Iceland’s stamps are on the rocks

Iceland 2009 Nordia Puffin stamp

News out of Iceland last week has shocked the placid world of stamp collecting and made this puffin sad.

Customers of Iceland’s philatelic service last week received a distressing email from Vilhjalmur Sigurdsson, the head of philately for Iceland Post. Here’s an excerpt.

Dear Friends

Iceland Post, Stamp and Philatelic Department (Postphil) will be abolished at the end of this year after about 90 years in operation.

We still have two stamp issues left this year, on September 12th. and October 31st., but when they are done the department will be closed down for good and will stop serving stamp collectors, domestic and foreign, altogether.

The fact that the number of our philatelic customers have constantly been decreasing year after year has lead to years of deficit for Postphil.

Iceland Post has got a new CEO Mr. Birgir Jonsson, who is cutting down everything that is not profitable in this company, including Postphil, and that is due to the fact that Iceland Post currently has severe operating difficulties.

To-day, August 20 Iceland Post is laying off about 50 people throughout the company.

This is obviously terrible news for the employees of Postphil, and my heart goes out to them. Iceland’s stamps are vibrant and fascinating, and Postphil runs a particularly good website in no fewer than five languages.

Like many postal administrations worldwide, Iceland post is in deep financial shit. It falls to Jónsson to fix it. In the wake of this news, stamp industry commentators have pored over his CV and commenced personal attacks in the apparent belief that someone cannot possibly be a former heavy metal drummer AND possess the basic ability to read a balance sheet.

But that is missing the point. Rowland HiIl himself would struggle to steer a post office away from disaster in this age, when the only things dying faster than the letter business are stamp collectors themselves. Jónsson has the unenviable task of keeping Iceland Post afloat in a nation that’s only barely hauling itself up from the mat after a crushing recession, with a population of not even half a million people.

He speaks a little more for himself in the Iceland Review:

“Iceland Post has run an ambitious operation and postage stamp publication for decades,” said CEO Birgir Jónsson. “Now, the outlook for the company’s operational environment means that we cannot continue the publication. We’ve lost tens of millions each year on this operation. This is part of the rationalization measures which we’re in the middle of. Regrettably, we have to cut down there as we do in other departments.”

… The publication of new postage stamps is prepared years in advance. The publication will be continued through next year, and maybe a little bit into 2021, to finish prior plans. According to Birgir, the publication will cease then and Iceland Post will rely on its sizable postage stamp stock. “We have a stock of stamps which will last for many years, and maybe until the last letter will be sent.” Birgir says that if the stamp stock finishes before the last letters and postcards will be sent, it is possible to re-print stamps.

A stock of stamps that will last until the last letter is sent? He may have been exaggerating, but it’s an insight into the future faced by postal authorities worldwide. Someone does need to tell him that stamps can go on parcels too.

Iceland 2013 Europa Postal Vehicles - Ford Transit 350M
Probably one of Iceland’s less vibrant and fascinating stamps

Still, it’s suprising to hear a postal boss talk like this. In recent years, philatelic departments have been seen not as financial burdens, but as cash cows to be milked as letter volumes diminish. They’ve propped up postal finances by churning out thousands of unnecessary stamps and associated “collectible” products every year. Authorities rely on collectors who are hypnotised by the completist spell: we must have One Of Everything! For everybody else, pop culture gimmicks and tacky nationalism are pumped out to lure us through the door.

Well, that only works while a sizeable collector market exists for new issues. This week’s announcement sends a stark warning that philatelic services will only be around as long as they earn their place. It’s natural that smaller countries will feel the pinch first.

The irony is that stamp chat boards are full of collectors lamenting that they’ve been forced to give up collecting new issues due to the number of products issued by profit-hungry post offices. If you can’t afford One Of Everything, what’s the point in buying anything? Some have given up altogether; many have chosen a favourite nation or two and let the others go. Friends in the lifelong habit of swapping their respective nations’ new releases are deciding that this is a luxury that neither can afford any more.

But if ‘fewer stamp issues’ is the answer, be careful what you wish for. Iceland Post’s Jónsson has his sights set on more than just the philatelic department. He’d rather not issue stamps at all. From Vilhjalmur Sigurdsson’s email:

The current management of Iceland Post Ltd. prefers if possible to stop issuing new stamps altogether, but on the basis of current law, Iceland Post cannot unilaterally decide to do so.

However, there is some uncertainty as to how these matters will be handled in the future and the company is waiting for answers from its owner, the Icelandic state.

If the company must keep on issuing new stamps in 2020 and onward the number of new stamps will be very few each year and there will be no service for stamp collectors.

According to CEO Mr. Birgir Jonsson this task of producing and issuing new stamps could be given to outside contractors.

Jónsson has pulled back the curtain to reveal the stark truth that few have dared to speak: stamps are, quite simply, a financial encumbrance to modern postal administrations. Why pay for the constant design and printing of new stamps when counter-printed receipts or DIY adhesive labels do the same job for much less?

It’s anathema to even suggest such a thing in collecting circles. But spend any time in a post office watching zombie customers unquestioningly accept whatever they’re given by the counter clerk, and you’ll realise that if stamps were withdrawn tomorrow, the vast majority of mail-senders wouldn’t even notice.

Communications department accountants worldwide will be watching this move with excitement. This blog warned you about them four years ago. If Iceland’s Mr Jónsson can dispense with stamps with minimal outrage, a crack will have formed in the dam wall, and those accountants, those soldiers for the forces of Boring, will work their pencils furiously into that crack to widen the gap and end the days of the stamp forever.

There are, of course, many arguments in favour of retaining the humble stamp, not least the inestimable economic value of the ‘brand’ they present on outgoing mail, the convenience of prepaid adhesive postage (there’s still a market for that product – why not make it attractive?), and the social benefits of simply cheering people up on the rare occasion they actually get a letter with a stamp on it.

Íslandspóstur Iceland Post postbox

But if those arguments fail to be heard, then the end of Iceland’s stamps need not mean the end of collecting Iceland’s stamps. Philatelic ‘dead countries’ have one big attraction: completeness. You can collect from start to finish, knowing that there is an end-point, and you won’t find yourself bent over a barrel at the mercy of voluminous new issues. Even an austere limit on new issues will make Iceland’s stamps more affordable to the One Of Everything crowd, and may help to preserve collector interest.

In case you’re wondering, for all my realism, I am pro-stamp. I hope this dry economic irrationalism inspires Icelanders take to the streets, shrieking like Björk, ideally led by actual Björk. I hope Iceland is not so skint that it can’t at least issue a stamp occasionally. I hope philatelic bureaus elsewhere successfully pursue profit margins without pushing away collectors.

But most of all: next time you’re at the post office, half-asleep from the queues and the Muzak, and you finally reach the counter to post off that eBay lot or Etsy purchase, I hope YOU remember to refuse that dreary machine sticker for your 21st-century package.

Fight the boring. Demand a stamp.

Got an opinion? Drop a comment below or get involved over at my socials! I’m on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram!

© Philatelic product images remain the copyright of issuing postal administrations and successor authorities, assuming they haven’t been sacked by some pencil-sucking accountant

Storytime! Weekend at Punkie’s

There’s a new post on the way shortly, but let me put the reviews and rants aside for a moment and tell you about my weekend. It was exciting, but in a way that only my people will understand. (Philatelists are much like those who like fishing: we LOVE telling you all about our big catch.)

So I’d I popped into a local club auction to check out a set of commemorative covers. One of those not-strictly-what-I-collect-but-maybe-I-could-have-it-around kinda deals. In the end, I decided I didn’t need them. Game over for me. I began to mosey through the rest of the viewing tables on my way out.

And that’s when I spied them.

Continue reading

Circuit books: WTF?

Circuit book and catalogueHello and welcome to the new occasional segment I just decided to launch! Here’s how it works: you ask ‘WTF?’ and then I explain a thing. Got that? Great.

So a few years back I joined a local philatelic society. A stamp club. I hadn’t been in a stamp club since primary school, and it’s not something I mention to my normal friends, because we all know how it sounds (except for people who join stamp clubs, many of whom do not realize how it sounds). I also joined the club’s circuit book list.

Stop right there! “Circuit books” – WTF? Continue reading

Stamp blogging: it’s the new Punk!

Philippines P5 Marikina Shoe Capital stampSo, um… hi…

Just a follow-up to the previous post, you know, that one where the founder of the website up and left.

I’m Gerard (a name?! This website is going to the dogs already). I’ll be your Punk for the foreseeable future, and as she mentioned in her farewell speech, I’ve been a little bit of Punk in the past. I want to add my voice to those on this website and on Punk’s social media channels who bade Punk #1 a loving farewell. She wanted no serenade on her way out, but she undoubtedly blazed a unique trail in the philatelic world. She’s spending some time wandering off trails now, so I wish her all the very best. My involvement in this blog began as a delighted reader and avid follower, so I’ll aim to be as surprising and entertaining as she was, but hey… let’s not count our chickens. Continue reading

A new year, a new Punk. Get drinking.

France 1938 300th Anniversary of the Birth of Dom Pierre Pérignon - Traditional Costume of Champagne 1.75F stamp

It’s not very often I get meta about blogging this blog, but indulge me for one New Year’s Eve post.

A naughty little secret has been hiding in plain sight for a while now, alluded to in the ‘Punk Philatelist Manifesto’ page. If you haven’t spotted it, prepare to have your MIND BLOWN. Continue reading

Hello, new friends!

UK 2017 Classic Toys 1st Spacehopper stamp

Just a quick note to say thank you to the pals who have shared some of my older posts around the internet this week, and a warm hello to any new eyeballs. I’m a bit quiet right now due to day job commitments, but I’m taking the opportunity to tweak a few things in the back end to make this a bigger and better site.

We’ve re-established in the last few days that I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, but please, poke around, have your say, swear at me, pass things on to collectors who you think might enjoy something a bit different, or non-collectors under whose noses you think you could sneak some philately without them noticing…

PP x

© Philatelic product images remain the copyright of issuing postal administrations and successor authorities.

Exploring Exploring Stamps

Exploring Exploring Stamps tnf

A day off work due to illness presents a perfect opportunity to binge-watch a series that you’ve been meaning to see for a long time. So it was that I recently popped a painkiller, snuggled into my bed, and reached for the comforting glow of my laptop.

Which series would see me through the day? A dystopian futuristic drama about women in sexual servitude? One of those quirky Aussie comedies with no jokes in it? A day-trip back to Westeros and Game of Thrones?

Oh no, my friends, I had bigger fish to fry. It was time to explore a YouTube series that had been on my radar for a long time. It was time to explore Exploring Stamps.

Exploring Stamps title board

Exploring Stamps debuted on YouTube at the end of 2016, comprising seasons that are 20 (short) episodes each in length, along with occasional specials. At the start of each regular episode, our host, Graham, plucks a stamp from a trove stashed in a big cardboard box, and uses it as a launching pad for a journey of discovery. Most often this involves the stamp’s history and subject matter, with a bit of philately-for-the-beginner along the way. But his tangents can delight and surprise. Continue reading

A big, BIG issue

Australia 2018 Silo Art $1 Brim Guido van Helten stamp
Brim, Victoria
Artist: Guido van Helten

One of my favourite Aussie issues of recent times was 2017’s Street Art – vibrant, modern, urban and startlingly different from the usual stamp fodder. Not surprisingly, those stunning works were a big hit on my Instagram page. They’re very like-able.

I’m a month late with this update but I still wanted to say how much I loved seeing Australia Post continue the theme with May’s Silo Art issue. Silo art is the rural equivalent of street art, except that it’s painted on grain silos, and it is, as a rule, fucking ENORMOUS. Continue reading

Cold War propaganda stamp of the day

Poland 1973 30th Anniversary of Polish People's Army 1zl T-55 tank stampPolitics and human rights abuses aside, I love propaganda stamps. When I was very young, almost everything I knew of life behind the Iron Curtain came from my kiddie stamp collection. Countries like Poland, Romania and Hungary must have earned some sweet forex coin getting their stamps into the Western collector market. Eastern Europeans, I knew, were mad for Lenin, space, the Winter Olympics and military hardware.

This stamp isn’t the most propaganda-y of my propaganda collection, but it was always a fave (despite the damage at the bottom, marking this as a genuine Punk Philatelist artefact of the era).

I looked into it this week, and found that it was one of a 1973 set marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Polish People’s Army. That’s the kind of thing they called armies when the Soviets ruled the roost.

Look at that stamp again: it’s so action. It says more than “We have tanks.” It says “We have tanks and they are coming for YOU!”

Poland 1973 30th Anniversary of Polish People's Army 1zl MiG-21 D fighter stampThe issue also featured a plane, a ship, and a missile, all of which are also coming for YOU.

What makes them so dynamic? Sure, there are streaks of color representing the dust being kicked up, and the turbulence caused by the various aircraft, and there are the foamy breakers against the battleship’s hull.

The answer lies in one simple design feature: Continue reading