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Philately Lately

Why are some African countries celebrating dead English cricketers, 17th century Flemish artists and Baroque pianists on their stamps?

Arnold Machin was the artist who made the plaster cast used for the image of Queen Elizabeth II for the stamps issued by Great Britain from 1967 until the present day, and it has been reproduced more times than any other image in history, with more than 200 billion copies thus far. And Brits actually use them to mail letters from one place to another.

But in many African countries you would be hard pushed to walk out of a post office with some of the stamps that are being produced by their postal authorities. Let's take the Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone as examples of philately lately and the bizarre appearance on their stamps of pianist Johann Sebastian Bach, Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder and legendary English cricketer Len Hutton.

English cricket fans of a certain age cherish the record 364 runs that Len Hutton notched up in a Test match against the Aussies in 1938. It would not be unreasonable to suggest, however, that this feat is less talked about in the Central African Republic, a former French colony with absolutely zero cricketing pedigree. So it may seem puzzling that it issued a set of commemorative stamps to mark the centenary of Hutton’s birth - and weirder still that French-speaking Niger and Portuguese-speaking Mozambique did the same.

Meanwhile in Sierra Leone, Jan Brueghel the Elder, who died 395 years ago, was deemed significant enough to warrant a philatelic tribute. However, in Guinnea-Bassau, they prefer Baroque music to Flemish art. It's just possible that the people of Guinea-Bissau might have let the 260th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach slip by without much fanfare. Fortunately, their postal service was less remiss.

So, what's going on? What's the point of printing stamps of long-deceased foreigners? It seems that collectors scouring the internet are willing to pay handsomely for such stuff and it has become a rather handy way for African states to boost revenues. It's not clear whether the chicken or the egg came first but, either way, hard-core philatelists aren't particularly impressed by this practice and there are signs that it's getting out of hand.

In recent times several African countries have appointed a Lithuanian-based outfit called Stamperija to design and print their stamps, flooding the market, philatelists argue, with gaudy tat. Pointing an accusatory finger at Sierra Leone - with a population of just 7 million people and a barely functioning postal service - they are aghast that this country churned out 1,566 different stamps last year, compared with 268 released by Britain and 139 by India (with a population of 1.3 billion).

Stamperija’s designs are not to everyone’s taste and producing so many stamps leads to errors which, of course, stamp collectors love. A set of Marilyn Monroe commemorative stamps issued for the Central African Republic turned out to feature a New York drag artist by mistake. Some like it hot!

Few of Stamperija’s clients seem even remotely concerned, though. “It is willing buyer, willing seller,” says a postal official in Sierra Leone. “So what’s the problem?”

Original source: Economist

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