“I’m not a stamp nerd who looks at perfect stamps or is looking at the value of stamps or is looking at completing a collection,” she says. “I just love stamps in general.”
Wilson Ilbery is a philatelic expert; the lower north shore resident has been collecting stamps for almost 70 years, since he was a 10-year-old school boarder.
I just love stamps in general.
Collector Melanie Klassen
“I couldn’t take my model trains to boarding school but I could take my stamps … so I kept a suitcase of my stamps under my bed,” Ilbery says.
Klassen, too, was struck by stamps at around 10, when she came across her uncle’s albums. These days, she buys bulk kilos of Australian stamps.
Stamps are removed from envelopes by pouring boiling water over them, peeling them off the adhesive and then laying them out to dry.
“Not all of them come away cleanly or nicely,” warns Klassen.
The number of stamp clubs in NSW has remained around 49 for the past 30 or 40 years, says Philatelic Association of NSW honorary secretary Barbara Hancock. Before the creation of the association in 1972, there was no central record of the state’s philatelic societies.
In 1974, according to an article in this masthead, there were “smaller philatelic centres at many of the largest post offices”, with “staff to help new collectors”. As of 2020, the Australian Philately Federation is affiliated with 162 societies across Australia.
“Most stamp collectors have found the present crisis and the resultant increased time at home as an opportunity to spend more time working on their collections – to sort out the many boxes and albums of stamps they have accumulated over the years,” says APF secretary Ian McMahon.
Ilbery’s favourite collections are his NSW railway parcel stamps, which are non-postage stamps, and “war patriotic labels used on mail”. For Klassen, it’s “anything floral”.
As for what makes it onto a stamp in the first place? It’s a process, says Australia Post head of design Lynette Traynor.
“There are a number of commemorative things that come up every year that we need to cover; Christmas is a given, the Queen’s birthday,” she says. “This year there would’ve been an Olympics, we would’ve had something on that.”
Anniversaries too, but only in multiples of 50 years. The themes must have “national significance”. And no living people on the stamps, unless you’re the Queen or a “living legend”.
After a design is proposed, researched, and agreed upon by the team, the brief is written and commissioned by Traynor, allocated to in-house designers or external designers or illustrators. Stages of design go back and forth, before it goes back to the team for the tick, and heads off to the Stamp Approval Committee, a team of six non-Australia Post employees who are experts in their fields and one Australia Post production expert.
Then they’re printed, processed, perforated and fixed to products (such as first-day covers or stamp packs).
The latest domestic stamps commemorate citizen science and Australian comedy greats. Comedian Adam Hills, who features on one and collected stamps as a kid, says it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“There’s not a lot that I get to do in my career that impresses my 101-year-old grandfather,” Hills says. “I love that one day I can tell my grandkids I was on a stamp, even if I then have to explain to them what a letter used to be.”
At one point, he received a parcel covered with his face.
“I can only assume it was done on purpose by the person at the other end,” he says. “I kept the package though, because, to me, that parcel is worth as much as the honour of the stamps themselves.”
For those looking to dabble in the art of stamp collecting, Traynor has some tips:
- Budding collectors can collect stamps “off their mail, or they can go onto our website and look at the types of things there are to collect”.
- Subscribe to the Australian Stamp Bulletin, “a bi-monthly magazine with all of the issues coming up for the next two months”.
- Find a theme that piques your interest and work to collect thematically, such as trains or locomotives, Australian flora or fauna, public figures, or bridges.
- Find a group of people who share the interest: “There are different philatelic groups and stamp clubs around local areas.”
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Riley Wilson is a desk editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.