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Duke of York visits his mother’s stamp collection…in the U.S.

QE II coronation A recent article in Linn’s Stamp News reports that The Duke of York, formerly known as Prince Andrew, had never seen the Royal Philatelic Collection, which officially belongs to his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, before his visit to the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. in June.

The museum is hosting an exhibition titled, “The Queen’s Own: Stamps That Changed the World.” It includes a selection of items from the Royal Philatelic Collection, and it is the first time that any part of the collection has been shown outside the United Kingdom since 1947. The exhibit runs through January 11, 2005.

The exhibition has three parts:

All of the items in the exhibition can be seen on the NPM web site linked above.

When the Duke admitted he had never seen the Royal Philatelic Collection, he referred to himself as a “philatelic philistine.”

castle stamp based on Duke of York photo However, the Duke wasn’t the only person who learned something. He was accompanied on this visit by Michael Sefi, the keeper of the Royal Collection. Sefi did not know that the Duke had taken the photographs that were used for the 1988-1999 high-value stamps picturing four royal castles. The £1.50 value is shown here, with the original 1988 version on the left and the 1992 reprint on the right. The stamps picture Caernarfon Castle in Wales.

The Duke and Sefi were given a tour of the collection by Wilson Hulme, Curator of Philately of the museum. The Duke mentioned that postage stamps were “a remarkable invention.” Hulme added that they had “changed the world,” and Lawrence Small, Smithsonian Secretary, stated that the invention of postage stamps was probably “more of a breakthrough than email.”

After the tour, the Duke visited with the invited guests. He was surprised to learn that there was someone who lobbied for junk mail, which he referred to as “trash mail.” Welcome to America, Your Highness. (Posted July 24, 2004, updated October 24, 2004). top

Discordant reaction to Entente Cordiale stamps

Royal Mail recently unveiled the designs for several upcoming 2004 issues at a press briefing. James Mackay described the event in the May issue of Scott Stamp Monthly. He noted that the meeting was going along smoothly until the designs of the April 6 Franco-British Entente Cordiale stamps were shown. Then, “all hell broke loose.”

The stamps commemorate the 100th anniversary of an agreement between France and Britain that settled colonial disputes between them. This led to an eventual alliance between the nations.

The pair of stamps reproduces abstract paintings by one British and one French artist. In small type in the upper left corner is the caption “Entente Cordiale 1904-2004.” You can view the stamps here and here. In the usual joint issue arrangement, France also issued a pair of stamps with the same design.

Otto Hornung, whom Mackay calls “the doyen of British philatelic journalism,” denounced them as “meaningless and captionless travesties.” Another journalist, Peter Jennings, simply dismissed them as “crap.” The journalists grumbled that allegories of Britannia and Marianne would have been preferable and easily recognizable.

Webmaster’s comment: The idea of celebrating the relationship between the two countries by showing a painting from each is not inherently a bad one. But I’m a firm believer that a stamp’s design should clearly portray its message to most if not all viewers. Had Royal Mail chosen paintings by well-known artists at the time of the agreement, perhaps Cézanne or Monet for France and John Singer Sargent for Britain, and added an easily readable caption, the set would have been more successful. I will not attempt to judge the artistic merit of the works shown on the stamps, but I will say that they do not convey the message that Royal Mail intended. (Posted April 19, 2004). top

Missing £ error in demand

The Machins made the news in a big way last summer when a spectacular error was discovered, and demand for it has boosted its price considerably since it was first offered on the market. The missing pound sign error, shown below in a pair with a normal stamp, generated much publicity for the Machins in the British general press as well as the philatelic press. According to Gibbons Stamp Monthly, an article about the stamp appeared in The Times on July 30 and on the front page of The Birmingham Post on August 4, 2003.

Missing pound-sign Machin pair

The story really begins when the small-size high-value Machins were issued on March 9, 1999. These Machins replaced the pictorial high values featuring castles. Following tradition, these high values were recess-printed. The initial issue was produced by Enschedé of Holland, but in 2000 the contract was awarded to De La Rue Security Print, the branch of De La Rue PLC that formerly was Harrison and Sons.

In the face of financial difficulties, De La Rue stopped printing postage stamps by the recess process. The press used for this purpose was transferred to non-stamp items such as passports and traveller’s checks, according to Douglas Myall. As a result, a new printing of the high values was done on the gravure press and was issued on July 1, 2003.

Missing pound-sign Machin 
cyldinder block During the production process, one £2 stamp in one of the two post office panes was printed without the pound sign. (Definitive stamps are printed in sheets of 400. Each sheet is divided into two panes of 200 for sale. One of the two panes has a dot after the cylinder number in the margin, so the panes are referred to as the “dot” and “no-dot” panes.) This error managed to escape notice for a time and was placed on sale at Tallents House, the British philatelic bureau, and at post offices nationwide. Some were even used on first day covers.

The error stamp is the one next to the cylinder number in the margin, so collectors tend to save the stamp as a marginal pair (shown above), as a cylinder block of six (left), or as a vertical strip of three with the margin attached.

It took a few weeks for the news to spread throughout the philatelic community and then into the general press. Initially, Royal Mail said that the stamps would remain on sale, but a day later, Royal Mail changed its collective mind and withdrew the stamps from Tallents House on July 31 because they were “not fit for the purpose for which they were printed.” However, the stamps were not withdrawn from post offices.

In the October, 2003 issue of the British Philatelic Bulletin, Douglas Myall revealed that the error occurred when the master artwork was being transferred to the printing cylinder. The cylinder makers use a computer program that splits the image into a series of layers, and “each layer is repeated onto the cylinder as an individual stamp during the engraving process. It was during this process that the error occurred.”

(The inference is that the cylinder makers are external companies hired by De La Rue. There are two cylinder makers, but the one that created the erroneous cylinder was not revealed.)

Initially, dealers were able to offer copies for about $100 or less. Since the market was not settled, prices on eBay varied and reached as high as $300. Market prices have risen significantly since then. In early 2004, pairs or vertical strips of three were going for $150 or more. Cylinder blocks have become scarcer and are fetching over $200. First day covers, containing one of each of the four gravure high values with the £2 stamp missing the pound sign, were selling for $500 or more. It remains to be seen if these prices will hold in the long term or if they will appear to be bargains a few years from now. Stanley Gibbons has indicated that the error will appear in their intermediate level “Great Britain Concise Stamp Catalogue.” I do not know if they will be listed in the Scott catalog. (Posted March 22, 2004). top

Five new Machins for increased rates; five six Machins withdrawn

Five new Machins are being issued on April 1 to accompany the new rates that go into effect that day, and a sixth is being returned to general circulation.

The new Machins are shown in the table below.

Denomination Color Service
7p Shocking Pink Second class to first class makeup
20p Light Green General use
Returned to circulation, not a new issue
35p Dark Brown Second class 60g to 100g (second step)
Reissue of 1988 stamp
39p Light Grey Surface postcards outside Europe
40p Dark Turquoise Europe airmail postcards and letters to 20g
43p Emerald Green Airmail postcards outside Europe

35p dark brown Machin The 20p light green Machin was withdrawn from general circulation last year when the second-class rate became 20p. Stamps that pay for second-class inland service must have only a single phosphor band so that the mail handling equipment can identify them. Therefore, the 20p Machin with two bands could not be sold to the general public, although it remained on sale to collectors from philatelic outlets.

Now that the second class rate has increased to 21p, the 20p Machin is being returned to post offices for use as needed.

One-stop stamp for postcards Also being issued on April 1 is a “universal” non-denominated stamp (later called an “international one-stop” stamp) for airmail postcards to locations outside Europe. This stamp joins the universal stamps issued last year for airmail letters. The stamp will be issued in self-stick format in booklets of four. It has the same design as the existing universal stamps, except that the text is “postcard” at the bottom, rather than “up to 40 grams.” The portrait and text are dark grey with red and blue half-chevrons at right.

The non-denominated ‘E’ Machin paying the rate for airmail letters to Europe is being withdrawn on April 1, 2004. It is being replaced by the 40p Machin included in the table above. The ‘E’ regional definitives will also be withdrawn and replaced by 40p versions on May 11.

According to Douglas Myall, the letter ‘E’ on the stamps confused the public who thought that it stood for “euro,” the European currency that has not been adopted in the United Kingdom. Although there is a precedent for stamps being issued in advance of a new currency — the first decimal Machins were issued eight months before the actual currency conversion — it hardly seems likely that many people could be believe that a postage stamp was issued in a new currency (without any number indicating how many euros) in the absence of any publicity about an upcoming conversion.

It is likely that there is another motive. Last year, Royal Mail issued a so-called universal stamp for letters to Europe. The stamp may be used for letters up to 40 grams in weight and costs 57p as of April 1. (See article below.) Royal Mail does not heavily publicize the fact that there are lower rates for lighter letters. Instead, they tacitly encourage people to overpay postage. The ‘E’ stamps were conveniently available in booklets of four. Now, those stamps and booklets are gone. When a customer goes to the post office and asks for “a booklet of stamps for letters to Europe,” Royal Mail will happily sell them a booklet containing four 57p stamps. If the customer uses them on four letters weighing 20g or less, Royal Mail makes a tidy 68p (four times 17p) extra revenue.

Adding credence to this theory is the fact that Royal Mail is also withdrawing the convenient booklets of six 68p stamps. These stamps are used for overseas letters (other than Europe) weighing between 10 and 20 grams. Royal Mail no doubt hopes that mailers will use the worldwide universal stamp that sells for £1.12. There is no other reason for discontinuing these booklets because the 68p rate is not changing on April 1.

Also being withdrawn are the four gravure high value Machins issued only last year. According to Peter Jennings, writing in Linn’s Stamp News, the stamps will be replaced by the Horizon computer-vended postage labels that were introduced in 2002. The labels have apparently proven much more convenient to use than postage stamps. In addition, Royal Mail said that they are less costly than stamps, avoiding distribution costs as well as the cost of manually cancelling the stamps. (The labels are generated only for items weighing more than 60 grams, the first weight step for inland letters, so you won’t be seeing these labels on everyday letters.)

Philatelic writer James Mackay found out that the stamps remain on sale in locations where computer printing is not practical, such as overseas post offices serving the armed forces. The stamps also will remain on sale at Tallents House, the British philatelic bureau, until further notice.

Update: Douglas Myall reports that the 4p Machin is being withdrawn from general sale. It has remained available as a change-maker, a stamp that can be used for the last few pence of an odd postal rate, such as for a heavy letter. Royal Mail has apparently decided that it was not needed, and the cost of printing the stamps and accounting for them could be avoided. The 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p Machins remain on sale for this purpose. (Updated April 20, 2004 and July 24, 2004). top

Postal rates increase on April 1

Less than eleven months since the last tariff change, certain British postal rates are increasing on April 1. Last year, both the basic first class and second class rates were increased 1p. This year, only the second class inland rate is bumped up, by 1p to 21p. Although the basic first class rate is unchanged, the rate for first class items weighing 350g or more decreases from 3% to 11%, depending on the weight. The fee for Recorded (Signed For) mail goes up from 64p to 65p.

Airmail rates to Europe increase as well. Postcards and letters to 20g increase from 38p to 40p while letters up to 40g jump from 53p to 57p.

Airmail rates for letters outside Europe did not change, but airmail postcards went up by 1p to 43p.

Finally, surface mail rates are also going up. These rates do not apply to Europe. Postcards and letters to 20g go from 37p to 39p, and letters to 40g increase from 61p to 66p.

Service Current rate New rate Increase Increase
Second class letter to 60g 20p 21p 1p 5.0%
Second class letter 60g to 100g (second step) 34p 35p 1p 2.9%
Postcards and letters to 20g
Surface mail outside Europe
37p 39p 2p 5.4%
Letters to 60g
Surface mail outside Europe
61p 66p 5p 8.2%
Postcards and letters to 20g
Airmail to Europe
38p 40p 2p 5.3%
Letters to 40g
Airmail to Europe
53p 57p 4p 7.5%
Airmail outside Europe
42p 43p 1p 2.3%
Recorded (Signed For) 64p 65p 1p 1.1%

For a historical view of postal rates, see the domestic postal rates and international postal rates pages on the Great Britain Collectors Club site. (Posted February 24, 2004.) top

Last update: October 24, 2004   Macintosh!
Copyright © 2004 by Larry Rosenblum