The first time I heard the word philately was years ago in a Tom Lehrer song lyric:
“Who needs a hobby, like tennis or philately?
I have a hobby: Rereading Lady Chatterley.”
I didn’t know, or care, what philately was, but I sure was curious about Lady Chatterley.
Eventually I learned that philately is “the collection and study of postage stamps.” Someone who does this is a philatelist. Then there’s philatelic, an adjective, and philatelically, an adverb, all based on the French word philatélie, and I’ll leave it at that.
Stamp collecting – a hobby, sometimes a profession, the attraction of which escapes me – is exceedingly popular. There are local, national, and international clubs, an International Philatelic Federation, and an annual World Stamp Championship Exhibition.
And the hobby, or profession, is not just popular, but sometimes very profitable.
With an ironic twist: A mistake can make a stamp more valuable. That’s right – one person’s screw-up becomes another person’s treasure. According to invaluable.com:
“The most valuable stamps in the world often feature some kind of blunder or misprint within one of the main components, known as an error. Typically, a stamp error arises from a mix-up in the printing plates during pressing. Errors are usually quickly caught and removed from circulation, increasing rarity and value of the affected stamp.”
Here’s an example:
This is an Inverted Jenny, a misprint of a 1918 stamp featuring one of the Jenny biplanes first used by the US Post Office to carry mail. The plane on the face of the stamp was accidentally printed upside down.
There were thousands printed correctly and only 100 printed incorrectly. And according to a 2018 New York Times article, of those 100, only two were unaccounted for: No. 49 and No. 66.
That is, until 2018, when a Chicago family resurrected what they thought might be an Inverted Jenny from a safe deposit box. It was authenticated as Inverted Jenny No. 49 by the Philatelic Foundation in New York, and sold at auction for the then-record sum of more than $1.3 million:
A heads-up to philatelists: Inverted Jenny No. 66 may still be out there somewhere.
What’s in your wallet?
And speaking of philatelists, in addition to safe deposit boxes, another source of stamps for collectors is the United States Postal Service (USPS).
USPS operates on the belief that every stamp that’s purchased but not used is money – called “retained revenue” – in the bank for USPS. Collectors spend millions annually buying stamps and related items from USPS.
Many of those items are found on a USPS website page called “Collector’s Zone,” with items including “Commemorative Boxed Sets,” “Gift Cachets” and “First Day Covers.”
One example of the latter is this, the Espresso Drinks First Day Cover:
I chose this example because it’s the Espresso Drinks stamps that prompted me to write this post.
In case you’re wondering what was the point, and when would I get to it.
USPS announced the release of the new stamps in April:
The USPS news release stated that the stamps:
“…celebrate America’s love of coffee…Whether milky, dark as night, sweetened, flavored or highly concentrated, many coffee drinks have one thing in common – they begin with espresso…four unique designs illustrating popular espresso drinks – espresso, cappuccino, caffe latte and caffe mocha.”
USPS issuing new stamps isn’t something I normally pay any attention to, until a short blurb about this in Food Network magazine caught my eye. It mentioned the involvement of USPS art director Greg Breeding and “renowned illustrator” Terry Allen, and went on to say:
“The Postal Service sent Terry more than 100 mugs to study for the job!”
“More than 100 mugs”?
“Renowned illustrator” Terry Allen couldn’t just look in his cupboard for inspiration?
Couldn’t just go to a store and take some pictures of espresso mugs?
Couldn’t just google “espresso mugs” – like I did – and get 34,900,000 results?
Apparently someone at USPS, which we know is in deep financial guano…
…decided “To hell with the budget!” and that before Allen could come up with concepts for Espresso Drinks stamps, he needed to possess espresso mugs.
More than 100 of them.
Never mind that Allen, 78, is an award-winning artist with works in many museums – the New York Museum of Modern Art, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Detroit Institute of Arts, to name a few:
Allen doesn’t sound like someone who needed more than 100 espresso mugs “to study for the job.”
Allen also doesn’t sound like someone who did the Espresso Drinks designs on the cheap.
I could be wrong.
Maybe he’s a different Terry Allen – maybe he’s this guy (right) who works full-time at Radio Shack and does bad caricatures at weekend flea markets.
Maybe those 100+ espresso mugs were just sitting around gathering dust in one of Postmaster General (and multi-millionaire) Louis DeJoy’s vacation homes, and good ole Louie donated them for the tax write-off.
And maybe I’ll find that missing Inverted Jenny No. 66 stamp the next time I open my wallet…