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

It’s getting steamy in here

Lots of collectors like trains on stamps. But there are trains on stamps, and then, to paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson’s character Neville Flynn from Snakes on a Plane: there are motherfucking trains on motherfucking stamps.

Have a look at these beauties marking the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad across the USA:

USA 2019 150th Anniversary of the Intercontinental Railroad stamp strip

There’s some cute design work going on. The Transcontinental Railroad was built across the United States from each direction, with the ceremonial meeting of the tracks taking place at Promontory Summit in Utah in May, 1869. The two engines depicted each hauled a trainload of dignitaries to the ceremony – Jupiter from the west, and No. 119 from the east. The so-called golden spike was then driven into the ground between them to ‘finish’ the railroad. This significant engineering feat cut the time it took to cross the nation from months down to about a week.

American pop culture gives us a certain depiction of an old steam engine: the bulbous chimney, the cattle-grid cowcatcher, a giant headlight, a colorful paint scheme and brass trim all over. It’s only when I see old American locomotives that I’m reminded that they actually looked like that! If the framing was a bit wider, you’d see a moustachio’d villain tying a damsel to the rails. It’s a shame they went for the golden spike in the middle stamp, instead of two runaway convicts pumping one of those see-saw handcars. Continue reading

The 12 Stamps of Christmas

UPDATE! I’ve added a couple of reader’s nominations to the bottom of the list! Read on…

It’s the 12th day of Christmas. The Christmas tree withers in the corner, unwatered for days. The batteries on the toys have expired. The gurgling remnants of Christmas lunch are in a fight to the death with New Year’s resolutions. So it’s the perfect time for me to give you my 12 Stamps of Christmas! After all, I am your true love.

As mail revenues continue to plummet, for the postal administrations of Christendom, Christmas offers one last chance to hear the bells jingling on their cash registers. (Do you know how many Christmas cards I got in the mail this year? None. That’s a first. It might be that I’ve been crossed off multiple lists. But I choose to blame The Pace of Change.)

So which countries brought their festive philatelic A-game in 2018? These are my favourites of the stamps that crossed my radar. Continue reading

Stamp of the day: sunnie side up!

Australia 2011 Living Australian Little Man's Business and This Is So Relaxing 60c se-tenant pairSometimes you can see a stamp dozens of times without fully appreciating its majesty. I suppose you could say the same of any artwork, or building, or person. And then, for some reason, you happen to notice it in a certain light, or at a certain magnification, or across a cosy bar eight vodka and tonics into a Friday night, and your breath can be taken away.

This happy little issue came out in 2011. They called it ‘Living Australian’. Look at those Australians, just going about their lives all Australian-y and shit.

Australia 2011 Living Australian Best Friends and Embrace Friendship 60c se-tenant pair

I wasn’t paying a great deal of attention at the time, and I’ve only vaguely clocked them since. But when I saw this one cross my desk on the weekend – and I mean I really saw it – it filled me with joy.

Australia 2011 Living Australian Cricket at the Gabba 60c stamp

At first glance, it’s entirely possible to miss what’s going on. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t fully taken it in until now. 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

Rhodonites are a girl’s new best friend

Australia 2017 Rare Beauties $1 Rhodonite and $1 Golden Sapphire stamps

Smacking my lips at this issue from Australia Post. Rare Beauties, they’re calling them. They’re all gemstones from the collection of the Australian Museum in Sydney, and what a stunning tribute to the lapidary’s art they are.

The golden sapphire and pink diamond are used in jewellery. The fluorite and rhodonite aren’t, but that’s OK, you can still buy them for me. I simply adore that rich red in the rhodonite.

Australia 2017 Rare Beauties $2 Fluorite stampThe photography of the stones is stunning to start with, but the ‘shadow’ across the geometric background adds a 3-D feel that really makes them pop right out of the stamp.

Y’know what I like about this set the most? The simplicity. When stamp issuers start eyeing off gemstones, for some reason there’s a compulsion to show them in the context of the geological environment in which they are found, or in fugly uncut form (everything is fugly when uncut, amiright ladies), or in the context of an end product like jewellery or industrial product. But there’s no fucking about with this issue. You want gemstones? Fine. Here are some fat fucking gemstones. Straya!

Continue reading

Bowie’s latest release

UK 2017 David Bowie album stamps

UK 2017 David Bowie 1ST Aladdin Sane stamp

Well this is the most exciting thing to happen this year since I accidentally swiped right on Tinder and he turned out to be a match, a babe, and leaving for overseas two days later.

The UK is releasing a set of David Bowie stamps today!

David has been on a UK stamp before, as part of a Classic Album Covers release in 2010. (You can also spot a wild Bowie issue hiding in this post about tortoise stamps from Namibia. Yes, you read right.)

Now Royal Mail is releasing this fabulous set of six iconic Bowie album covers, plus four photos from live tours combined in a stamp sheet.

Continue reading

London’s burning

UK 2016 Great Fire of London stamp setHere’s a stamp issue I just have to share with you before 2016 becomes too tiny in the rear view mirror. It was undoubtedly my favourite release out of any that caught my eye last year. And you don’t have to be a stamp nerd to love it, though it’ll help if you are a history buff, comic book geek, or pyromaniac. Continue reading