23 November 2013

Collectors Revel in a History ‘Written’ on Postage Stamps

An old interview.

Collectors revel in a history ‘written’ on postage stamps
Phnom Penh Post, Monday, 28 September 2009 15:00 
by Johan Smits

Tales of tragedy and joy, iconic images of Cambodia’s historic leaders and the record of a nation struggling to establish itself are reflected in the Kingdom’s many postage stamps.

And you thought that philately, or stamp collecting, was all about geeks staring through magnifying glasses at monarchs in profile, while excitedly discussing rarity and value?

Not so in the Kingdom. Cambodia’s rich variety of stamps tell tales of war and peace, anticolonial struggle, international theft and forgery, safe sex, mammals-turned-fish and a good dose of cultural heritage.

Although Cambodia wasn’t formally independent at the time, February 1952 saw the print run of a special edition booklet to mark the first issue of national postage stamps.

Before that, postage stamps in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were all marked “Indochina” under French colonial rule.

Since that 1952 edition, however, Cambodian stamps have been issued under various names, reflecting the turbulent history of regime changes and struggles towards nationhood.

From King Norodom Sihanouk’s “Royaume du Cambodge” via Lon Nol’s “Republique Khmere” to Pol Pot’s very elusive, possibly nonexistent “Kampuchea” stamps.

Under the Khmer Rouge regime, the legendary stamps would have served a purpose of propaganda rather than communication.

Indeed, Phnom Penh-based Graham Shaw calls the latter the holy grail for Cambodia stamp collectors.

Cambodiastamps.com, Shaw’s Web site, refers to an entry in a German catalogue that states the possibility the Khmer Rouge had some Kampuchea-inscribed stamps issued in April 1978.

They were reputedly printed in Japan and came in 5, 10, 20, 50 and 90 denominations, without the catalogue stating the currency.

But with the discontinuance of post and telegraphic services, as well as the abolition of money under the Khmer Rouge regime, the legendary stamps would have served a purpose of propaganda rather than communication.

“To find a set used by the regime of Democratic Kampuchea would make it extremely rare and very valuable to international collectors, especially if you had a First Day Cover [the stamp equivalent of a first edition] signed by Brother Number 1,” says Shaw.

It was only in April 1980 that new postage stamps of the postwar regime became available for public use.

Before that, and in order to save time and resources after the fall of Pol Pot, the new regime used stamps from prior to the Khmer Rouge and overprinted them manually with RPK or “Republique Populaire Kampuchea”.

Shaw shows examples on his website and calls them “of interest and relatively rare”.

The high market value of Cambodian stamps was illustrated by the sale on eBay of a special set celebrating Cambodia’s independence from France and signed by King Norodom Sihanouk.

According to Shaw, who would rather the item be kept in a Cambodian museum; it was sold for “several thousand dollars”.

A quick Internet search reveals there are still high-value items out there.

On the American collectors site Herrickstamp.com, a set of five space travel-themed stamps issued in 1990 fetches US$1,100 and is listed as “the scarcest postage stamps of Cambodia”.

But what is it that turns a set of dry stamps into a collector’s wet dream?

Best buys

According to Hong Kong-based stamp enthusiast and blogger, Patrick Fung, the most exciting unlisted stamps of Cambodia are the so-called “surcharges”.

When inflation ran faster than the stamp-printing machines, the postal authority started to add a surcharge to the existing stock of stamps.

Since they were stamped locally by hand for postal use only, overseas collectors have a hard time identifying and getting hold of them.

But amateur collectors beware: According to Fung, almost all 1990s surcharges have forgeries.

Shaw, on the other hand, admires “proof”stamps which show the various stages of development of a specific stamp, from its early design to the final version that is then mass printed for use by the public.

“A hand-sketched initial design of a Cambodian stamp from the 1950s or 1960s and signed by the artist can fetch a lot of money,” he says.

When Cambodia started issuing stamps again after the Khmer Rouge, most of them were designed, printed and marketed by a Cuban company called COPREFIL.

Fung mentions how, in 1993, a special set was printed in Havana to mark the 40th anniversary of national independence.

As Cuba shipped part of the stock to Cambodia, it was reported stolen during transit, which forced Cambodia to declare the set illegal and prompted Russia to quickly produce a new one to present to Cambodia as a gift.

This latter set was only available in Cambodia, whereas the stolen one was only available outside the country. Fung says that it also marked the first time that English was used on stamps instead of French.

Pieces of history

According to Eth So, deputy director at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, since 2002 Cambodia’s stamps have been printed in Vietnam.

He says that about four to five sets, with a total of 20 to 25 stamps, are being issued per year.

Cambodian stamps are often used to carry particular messages, which may be political.

On his site, Shaw provides a good example via a comprehensive history of the role of King Norodom Sihanouk, as seen through Cambodian stamps.

More recently, in July this year, Cambodia issued a set of five stamps to commemorate the first anniversary of Preah Vihear’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But it’s not all political. December 2006 saw the launch of a series of HIV/AIDS-awareness stamps, prominently featuring PSI’s Number One condom, and the same year also saw a set of five different dolphins to promote ecotourism.

They don’t always get it right, though, as Fung notes about the dolphin set, “the cachet says ‘fish’ and adverts at post offices say ‘fish’ too. “Dolphins are not fish, they are mammals.”

(article also reposted at CAAI News Media)

19 November 2013

55 Years of Cambodia-China Diplomatic Ties Follow Up

On 2 August 2013 I reported that China issued a commemorative cover to mark the 55th anniversary of Cambodia-China diplomatic ties (click here for a link to the blog entry).  This is a follow up on the news,

After the cover from the China National Philatelic Corporation is made available to the general public, it is found that the commemorative postmark is different from what publicized before: a lotus flower and leaf design is used instead of the national flags of Cambodia and China.

The total print run of the cover is 50,000, each of them has its own print run serial at the bottom right corner on the back:

One thing is consistent with the publicity: no Cambodian stamp and postmark is featured, this may due to the a lack of time for arrangement.

Just as the other diplomatic anniversary commemorative covers issued by China, there is a presentation ceremony held with diplomats of the two countries attended.  A special 'VIP" version of the cover is given as complimentary souvenir to the ceremony attendees.  Only a handful of these "VIP" covers make their way to the philatelic market and so they are quite rare and scarce.

I manage to find a sample of this "VIP" cover, it has a Cambodian stamp from the 2008 "50th Years of Cambodia-China Diplmatic Ties" 2v set, tied by a black ink cachet.

The Chinese prepared Cambodian cachet features the national flags of the two nations as well as the title of the issue in Khmer.  The placement of the two flags is China on the left, Cambodia on the right and this arrangement fails to follow international flag protocol.  It is a Cambodian cachet, not a Chinese cachet, so the flag of honour is the Cambodian which should appear on the left, not on the right.  The Chinese authority does make a careless diplomatic mistake this time.

5 November 2013

1984 & 1986 Airmail Stamps of Cambodia (P.R. Kampuchea)

In 1984, five years after postal service was re-established in 1979, Cambodia had her airmail stamps again.

Officially issued on 2nd Jan, the new airmail set has four values which share an identical design depicting an Ilyushin Il-62 over the Khmer national pride, Angkor Wat.  This scene was merely a fascinative illusion as in reality Kampuchean Civil Aviation Company only provided commercial air service between Phnom Penh and Hanoi in 1984, there could have no Il-62 over Angkor.

1984 airmail set of 4v (Sc #C55-C58, Mi #546-549).

Denominations of the four airmail stamps are 5r, 10r, 15r and 25r respectively, they make a total of 55r which was around 7.85USD with reference to the exchange rate 7r to 1USD in January 1984.

The lowest value of the set is 5r, however at the time of issue most standard letters did not have postage more than 4r, this resulted in a very limited use of these airmail stamps in 1984 and 1985.  The set was primarily used for special delivery services which cost premiums, and on mail with considerable weight.  Here is a sample of 10r and 15r from the 1984 airmail stamps franked on an early 1986 registered mail:

Postmarked 6th February 1986, this cover was to Darwin of Australia.  The stamps show 29.9r postage including registered fee.   It is extremely difficult to study 1980s and 1990s Cambodian postal rates because stamp franking did not necessarily reflect the actual postage paid.  The chaos was the direct result of odd face value stamp supply, bribery and unprofessional postage bookkeeping.  To make things more complicated, during the high inflation period, postage in riel was hooked to the fluctuating daily exchange rate of riel to dollar.

According to the stamp printer, 855,500 airmail sets were printed.  This amount is surprisingly large as in 1980s the majority of Cambodian stamps were produced below 300,000 full sets per issue.  When the print run was high and the use was limited, there should have had a large stock remained in the coming years to fulfill postal needs but surprisingly another airmail set with exactly the same denominations was introduced just two years later.

On 4th March 1986 the Cambodian postal authority issued 606,650 new airmail sets.  This second airmail set has the same "II-62 over Angkor" design but with background colours, inscriptions and placement of them changed (see scan).

1986 airmail set of 4v (Sc #C59-C62, Mi #737-740).

Inflation climbed considerably after the stamps were issued.  It started at a sudden official fall, 30r to 1USD sometime before May, then in September the next year the rate was down to 100r to 1USD.

Devaluation of riel made high face value stamps like these airmail stamps just right for extensive use.  However the puzzling thing is, instead of using the 1984 airmail stamp stock to catch up with the postage increase, the post offices largely used the 1986 set.  The reason for this is unknown.

The following are examples of 1986 airmail stamps on covers:

1986 cover from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City franked with two 5r airmail stamps.
Total postage: 10.2r.  The postal clerk used two 5r stamps instead of one 10r
probably because 5r was handy.  In Cambodia, there is no practice of using
the least amount of stamps to make up postage.

Back of a 1989 cover from Siem Reap to Houston franked with four 5r airmail stamps.
Two 1988 Vietnamese printed "Apsaras" 35r and a 2r from the 1986 "Butterflies"
are on the front.  Total postage: 92r.

1991 domestic cover from Pursat to Phnom Penh with a
1986 15r airmail stamp, single franking.

The 1986 airmail stamps remained commonly used until early 1990s when further inflation rendered them obsolete.  Collectors should note that dealers love to claim that 1986 airmail stamps on mail is rare and scarce, it is absolutely not true.

The 2014 Scott retail price of the 1984 airmail set is mint 45USD, postal used 7.5USD, the 1986 set mint 37USD, postal used 7.5USD.  Market price for a mint set is under 10USD.  None of the major catalogues reflect real market price or scarcity.