the lot.

The latest tolling of the bell for philately comes from Eugene L. Meyer, in an op-ed column for The New York Times a few weeks ago entitled, “Stamped Out.”  ( Described as a journalist and author, Meyer obviously is not a stamp collector — or at least, is no longer a stamp collector. I detected neither smoke nor spark of the phire that burns in all true philatelists.

He describes his years as an active hobbyist in his youth, when stamp-collecting was still a mainstream pastime. He earned a merit badge for philately in the Boy Scouts. He collected foreign stamps off envelopes saved by a friend of his father’s. He collected first-day covers and plate blocks of new U.S. issues, and checked out “dealers who would advertise in the back pages of comic books” and send  packages of cheap stamps “to get you hooked.”

Meyer recalls the days when just about every high school had a stamp club. It made me remember when department stores had counters, with colorful and exotic displays under glass for old and young stamp enthusiasts to pore over.

Today the stamp clubs are mostly gone, as are the stamp counters — and department stores, come to think of it. The legions of young stamp collectors grew up, their collections all but forgotten. “Stamp collecting could be addictive, and for many in my generation it was,” Meyer writes. “But there comes a time to let go of childish things, and the stamps, plate blocks and first-day covers I collected in the 1950s had sat in the box in the basement for too many years, unlooked at, unattended to …”

While I bridle at the suggestion stamp collecting is a “childish thing,” I understand what Meyer is getting at. I, too, found little time for the hobby during my active years of career, marriage, parenting, navigating through it all. But I never lost my enthusiasm — adult enthusiasm — for stamps.

Am I an outlier? Meyer’s limited research suggests — maybe. His sources told him that the average stamp collector today is between 65 and 70 (I am 69, so if I’m not an outlier, I’m an over-the-hiller); and that membership in the American Philatelic Society has declined by 50 percent over the past 20 years, from 56,532 to 28,953. (I admit I dropped out.)

When Meyer went to sell his collection, one of the dwindling number of active stamp dealers told him there is no market for his common stamps; the dealer wouldn’t even make an offer. Instead, he suggested Meyer donate his collection to a volunteer group that sorts and sends stamps to veterans hospitals and homes. Which he did.

At least that counters the assertion that stamp collecting is “childish.”

In a rapidly changing world, is there still a place for stamp collecting? Of course. There are challenges, to be sure. Stamps may be coming out faster than anyone can collect them — as many as 17,000 a year, worldwide. Meanwhile, paradoxically, a new generation barely knows what a stamp is any more. What’s wrong with this model?

Stamp collecting, like the world, is changing. Great stamp rarities continue to command record prices at auction. Stories about

George Bernard Shaw, among other luminaries, was an avid stamp collector.

stamps may not often find their way into mainstream news reports — except for occasional gloom-and-doom predictions like those in Meyer’s column. But stamp  stories are just as revealing,  entertaining, historically relevant as ever. The stamps are authentic artifacts, many of them exquisite works of art and design. And the older ones are getting rarer every day.

In his piece, Eugene Meyer invokes the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt, citing his lifelong passion for philately as an emblem of the hobby in its heyday. FDR, who could rest his useless legs fullsizeoutput_1b9ewhile he soared into the imaginative realms of his magnificent stamp collection, once said, “I owe my life to my hobbies — especially stamp collecting.”

If philately really is dying, I wish it would hurry up, so when prices collapse I can pick up some real bargains. However, I suspect that while stamp collecting will never recapture the dominant position it once occupied among hobbies. there will continue to be enough enthusiasts in this generation, and the next, to keep alive the fascination with those colorful specks of paper that tell so much.