The sticky world of stamps and philately

By Gyan C. A. Fernando

The other day I was extolling the virtues of stamp collecting, in particular the aesthetics, the tranquil and genteel aspects of this hobby etc.for the benefit of a very young and impressionable son of a friend of mine, when my grown up niece Samanmalie, aka “Sam”, butted in.

Illustrations by N. Senthilkumaran

I of course like holding a discourse on any subject, at any time and at any place and preferably without interruption or heckling from the audience. Sam is a rather attractive and nice girl (age 30 something) and features as “Numero Uno” in my list of favourite nieces but has the drawback, or the advantage, of having a big mouth, both metaphorically and literally.

“Uncle!” she said in her usual authoritative and loud way and with her mouth stretching from one ear to the other: “Stamp collecting is full of forgers, fakers, profiteers, dealers, propagandists and corrupt governments!”

She had a big vocabulary to go with her big mouth and as usual she was right. “How do you know all that stuff Darling?” I asked patronizingly. She always has the last word with me and I should have known that.
“There are loads and loads and loads of fake stamps being offered on E-bay, Uncle! I do a lot of buying and selling on E-bay. Not stamps, but I know what has been happening! You have heard of the web and Google, haven’t you, Uncle?”Ouch! That hurt!

Once again, she was right. I conceded defeat. If you do a standard Google search, you will find that what she said is true. This of course is not a recent phenomenon. As soon as the very first stamp in the world, the “Penny Black” came off the presses on May 1, 1840, the forgers got in on the act on the 2nd!
I was introduced to the murky world of Philately at a very early stage of my life. As usual it was old Dad who introduced me to it.

At the time of the Second World War, Dad apparently had a substantial collection of stamps worth shillions, if you were to believe him! He was good at adding a thin layer of icing to the truth!
There was a general bit of disruption in the country at that time because of the Japs but in reality, mostly because of the Colonial Brits.

It was during this time that his collection was stolen by an older cousin, by the name of Jose Aiya, and on the very day that the Japs bombed Colombo. Dad never forgave his cousin and regularly brought up the subject at family gatherings and on one occasion nearly hit old Jose Aiya, even though by that time Jose Aiya was rather senile.

Stamps can bring out the baser instincts in humankind, as Sam correctly observed. Stamps can be worth a lot of money. Take for instance, the four penny SG 4 of Ceylon issued between 1857 and 1859 and now nicknamed “Dull Rose”. This was the fourth stamp issued in Ceylon. (The SG stands for Stanley Gibbons who amongst other things publish a catalogue.) On the very rare occasion that mint copies of this stamp come onto the market now, they fetch over $500,000 each.

When this stamp was first issued, my granddad who was then aged 27, did not have the foresight to buy a couple of sheets of the stamp. If he had, all of us in the family would now be wallowing in millions of US dollars. He hadn’t and we never wallowed in millions of dollars.

With that sort of money involved it is no wonder that the unsavoury elements are attracted to the hobby. In my school days for example, by the simple process of fixing a stamp upside down I managed to convince a classmate that it was an “invert” and therefore worth a lot of money. He fell for it!
As far as stamp forgeries go, there are loads of them which can even fool the experts. Some forged stamps are now more valuable than the real McCoy.

There is still some fun left!
There is still some fun left in the world of stamps. Take for instance propaganda stamps.
Propaganda stamps are nothing new. They were first produced by the British (No surprise there!) during WW1 and used against Germany, Austria and Bavaria. During the return match known as WW2, the Germans retaliated in kind but both the British and the Americans were ready for this and remained one step ahead.

Propaganda stamps literally fell out of the sky during air raids and little boys ran around collecting them whilst avoiding bombs falling nearby. All these war propaganda stamps were “official” in that they were printed with the approval of the respective Governments.

In some countries with unpopular dictatorial type governments, protests can ascend (sic!) to a very crude level. Rather than apply spit on the back of the stamp, the populace apply spit on the face of the stamp, which of course bears the portrait of their leader. They then complain that the stamps don’t stick! Ha! Ha! Ha!

Things took a nasty turn in August 1962 in an African Republic. Fed up with this sort of crude protest, President N’guaOlumiyewaNogua’balongof The Republic of Nogua’balong-goalong, a small bit of dessert land in the middle of sub-Saharan Africa, ordered his postal authorities to liberally apply a deadly plant poison, chemically known as 1,2 di-abrinotox marzipan diethylamide, on the face of the stamps.

This poison can easily be extracted from the Jequirity bean, a rather colourful red-and-black seed of a plant known as Chashami-Khurosa Orientaliswhich grows in the tropics. However, instead of using the correct extract, the postal authorities used the extract of the Sildanofionalis erecta plant which is not poisonous at all. In fact it is an aphrodisiac.

Within days, the whole populace descended into fun and games. Total depravity reigned in the Republic. People queued up at post offices to buy stamps just to lick them. (Since this is a family newspaper, I shall refrain from giving further details, but do use your imagination!)

The President tried to flee the country but his plane crashed in mysterious circumstances. It has been speculated that the pilots and stewardesses had been licking stamps shortly before take-off.
Elizabeth and I In the recent outcry about the French LTTE stamps, and subsequently the British LTTE ones, not many people realized that both La Poste of France and The Royal Mail allow personalized “stamps” to be printed alongside genuine stamps. In fact a lot of countries from Austria to the USA do allow this practice.

A few years ago, when I was residing in Britain, I decided to make use of this facility as offered by Royal Mail. I do have a very high opinion of myself and so decided that a photograph of my noble features would look nice next to a stamp portraying those of Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth the Second, that is.
Royal Mail obliged and I ended up with a hundred sheets of “Elizabeth and I” stamps. I sent a few samples in envelopes marked “Valuable Material! Do Not Fold!” to close friends, Philatelic Agents and to the philatelic press with options to buy them at grossly inflated prices.

I also sent a few to my favourite niece, Sam. The first ones to bounce back were from Sam. She had fixed them on to envelopes, defaced my picture by adding squinty eyes and a few strands of hair on my bald head, and she had “cancelled” them with authentic looking cancellation stamps with the wording “Nutty Land of Gyan” and “Crazy Uncle’s Post Office”.

My other more serious friends wrote back sympathetic letters, politely inquiring after my mental health. The serious philatelic guys just sent terse “NO THANKS!” letters. I never let minor setbacks like this get me down.

Back in Sri Lanka and browsing through the web the other day I found out that our own Sri Lanka Philatelic Bureau offers the same service. Try it for yourselves! Their web site says:
Personalized stamps are a wonderful way to celebrate special occasions such as weddings, birthdays or to send greetings to friends and loved ones.

We produce two types of stamps and each stamp sheet contains 6 stamps of same design. The minimum order for each personalized stamps design (sic!) is one sheet.

So far my e-mails to them have been unanswered which is rather strange. I had sent them a picture of myself in a suit…, actually a monkey suit, and one of me in an Indiana Jones hat and another one with a bottle of beer balanced on my head, all taken at “special occasions such as weddings, birthdays etc…” as specified by them on their website. I can’t understand their silence!

Actually what I want is to design a stamp with a caricature of my niece Sam, her mouth grotesquely distorted and riding on a donkey with similar oral features!

It is definitely my turn to get back at her. I will get the stamps printed myself! I might frank them with a “Little Big Mouth, Oregon” postmark. That might shut her big mouth.

Revenge is sweet and I have the weapons: Stamps!
You have been warned, sweetheart!

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