April 12, 2011
African stamps honor Jews who fought apartheid
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In the age of e-mail, just what does putting someone’s face on a stamp really mean?
“The world looks at a postage stamp as the utmost honor that can be bestowed by a government on an individual,” said Joseph Malamud, vice president of the Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corp. (IGPC). A privately held for-profit corporation headquartered in New York City, IGPC is the world’s largest philatelic agency. The company produced the “Heroes” series — The Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone are just three of IGPC’s more than 70 client nations — and IGPC is now distributing the stamps to retailers around the world.
Malamud and Gochin believe the “Heroes” stamps will help set the memories of these individuals into the historical record — although their undertaking is also clearly a very good business venture.
The face value of each individual stamp is the equivalent of about $1 U.S. in each country’s currency. Collectors from around the world are paying around three times that at cyberstamps.com — around $13 for each sheet of four.
Indeed, Malamud said, many of IGPC’s client nations depend upon income from their stamps being sold to foreign collectors. Agencies like IGPC typically pay a percentage of the revenue from their wholesale operations back to the countries of issue, an amount that can make up as much as 80 percent of their postal services’ annual revenue.
Malamud was unwilling to guess how much revenue the “Heroes” stamps might generate. Nevertheless, for at least the last two decades, these nations have been producing stamps with collectors in mind.
“Why would Mongolia issue a NASCAR stamp?” asks Neil Coker, a reference assistant at the American Philatelic Research Library. Small African and Caribbean countries issue stamps depicting popular subjects, from Princess Diana to dinosaurs to the pope.
And though it might seem unlikely, Judaic and Jewish-themed stamps are among the most popular new issues.
“It is a very, very strong field,” Malamud said.
Israel Kugel runs the Web site cyberstamps.com, which at press time was featuring the “Heroes” series on its home page. About three weeks after the stamps were first issued, nearly a thousand copies of each sheet had been sold — meaning that the “Heroes” series was selling better than any of the 69 different stamps celebrating the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton for sale on the site.
“It doesn’t compare to other stamps, to be honest,” Kugel said of the “Heroes” series. “It’s in a league of its own.”
Coker speculated that only a small number of these stamps will be sold in their countries of issue, and that they’re unlikely to make much of an impact there. “Most people in Sierra Leone are going to have no idea that that stamp was even issued,” he said.
Malamud said his company’s stamps all “are sold in the post offices of the country that issues the stamps before IGPC sells one stamp to any stamp dealer around the world,” because a stamp that is never sold in the country of issue, he said, is not an official stamp.
He would not say how many “Heroes” stamps would be sold in the three countries of issue.
And though the series’ theme is South African, that country, which is not an IGPC client nation, was not approached about participating in the “Heroes” series. None of the individuals involved in the planning and production process would speak on the record as to why this was the case, and the South African Post Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Even if stamps like these are geared toward collectors, many purist philatelists don’t buy them.
“Stamps are produced by the zillions, and sometimes countries will produce stamps for completely wacky purposes,” said Alan Lipkin, a senior vice president at Regency-Superior Auctions in Beverly Hills, which specializes in stamps and other collectibles. “Like Michael Jackson on the stamps of Uganda.”
But even purists like Coker — who collects “definitive,” or noncommemorative, stamps from the United States, Russia and Ukraine — acknowledge the capacity of the “Heroes” stamps to convey information. “There will be some educational opportunities,” Coker said, “even if a pure philatelist would say, ‘That’s crap.’ ”
Despite being a devout communist, Esther Barsel had a strong cultural Jewish identity. Lubner, now 63, remembers her mother telling her and her two younger sisters about the connections between Passover and her fight to end apartheid half a century ago.
“On the way home from a seder,” Lubner said, “she once told us that there was a correlation between Passover and wanting to see all slaves freed.”
In 1978, Lubner and her husband left South Africa and moved to Florida. “It really stuck with me,” Lubner said of her mother’s lesson. At their first seder in the United States, Lubner told her children, then 3 and 5 years old, about their grandparents and the fight to grant black South Africans equality under law. “They knew nothing about apartheid,” Lubner said. “I can just see their big blue eyes getting wider and wider.”
Telling the story became a Passover tradition. “Every year, we started talking about how Pesach is about the liberation of all people who have been subjugated,” Lubner said. “And now we have two grandchildren, and we tell them this, too.”
Collectors may differ about whether the “Heroes” stamps have value today or will retain that value over time. But, ultimately, that question probably is of consequence only among collectors.
For Lubner, Feinstein and Gochin, these stamps are just another set of tools to fulfill Passover’s central commandment — telling the story of liberation.
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