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,

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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.

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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!

 

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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!

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TO BE CONTINUED

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

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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.”  (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/29/opinion/stamp-collecting-philately.html?emc=eta1) 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

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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.

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BONUS: Is a stamp illegal if it starts a war?

fullsizeoutput_1ac81. When this Bolivian postage stamp map (right) was first issued, in 1928, it caused an uproar in neighboring Paraguay. The two nations had been having a long dispute over the semi-arid, sparsely populated Chaco region. Paraguay and Bolivia, both land-locked, were among the poorest nations in South America. This postage stamp for the first time boldly named the territory that would  extend Bolivia’s southeast border, “Chaco Boliviano.”

 

fullsizeoutput_1aceA year earlier, Paraguay had  established its philatelic claim to the Chaco, a region that constituted about 40 percent of its northern land mass. A Paraguayan stamp in 1927 (right) displayed a corresponding map with the label Chaco Paraguayo (you can just make it out underneath the “Paraguay” banner.) The very next year, Bolivia would “occupy” the Chaco, philatelically speaking. The battle was on! Bolivia kept laying it on, reissuing its design in 1931, the year before the fighting began. Its last map stamp with the Chaco Boliviano inscription was issued in 1935, the year the two sides agreed to a cease fire.

fullsizeoutput_1ac9Postal officials in Paraguay countered the Bolivian affront with more stamps, this one at right a bit larger than the offending ones, with a map that clearly labeled the disputed territory as Chaco Paraguayo. To drive home the point, the stamp carried a legend at the bottom: Ha sido, es y sera (“Has been, is and will be”). As if that weren’t clear enough, the message continued on a pair of shields: El Chaco Boreal / Del Paraguay. (boreal means “northern”)

It may be a philatelist’s exaggeration to claim that these stamps provoked the vicious war between Bolivia and Paraguay over the Chaco. Provocative philately surely was a contributing factor. The 1932-35 conflict became the longest territorial war in South American history. It was costly and bloody — and largely ignored by the rest of the world. Bolivian fatalities were estimated as high as 65,000 — 2 percent of the population; Paraguay’s dead numbered some 36,000, 3 percent of its population.

fullsizeoutput_1acaIn the bitter fighting, Paraguay eventually took control of much of the territory, and a ceasefire was reached in 1935. But it was not  until 1938 that a truce was negotiated and signed. The agreement awarded Paraguay about two-thirds of the Chaco. That nation followed up with a series of self-congratulatory stamps celebrating the accord. One stamp (see right) really rubbed it in: A map pointedly emphasized Paraguay’s territorial dominance, and was accompanied by a suitably smarmy quotation, “Una paz honoroso vale mas que todos los triunfos militaries” (“An honorable peace is worth more than all the military triumphs”).

Safe to say Bolivia, which ended up with the short end of the Chaco, did not issue any celebratory stamps. In this case, the victor got to write the history.

The Universal Postal Union directs that nations should avoid giving political offense in its postage stamps. Whether or not these stamps from Bolivia and Paraguay were actually responsible for provoking a war, they clearly crossed the line drawn by the UPU.

ADDENDUM — A HAPPY ENDING? A final agreement on borders was not reached until 2009. Since then, oil and natural gas reserves have been discovered in both the Paraguayan and Bolivian sections of the Chaco.

What follows is a small gallery of more politically incorrect stamps (according to the UPU’s rules)

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2. These wartime stamps from Nazi Germany crossed the line into offensive territory — though the engravings themselves are distressingly artistic and well executed. The top example shows a grenade-thrower in action, with an empty Allied helmet in the foreground — presumably from a vanquished foe. The fullsizeoutput_1ad2lower stamp depicts a dreaded U-Boat slicing its way through the sea under a corona of sunbeams, while a ship burns in the background — presumably its enemy prey. British? American?

 

 

 

 

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3. I bet you never saw these crude stamps during the Vietnam War. Maybe ever? They were issued by North Vietnam, and doubled as propaganda labels — strictly against UPU rules. It was illegal to import them into the United States. Look at the communist soldiers in the image, above right (is that a woman?), shooting down a fullsizeoutput_1adahelicopter clearly labeled, “U.S. Army.” In the stamp below it, a U.S. B-52 explodes, hit by ship-to-air artillery, while another flaming jet in the background plummets to the Earth.

 

 

 

 

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This North Vietnamese stamp (right) kind of jarred me, in that it shows a group of American anti-war protesters demonstrating with signs reading, “End the war in Vietnam,” and “Vietnam for the Vietnamese.” Above the fray hovers the ghostly visage of a clean-cut, American-looking guy whose name on the stamp is given as “Noman Morixon.” Who is he? He is Norman Morrison, an American Quaker, anti-war protester and married father of three. In November, 1965, the 31-year-old went to Washington, picked a spot outside the Pentagon office of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, doused himself with kerosene and set himself on fire, burning to death. While his sacrifice may not have had much impact in his native land, the North Vietnamese certainly noticed. “Mo Ri Xon” became a folk hero. A Vietnamese poet memorialized his ultimate act of conscience.  Years later, when a Vietnamese ambassador came to Washington, he made a point of visiting the site of Morrison’s principled self-immolation.

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Here’s one more offensive and therefore illegal image on North Vietnamese stamps: a U.S. prisoner of war, presumably contemplating his sins. There oughta be a law against this stamp. In fact, there is.

 

 

 

 

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4. You don’t have to read North Korean    to figure out what these lurid stamps are about. To the left,  a fist smashes a missile labeled “USA.” To the right, a hand clasping a gun hovers over a scene of red missiles targeting … what is that, the U.S. Capitol?!

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North Korea’s pique toward the United States goes way back.  Here is a stamp celebrating the burning of the USS General Sherman, an ironclad ship that visited the Korean peninsula in 1866, apparently for purposes of trade, but without local authorization.
All aboard perished when the ship was torched.
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The USS Pueblo incident in 1968 also was celebrated, illegally, in North Korean postal history.
This stamp at right presents a  phalanx of hand-held weaponry,  confronting a diminutive group of U.S. seaman from the Pueblo.  The ship was boarded and captured when it strayed too close to the North Korean mainland.

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The humiliation of the Americans continued in these propaganda stamps. The one directly above seems to conflate the downing of the EC121 U.S. spy plane in 1969 and the capture of the Pueblo.

5. The two-month “war” between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands in 1982 was not nearly as bloody as the Chaco war between Paraguay and Bolivia; but the stamp war over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands seems never-ending.

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The Argentine stamp at right, overprinted Las Malvinas son Argentinas and issued in April, 1982, for the first time made the formal territorial claim in print on a postage stamp. It appeared right after Argentine forces stormed the Falklands in early April, overwhelming British colonial authorities. The stamps were available for use in Argentina — and the Malvinas/Falkland Islands — until the surrender to British troops in June. The death toll from the skirmishes: 649 Argentine soldiers, 255 British troops, and three Falkland Island civilians.

 

(For some of the account that follows I am indebted to my fellow blogger Dave of Global Philately, who has posted a splendid philatelic-led narrative of the Falkland Islands war.)
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Britain’s claim to the Falklands extends  into the 19th century. The islands’ first postage stamp (right) depicted a mature Queen Victoria.

 

 

 

 

 

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Britain affirmed its claim on a stamp from Canada in 1898 (right) celebrating the British empire. Particularly in
the blow-up image (below), you can see the Falklands off the southeastern tip of South America, colored red to signal Version 2its place in the imperial constellation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It wasn’t until 1936 that Argentina came back with its own postage stamp claiming the same territory in its colored map. But the philatelic impact of that claim went back further. Argentine authorities refused to recognize Falkland Island stamps, charging postage due for covers mailed to Argentina from the islands.

 

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In 1933 the British had issued a beautiful set of two-color engraved stamps to mark the centennial of its  colonial claim — an assertion that irked their Argentine counterparts, and may have contributed to the decision in Buenos Aires to issue its own map stamp (see above) three years later.

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At some point Argentine postal authorities prepared  this stamp design, which wrenched the islands firmly away from the British. The stamps were never issued.

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However, the rather undistinguished  stamp at right was issued in 1960, purportedly to commemorate the national census. Cute, the way it adds a couple of “chips” off its coast to the Argentine hegemon — not just the Falklands, but also South Georgia, another British-claimed island group, and a slice of Antarctica.

 

 

 

Then, in 1964, came three more stamps (see envelope, below) extending Argentina’s claim even further. Notice on the 4-peso stamp how Argentine flags are planted on the Falklands, South Georgia, the South Shetlands and South Orkneys, as well as Argentine Antarctica!

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At right is a cover from my collection from April 1982, a gift from my brother, who was working for Rotary International at the time. It is plastered with Malvinas son Argentinas overprints, and was mailed from the Argentine mainland to Rotary HQ in Evanston, Ill. I don’t believe it’s worth much, though it certainly has historical interest. The stamps must have been withdrawn after the British took back control of the Falklands in June. Otherwise, London surely would have raised holy heck with the Universal Postal Union.

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The one-year anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas war, in 1983, produced a curious pair of stamp issues. The Falklands issue was a four-stamp set in a souvenir sheet, marking the “liberation” — in June. Note the jaunty expression on the face of the soldier in the stamp at right.

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In Argentina, a stamp also came out marking the anniversary — that is, the date Argentina asserted its  claim by occupying the islands — in April.

 

 

 

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In case you thought the matter may have been settled since then — this three-stamp set from Argentina in 2012 once again portrays the disputed islands. The legend printed on the envelope translates roughly as: “The question of the sovereignty of the Malvinas shall go on forever.”

In a 2013 referendum, 99.8 percent of voters representing the Falkland Islands’ roughly 4,000 residents opted to remain a British territory. Argentina dismissed the referendum results.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cinderellas, part four: Illegal stamps! 1. Introduction

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This charming set from the Democratic Republic of the Congo was deemed illegal by the Universal Postal Union after it was disowned by postal officials in Kinshasa, Congo.

If you are a stamp collector, here’s some shocking news: More than a few of the stamps in your collection — even some of your prettiest topical sets featuring birds, butterflies, rock stars, Disney characters or world history — may be illegal!

When I say “illegal,” I don’t mean forgeries or  counterfeits — though let’s pause to consider them in passing. These fakes are  like forged paintings by “old masters” being foisted off as the real thing, or counterfeit $20 bills rolling off some  illicit press. Stamp catalogues warn about forgeries, which naturally are found among costlier and rarer stamps. Some early issues from British Guiana, for example, are called “reprints” — not exactly forgeries, since they are “official,” but not genuine

postage stamps either. The original 1 cent magenta of 1852 (above left) is for sale on eBay for just over $5,000; a reprint, readily identifiable by its thick paper and bright color (see above right, from my collection), is worth no more than $15.

Early stamps from the south African republic of Transvaal are quite dear — No. 1 is listed at $350, No. 3 at $450. The catalogue warns that “So-called reprints and trial

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The top example from Transvaal (the “Z. Afr. Republiek, or South African Republic) is genuine. The one below is a forgery. Can you tell them apart? (hints: in the forgery below, the eagle’s eye is a blob, and the word “EENDRAGT” in the banner is evenly lettered; in the real stamp, above, even though it is faded you still can see that the eagle’s eye is a dot, and the “D” IN EENDRAGT is larger than the other letters, actually touching the top of the banner.

impressions of the stamps … are counterfeits.” It goes on to describe how to distinguish forgeries from the real thing. Beware, this really gets into the weeds: “In forgeries … the ‘D’ of ‘EENDRAGT’ is not noticeably larger than the other letters and does not touch the top of the ribbon. In … genuine stamps, the ‘D’ is large and touches the ribbon top. The eagle’s eye is a dot and its face white on the genuine stamps; the eye is a loop or a blob attached to the beak, and the beak is strongly hooked, on the forgeries. …” There is much more to be said about forgeries — I just spent an absorbing 10 minutes delving into the subject online, and could easily get lost in the fake weeds. But let’s move on …

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Just because you own a few illegal stamps, doesn’t mean the Stamp Police will come knocking on your door, demanding to see your collection. They won’t  throw you in jail, slap you with a fine, or even confiscate the unauthorized items. In fact, the Stamp Police don’t even exist. And don’t think that just because some of your stamps are illegal, they have no value.  The UPU estimates the market for illegals is at least $500 million.

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I recently read about an illegal stamp issue that was a hot item at the 2016 World Stamp Show in Manhattan. The souvenir sheet from the  Central African Republic (see right) displayed Donald Trump, then the U.S. presidential candidate. The stamps commemorating the World Stamp Show paid tribute to prominent New Yorkers, with Trump featured as the most prominent of all.  It was being promoted by Stamperija, a private firm based in Lithuania that  serves the CAR and at least 10 other nations through outsourced postal operations, including stamp production and marketing. This sheet breaks at least a half-dozen rules for postage stamps set by the Universal Postal Union. Yet reports from the stamp show indicate sales were brisk. (You can buy one of the  sheets online from eBay for $6.26, plus postage and handling.)

What are the rules? First, here are six rules the Trump souvenir sheet from the Central African Republic breaks:

— It gets involved in the politics of another country

— It has nothing to do with the CAR: does not promote its cultural identity, has no bearing on the people or the state.

— It was not in circulation in the CAR or available to CAR postal customers.

— It was not in keeping with the spirit of the Preamble to the UPU Constitution

— It did not contribute to the dissemination of culture or to maintaining peace.

— It was not a manifestation of the sovereignty of the CAR.

Victor Banta of the philatelic webmaster group took the trouble to put the CAR souvenir sheet into context and perspective. He noted that while the World Stamp Show was going on in New York City in 2016, the CAR was wracked by kidnappings of government ministers, tribal violence and the threat of terrorism. “The influx of peacekeepers no doubt reduced further bloodshed,” Manta observed, “but the crisis continued to outpace the response” in a “rapidly expanding catastrophe.”  Now why does a government in such a state put out stamps honoring New Yorkers, particularly the controversial presidential candidate Donald Trump? As a distraction? A sycophantic ego trip? A commercial hustle? Whether or not this souvenir sheet illegal (and I believe it is), it’s a philatelic phelony.  J’accuse!

The rules may seem repetitive, even redundant, but it’s worth parsing words to get at what exactly is and is not a “postage stamp.” The UPU begins its definition transactionally: “Postage stamps: 1) Shall be used and put into circulation solely under the authority of the member country … 2) Are a manifestation of sovereignty and constitute proof of prepayment of the postage …”

The UPU declared that stamps must “be devoid of political character or of any topic of an offensive nature in respect of a person or a country …”  The postal poobahs  even set size parameters — not less than   15 mm or more than 50 mm, vertical or horizontal.

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Guess who?

Here’s a basic rule, one might think: Stamps must bear “the name of the member country or territory of issue, in roman letters …”  But wait! There is an exception. One country, and one country only, does not have to print its name on its stamps. “An exception shall be granted to Great Britain,” the UPU allows, “the country which invented the postage stamp.”

In 2008 the UPU reaffirmed its Philatelic Code of Ethics as originally adopted at the UPU congress in Bucharest, Romania in 2004. The goal of the enterprise is “high quality, ethical stamps” and a “vibrant philatelic market.” Keenly aware of the enduring value of stamps to philatelists, the authors of the code of ethics warned that postal authorities “shall not produce postage stamps or philatelic products that are intended to exploit customers.”

The code of ethics seems to cover the matter of cancel-to-order mills, the bane of most philatelists. But the language is vague, directing that “cancelling and marking devices shall be used for operational purposes only.”  Couldn’t you call it an “operational purpose” when a postal authority decides to reduce its stock by having its stamps cancelled to order? The postally-suspect “remainders” thus created are sold (somehow) at a deep discount, and are spurned by collectors-in-the-know (though I admit I own some CTO sets).

The code also addresses supply and demand. This means ensuring “that the number of stamps issued each year is limited to that which their market will accept.”  Postal authorities should “avoid oversupply,” the code advises. “They shall not saturate the market and thus drive philatelists and collectors away from the hobby.” As for proscribing illegal stamps, the code makes only one reference to “products of unofficial origin incorporating postage stamps,” and directs its members to “avoid any action which might be taken as declaring approval … or conferring official status” on such illegals.

Since 2002, the World Association for the Development of Philately (WADP) has been keeping track of legitimate stamp issues from UPU member states through its WADP Numbering System (WNS). Not all UPU member states cooperate with the WNS,  however, so there are gaps.

How many of the world’s 17,000-plus new stamps each year are designed and printed by outfits like Stamperija? Lots. Thousands of stamps in recent decades carried the names of nations in Africa and the former USSR, as well as tiny sovereign island states, and before that the Arab trucial states … Here is where it gets really confusing. How do you separate the “legitimate” postage stamps issued by, say, the Arab trucial state of Fujeira, from the “illegal” sets proscribed by the philatelic poobahs? And what if the set is “legit,” that is, postally valid, yet it breaks rules set by the UPU’s code of ethics? I mean really, look at some of these topical sets picked at random from the Scott catalogue for Fujeira in 1967: Butterflies, Winter Olympics, fullsizeoutput_1982Eisenhower.

 

Or how about florid souvenir sheets from the west African nation of Sierra Leone celebrating … U.S. Civil War generals (from both the north and the south!)?

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fullsizeoutput_197cThese stamps  have nothing to do with Fujeira or Sierra Leone, any more than the sets of French classical  painting on stamps from the Arab world or Central Africa. Is that a philatelic crime? At least a shade unethical?

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Now consider this pretty stamp (right) from Angola —  it is from a series of topical sets  celebrating flora and fauna, fungi and cacti. Why does the UPU insist they are illegal? Because Angolan postal authorities themselves denounced these issues to the UPU, refusing to acknowledge their legitimacy. The Philatelic Webmasters Organization noted: “Three companies located in Belgium, Great Britain and Lithuania issued stamps in its name.” Was this a shameless attempt by unscrupulous stamp-makers to cash in on the topical stamp market? Was there a misunderstanding? A deal gone bad? A plot foiled?  I wish I knew. …

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The stamps above, purportedly from Angola, are all illegal. Angolan postal authorities renounced them, and the Universal Postal Union proscribed them. One observer thought it odd that all the stamps were denominated in the same amount: 3.5 million KZr., whatever they are …

As you begin to realize how many illegal stamps there are out there — from Mali, Chad, Georgia, and so on — the likelihood that this is the result of an accident or a misunderstanding fades. What we’re left with is a philatelic scheme that blurs the boundaries between legal and illegal, and between Cinderellas and “real” stamps. The goal: to bleed the market until the entire house of stamps   collapses in a pile of disarray, distraction, dismay, disgust and disinterest.

 

A small gallery of illegals, undesirables and toward the end, forgeries

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Isn’t it odd that these two sets, above and below, look like they could be part of the same series? One is from Guinea-Bissau, in west Africa, the other from Vietnam, in southeast Asia. Are they illegal? No, not that I know of. But both sets appear to be cancelled-to-order, which is against the rules of the Universal Postal Union (though the rules are hardly wriggle-proof). I don’t know if these sets were printed in their respective countries or not, or if they were ever on sale locally. In the case of Guinea-Bissau, pretty much a gangster state as far as I can tell, the stamps had little or nothing to do with the people or their postal needs and practices. The collectibles likely were printed and marketed abroad, with the proceeds going into predictable pockets. Did the communists in Vietnam behave any less like corrupt crony capitalists?

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A set of stamps from Fidel Castro’s Cuba honoring Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe? How does this serve the interests of the Cuban people? When was the last time the United State Postal Service honored Cuban performers? This could be internalized cultural imperialism; or creeping capitalism among Cuban entrepreneurs who see the possibility to cash in on the topical stamp market…

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Between 1965 and 1990, all Togo stamps are suspected of being illegal, or at least “undesirable” and “abusive,” according to the Philatelic Webmasters Organization. Presumably that would include these sets from 1965 and 1967. In addition to their spurious provenance, the stamps bear the unmistakable sign of being cancelled-to-order (i.e. neat cancels in the corner, original gum on the back still intact.) Pretty stamps, though!

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This souvenir sheet from “The Gambia” would fall under the category of “Stamps We Should Better Avoid,” according to the Philatelic Webmasters Organization. In fact, all Gambia stamps since 1985 are suspect, the PWO says. I bought this souvenir sheet a while ago; probably paid a couple of bucks for it. I know it’s not worth much, especially since its integrity as an authentic set of “postage stamps” has been called into question. I admit it, though: I’m a sucker for stamp-on-stamp collecting. And these are some great images of rare and wonderful postage stamps. One question, though: Why no stamp from Gambia?

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This “authentic” set from Sierra Leone is remarkably similar to the “illegal” set from the Congo illustrated at the top of this post. How in the world is the average collector — or even the average stamp dealer — supposed to figure out which stamps and sets and sheets are the real thing, and which are the work of entrepreneurs cashing in on the half-billion-dollar market in illegal stamps?

Notwithstanding the purpose of this particular inquiry is illegal stamps, I can’t resist treating you to a few memorable stamp forgeries from the past …

 

This image on the left is described as an “American propaganda stamp” from World War II. I don’t know much about it, except that it parodies the definitive series from the Hitler era (see example, right). The name “Deutsches Reich” has been replaced with “Futsches Reich,” and Adolf’s profile is transformed into a hideous skull-creature. Brrr!

The Goebbels propaganda shop came up with this multi-layered Nazi deception (right). First, the red overprint — “Liquidation of Empire/Jamaica” — describes a fantasy scenario of de-colonization after Nazi conquest of England. Now look at the stamp itself. At first glance it appears to be a common British definitive from the George VI era (compare with the real thing, below). But no! The cross above the crown has been replaced by — a Star of David! Instead of the rose in the upper left corner there is — a Bolshevik Hammer and Sickle! Message: Great Britain is a tool of the Jews and the Communists. Pretty slick, eh? Maybe a bit too slick, I’d say …

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Journey with me further back in history for this little collection of Confederate forgeries. I just acquired it at the Syracuse Stamp Club auction, for a buck. DJK, the seller, labeled it “Confederate fakes,” and that pretty much says it. Every design from the brief interval of CSA stamp production is represented here — in a set produced “privately” in 1941, seven decades after the war between the states ended. The so-called Springfield Facsimiles were the work of H.E. MacIntosh, owner of Tatham Stamp and Coin Co. in Springfield, Mass. He commissioned the stamps as a promotional gimmick, using copyrighted portraits. After many complaints, fullsizeoutput_19e3MacIntosh agreed to label the stamps “Facsimile” and number his fakes. At right, for comparison purposes, I offer an example of the actual 10-cent Jefferson Davis profile stamp of 1863. I know it’s genuine because it was used on a cover, and passed down to me in my collection. Am I really sure? Well, look closely: the engraving itself is distinctive (the cheap imitation of the 10-cent stamp above, which is in the second row, far right, is lithographed, if I’m not mistaken.)

 

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And so it’s come to this, folks: A souvenir sheet of stamps from Sierra Leone, a poor, mismanaged nation in west Africa, that celebrates the era of the steam engine giving way to the “century of electricity.” I can attest that this sheet was purchased in-country in Sierra Leone — by my son-in-law. It may have been under sketchy circumstances, I’m not sure — through an agent or intermediary, perhaps. He picked up a whole pile of Cinderella-like sets and sheets, which surely cost a bundle, and gave them to me for my collection, but about which I still wonder: Are they really stamps?

 

 

 

 

END OF PART FOUR: 1

Cinderellas, part four: Illegal stamps! 2. Outlaws from the exploding USSR

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There is nothing overtly illegal about this cover, as far as I know. It was sent to me through the mail from Kiev in 1992, the year Ukraine regained its independence. So I can vouch for the authenticity of the cover and the stamps on it. Below left are three copies of the 20-kopek USSR definitive stamp of 1988. Upper right is a 3-kopek value from the same set, this one overprinted with the distinctive trident symbol of Ukraine. The Soviet “CCCP” (SSSR) in the cancel, as well as the use of USSR stamps, is jarringly archaic. This envelope came from “independent” Ukraine. It bears a stamp with an overprint proclaiming Ukrainian sovereignty. Seems to me the Soviet stamps are technically illegal on this letter, if you go by Universal Postal Union rules. And by the way, how come Ukrainian postal officials couldn’t get around to creating cancellations in the name of their newly freed country? Get a move on!

The fracture of the Soviet Union in 1991 created a kaleidoscope of new philatelic ventures. In the Baltic region, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia regained their sovereignty  and began issuing stamps in their own names for the first time since before World War II. In  Ukraine, Armenia, Ajerbaijan and Georgia, their last stamps were issued in 1923, when they became part of the Soviet Union. Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan would be issuing the first stamps of  newly sovereign states.

More philatelic light shards spun off during the seismic weeks and months between the USSR and state governance. “Local issues,” also called
“provisionals,” sparked everywhere as one self-styled postal authority after another stamped their micro-national overprints on copies of the last definitive set of the USSR, across all nine time zones of the Soviet vastness. There were so many local issues that I despair of compiling a complete list. (So far I have 68 on my incomplete list.)

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These are examples of the last set of definitive stamps issued by the Soviet Union, in 1988. Pretty cute, eh? They were overprinted as “local issues” from one end of the USSR to the other in 1992-3.

A philatelic meteor shower occurred in Ukraine. There, a local issue appeared bearing the names of 25 Ukrainian cities (Ternopil, Sevastopol, Lvov, Kiev, Loots … ), in effect creating 25 new philatelic authorities. (see below)

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The same trident overprint, above, is used (spuriously) on “local” issues from Odessa and Zurupirisk in 1992-3.

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A century-old trident overprint on a Russian stamp displays the distinctive symbol of Ukraine.

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The “stamp” at left features the trident and  commemorates 25 years of Ukrainian something-or-other. It was released in 1954. The set above right honors the Olympics in 1960. These are all bogus stamps. Ukraine used only USSR stamps from 1923 until 1991. So where did these come from? And why were they made?

 

fullsizeoutput_1a2fThis illegal Cinderella series from 1958, which marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Ukraine National Republic, makes its propaganda point pretty clearly: Rise up, Ukrainians!
(Spoiler alert: They didn’t.)

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fullsizeoutput_1a2eHere are some creepy covers. I don’t suppose you would list as Cinderellas these stamps from Nazi-occupied Ukraine in World War II. The stamps were “legal” in their creepy way. The top example is a philatelic cover created in 1942, during the brief Nazi expansionist era. (Notice how the efficient Nazis already had their own cancellation for Ukraine.) By March of 1943, when the cover at right was mailed, the wheels were coming off the Nazi juggernaut. I like to think this envelope shows evidence of desperate times — the haphazard address and placement of stamps, the general wear and tear, one stamp with a corner missing …

fullsizeoutput_1a32Here is another illegal Cinderella from Ukraine that I include because it features the familiar trident — and also because of the crude art work, overprint and around-the-edge lettering, “world refugee year, 1959-60.” It would rank as one of the worst stamps ever designed, were it not for the fact that it’s not really a stamp to begin with.

 

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Do you have a Ukrainian friend? Perhaps he or she could explain what it is about the Ukraine point of view that countenances producing all these stamps for a fictitious independent state of Ukraine? Look at them all! Bogus, every one. And I expect this is far from a complete collection of Ukrainian Cinderellas …

 

 

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Compare this unusual inverted overprint with the stamp on the envelope illustrated at the start of this essay (see enlargement, below). That one was authentic; Is this one?  The stamps looks very similar, though these   carry different values  (5,00 instead of 3,00), and the overprint is red, not gold. The dealer describes the item as Version 2“unlisted,” which raises my suspicions. Nevertheless, Yours Truly shelled out $13.75 for this “error.” What’s an illegal error worth?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fancy commemoratives of the ex-Soviet Union also were appropriated and overprinted as local issues. These two sets carry the names of Russian territory — Zapolarye and Severomorsk.

 

 

Artistic overprints expanded to cover miltiple stamps at a time, creating a new image superimposed on the block-of-four underneath it.

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In the case of these Ukraine-based overprints (above), the “new” images, imprinted on blocks-of-four of USSR definitive stamps, mimic a set produced by independent Ukraine in 1922 but never issued (wonder why?). Note the enlarged images (below) of the 5 and 10 (kopek?) values. The originals stamps are to the left, the overprints at right. Clever, eh?

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The overprints may be crude,  witty, garish or elegant by turns. The regional claims to postal authority become so microscopic or abstract as to be almost ludicrous. What, pray tell, are the borders of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region? Russian Antarctica? Mari-El Republic?

One should wonder: Do these stamps bear any relation to real postage stamps? Or was some guy sitting in his basement turning out these illegal Cinderellas with a pile of stamps and a rudimentary printing press? Certainly there is no reliable postal value to these stamps. Have you ever seen any of them cancelled on a postally used cover? I haven’t.  (Dealer Frank Geiger claimed to have covers for sale with local issues, i.e.,  used for postage.)

Safe to say, a great many of these stamps could be rightly identified (or dismissed) as illegal Cinderellas. There is certainly enough background on these spurious issues by now to make it clear we are talking about unauthorized  stamps. The Philatelic Webmasters Organization lists 35 “members” of the Russian federation whose names are found on illegal issues, including the Kuril Islands, the Republic of Karelia,  Republic of Ingushetia, Spitsbergen Island, Republic of Tatarstan …

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Suddenly I am confronted with a smoking gun: a detailed description of some illegals that are right there in my collection! The Wikipedia entry on “illegal stamps” identifies a specific example, with a large illustration. The caption describes “Stamps of the Soviet Union with overprints supposedly from the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.” This unwieldy title, also known as  PMR, covers territory in the former Soviet republic of Moldava — specifically Transnistra — that didn’t want to break away from the Soviet Union. When the USSR collapsed, the PMR was basically out of luck and out of business. The stamps illustrated above “were produced in 1992 or 1993 without the knowledge or permission of PMR authorities,” according to Wikipedia. Philatelic scholar Niall Murphy has taken the trouble to study the “Sun Rays Group” of PMR  overprints. There is just no way these stamps can be legal. And there they are, right in my stockbook! It looks like I may have paid $16 for them. The dealer described them as “civil war issues,” staking a vague claim to legitimacy amid the exigencies and fog of battle. I should not have been fooled. Would I be fooled again? Indubitably, because I am fascinated by the first philatelic yelps of new nations being born. The awkward overprints, the false starts and early designs, surcharges, errors — all combine into a revealing portrait of collective human invention, refracted through the lens of philately.

All this means I was a sucker for these “new issue from new republics”  come-ons. Here’s how one dealer, Frank Geiger of Upper Saddle River, N.J., made his pitch, back in the 1990s: “With the disintegration of the Societ Union and Yugoslavia … many new countries have appeared on the globe. As strange as some of these names seem to us today, they will, someday, be as familiar to philatelists as Alderney, Aruba and Aland. We are pleased to offer complete coverage of the ‘new republics’ of Europe and Asia. …”

Nice try, Frank, but I don’t buy it. Not any more. For one thing, Aruba is a legitimate, longtime Caribbean island with its own postal authority. Alderney,  a channel island linked to Guernsey off the coast of Britain, just plays at issuing stamps, while the stamps of the Aland Islands, which is an autonomous region of Finland, are still in Cinderella-land.  Furthermore, time has proven Frank Geiger wrong. Today, no one remembers the stamps from Norilsk, or Ekaterinburg, or Birobidzhan.

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This page includes overprints of USSR stamps for Azerbaijan (top), Moldava (middle) and the Kuril Islands (bottom). FYI, the Kuril Islands are 8,113 kilometers east of Moldava.

Nevetheless, I admit to spending $22 here (Odessa locals), $4 there (Bassarabia, first issue), $25 elsewhere  (Crimea local issues). I guess I spend a hundred or two on these  Cinderellas, with their slapdash  overprints and surcharges on  pint-size  Soviet definitives. I believe I was  hypnotized by these little definitive stamps — so alike and yet so different. I yielded to the philatelist’s impulse to accumulate more and more of these  overprints. I was struck by how, depending on the names in the overprint, two similar USSR stamps could designate territory separated by thousands of miles …

Geiger made his case well, claiming to have some first day covers and other cancelled material available. In the case of a “Russian local issue” from St. Petersburg, he wrote: “These stamps were officially issued by St. Petersburg Postal District and have been used on international mails, but the local authorities have been asked by the central Russian government not to repeat this type of issue.” Tellingly, Ginger did not offer any cancelled examples for sale. And get this added note: “Our St. Petersburg stock came form a local source in 1992 and are genuine overprints. Beware of low-priced fakes now appearing on the market as the demand for these stamps continues unabated.”  Could he really be warning his readers about forgeries of illegals?!  How low can you go?!

The Norilsk set Geiger offered was used, he further claimed, to mail parcels between the islands of Novaya and Malaya Zemiya, off the northern coast on Siberia on the Arctic Ocean. However, he was not able to offer any cancelled examples or covers for sale.

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Is this a Cinderella or a real stamp? Legal or illegal? I say legal and official, because I received it from a postal agent in Ukraine in 1992, in response to my request for a stamped cover. His/her bonus enclosure of this mint stamp was accompanied by the hand-written note — “First stamp independente Uraine” — which displayed a touching sense of national pride along with the awkward syntax and amisspelling of “independent.” At my next Syracuse Stamp Club meeting I will try to remember to check an up-to-date catalogue to make sure this really is a first. (Update: I did; it is.)  Certainly it’s not the first Ukrainian stamp, though. That one date back to 1918 and the Ukrainian National Republic. Moreover, numberless Ukrainians, proud and stubborn and creative, would point to the many issues put out by loyal exiles through the years of Soviet rule. Now that the Soviet Union is long gone, the thought suddenly occurs: Might it some day be time to review those “illegal” Ukraine issues, and to reimagine those Cinderellas as authentic, flickering emblems of a dormant nation that awoke in 1992? Sounds to me like a fairytale ending  …

So here I am, with set after set of these bland USSR definitive stamps and their obscure and ephemeral overprints … Prednestrova, Birdobidjian, Udmurtija, Alta, Abhkazia, Karelia, Karil Islands …  No matter what they cost me, I now wonder: What are they worth? Surely something — if only as evidence of the aspirational lodestar that spun off all this spurious philately.

 

 

 

 

A small gallery of overprints from the exploded USSR    

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I don’t believe you will find these stamps listed in any reputable catalogue. (Maybe a disreputable one.) I kind of like the USSR stamps — they’re pretty. Plus, they have these interesting overprints. The bottom ones say “Azerbaycan,” which must be Azerbaijan, the former Soviet republic now going strong on its own. So why is this an illegal Cinderella? Oops, I should be answering questions, not asking them.

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All these stamps (above and below) are “local” overprints from the USSR definitive series of 1988. They all purport to represent the Crimea, which was part of Ukraine before the Soviet anschluss. OK, you may be right if you suggest that I am going overboard on these stamps. Back in the 1990s, though, there was something mesmerizing about all these stamps sparking up from the former Soviet Union. These Crimea locals, with their overprinted symbols (can you find Prince Vladimir’s trident?), assert a renewed national identity, literally imprinting Crimea’s sovereignty on the emblems of its former Soviet ruler. Similarly, throughout the crumbling Soviet empire, the spirit of sovereignty and independence flared and flashed in the local overprints that rebranded stamps from the old regime as beacons of freedom.

 

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Version 2

Here’s a wild melange (above), including overprints from Birobidzhan (the Jewish Republic) that imprint a Menorah over Soviet-era stamps. Could this be a little jab at the USSR for its historic hostility to Jews? Likewise, the Russian Cinderellas depict Czarist emblems — isn’t that the doomed Czar Nicholas himself, in full uniform, spread over four USSR definitives? What would Lenin make of these counter-revolutionary Cinderellas?

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Quiz time: Are these real? Here are three blocks of stamps, the left from from Ukraine, the other two from the USSR. All are overprinted on behalf of the Ukrainian army battalion serving as UN peacekeepers in Bosnia in the 1990s. Were these stamps ever actually used on mail out of Bosnia? Out of anywhere? It’s easy enough to make out a value on each block — .05, .20 and .25 (what “C” stands for I don’t know). I am not going to try to decipher the overprint. I do like stamps issued for peacekeeping contingents, though. I guess that’s because I am a strong advocate for peace, and savor philatelic emblems of peacekeeping which reflect that noble human aspiration. (I hope they are real — the stamps as well as the aspiration!)

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Finally, here are stamps from a modern definitive set, officially issued by postal authorities and put to use in Ukraine. The denominations are letters not numbers, as is customary in much of the modern world. It’s a modest and boring set, I suppose, though I like definitives   like this share a design concept, with varying images and colors. I have one concern about the legality of these stamps, though. I thought the Universal Postal Union directed that all stamps (except those from Great Britain, which invented stamps) must have the issuing nation’s name on it — in roman letters. This has been an issue throughout the Russian sphere — the lettering is cyrillic — as well as in some Arab/Asian nations. Now those stubborn Ukrainians continue to thumb their nose at philatelic protocol. Or should the UPU diktat be discarded as outdated and Roman-centric?
ADDENDUM: By the mid-1990s, both the Ukraine and Russia had (grudgingly?) accepted UPU guidelines. Ukraine stamps henceforth were inscribed in cyrillic and also in roman letters (“Ukraina”). Russian stamps bore the roman footnote, “Rossiya.”

END OF PART FOUR: 2

Cinderellas part three: The first Cinderellas

fullsizeoutput_1932The question is asked: What was the first Cinderella? That is, what is the first artistic imitation of a postage stamp or “Artistamp,” not sanctioned by an official postal service?

My semi-authoritative source (Wikipedia) notes that “The first artist to produce an ‘artist’s stamp’ is open to interpretation.” Well, what do you know? I would say just about everything about this verfluchte subject of Cinderellas is open to interpretation. Nevertheless I shall soldier on, because I believe I have an interesting conjecture about the “first Cinderellas.”

Some consider the first Cinderellas were “local” mail delivery stamps — like the Pony Express, whose covers today are worth big bucks. Some local stamps were issued by regional postal authorities around the time the first U.S. stamps appeared, in 1847. In the later 1800s, commercial “poster stamps” are considered early artist’s stamps, or Artistamps. Otherwise, references seem to be mostly in the 20th century — a Dada postage stamp in 1919, World War II-era Artistamps, then the 1960s and beyond. (The term “Artistamp” is credited to T. Michael Bidner, in 1982. Bidner was a devoted archivist of artist’s stamps.)

My assertion is that Cinderellas appeared the same year as the world’s first postage stamp, the British Penny Black, in 1840; and that those very first Cinderellas helped determine the course of philately itself.

The story starts with the Mulready Cover, named for the artist, William Mulready. An associate of Rowland Hill who designed the Penny Black, Mulready was chosen to produce postage-paid envelopes, in one-penny and two-pence denominations. Think of it as the first aerogramme, about 80 years before  airmail service. The envelope Mulready came up with was an elegant engraving that featured Britannia with a lion at her feet, presiding over a kind of universal postal union — exotic animals and persons representing British subjects and others in different continents engaged in various activities, including getting and sending letters.

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Here is a Mulready Cover in my collection. It includes a pretty Maltese Cross red cancel on the front, and an 1840 postmark on the back that could be July or May — the earlier date would make it quite rare. I paid about $46 for it in an online auction — a pretty good deal, I’d say. Note Britannia dispatching winged, nude messengers from the center. Upper left, Asian elephants, camels and Chinese gentlemen crowd the space. Upper right are naked Indians and clothed Pilgrims, a mother with babe in arms and a busy cartwright. In the bottom corners are depictions of domestic letter-reading. These scenes figure in the caricatures to come.

Rowland Hill anticipated that his boring Penny Black stamp would be less popular than this exotic, engraved cover. He was wrong.

The Mulready Envelope never caught on.  There are at least three explanations out there. First, the cover was so busy that the public couldn’t really get the point. In fact, the Mulready Cover was subjected to public ridicule and scorn, some of it downright lascivious. The London Times took an immediate dislike to it. “We have been favored with a sight of one of the new stamp covers,” the newspaper editorialist opined, “and we must say that we have never beheld anything more ludicrous than the figure or allegorical device by which it is marked with its official character.” (More about this later.) A second factor was suspicion that the Mulready Cover was a government conspiracy to control the flow of information under the Postal Reforms Act that had just become law. The third explanation, which I want to dwell on at some length, was the threat posed to stationers by this new postal instrument, sold in 12-copy Formes for 1 shilling or 2 shillings. Since the aggrieved stationers had ready access to engravers and printers, they launched a media blitz. In the  milieu of 1840, this meant printed cartoons and caricatures. The satirical artwork began appearing almost simultaneously with the release of the Mulready covers. The public fuss was not lost on Rowland Hill. Less than a week after the covers went on sale May 12, Hill wrote in his journal: “I fear we shall have to substitute some other stamp for that design by Mulready.” He added testily: “The public have shown their disregard and even distaste for beauty.” Within two months the postal powers-that-be had decided to scrap the Mulready Cover.

Is the cover beautiful? Ludicrous? Lascivious? Let’s take a look at some of the caricatures, and see how they manage to undermine the hifalutin notions of the Mulready Cover.

fullsizeoutput_18ffThis first caricature is noteworthy not just because of the pipe-smoking figure of Britannia, but because it comes with a detailed description in a contemporaneous gazette.  I will quote from the commentary at some length, because it goes directly to the point that the Mulready Cover is so elaborate, obscure, even ribald, that any point is lost and the hapless viewer must  make up his or her own story. Herewith the 1840 text, to accompany blow-up images of the section being satirized:

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Below, a detail from the Mulready Cover; above, the caricature.

“Look directly at the centre, and you will perceive the besotted figure of Britannia with her shield upon her knee. She has just put up a covey of postmen, with the wings of wild geese — naked in the pictur, but here, you will perceive, clothed for families.  … At the foot of Britannia is the Version 2British lion, looking as mild as if suckled upon ass’s milk, and having not so much as a growl  inside of him. With spectacles on nose, and his nob covered with a Palmerston cap, he is leisurely reading the latest foreign intelligence. This once vigorous animal appears to be in his dotage, and his tail hangs as limp as a thread-paper! …”

Version 4

Two versions of the domestic letter-reading scene described below. Left is  from the Mulready Cover; the slightly creepy one above is a caricature.

Version 4I’m not done yet. Here is the satirist’s impression of the domestic scene in the lower left corner (see enlargements): “… There is the portrait of a venerable old lady of the name of Smith. She is bed-ridden, ladies and gentlemen, and is listening to a letter read by her niece. Mark the figure of Mrs. Smith. She is looking all sorts of gratitude, and her two hands is clasped. The letter is from her grandson, John Smith, reported to have been hanged for burglary and murder; whereas that letter, just received by the penny post, assures the delighted parent that her grandchild is transported for life, for robbing on the highway, with the minor offense of slitting an attorney’s nose. …”

This business of lampooning the Mulready Cover went viral, 1840s-style.  An online collectors site lists 47 satirical covers. The effect must have been dramatic, and the battle was quickly won. While there would continue to be designed envelopes through the Victorian era and beyond, and while we all know about aerogrammes and stamped envelopes, the postage stamp quickly became the preferred and indispensable mailing device. Score a victory for the first Artistamps! (Though I suppose the Mulready Cover technically was not a stamp … )

I have had fun looking over these caricatures and would like to share images of some of them. I got the images from the Internet, mind you, since they are expensive and rare. An original cover can cost $550, sometimes much more, though

you occasionally may find a bargain.  Unfortunately, I have not yet uncovered any other colorful narratives to accompany these images. However, I shall endeavor to  pass along in captions some of my own impressions from close observation; and as Yogi Berra said, you can see a lot just by observing.

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In this Mulready Cover caricature, Britannia looks clueless and self-satisfied as she dispatches her letter-carriers, who are not naked but clothed in appropriate uniforms. A foreign gentleman on either side of Britannia is conspicuously thumbing his nose at Her Imperial Eminence, while at her feet, a pint-size admiral rides a British lion who appears emaciated and decrepit, letters dangling from a tail outstretched like a clothesline. In the lower corners, two postmen on horseback gallop in opposite directions, while in the upper left, a carrier weighed down with sacks gazes woefully at the viewer; upper right, a town bell-ringer is so mesmerized by his envelope, he forgets his task. All in all, not a very positive, respectful depiction of the people’s response to this new postal gimmick, wouldn’t you agree?

 

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Here is one in a series of lampoons issued under the satirical rubric, “Rejected design’s (sic) for the postage envelope.” A dowdy Britannia with a goofy grin presides over a constellation of what seem to be nude acrobats, while the English lion peeks out (lasciviously?) from behind her skirts. In the middle ground, a pair of women of questionable repute share a bottle over their envelope, counterbalanced by a gentleman reader in a pith helmet and a leering pasha. The foreground is bracketed by two peg-leg pirates, each gleefully brandishing a Mulready Cover. What a disgraceful, disorderly scene!

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Here is another from the “rejected design’s” series. In this depiction, a cross-eyed Britannia looks positively looped. Her dog-like lion is delivering a Mulready Cover in his teeth to a surprised recipient. The postage envelope is everywhere in evidence, though to what purpose is not clear. Nor is it clear to me what the two misbehaving boys in the foreground have done with a Mulready Cover that leaves their master so perplexed. — and the woman behind them so downcast. At the lower left, the bloke seems to be offering a Mulready Cover to the tradesman for use in polishing shoes.

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Here is a third cover from the “rejected” series of caricatures. Britannia and the lion look OK, compared to their comportment in other illustrations. What distinguishes this work is that all the recipients of the bothersome Mulready Covers are women. Look at them: idling away their day reading scribbles on an envelope when they could be doing useful work. Notice the supply of letters fluttering down, top left, and left foreground being thrust at the lady on the divan. I say, these Mulready Covers are corrupting the women and undermining the moral fiber of the nation! Will no one bring this sinful indulgence and indolence to a stop?!

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Here’s an unusual Mulready Cover caricature that appears to be hand-drawn in pen and ink. Notice how it is a “complete” envelope — that is, the four corners can be folded over and sealed to create the letter suitable for mailing. The cover is attributed to John Menzies, and while it briefly was offered online for L5,000 ($6,534), it apparently was withdrawn from sale. Noteworthy are the vignettes of a poor fellow watching carriers deliver armloads of envelopes (upside down, top — see inset, below), a woman (right flap) receiving an envelope from a “postman” whose pockets seem to be bulging with loot, and a guy (left flap) whose whole visible outfit, as well as his eyes, nose and mouth, are fullsizeoutput_1937.jpeg made out of Mulready Covers. Kinda creepy!
By the way, it looks like this cover actually went through the mail. Since it isn’t a pre-paid Mulready Cover, I figure the sender supplied the necessary penny for postage, and the clerk applied that bold red “paid 20 JY 40” date stamp.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Here is another busy caricature of the Mulready Cover. Britannia and some of her naked messengers are presented fairly straightforwardly — except at left, a naked minion rides a glue stick with a belching smokestack — and delivers a Mulready Cover to the mouth of a waiting camel. Britannia has a jester’s bells on her cap, and the shield replaced by a penny coin — the price of a Mulready Cover. Lots going on here: The English lion is all but obliterated by his cap; among other envelope-readers, a bespectacled elephant (upper left) rests her letter on a block that is inscribed by the printer, “W.H. Mason, Repository of Arts, Brighton”; note the faces carved into the foundation … note also the scenes, bottom left and right. Is the postman a clean, personable public servant (left), or a wily rascal (right)? By now you must be getting the same impression I’m getting — that the cumulative effect of these published caricatures makes it impossible to take the Mulready Cover seriously.

 

What follows is a small gallery of Mulready Cover caricatures from the 1840s,  with notes and comment

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Online description: 1840 an example of the Mulready “Caricature” envelope by Spooner issue No 2, illustrating the characters all receiving letters addressed to West Wycombe from Petersfield dated for NO 12 1840, being sent un-paid and bearing on front a “2” charge mark in black ink. The envelope is sealed by a gold on black wafer illustrating a hangman placing a noose around the condemned prisoner’s neck with the legend “I trouble you with a line”! A rare and most attractive item of Victorian humour.

The caption above accompanies the online offering of this extraordinary Mulready Cover caricature. At the center is a dour, pipe-smoking Britannia and her lion, flanked on one side by a devil with a mail sack, and on the other by a gunpowder explosion throwing victims into the air. The envelope is embellished with six scenes of letter exchanges, each one worth a story of its own. All this busy-ness reinforces the overall point of the anti-Mulready campaign, which is that the Mulready Cover is so confusing and misunderstood and busy that it should be scrapped immediately.

One more thing about this cover. I have not yet made the connection, but don’t you think the figures in these comic caricatures, with their big heads, expressive faces and tiny bodies, look an awful lot like the work of John Tenniel, illustrator of the Happy Families playing cards — as well as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”? Well, maybe. Maybe not. Tenniel would have been only 20 at the time. So if it wasn’t Tenniel, who drew these wonderful characters?

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In my opinion, those Tenniel-like characters are more interesting than the crude ones in this caricature. Britannia looks like a thug, the distracted lion looks more like a turtle. Then there’s all the busy-ness. In this iteration, everyone is using the post — that is, the Mulready Cover — as an excuse, a quick fix, a way to avoid personal responsibility. Here are the comic sketches of 1840:

Upper left:
Daughter: Oh please, Mr. Smut will you bring Mother half a hundred of coals.
Mr. Smut (enjoying a snack): I can’t bring them cos I’m engaged. But I’ll put em in the post directly.

Lower left:
Miss: Have you sent my mutton Mr. McSticken?
Mr. McSticken: The boy has just put it in the post Miss.

Upper right:
Diner: Waiter, how long will my soup be.
Waiter: It’s just put in the post sir.

Middle right:
Postman (handing baby to surprised matron): It’s returned, marm They won’t take it in.

Lower right:
Child (to grandmother, who is threading a needle): Granny, can’t you send belly aches away by the post?

Not sure what the deeper meaning of all this is. That you shouldn’t rely on the post office — or the Mulready Cover? Hey, not bad …

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This is a caricature where I initially found myself at a disadvantage. The small title at the top announces, “Punch’s Anti-Graham Envelope.” Who is Graham? Apparently the guy standing in for Britannia. And then, who is guy drawn as the head of a black snake taking the place of the English lion? One of them must be Mulready. I know Punch is the venerable British humor (humour) magazine. And I can see a snake in the grass when it’s right in front of me. Another thought occurs as I take in those little postmen in their coats and top hats, flitting about in great numbers, peering through a keyhole, reading over shoulders, even sticking their heads right into a Mulready Cover to see what’s inside: Isn’t this a visualization of the conspiracy theory — that the Mulready envelope is the leading edge of a campaign to control the free flow of information? A snake in the grass, indeed!

Why is this cover blue? My guess is that this particular caricature is not aimed at the (black) one penny Mulready Cover, but at the (blue) 2d. cover. One more note: This is not the first caricature where there is a small icon at the bottom of a bottle with an “S” on it. Meaning? Could be an artist’s mark …

Addendum: Now I have more authoritative background (and confirmation) on this cover, which dates to 1844, courtesy of the web. This is from the William James Linton Archive at the Melton Prior Institute for reportage drawing and printing culture: “The politician who suffered most from Punch … was the most unpopular of a long line of unpopular Home secretaries, Sir James Graham. … His capital offence was directing the opening of certain of Mazzini’s letters (ed: Giuseppe Mazzini was an Italian, a politician and journalist who led the early movement for unification.) … in consequence of the statements made to our Government by that of Naples, to the effect that plots were being carried out – of which the brilliant and popular Italian refugee was the centre – to excite an insurrection in Italy. … (T)he popular feeling roused by it was intense, and Punch, up in arms at once at this supposed violation of the rights of the subject, fanned the excitement … This consisted in the famous Anti-Graham Envelope (…) drawn by John Leech — a sort of burlesque … . The circulation attained by this envelope was very wide, and although I have not ascertained that many were actually passed through the General Post Office, it certainly brought a flood of bitter ridicule on the unfortunate Minister.” (M. H. Spielmann, The History of Punch, 1895)

More from the Melton Prior Institute: “The original prepaid Mulready envelope was the world’s first postal stationery, issued in 1840, at the same time as the first postage stamp. It had been decorated by the painter William Mulready with a representation of Britannia at the centre top, sending out her winged emissaries to all corners of the British Empire. Leech and Linton turned this document of Imperial pride into the vision of a total surveillance state with the detested minister as “Big Brother” Britannia, who sends out his winged flock of clerks to violate people’s privacy. The Anti-Graham envelope followed a favoured radical strategy of using fake documents and bogus money as means of criticism and propaganda … For Linton, it was a first encounter with the art of creative forgery.”

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OK, this caricature is just too busy for me. The quality of the reproduction makes it nigh-on for me to decipher everything. It’s fair to conclude the gist of the thing is: Mulready Cover bad!

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Now look at the blowup, right. It’s from the upper right of the last caricature. And here we come, finally, to the lascivious angle. Notice how the naked Indian conferring with the Pilgrim (no, wait! It’s now a postman!) looks like a Vaudeville extra. So does the Indian seated on what looks like his pants, whose buttocks are modestly concealed by … what? A Penny Black postage stamp! It’s altogether quite a garish scene, don’t you think?

For comparison purposes, fullsizeoutput_18a2I include a blowup of the same corner of the authentic Mulready Cover. In the dignified scene, one (naked) Indian shakes hands with a (fuilly-clothed) Pilgrim, while others stand back. In the foreground, another (naked) Indian sits on a mat, facing away from the viewer. Never mind the (naked) winged messenger in the background, or the (naked) Laplander driving his reindeer sled. Focus on the buttocks! They surely grabbed the attention of the British public, even as they found their way into the caricatures. Were Victorian sensibilities titillated by this expose of supple young butt cheeks? Was there outrage? Gossip? Protest? (Gee, someone should do a paper on this …)

Now let’s take a quick look at other lascivious close-ups in Mulready Cover caricatures.

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In this caricature (sorry about the hand-scrawled cancel), naked Indians cavort around the sober Pilgrims, while fellow sitting on the mat maintains a stoic silence. Indeed, his helmet or cap or mantle of hair makes him look like a (naked) Prince Valiant …

 

 

Version 2

 

In another caricature, the artist went off on a flight of fancy, doodling one naked sprite after another …

 

 

 

Version 2

 

In this cynical caricature, all the characters have become grotesques — Indians and settlers conniving in a tight group. Naked buttocks are much in evidence, including the fat cheeks of the obligatory seated-nude-facing-away. Next to him a reclining dandy is wearing a postman’s hat … and apparently nothing else!

 

 

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Finally, here is a detail from a caricature showing a youth in chains, seated, looking downcast. But see: A bird flies toward him, carrying in its beak — a Mulready envelope. All is not lost!

That notion that an airborne Mulready Cover can free a prisoner or slave is a bit visionary, particularly so for a satirist from the 1840s. What an image!

 

END OF PART THREE

Cinderellas part two: Artistamps

So far I have barely creased the surface of Cinderella “non-stamps.” You can do a deeper dive by going online to “Cinderella stamps images,” and get lost in the pictures and stories. I decided to take a little side trip into the wild and crazy world of Artistamps. Come along!

The Artistamp could be considered a sub-category of the Cinderella, but by rights deserves a category of its own. The hybrid term is charmingly defined as a  “portmanteau” — that is, not the two-part travel-case, but “a word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others,”  like motel, or brunch. In this case, the two words don’t fold quite as easily as the portmanteau —  is it  “artist” and “stamp,” or “artist’s stamp”? The key word to hang on to is “art.” The Artistamp may have an ulterior motive, an ironic,  political, satirical or even subversive purpose, but it also needs the  saving grace of artistic merit.

 

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These may look like postage stamps, but do not be deceived. They are the deceptive and alluring work of Donald Evans. Who ever heard of a place called “Amis et Amants” (Friends and Lovers)? I can’t make sense of the captions, and the “cancellation” consists of the artist’s name. But they sure are pretty, aren’t they?

To me and no doubt others, Donald Evans did as much as anyone during his brief and remarkably productive career to elevate the Artistamp to its deserved niche  in the collectors  pantheon. (Where is that perch, you ask? Somewhere between Andy Warhol, Saul Steinberg and R. Crumb.)  This guy was an architectural draftsman who had been fooling around drawing stamps since he was 10. He picked up the pastime again as an adult, and went on to design  thousands of imaginary stamps and imaginary sets from 42 imaginary countries. Each stamp was a meticulously designed and executed miniature, using ink and washed-out watercolors. Evans pecked out “perforations” using the period key on a typewriter. The results were stunning — whimsical, irresistible, altogether delicious. fullsizeoutput_18e1Evans seemed to tap into the essence of philatelic joy  — the crisp order, the soothing color, the variety of the  imagery and messaging, all contained within the frames  of those little stamps. Emily Cleaver writes: “He used this sameness, this deliberate smallness, to explore the infinite. His stamps are pieces of physical evidence sent directly from the limitless landscape of the imagination.”

Alas, Donald Evans died in a house fire in 1977.  He was just 33. A few more Donald Evans works follow …

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This witty souvenir sheet by Donald Evans celebrates some long-ago air show of the imagination, and features a single-engine plane doing a lazy circle — around the sheet. To me, the sheet also resonates with echoes from the famous and spectacularly valuable Inverted Jenny U.S. airmail stamp error of 1918.

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Children and adults could have fun with this made-up set from somewhere called Nadorp. Each stamp contains a pair of images — a match and a rose; a sunset and a gold ring; a canary and a bicycle. I challenge you to tell a story that combines each image. Or is there some linguistic pun involved? Somehow, I don’t think Nadorp-ian postal officials can help us solve these riddles.

 

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I am including this last image from Donald Evans — a gorgeous set from “Tropides Islands” — because I love it so. Something about the colors first enthralled me, then the exotic shapes of the palm trees; and finally, the labels — cabbage palm, barrel palm, sentry palm — conjured up more visions. What a tour de force! These Images bubble like a refreshing stream, immersing the viewer in color and shape and order. The stamps take on totemic significance, as vibrant emblems of nature on orderly display. My eyes are bathed in an ur-spring of philatelic bliss …

 

Artistamps live on, and so do Donald Evans’ creations. A lavishly illustrated book, “The World of Donald Evans” went through two editions. Hardcover and paperback copies of this sumptuous volume are available online, not cheap. Today his estate is represented by Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York, which suggests that Donald Evans originals may be pricey. My sources list dozens, maybe 100 or more Artistamp creators these days. There are references to two Artistamp museums, one in Berkeley, Calif., the other in Jupiter, Fla. In 2008, an exhibition in Bremen, Germany was titled “Lick Me (Leck Mich): Artist’s stamps since the 1960s.” The business of adding those little stamp perforations to Artistamps seemed to become a cottage industry, with practitioners employing such tools as a sewing machine, leather punches, veterinary needles and customized scissors. And there’s this, from Wikipedia: “In 2004, the International Brotherhood of Perforator Workers (IBPW), an organization based in Washington, D.C., was established to represent the interests of artists owning and/or operating perforators in the creation of stamp art.”

Enough about Artistamps? Not quite. Before we leave the subject, I must tell you about … my own Artistamps. When and where else would I get the chance to share pictures of the “stamps” I designed myself? I drew them in the 1960s — by golly, about the same time Donald Evans was creating his limitless world of tiny stamp images, AND the same time Jock Kinneir (FSIA) was drafting his own Cinderella set of British definitives! There I was, in my early teens, oblivious,  busily drawing away at my definitive set for … Ghana. Why Ghana? Why not? I also dreamed up stamps from Germany and a few other British colonies …

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Here is my imaginary set  from Ghana — a complete definitive series, from 1/2d through 1 pound. (I never tried perforating my stamps — they are all imperforate.) fullsizeoutput_a93You may detect some similarities with early Ghana stamps, which had already captured my imagination; in fact, a few are almost copies. Nevertheless, they all are original in their way. The unifying elements, I should note, include the frame, the typeface for the name Ghana, as well as the denomination style for each stamp. In addition, there is a version of the Ghanaian flag integrated into each design (as on the “real” definitives). The stamps  increase in size, by steps, as the denominations rise. The coat of arms on the 1 pound stamp is accurate. The viking ship on the 1 1/2d is a logo used on other Ghana stamps. It refers back to the Black Star Line, the ill-fated pan-African/American
fullsizeoutput_a94shipping enterprise of black nationalist Marcus Garvey between 1919 and 1922. The portrait and statue of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s founding prime minister, is also on-mark in 1962. Nkrumah would not lose power until the military coup of 1966, though by 1962, his regime’s democratic veneer already was wearing thin … The castle depicted on the 5 shilling is not a notorious slave portal like Cape Coast or Elmina. It is Christiansborg Castle in Accra, named by Dutch colonists who date back to the 1600s. The castle remained the seat of government after independence. All in all, I would hardly  claim similar consideration for this series from Ghana’s postal authorities

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Notice the similarities between these actual stamps from Ghana and my Cinderella version, above. Do you suppose plagiarizing is allowed in Cinderella land? Or is that called forgery?

as Jock Kinneir’s  proposed definitive series deserved from British authorities at around the same time …

 

 

 

 

 

This next selection of made-up Cinderella stamps consists of, clockwise from top left:  A black-and-white 1 pound stamp from Trengannu, an exotically named state in fullsizeoutput_a97Malaya, one of more than a half-dozen that issued stamps during the British colonial era. (Oops — it seems I misspelled the real territory, which is “Trengganu” or “Terengganu,” but not Trengannu. Sorry, folks.) This Cinderella  features a dapper King George Vi, some kind of formal declaration lying on a royal scepter, and under the portrait a time interval, presumably the length of British dominion: “1848-1948.” (This is nonsense, since the British did not take over from Thai rulers in Trengganu until 1909.) Notice how I drew the whole stamp with distinct lines — in an effort to make the stamp look “engraved.” OK, it’s not perfect, but let’s give the kid artist a little slack …  The next “stamp” over is another “engraving” from the George VI era, this one a bicolor “commemorative” from Malta, which borrows the image from another Malta stamp of a War Memorial on that small but strategic island colony in the Mediterranean. The reference is apt, since George VI was king throughout World War II, and survived another half-dozen years after. The memorial, too, is real. However, it  was not inaugurated until 1954 by Elizabeth II, two years after the death of her father, George VI.  …  Below and to the right is a rather nifty, imaginary Pitcairn Islands 5 shilling stamp with a portrait of Elizabeth II. The portrait is copied from one used on other colonial stamps of the time. There are what look like royal signatures in the upper corners, with a map and outline of the tiny south-Pacific island in the bullseye of its geographical coordinates. Kind of slick, doncha think? …  Last are what appear to be two values from an imaginary set from Kibris (Cyprus). The nation in the eastern Mediterranean had just gained its sovereignty in 1960.  In this set there is no longer an image of a monarch — though the currency is still an odd mixture of Cypriot mils and the pound sterling. Again, my technique means to suggest engraving, both in the woodsy landscape of the 15 mils and the curious 1 pound stamp, with its naive use of the royal coat of arms (complete with crown!) to represent an independent republic; there is another topographical elevation superimposed on a geographical representation. To me at least, the gold and magenta result a fairly gorgeous stamp — picture if you can the finely engraved version!  By the way, the year reference — 1962 — also suggests the approximate time all of these renderings were created …  fullsizeoutput_a98Now hold on a sec! If I drew those Cyprus stamps in 1962, then it was the same year Cyprus issued its first set of original definitive stamps after  independence. My catalogue says that set was released Sept. 17, 1962 — fairly late in the year. It certainly is possible that I drew “my” Cyprus stamps before then … Now take a look at my 15-mils stamp, compared with the 30-mils stamp from the “real” set fullsizeoutput_a96(pardon the heavy cancellation). Notice anything? For one thing, the color is an almost perfect match. Now notice how the Greek name , dropping down a vertical tablet on the left-hand side, is almost identical!  (OK, so my Greeks’ not perfect.) The actual stamp depicts ruins, not the forest in my stamp. But somehow, the open-air landscape, the cloudy sky, the general ambience — similar, no? If I had already seen the brand-new set from Cyprus (and it’s possible), then you could write off my “creative” design as imitative at best. If my design appeared without any foreknowledge of the imminent Cypriot definitive set, I would have to shake my head in some wonder …

fullsizeoutput_18fbHere is a rather harmonious grouping of German city-scenes, again in facsimilie engravings. Each historic structure is boxed in a frame that contains the city’s name. Interestingly, the country referred to on my stamps did not, at the time, officially exist. There was West Germany, the Bundesrepublik (federal republic), issuing stamps labeled “Deutsche Bundespost.” And there was East Germany — the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik). The designation I chose — “Deutsche Post” — harkens back to the usage immediately after World War II.

fullsizeoutput_a59 Oddly, that name would pop up again in 1990, when the DDR was going out of business and hastily issued a series of stamps once again using the neutral name, “Deutsche Post.”

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Even more oddly, notice the similarities between one of the  “real” stamps issued in 1990 and my “Cinderella” from back in 1962. …

Now let me fill you in on my more recent foray into  Cinderella land — with Bike Delivery stamps. Local delivery stamps are among the categories of Cinderellas singled out by collectors. In my case, the delivery involved invitations to a seasonal party. I sent all but a dozen invitations by email and USPS, and determined to deliver the rest by bicycle, riding around the neighborhood. Because I am retired and don’t have to work for a living, because I love stamps, and because I felt I deserved a reward for my healthful and useful pursuit, I spent an hour or two designing my “Bike Delivery” stamps. (Note helmet.)

fullsizeoutput_18aaIMG_0748As you can see from this next image, I had lots of fun with the project — affixing a stamp in the appropriate spot on each invitation before dropping it off under or around the mailbox (it’s a federal offense  to use the mailbox itself, I understand). I “canceled” the cover with an inked seal from the carved jade name-stamp (“FISKE”) that my daughter Kate brought back from China. I even concocted a “first day of issue” cover — sure to be a collector’s item!  (Notice I still have a bunch of stamps left — ready for next time!)

You may be shaking your head over the preceding — as my neighbors might have done, if indeed they noticed the “stamp” and the “cancellation” on the “cover.” Really! A grown man, making “stamps” to stick on envelopes and deliver to his friends via bicycle. He really must have too much time on his hands. The whole thing is just ridiculous.

Well, scoff all you like at my Bike Delivery Cinderellas. Then take a look at this next image of a stamp from the U.S. Special Delivery series of 1902. Look familiar? (But where is his helmet?)

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Finally, indulge a grandfather and allow me to include this image — a creation of Frida, age 6 or so. The designs could be stamps, the numbers could be the denominations. These images might or might not count as Cinderella stamps — who’s to say? But isn’t it amazing, in any case, how the pairing of numbers and images in a series can please the eye, calm the spirit, nourish the soul. Inspired by Frida’s creativity, I believe the future of Cinderellas, or Artistamps, or whatever you want to call this polymath doppelganger of philately, seems bright.

 

END OF PART TWO

 

 

 

Cinderellas: Part One

fullsizeoutput_a8a I came across this “souvenir sheet” of what looks like British stamps in my GB stock album. I needed the space for something else, so I decided to relegate this questionable philatelic artifact to a stock file. As I removed it from its place, I took one more look at it.

“A new approach to British Definitive Postage Stamps,” reads the headline. Underneath is the name of the designer — Jock Kinneir FSIA** — as well as Stanley Gibbons, the iconic London stamp establishment that commissioned the set.

(**Regarding FSIA, the only entities I could find using that acronym are the Faridabad Small Industries Association; the Free State Institute of Architects, in South Africa; and the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976.)

At the bottom of the sheet is some small print: “NOTE: The above are purely private productions and have not been officially commissioned by the Post Office for authentic stamps.”

Well, that settles the question of authenticity, I guess. Still, it’s an interesting curio — from the Spring of 1965, just as the British Post Office was settling on a new set to replace the one in use for the 12 years since Elizabeth became queen.

fullsizeoutput_a8bWhile trying to determine if Jock Kinneir FSIA had created any “real” stamps, I learned that he was a prominent graphic designer in his day. Kinneir (1917-1994) developed the signage system for the British Railway in the 1950s and 1960s. His simple, unadorned, readily-legible-at-speed signs soon became standard fare, and the movement spread to airports, subways, other countries. I must only add that the typeface he and his partner, Margaret Calvert, adapted for their traffic signage was a 19th century German trade font titled, “Akzident Grotesk.” (I kid you not; look it up.) The Kinneir-Calvert version became the “Transport” typeface.

I suspect the typeface on this this sheet is Transport. It is interesting, to me at least, to contemplate these stamps and imagine, what if … What if the BPO had rejected  the plain, if elegant, Machin portrait in favor of

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The Machin portrait of Queen Elizabeth, used on British definitive stamps for the last half-century.

this set of stylish designs and landmarks? They would not have sparked anything like the philatelic revolution of the Machin era, whose sets and numbers have stretched ever onward over a half-century. The Kinneir “fantasy” set may be pretty, may have seemed modern and sleek for its time. Perhaps a postal official  or two took a look and gave it some consideration. Perhaps not. There was hardly a contest between Kinneir’s worthy effort and the magisterial Machin, rightly called one of the greatest stamps of all time.

The only other reference to Jock Kinneir designing stamps that I could find in the limited interval I allowed myself for research is the following: It seems Kinneir was one of eight Scottish designers invited to submit proposals for a two-stamp set commemorating the 200th anniversary of the death of Robert Burns in 1966. Kinneir’s bold design consisted of Burns’ signature, scrawled in black across a stark white background. Even bolder, it dispensed with the portrait of the monarch, an integral element of all British stamps (except postage dues) since the beginning of stamps with Queen Victoria on the Penny Black in 1840. (Kinneir’s shocking innovation was encouraged by Tony Benn, the democratic socialist politician serving as postmaster general in the Labour government.)

The Postal Advisory Committee initially chose Kinneir’s designs.  However, on learning that the queen herself did not approve of her portrait being removed from the nation’s postage stamps, and knowing that the queen must pass on recommendations for all postage stamps, the committee retrenched. Its final submission was a more  conventional design by another of the Scottish artists, Gordon F. Huntley. The stamps returned to using the queen’s portrait. While Kinneir redrew his stamps to include the portrait, the authorities still chose the other design, citing a new reason: postal cancellations might ruin Kinneir’s bold effect.

So as far as I can tell, while Kinneir was a whiz-bang designer whose work in transportation signage has had a global and lasting impact, he pretty much struck out in the stamp-design department.

Some stamp collectors may find it a waste of time to focus on stamps that never were — like the Jock Kinneir set of proposed (and rejected) British definitives. These make-believe stamps have acquired the somewhat mocking nickname of “Cinderellas.” It would take more time and toil than I can manage to compile a comprehensive  guide to this amorphous category of pseudo-stamps — labels, badges, commemoratives, tributes, propaganda, art, advertisements and what-have-you, in multiple categories, proliferating in one country after another until it becomes a parallel world to true philately.

There are catalogues on the subject, along with shows and exhibits, an index begun in 1961, and a lively online presence, including the Cinderella stamps forum. I wonder, though, how you can keep up with Cinderellas on one hand, while setting boundaries on the other. The broadest definition of Cinderellas, from the authoritative source Stanley Gibbons, is “virtually anything resembling a postage stamp, but not issued for postal purposes by a government postal administration.” That would include Easter Seals and green stamps, U.S. savings bond stamps and food stamps, as well as the delicate and whimsical watercolor stamp designs of Donald Evans. (See Cinderellas part two: Artistamps). Cinderellas could have a satirical purpose — like the Doonesbury comic stamps created by Garry Trudeau in 1990.  Twine Workshop took philatelic aim at George W. Bush in 2005.

Like counterfeit currency, Cinderellas have no place in the postal world order.  There may be zillions of avid Cinderella collectors out there, and I hope they are having fun. While I have had my  brushes and even flirtations with Cinderellas during my decades as a stamp collector, I’ve always been wary of them, particularly when they are oriented commercially or promote a specific group. There is so much involved with “legitimate” philately that I feel I must focus on the “real thing” rather than get sidetracked by Cinderellas …

That is, until they get interesting — for example, when Cinderellas masquerade on the fringes of “real” philately, or actually blur the lines between the two. Like when the philatelic powers-that-be banished to Cinderella-land stamps from self-declared but not universally recognized lands  — say, from Biafra during the rebellion of the 1960s, or in the Congo rump states of South Kasai, Katanga and Stanleyville earlier that same decade. In the struggle to resist Cinderellas, the stamp collector’s heart is tugged by history and bureaucracy. The philatelic romantic roots for the stamp-issuing state as it asserts its national (or at least, postal) identity.  Oh, for a cover with Cinderellas, officially cancelled!

fullsizeoutput_a89The term Cinderella also applies to stamps serving darker purposes. During World War II, as the Axis nations fought for global dominion, their postal ambitions soared beyond their early territorial gains. In Vichy France, the Nazis’ puppet state, postal authorities produced stamps for France’s colonial empire. They pointedly dropped the name “Republique Francaise,” for the Nazi-approved “Postes Francaises,” and included an inset portrait of Marshal fullsizeoutput_a87Petain, the compliant French ruler. Though issued by the Vichy government, the stamps never were offered for sale in their  designated colonies. One wonders how they were sold, and for what purpose. Propaganda? Morale? False hope? Delusion? The spurious Vichy colonial stamps are not valuable, though some of the engravings are charming. Notice how the stamps in the lower image carry an overprint and a surcharge  in support of “Oeuvres Coloniales”  — colonial projects. Did the Nazis and their French collaborators really have a fund for such projects? If so, it must have led a bizarre bureaucratic existence.  I don’t believe Axis troops dared set foot in any of the free French colonies. Not with de Gaulle and his allies operating out of London, Algiers, Brazzaville and other points in equatorial and west Africa, which remained beyond Vichy (or German) control.

Safe to say, the Axis powers did have ambitions for Africa — at least to exploit its resources. They also had designs on India, then still the colony of the British Raj. But neither the Nazi wehrmacht nor its Japanese allies were able to penetrate the subcontinent. Some of the war’s most furious fighting occurred in Burma, on India’s doorstep. In occupied Singapore, Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose formed a Provisional Government of Free India, declaring its sovereignty and independence fullsizeoutput_a85from Great Britain — but taking its orders from Tokyo. Just in case the Axis powers did manage to gain a foothold in India, artists dreamed up a set of rather garish stamps declaring “Free India” (“Azad Hind”) and displaying the Indian nation breaking its chains, among other designs. History was not kind to this “independence” movement. Though Bose’s Indian National Army soldiers  fought alongside the Japanese in Burma, and managed to take and briefly hold territory on Indian islands and make border incursions, “Free India” fizzled, and history accords it no role in the subsequent emancipation of India from colonial rule in 1947. (Bose died from burns he received in a plane crash in 1945.) These  stamps were never placed on sale in India or anywhere else — perhaps they circulated as propaganda, souvenirs, or as shadowy exchanges in the casbah where such nightmarish Cinderellas find their way into the mainstream; which is the reason we still find them available today, for prices that can range up to $100 or more for a complete set.  (The  illustration above comes from the Internet.)

fullsizeoutput_18cfEven a fleeting  illumination of Cinderellas must shed a beam on Lundy. “Local” stamps — used for mail delivered privately and not sanctioned by the post office — go back to the early days of philately. But Lundy is another story. This small island in the English Channel (population: 28?) began issuing its own stamps in the 1920s, after the British Post Office  discontinued regular mail service to and from the mainland. London apparently accepted Lundy’s  maneuver, and agreed to

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These stamps also are a fun game for little ones. Look at the numbers — and count the puffins! I have never seen another set that is denominated in puffins — and even includes 12 of them in the green 12-puffin stamp (look closely for the three puffin chicks at the top)

take Lundy-stamped letters for further delivery — providing they also bore the necessary GB postage stamp. And so began the unavoidably lighthearted succession of “stamps,” denominated in “puffins” and

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Here are the instigators of the Lundy philatelic enterprise — a Cinderella tale of the first order in the history of philately.

depicting, among other things, the ungainly bird native to the island. You will not find Lundy stamps listed in major catalogues or sold through online sites like Stamps2Go or Zillionsofstamps. (eBay offers a few sets for sale or bid — not

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I include this Lundy stamp image simply because it is so unusual. It celebrates the millenary — that is, the 1,000-year anniversary — of the “defeat of Eric Bloodaxe … 954-1954.” I’ve only seen a few thousand-year anniversary stamps (I think there’s one in Germany.) I also get a kick out of the depiction of a fearsome, axe-and-club-wielding Viking, just about to be zapped by a blood-red puffin.

cheap!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In case you thought this Lundy business was all a hoax — look at this cover, covered with Lundy stamps that are duly canceled. Not sure where the cover was going, but I bet it got to its destination. This cover is quite valuable, though still tipping toward the Cinderella column.

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Here the Lundy stamp makers got creative and witty with their appropriation of Great Britain No. 2 — the 2d. blue of 1840. The cheeky addition of “Lundy” turns Queen Victoria into a Cinderella — though I suspect it does the queen no lasting harm. It’s all a charming, if slightly quaint, philatelic fairy tale …

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Here is a fairly recent stamp/souvenir sheet from Lundy, just to demonstrate continuity. I imagine Lundy stamps are pretty much a tourist attraction at this point. Do they really still have to carry letters to the mainland on that old boat? Quaint, I guess.

Are these Lundy stamps legitimate or Cinderellas? I say they are spurious, but the breezy debate has been going on for decades, so it might as well continue for a while longer …

Gallery: Cinderellas in my collection

The following is a selection of Cinderella items from my collection, in no particular order. Let the pictures — and captions — speak for themselves.

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Here is an arbitrary selection of Cinderella stamps — clockwise, from top left: A World War I commemorative from the American legion; two early Easter Seals; a pair of Stock Transfer overprints on U.S. documentary stamps; and a fairly beat-up copy of a $5 federal motor vehicles use tax stamp from 1945.

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Ration stamps from the World War II era (1940s).

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Another arbitrary Cinderella selection — clockwise from top center: A playing card stamp, like you used to tear off when you opened a fresh deck of cards; next, a $5 consular service fee stamp, with what looks like a hand cancel “Istanbul, Turkey”; bottom right, two labels for the Tobacco Workers International Union; and to the left, part of a strip of 25-cent U.S. bond stamps (aren’t they colorful engravings?)

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Yet another selection — clockwise from top right: A campaign stamp label for GOP presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, who ran against FDR in 1940 (Who was his running mate? Oregon Sen. Charles McNary); a 2-cent “bedding stamp” from the state of Georgia; the same $5 U.S. consular fee stamp (oops); and in the upper left corner, a slightly exotic eye-design, a control number and date stamp (from 1945) — from a subscription book, perhaps? Coupons?

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Top left: The black label featuring a delicately engraved scroll announcing, “For testing purposes only” is fairly self-explanatory — though I wonder exactly what was being tested. Was it the printing technique? The ink color? The coil process? The pre-canceling process? And why the elaborate engraving? A joke? Or was it also being tested on the public? So many questions … As for the other two items in this image — At lower left is a “cleared” stamp from the TSA (Transportation Safety Administration), part of the Department of Homeland Security. I expect I’m not supposed to keep such a security Cinderella like this in a stamp collection. But what the heck, I’m a reckless rebel. The reason it is a Cinderella, in my view, is that it has nothing to do with postage, just with letting me carry my luggage on the plane. The accompanying sheet of paper has no relevance except to display the striking ink stamp of Homeland Security.

END OF PART ONE

Bonus: It’s about time

fullsizeoutput_18a7Look at this page from Ghana in my British Africa album. It presents the first set of definitive stamps — the regular issue of 1959. Except it’s not the full set. Notice the gaping hole in the middle. It’s the 1/3 value, not particularly rare or valuable. (In fact, the set itself is not very dear — a few bucks at most.)

I’ve been a fan of Ghana stamps from  the early days, and have the first four  years of stamps and souvenir sheets nearly complete. The bold colors and designs and exotic or aspirational themes seem to capture some of the zest of  Africa during the early days of independence. I like the way the stamps integrate the Ghanaian flag with its stirring colors of black liberation — green and gold and red — harking back to the days of Marcus Garvey and the Black Star Line.

I had assembled this set over the years from several sources.  Somehow, the 1/3 kept eluding me. I began to keep an eye out, online and at stamp shows. I never managed to find what I was looking for, though — until now.

fullsizeoutput_18a8Look! There it is, the missing 1/3, dropped among the rest of the set, right beside its illustrated spot on the page. It turned out to be ridiculously easy to get. I was accumulating a range of inexpensive stamps from an online dealer and just stumbled on the Ghana 1/3. I was excited — in the quiet, contained way of philately. (I might have whispered to myself “Yes!” and shot my fist up in the air from the chair in my study.)  Here, finally, was the missing stamp!  Odd thing was, it only cost me 60 cents.

 

 

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fullsizeoutput_18a9Now behold, dear reader, the complete set at last. It may not seem like a big deal to you. To this philatelist, who has been hankering to fill that middle space for lo, these many years, it is a consummation devoutly to be wished and avidly celebrated. I feast my eyes …

(You might ask: If the set only costs a few bucks, why not just buy the complete set? That way, you’ll have your missing stamp as well as the rest, and you’ll only be out a few bucks. My answer: Yeah, but then you wouldn’t be a true, dyed-in-the-ink stamp collector. You would be taking the easy way. Instead of “collecting,”  you would be “amassing.” You already had every stamp in the set but one. If you buy a whole new set, what do  you do with that nearly-complete duplicate set? Try and sell it? Give it away? Put it in an envelope and forget about it? What a waste of time and effort. Besides, doing it this way only cost 60 cents. All it took was a little patient attention, persistence — and fait; philatelic phaith that the right stamp would come along at the right time.)

TO BE CONTINUED

The Mystery Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fullsizeoutput_183eWell, here goes …

 

 

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(three hours later)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE IMAGES AND NOTES FOLLOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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