Going postal in Tel Aviv

The 2008 World Stamp Championship brought together some of the most famous and prestigious stamp collections in the world, from over 70 countries.

postal stamps 88.298 (photo credit: )
postal stamps 88.298
(photo credit: )
There are essentially two kinds of people in the world: those who collect stamps and those who do not. People in the first group, the stamp collectors, gaze in excitement and fascination at small, handsomely designed and intricately printed pieces of paper with perforated edges, while people in the second group cannot for the life of them understand why. People in the first group often thrill to the discovery and acquisition of the special stamp that will go into a special album, carefully inserted into a special empty space that has been waiting for this special stamp for months or years, while people in the second group shake their heads, utterly mystified. People in the first group spend much of their adult lives exclusively collecting stamps with special themes - animals, airplanes or tropical flowers - while their friends, relatives and even spouses from the second group think they must be out of their minds. If you belong to the first group, you probably attended the 2008 World Stamp Championship held here in Israel from May 14-21, or know someone who did. Dramatically displayed across the enormous exhibit halls of the Israel Trade Fair and Convention Center in Tel Aviv, the exhibit brought together some of the most famous and prestigious stamp collections in the world, from more than 70 countries. The collections, considered to be among the best in the world and valued together at over $100 million, were competitively evaluated by an international panel of judges from across Europe; India, Thailand, Singapore, China and Taiwan; North and South America; and South Africa as well as Israel. Spread throughout no fewer than 2,600 display frames, the exhibit featured collectors' displays of stamps and other postal materials competing, being judged, and awarded medals for such criteria as rarity, development of a display plan, knowledge and presentation. Exhibitors could earn anything from a "certificate of participation" upward through bronze, silver, vermeil and gold medals, to grand prix awards for those judged the very best. The gala week-long event, billed as a "championship of champions," was further enriched by a variety of activities sponsored by the Israel Philatelic Federation, one of the exhibition's major organizers. These included the opportunity for children to be photographed for the making of their own stamps, evaluations of private stamp collections, and philatelic trivia games with prizes. If you belong to Group Two - that portion of humanity that simply rips letters open and tosses envelopes and stamps into the trash, a bit of background information might be helpful. To non-philatelists, the term "philately" is often understood to be a somewhat fancier word for "stamp collecting." Even new stamp enthusiasts are often surprised to discover that true hobbyists and professionals consider them to be two distinct activities. Philately, we are told, is the study of stamps and often anything else that has anything to do with the world's postal systems, such as cancellation or postmarks; "covers" (envelopes with stamps and postmarks); "first day covers" (envelopes with stamps and postmarks from the day of the stamps' first issue); and various esoteric categories of mail. Philately consists of "traditional philately" - stamps and material categorized by country; postal history, and "thematics" - stamps and material categorized by subject. There is also a branch known as "pre-philately," dealing with covers and letters from before the first issue of postage stamps on May 1, 1840, in the United Kingdom. Philatelists do not need to own the materials they study, and collectors do not need to become experts in the material they accumulate. The line between the two becomes blurred, however, when looked at from outside by laymen - kind of like the difference between psychiatrists and psychologists, or Baptists and Methodists. Call them what you will, there is no denying their passion for what they do. "I love it!" says Zohar Noy, 36, the exhibition's public relations director and himself an avid collector. "I've been collecting since I was six years old. I started with worldwide postage stamps, and after 20 years of that found some postage stamps in a shop with pictures of movie actors. So I started to look for cinema-themed stamps and materials. I collect not only stamps, but also postmarks, covers - everything postal that has to do with cinema. I now have a very nice collection after a lot of years." Noy adds that "Each collector is looking for his subject, his theme - maybe a certain country, or dogs, or cinema. You choose something you love. If you're a doctor, maybe you choose stamps about medicine. If you love music, you collect stamps about music." Noy's face becomes animated as he says, "Philately is wonderful. It teaches you so much about history, you get friends from all over the world, you travel a lot. It's a good way to make your life better." Asked to describe his reaction to finding an unexpected and extraordinary stamp or cover, Noy says simply, "The feeling is amazing!" No less enthusiastic is Dan Fischer, whose exhibit, entitled "Floral Symbolism as the Common Denominator," was accorded the maximum number of display frames - eight - in the group Thematic Philately/ Nature. The allocation of eight frames is an honor bestowed only to those whose exhibits received gold medals in their previous competition. "It took me many years to develop the idea for my exhibit," he explains. "Other people exhibiting flowers focus more on botany. I am showing the symbolism of the flower, which I have not seen anyone else try to do." Now 80 years old, Fischer began collecting stamps when he was eight. Staged in honor of Israel's 60th birthday, much of the exhibition focused on the War of Independence and the founding of the state. Exhibitors displayed a wide array of postal memorabilia from 1948, including "siege mail" - covers, stamps and postmarks of letters going in and out of the besieged city of Jerusalem; convoy-carried mail; official outgoing air-mail flown by the army; flown incoming mail; as well as privileged civilian and special courier mail. Other exhibitors offered fascinating displays of Ottoman-era mail, including mid-19th-century mail to and from Jerusalem and Jaffa, along with a particularly interesting cover from a letter mailed from Nablus to Damascus in 1878. Lawrence Fisher, 48, a computer programmer and Wingate Institute-trained personal fitness coach, presented a five-frame thematic exhibit entitled "Holocaust, Statehood, and the Struggle for Survival." A native of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in Israel for 30 years, Fisher, like his father before him, is a driven philatelist and collector, who started at the age of six. His enthusiasm, however, is very tightly focused. "Not everything interests me. I am interested specifically in the Arab-Israeli conflict. I do not touch stamps that are about anything else." Standing in front of his display, he explains, "Like all thematic exhibits, my exhibit is telling a story. My first frame tells the story of the Holocaust. Its title is 'A Holocaust Shocks the World.' My second frame talks about the War of Independence and the creation of the state of Israel. The third frame deals with all our wars. The fourth frame deals with the consequences of our wars, and the fifth frame is about our constant, ongoing struggle for survival, right to the present day." Fisher's presentation - including stamps, covers, postcards and postmarks - impressed the judges enough to be awarded a vermeil medal, just a few points away from gold. A particularly interesting exhibit was that of London resident Denis Vandervelde, 75, former management consultant and now full-time philatelist specializing in "disinfected mail." Standing in front of his eight-frame exhibit entitled "Disinfected Mail of Europe and the Middle East," Vandervelde notices our look of bewilderment and explains, "From the 14th century right until the 20th, it was widely believed that certain diseases could by carried on mail. These diseases included plague, yellow fever, typhus and, from 1830 or 1831, cholera. Later on, of course, people realized that these diseases couldn't possibly be spread by mail. My exhibit thus runs from the 17th century up to about 1920." Gesturing toward his display frames consisting almost entirely of documents, letters, covers, but no stamps - which he says he has not collected since he was a boy - Vandervelde continues, "People believed that these diseases were caused by what was called a 'miasma' that settled over ships coming from disease-ridden places. The diseases were thought to be conveyed on the ships' sails, and in their contents. In Venice, for example, letters that were thought might be dangerous had to be put into a wooden box with sweet-smelling herbs and spices and had to stay there for at least eight days." Elsewhere, Vandervelde says, letters were subject to even more drastic treatment - spurgata, or "purged" - by being soaked in vinegar or even baked. Many of the letters displayed had a Jewish theme, with some coming from cities in the Holy Land. Back in London, Vandervelde is the head of an association dedicated to the study and collection of disinfected and quarantined mail, with 150 members worldwide. "We philatelists are not merely collectors," Vandervelde says with a smile. "We are historians." While the exhibition seemed to attract a fairly wide array of people - young and old, secular and religious - one group was conspicuously meager in number: women. After roaming through the reception foyer, the cavernous exhibit halls, the brightly-lit stamp dealer stands and the Israel Post's crowded philatelic retail area, one would have to be forgiven for concluding that stamp collecting and philately seem to be a "guy thing." Is this a world without women? "Oh no, by no means," says Vandervelde. "There are many very serious female collectors. I personally know around seven." Asked how many collectors he knows in general, Vandervelde smiles a bit sheepishly and replies, "Around 200." Fisher agrees that stamp collecting and philately are largely male pursuits and suggests that the reasons are historical. "My personal opinion is that these activities came into their own during the period of men's clubs, where you sat with your brandy, smoking your cigars and talking about your collection. Thus, men became a part of this world during its formative stages, and women did not. There are women today, of course, but nowhere near as many as men." Perhaps an even more obvious question is whether or not philately and stamp collecting have any real future in an age in which both professional and personal correspondence are increasingly handled by e-mail, and paper letters and packages are disparagingly referred to as "snail-mail." Many philatelists and collectors believe that paper letters - and thus stamps, covers and postmarks - have around 10 more years ahead of them. Others, like Fisher, are a bit more optimistic. "Postage stamps were, after all, created for a purpose," he says. "They were created as proof of pre-payment by the sender of the letter. Prior to that, letters were paid for by their recipients, and that simply didn't work particularly well. Parcels and packages cannot be sent electronically; neither can documents that must be signed. They must be sent by mail. And as long as these things are still being sent, some proof of pre-payment by the sender will continue to be necessary. And that means stamps." In the short term, however, one thing is more or less certain. As a result of this gala exhibition of hundreds of fascinating philatelic collections, at least a handful of "Group Two" people who have never even dreamed of collecting stamps are likely to join the worldwide group of driven enthusiasts who do.