They used to say the most interesting thing about a postage stamp was the persistence with which it stuck to its job. I would say the perseverance with which it clings to life is even more remarkable.
Reports of the death of philately appear to be greatly exaggerated. Stamp collecting as a hobby is floundering for sure, but dying, apparently not. After June 17, it could be most definitely not. That’s the day a 158-year-old stamp from British Guiana goes under the hammer at a Sotheby’s auction in New York. The ‘Unique One-Cent Magenta’ has done the auction circuit before: it sold in 1922 for the then record amount of $32,500 and in 1980 for $935,000. This time, Sotheby’s expects it to fetch between $10 million and $20 million.
A printing mistake in publishing can cost you your job. In the world of stamps, it simply gets you more money. Consider the Swedish Treskilling Yellow, which has become one of the world’s most precious bits of paper just because it is in the wrong hue. (A normal three-skilling stamp in Sweden should be blue-green; this one was erroneously printed in yellow). The stamp sold in Zurich in 1996 for $2.3 million; it exchanged hands for a larger sum last year but all the auctioneer would say is that the buyer believes it to be a “solid investment in these turbulent times”.
Not all stamps have that exciting a career graph, but that doesn’t seem to affect 60 million people around the globe from collecting them. At last count, 200 countries were still issuing stamps and at least 9,000 new ones were being printed every year. India can lay claim to at least 60 sets of those, with many of our sets containing more than just one coloured bit of paper.
Not that it’s just about collecting— analysts say stamps are among the top four investments of the 20th century and produce an average return of 11 per cent per annually. Like everything else, many of the new stars—both stamps and their collectors—come from China. A set of 1967 stamps featuring Mao Zedong greeting crowds with quotes from his Little Red Book is already worth $53,000.
But India is not completely out of the picture. By making our own share of printing errors, we’ve managed to enter the history books too. There’s a four-anna stamp from British India, with Queen Victoria’s head printed upside down. That error is worth at least Rs 1 crore today. A stamp from a 1948 set of Rs 10 stamps bearing the picture of Mahatma Gandhi, with the word ‘service’ stamped across his chest, sold in 2011 for $205,000 (Rs 1.2 crore at today’s rate).
Those who can’t afford such errors may like to take up India Posts on its ‘My Stamp’ offer. For a while now, the department has been offering individuals the facility to convert their personal photographs into legally-valid stamps. All you need to do is show up at the post office carrying valid identification papers and a good-quality photograph of yourself. You will be handed a selection of backgrounds to choose from—such as flowers, zodiac signs, flowers, wildlife—to use alongside your picture. Choose whichever visual you like best, cough up Rs 300 and, voila, your face can be the stamp on the next letter you post.
They say the President of today is the postage stamp of tomorrow. Maybe your career could go in reverse.