Rediscovering philately

A few days ago I made a mistake: I opened a cabinet door.

Behind that cabinet door lay my stamp collection.

The last time I spent any real time with it was in the year 2002 when I bought a range of new stockbooks to replace all those loose and haphazard ones I had amassed as a child. All stamps were revised and neatly rearranged, and I also used the chance to integrate the collection of an ex-colleague who had been kind enough to donate hers some years prior.

Since then all I did was occasionally flip through the albums but paid them no further serious attention. This changed when I discovered a certain box of spare stamps and I emptied its contents over the scanner.

Digital philately: Spare stamps for Bethel

That box of spares and duplicates was my stock from back when us kids used to sift through each other’s stash of extras for trading and swapping. It’s about 40 years old.

Another interesting memory from those days in South Africa was that most casual stamp collectors were children of immigrants which practically guaranteed a decent influx of stamps via their respective far-flung Portuguese, British, Czechoslovakian, Greek, or Italian relatives — not to mention the plentiful local supply as well as that of the neighbouring countries and Bantustans which would’ve been considered “exotic” elsewhere. Similarly, it was I who was the go-to for Austrian and German stamps which, in turn, were exotic to the local kids.

For a time I even bought mint stamps straight from the post office; they typically had their latest issues on proud display.

Then there were those grab bag packets full of stamps we used to get at places like CNA in the hope that you might find some interesting gems thrown in amongst those ubiquitous and huge ones from territories like Ajman, Ras Al-Khaimah, Mongolia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. We could never understand why those were so plentiful yet different to the others: they looked used but unused at the same time because although they had postal cancellation marks they were still gummed? We were stupid kids, and there was no internet. This is how collections were built up and friendships were formed.

Years later I had all but abandoned the hobby; I no longer actively seek out stamps — but there are vacant spaces in the albums should any interesting or exotic ones come my way.

Besides, stamps are remnants from a bygone era — one where people still sent letters and postcards to one another, one where you affixed little pieces of paper onto an envelope to indicate that you had paid for it to be delivered to a recipient on the other side of the globe, and one in which postal services spent considerable effort in the very design of these little pieces of art. Each motif was carefully chosen to celebrate a national achievement, depict an important person, showcase technological progress, or commemorate a historical event. Each design served various propagandist goals because stamps, by their very purpose, had an international audience. They’re little windows to another time and place.

It was only a few days ago that I learnt those huge pre-UAE stamps are called “Dunes” and like many of their worthless ilk from the former Eastern Bloc were “cancelled-to-order“.

In the 1960s, an American philatelic entrepreneur named Finbar Kenny saw the opportunity to create a number of editions of stamps aimed at the lucrative collector’s market and made deals with a number of the Trucial States in order to print stamps on their behalf for sale to collectors. These Dune Stamps consisted of large numbers of brightly colored stamps whose topics had little or no relationships to their issuing countries. The arrangement ended when the United Arab Emirates was formed in 1971. Today, collectors generally ignore them.

Among my other forgotten artefacts were a few old receipts (with revenue stamps).

This is to certify that in June 1921 Ms. Newham has paid three pounds and ten shillings for rent in Goodwood

This one just celebrated its centenary.

Also inside that box of trading spares was a magazine article which I must’ve placed in there years ago. It led me to a charity called “Briefmarken für Bethel“, an institute that employs disabled people who collect, sort and resell donated stamps. They’ve been doing so since 1888 and will be receiving the contents of my old box of spares soon.

So I ordered a new batch of random stamps from them.

Perhaps somewhere in there I’ll finally find some from missing territories like Ascencion Island, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Barbados, Belarus, the Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Eritrea, Guadaloupe, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Nauru, Puerto Rico, Slovakia, South Sudan, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Ukraine, or Vanuatu. Many of these countries didn’t even exist until a few years ago while there are stamps from others that no longer do.

Stamps are postcards from the past.

Come to think of it, philately is the perfect hobby for a pandemic.

Even instagramming millennials have taken to it.

All photos and scans by hmvhDOTnet unless specified otherwise.

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