21 May 2015

1988 Aspara 4v Stamps of Cambodia

In 1988 Cambodia issued a set of four stamps sharing a common design based on one of the Angkor Wat apsara reliefs.  Unlike all the other Cambodian stamps at that time which were printed in Cuba, this issue was done in Vietnam, and it is the first bicolour issue since 1979.  The set does not only have a special background, it has special usage as well.

Apsara relief of Angkor which the stamp design is based on.
(courtesy: Chen Wei Hsien)

After the fall of Khmer Rouge, the national currency "riel" was reintroduced in March 1980 at 4 riels to 1 USD.  As part of postal system improvement, a philatelic contract with Cuba which took effect in 1983 secured the country of regular postage stamp supply, these pretty pictorial stamps are in denominations up to 6r.  To collectors' surprise, the apsara 4v set carries shockingly high face values in comparison: 35r, 50r, 80r and 100r, this has prompted the question of what these high denomination stamps were for.

Understanding the economic background may help to answer the question.  During the second half of 1980s and the first half of 1990s, Cambodia experienced as high as 3-digit inflation because of the closure of state enterprises, privatization, and later the UNTAC programme.  Below is an inflation chart based on the information provided by International Monetary Fund (IMF), it shows that from 1987 to 1994 the national currency, riel, plunged like weights.

(source: IMF)

Although inflation started to run wild in 1986, the Cuban stamp printer did not respond to it: except the 1984 and 1986 "airmail" sets, up to the end of 1988 the highest denomination of usual pictorial stamps remained to be 6r (which was actually from the S/S).

The first year of hyperinflation period have already made most stamps inadequate for postal use.  The official exchange rate became 30r to 1USD sometime before May 1986, then in September the next year the rate was down to 100r to 1USD.  Postage jumped more than 6 times in the second quarter of 1986, a standard letter to Viet Nam went from 1.5r to around 10r, flying to America was raised from less than 5r to around 43r, and registration fee cost around 40r.  Obviosuly only the 1984 and 1986 "airmail" sets which have the denominations of 5r, 10r, 15r and 25r were practical for international postage.

Postmarked 5 May 1986 in Phnom Penh, this mail to Viet Nam is franked with
two 5r 1986 "airmail" stamps issued in March.

While the 1986 "airmail" stamps were heavily used on mail, the authority realised that their face values were still too low.  To fulfill the urgent needs, three handstamped surcharges of 30r, 50r, 80r on existing stocks of low denomination stamps were created for international postage.  Furthermore in 1988 the 4v set of apsara stamps were ordered from Hanoi, the political and economic backup of Cambodia at that time, to nourish the supply of high denomination stamps.  This apsara set put the highest face value of Cambodian stamps to 100r.

The following is the back a registered mail to West Germany, postmarked in Phnom Penh on 22nd April 1988.  A 35r and a 100r stamp from the apsara set were franked alongside with a 5r from the 1986 "airmail" set.  The total postage for this mail shown on stamps is 148.2r (around 1.5USD).

These apsara stamps were usually used in mixed franking, but 50r often came in single or double franking in 1990 as it roughly fit the postage to Europe (the actual value of riel fluctuated from day to day).  As a matter of fact, before 1990 the 50r stamp was rarely used.

50r single franking on mail to France, postmark dated 11th June 1990.

35r on postcard to West Germany, postmark dated 26th November 1988.

Unlike the other three face values, the 80 stamp was used only in mixed franking as it has never been about the postage to any destination.  The stamp was also the most extensively used in the apsara set.

80r mixed franking on mail to Austria, total postage 100r.
Postmarked 23rd January 1991.

The apsara set continued to serve its duty until 1993 when inflation went up seriously again.

The official stamp catalogue published by the country's Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPTC) in 1997 does not give an exact issue date for the apsara set.  In major world stamp catalogues the 4 stamps are listed as Scott 985-988 and Mi 1063-1066 with the issue date given as 15th May 1989.  Quite a lot of postal used examples have been found since mid 1988, a year ahead of the issue date listed by Scott and Michel, and so the issue date given by catalogues cannot be true.

The 1988 apsara 4v set was not for high postage charge, its high denominations were merely the result of inflation.  Since it was not produced by the Cuban stamp agent, it did not join the worldwide philatelic distribution network like all the other pictorials did, no official FDC or CTO is available, however imperf proofs exist (they are proofs, NOT imperf stamps).  The Scott CV of the 4v set is 150USD both for MNH and used.