5 June 2009

Wallpaper or Treasure?



After four bitter years of postal service crease, in 1980 Cambodia once again issued postage stamps. For the next two decades, most Cambodian stamps were designed, printed and marketed by the Cuban stamp producing company - COPREFIL.

COPREFIL has been the official stamp producer of Benin, Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, Guinea, Laos and some other third world countries. COPREFIL pictorials share the problem of what all those agency-produced stamps encountered, they are widely considered "wallpaper" by serious collectors. Complaints include poor quality, sales oriented themes, considerable printing quantity and rare postal use.
 

Let's make one thing clear: all stamps other than definitives are for collectors, phialtelic exploitation is nothing new: in 1888 New South Wales issued a commemorative stamp to mark state centenary, and in 1923 Luxembourg issued the first souvenir sheet of the world, these items only have one mission: to generate revenues!  Some self labelled philatelists or veteran collectors simply forget that all countries in the world have sales oriented postal services which have philatelic bureaux or agencies to serve stamp collectors.  Stamps other than definitives are not primarily for mail use but for extra dough.

For many European countries, virtually all post offices use framas and meters instead of lick-and-stick stamps. If no one uses stamps but stamps are printed, it does not matter what the print run is, the stamps are just in excess.  The Pitcairn Islands have less than 50 residents, no one uses mail, stamps are nothing more than tourist souvenirs, yet no collectors accuse Pitcairn's paper junk.   In contrast, Cambodia is a country with more than 10 million population, there are mail users and stamps are considerably consumed.  It is easy to realize that
calling Cambodian stamps "wallpaper" is biased and ethnocentric.

Although dogs and Olympics and chess constantly star Cambodian stamps in 1980s and 1990s, there are Cambodia related themes.  Below is the "Khmer Culture" series 1996 set featuring Khmer dance masks, a proud show-off of Khmer fine arts and heritage.



I hope collectors didn't miss out Cambodian épreuves de luxe, errors and proofs. Some stamp sets and souvenir sheets have imperforates, never made available by Cambodia Post, these items are likely to be proofs sneaked from COPREFIL. It is a challenge to collect them all. Below is a block of 4 uncut proof of the 1994 "80th Anniversary of the 1st Fly Performed by a Multimotor Plane" souvenir sheet. Print run of the souvenir sheet is only 39,150.



From time to time there are non-COPREFIL sets. Without sales agencies, generally they are not available to overseas collectors in mint and consequently scarcity turns them into high priced sets. In 1989 there came a Vietnamese printed 4v set showing 3 stone carved Asparas. The garish set has high face value (because of high inflation) for international mail, it is very easy to come by on covers, but not often seen in MNH.




In 1993, a 3v set was scheduled to mark the 40th anniversary of national independence. As COPREFIL shipped some of the stock to Cambodia for domestic use, suspiciously it was reported stolen during transit which forced Cambodia to declare the set illegal. Russia made a quick move of producing a new 3v set and presented to Cambodia as a gift. The new stamps share a same design of Angkor Wat, the renowned national symbol. This set was only available in Cambodia, while the stolen set was only available outside Cambodia. Below shows the replacement set:



Inflation and shortage of stamps has forced Cambodia surcharge some of her old stock. The first surcharges appeared in 1986, more were made in 1991. Now they are gems.



Quantity of Cambodian stamps sometimes suprises you in a nice way. Print run fuctuates, usually it is below 200,000 complete sets, sometimes it has a shape fall, a notable example is the 1997 Heinrich Von Stephan set with only 10,350 complete sets printed.

No mail from Cambodia in your pigeon box does not suggest mail traffic of Cambodia is finger counted. In 1980s the majority of outgoing mail was to Vietnam, France and the Eastern Bloc, in 1990s to western Europe. By mid 1990s Cambodia had more than 2,500,000 international outgoing items annually (from UPU statistics) - not busy but not too lay back. Just to mention some countries ranked way behind Cambodia: Belarus had about 1,600,000, Paraguay 1,000,000, Azerbaijan and Laos 580,000, Bosnia 90,000 only.

The first definitive set of Cambodia was issued as late as in 1996, so you can make the right guess what were on the 2,500,000 letters each year before 1996 - only the pictorials!  Be educated, do not ignorantly claim the Cambodian pictorials see very little postal use, it is just that you do not know how to find them.

Cambodian stamps give endless pleasure if you drop your prejudice and know what to collect. It is affordable, less studied, and with plenty of things you can focus on, all upon your imagination. In my future blog entries, I hope you would learn the unjustly neglected post 1979 Cambodian philately is way more than a pile of dogs and cars and chess canceled-to-orders, just as Cambodia is way more than Angkor Wat.


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