The sudden and unexpected death of Queen Elizabeth II at the age of just 96 has brought to a premature end Britain’s definitive stamps, the ‘Machin head’ series. And just when it was starting to really hit its straps, too.
I used to be cynical about Machins. The evidence can be found in the archives of this very blog, but I’ll spare you the search and just repeat my Rage Against the Machin joke, because the classics never age.
But I’ve done a complete 180. My Machins are now laid out in an orderly fashion in their album, with notes pointing out the many small variations. For a night’s entertainment, you’ll still find me watching a live band in a pub, but on a rainy winter’s afternoon, those of us who understand the pure zen of bringing order from chaos know that it’s very satisfying when your lithographies have been sorted from your intaglios.
And now, the Machin era draws to a close. The archbishop will soon place the crown on King Charles III’s head, and King Charles III will place his head on your next block of British definitive stamps. (That’s a very different block from the one that Charles I got to place his head on.)
This image is going around online. I think it’s a mockup by The Sun (tell me ASAP if I’m wrong!), not an official release, but it’s probably an indication of things to come.
(There are altered versions going around that look mostly like this, only his ears are huge. Get it? Because he has big ears! Funniest joke of 1972 right there. OK, turns out some classics do age.)
Of course, this mockup forgot one detail, didn’t it? That’s right! Everyone’s new favourite definitive accessory, the barcode!
On its closing lap, the Machin took on its most controversial variation of all. The Royal Mail decreed early in 2022 that, as of February 2023, the only definitive stamps that would remain valid for postage would be those printed with a barcode. Here’s how they look on the non-value-indicated stamps:
These are not ‘QR codes’, so stop being an idiot and calling them that. QR codes are square, with distinctive smaller squares in three corners that assist position detection. These are 2D data matrix codes, identifiable by the two solid edges that form an ‘L’ shape. Apparently they are called ‘bar codes’, though, despite the complete absence of bars.
My favourite part of the design is the printed-on perforation that’s trying to convince the viewer that the barcode isn’t really part of the stamp. Like the benefits of Brexit and the merits of the class system, Britain’s capacity to kid itself never ceases to amaze.
The barcode announcement was huge news. It certainly represented an astonishing change to the look of the Machin definitive after so many years. And with the stroke of a bureaucratic keyboard, the Royal Mail rendered the previous 50-odd years’ worth of decimal Machin stamps postally worthless.
For anyone who collects modern mint stamps, postal validity is insurance. While they’re sitting in your album, it hardly matters. But if the time comes to sell them, and if other collectors aren’t interested, then you know that you can obtain at least a proportion of their face value from selling into the ‘postage’ market. These are the tightwads who save money by buying mint stamps for less than face value, and using them on mail. If the money they save on postage is worth the hassle of licking nineteen 5p stamps from 1971 onto an envelope to meet a 95p postal rate in 2022, then everyone’s happy.
The Royal Mail’s decision removes that insurance. Collectors holding mint Machin stamps now have until January 2023 to make a choice: do they take up the Royal Mail’s offer to swap their old mint stamps for new ones with barcodes? Pro: your collection can still be used on the mail, eventually. Con: you have a much less interesting collection now.
The alternative, of course, is not to swap the old stamps. Pro: you retain your glorious collection of Machins. Con: they have as much postal validity as a 1970s bogus stamp from the non-existent nation of Dhufar. At least Dhufar stamps have cool stuff on them, like dinosaurs.
I really feel for the collectors in this position. My own main interest is in decimal Australian stamps. There’s virtually no market for this stuff in bulk, other than postage. If Australia Post followed suit, I would either have to swap my collection in return for postage that I’ll probably never use up in my life, or I’d have to cling onto it and be left with an album full of pretty drawings of close to zero value.
I haven’t even begun to dig into what this change means for dealers. They’ll have to calculate how much of their inventories to exchange, versus the risk of retaining the stamps in the hope of still finding collector buyers later. The indefatigable Ian Billings has been covering this change from both the collectors’ and dealers’ perspectives at the Norvic Philatelics Blog, particularly in posts here and here. (Elsewhere, he has also highlighted that online forgers are already churning out the new barcode stamps to sell to the gullible.)
The weirdest part of this decision is that barcodes are only compulsory on definitive stamps. ‘Special’ stamps (ie the interesting, non-monarchy ones) will not get barcodes; Christmas stamps were set to be replaced, but got a reprieve. The Royal Mail seems to think its staff and machines will be totally fine dealing with a barcode-free stamp that depicts a Rolling Stone, but faced with a barcode-free stamp with the Queen’s head on it, CAN NOT EVEN.
It will be interesting to watch this decision play out in the collector market. The value of old mint stamps will cop a hit to start with. But if enough people take up the offer and trade in their mint Machins, could it render the remaining mint Machins scarce enough that prices will make a rebound?
It’s an intriguing thought, and one that I can answer: no, because the number of people entering the hobby and seeking to buy a back-catalogue of Machin stamps won’t come anywhere near close enough to the number of Machin collections coming onto the market as baby boomers die. Thanks for reading my investment column, please like and share.
On the bright side, the Stamp Art crowd must be stoked. They LOVE using Machins, and now they won’t have to compete against the postage buyers to get their hands on some of that sweet gear.
OK, so, it’s time for a confession. On their look alone, irrespective of the decisions taken around their introduction… I like the new stamps.
Stamps have always evolved with the society around them. There used to be no air mail stamps, and then one day, there was a need for them. Since 2001, Australia has had specially marked ‘International Post’ stamps for overseas mail, because they are not subject to a tax that applies to domestic mail. (Oh geez, I am really sorry for that last example, am I trying to make stamp collecting sound MORE boring?)
Things change. These days, tracking is part and, er, parcel of modern postal services. If the Royal Mail thinks it can supply a tracking service as standard, at a price that its customers will accept, then sure, let them add a barcode. Kudos for printing the bar code in the same colour as the stamp, and not some boring black or grey.
The Machin stamps have always incorporated technical innovations in keeping with postal requirements. Helecon strips, phosphorised paper, security codes – even when the currency changed from a ‘d’ to a ‘p’, the story of the Machin stamp is the story of the development of the British postal service. The barcode is just the latest chapter.
To be frank, collectors are lucky that the Royal Mail even left the queeny bit on the stamp. There’s no need for the picture, nor for any stamps at all. An individual barcode does everything the post office needs – it can store evidence of pre-payment, and track its progress as it goes. One day, the evil postal accountants will have their way, and there will be no more stamps. Enjoy them while you still can. Have some more!
Understandably, traditionalists aren’t happy. Maybe the Royal Mail should have announced that in return for putting barcodes on the stamps, they will stop scribbling all over them with felt-tipped markers and return to using proper postmarks. That would have been an instant hit. Then again, with unique barcodes also acting as records of their own use, even postmarks probably aren’t needed anymore.
And, as it turns out, we don’t have a queen anymore either (consorts aside). It seems somehow appropriate that, just as we farewell a queen who was known to stay up-to-date with modern affairs despite her age, we are also farewelling the long-running Machin stamp series just as it was embracing a modern overhaul. And, with time, the barcode stamps will be seen by Machin collectors not so much as a massive rip in the fabric of time itself, but as a small postscript tagged onto the end of the Machin stamp’s long and glorious reign.
We might assume that Charles III definitives will have barcodes from the start. With every barcode being unique, every single Charles III definitive will be one-of-a-kind. I wonder if the specialist catalogues will start recording patterns and developments in the barcode dots? Some collectors might well be salivating all over their anoraks already at that prospect. But not me. Just like Her Majesty herself, I think that’s where I’ll tap out.
The Machin is dead. Long live the Machin!
Until recently I was under the impression that the header images that I lovingly create for the top of my blog posts also go out in emails to those readers who have subscribed to updates. Turns out, that’s not the case, which means that my last post about Spain’s ‘Running of the Bulls’ stamp arrived with no actual image of the stamp I was talking about. Want to see it? Here you go! Of course, feel free to visit the blog if it happens again.
I’ve been a bit quiet lately because the demands of my day-job have been onerous. It happens sometimes. I will be back more regularly soon. I need philately to be my full-time gig! If you’re looking for someone to pack your old Machins off to the post office for a barcode swap, or you need a curator for that royal stamp collection you just inherited from your late mum, then hey, hit me up.
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