“Rare” Myanmar new issue: a warning!

It’s up to you, of course, but I’d think twice before parting with this sort of price for the latest Myanmar “rare” new issue. It was “rare” for exactly five days. Let me explain …

The two highest values of the new set – re-using the old musical instrument designs first seen in 1998 – came out normally in July. Then, without warning, Yangon GPO put on sale four more values, two for K200, two for K500, on 14 September. A few collectors were lucky enough to find out what was going on and make a few fdc’s. As soon as they posted about it on Facebook, the postal authorities had the sales halted. A simple misunderstanding – the instructions had been to distribute the new stamps to area post offices that day, not sell them.

The four new stamps disappeared from the GPO counter. Would they become rarities or not? Sadly, not. On the 19th post offices nationwide put them on regular sale. And thousands upon thousands are still available.

K200 or K500 is about – what? – the price of a coffee? Something like that. So beware speculative prices that hype up the “rarity” – soon these will be selling for next to nothing …

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Some independently minded perforations

Today, in preparation for a suggested article on the Burma 1943 Independence issue, I dug out a few perforation varieties for perusal. In their 1946 tome, Roberts and Smythies (working from info provided by U Tun Tin, Director of Posts during the Japanese occupation) tell us that the first sheets were cut with a single line perforator, gauge 11. This was supplanted by a more efficient disc rouletting machine, gauge 7, some sheets of the 5 cent value having both methods applied, with the perfs running horizontally and the roulette vertically.

Roberts & Smythies go on to describe three printings of this issue between first day on 1st August 1943 and January 1944; no points of identification to distinguish each printing have ever been found, though R&S assert that the roulette machine was used on “the greater part, if not all” of the third printing of all three values and, by implication, on the second printing too.

The actual picture may be more complex, naturally. Gibbons lists “perf x roul” for all three values, not just the 5 cent, though the 1 cent and 3 cent thus are rare, and none have ever come my way. It does appear, though, that there were problems with the line perforator, so that double perforations can be found on all values; all three can be found doubly perfed 11, and the 5 cent doubly rouletted, though these are not catalogued. It also seems to me, judging by variant sizes of perf holes, that more than one line perforator may have been in use, but this is moving into nit picking territory.

Anyway, the basic stamps are not uncommon, so the perf oddballs are well keeping an eye open for. Here are a few (click to enlarge them):

First, all three values doubly perfed 11 – at the left on the 3 cent blue and 5 cent carmine, with one line almost entirely “blind” on the former, but along the top on the 1 cent orange, where the ragged effect is actually created by pairs of overlapping holes. (This copy has a slight doubling of the print too, but only in the “kiss print” sense.)

Then, the 5 cent with the “classic” error – three sides rouletted and the top horizontal line perfed. This is the real “perf x roul”, as opposed to the imagined variety, which is no more than the normal rouletted version with some blind roulette slits (very common) that give a superficial impression of pin perf holes; these are frequently offered on eBay by the ignorant or unscrupulous at dizzy prices. Be aware! Next, the 5 cent with a nice double roulette down the right margin.

Finally, what may well be an impostor – a 1 cent with two vertical lines of pin perf holes, apparently done with a rotating disc, or maybe even a sewing machine, alongside the real roulette lines. Since the real vertical roulettes look perfectly separable, I can’t see any practical reason why an improvised line of perfs needed to be added; I’ve acquired one or two of these over the years from different sources (though all 1 cent stamps), and they’re most likely a posthumous attempt to imitate the genuine double for the benefit of collectors.

While on the subject of warnings, note that this issue was reprinted after the war on coarse yellowish paper and perfed 11 very roughly – quite different in appearance to the original. The various reprints don’t seem to have included the perf errors, but they do include imperfs, on paper close to the originals. These are not to be confused with rouletted copies with one side imperf, which are marginal copies and entirely genuine, though not amazingly valuable. There are various low quality forgeries too, made in India, usually either imperf or sewing machined.

Like all the Rangoon printed occupation stamps, this is a nice little set for study, and not hard to find. Get looking!

Burma nearly broken

Here’s an ordinary looking cover, from Kamayut in Rangoon to Bombay in August 1949, but it’s unusual in three ways. First, because someone recently gave it to me, which is both unusual and very kind. Secondly, and philatelically, because of the “X / BY SURFACE” mark, a memento of the civil war crisis that nearly put paid to the new born Union of Burma government.

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By early 1949 Karen insurgents had dug in within four miles of the capital city, and had raided Mingaladon airport and withdrawn, though they left aircraft and airport repairable and under government control. With surface routes beyond Rangoon largely destroyed or unsafe, Mingaladon came under enormous pressure, for both military and civil flights. To ease the situation, unregistered air mails to India were suspended in April, and not resumed until October. At the India end various markings – five different in all – were applied to indicate this re-routing. As the India air mail rate was increased with the resumption of the service, many senders then understamped their India mail; rather than charging postage due, the post office continued to send these underpaid items by surface, and the “X” marks were kept in use until February 1950.

broken-rThe third unusual feature here is a plate flaw on the stamp  of the 1948 Independence issue, in which the “R” of “BURMA” on the map (not in the top panel) is missing the lower half of its upright. In the sheet of 128 stamps, eight rows of sixteen, this elusive “broken R” variety occurs on the sixth stamp in the eighth or lowest row. As this set is common, there must be quite a few copies out there, but it’s hard to find, and examples on cover are rare, only a couple of others having been noted to my knowledge.

Conflict and instability continued for several years, and the blockaded Burma government of U Nu came close to breaking point, but survived. The “broken R” flaw makes a nice symbol of this crisis, somehow.

My thanks to Brian Saxe for his input on this variety. For another aspect of the postal history of the period, see this post.

Labels for the wild Wa

OK, so what exactly are these?

The history of the Wa people of Eastern Burma is well known, and in particular how the collapse of the armed forces of the Communist Party of Burma, including many Wa fighters, created the rise of the United Wa State Army, whose influence grew to control a huge tract of border territory, and then, with the cease fires, developed into nation wide business interests, both legitimate and reputedly less so.

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So are these “stamps” the creation of the UWSA? Colour photocopied (or computer printed), roughly gummed and perf or imperf, their source of supply seems to be a single dealer in India, which is perhaps a bit worrying. And his prices aren’t cheap! Certainly, if the denominations are anything to go by, they can be none too recent; pyas don’t exist these days, and today’s stamps are valued in hundreds of kyats. Similar labels exist marked “Shan State”, but neither type seems to have any connection with the many other (more or less) bogus labels created for the ethnic separatist groups of Burma over the last forty or so years. (Use the “Karenni” tag below for a few examples.)

If anyone has more information on these, I’d love to hear it.

Small is good

I don’t usually flag up new issues here, but, for once, why not?

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Here’s the latest, two small format low values (500K counts as low these days) to honour the 23rd ASEAN Postal Business Meeting, hosted this year by Myanmar at Naypyitaw. These came out on the 21st, together with an official first day cover and a maximum card for each value, which seems to be the default current practice.

On the minus side, that’s too many  items to service – four official covers and cards plus the privately produced covers. Why do we need a separate cover for each value?

On the plus side, these are neat, unpretentious little stamps that celebrate an actual occasion of political and postal significance, mundane though it may seem. Myanmar still produces and prints its own stamps. They commemorate real events, not collector-targeted themes. And stamps are still very widely used in Myanmar. And that’s all good. Long may it stay that way!

Why do peacocks have rockers?

Images of Burma national flags show the peacock on a plain white ground (Konbaung dynasty) or on a coloured disc (British era). The disc arrangement was followed by the Burma Independence Army of 1942, as shown, for example, on this printed BIA arm band, recently offered at auction. (The yellow, green and red tricolour was readopted as the basis of the national flag in 2010.) Or as on this rubber stamped seal of the Salin (in Magwe) Township BIA, on a document clipping in my collection, which shows a very splendid peacock indeed.

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BIA Salin

 

 

 

 

Some BIA peacock overprints of 1942 show the bird within such a circle (Myaungmya rupee values, or one type on postal stationery), but others set the bird on an arc or “rocker”. Why the arc? It’s hardly the natural shape for a patch of ground to stand the peacock on. What can it represent?


I’ve pondered this much over the years when I’ve had nothing better to do, and the only derivation I can suggest is that these overprints were modelled on a BIA cap badge that in its turn was based on that of the Burma Rifles in British service. I’m no expert, and I can find no image of such an insignia for the BIA, but Burma Rifles badges include the unit title on a scroll or ribbon below. The scroll may be flattish or more deeply curved; the bird’s wings may be fully visible or tucked back. Most versions show the head facing left. Interestingly, these variations are reflected in the overprints. So were the “rockers” intended for scrolls without inscriptions?

Well, it’s a theory. Advice please, from those who know!

What’s at Wazi?

My previous post mentioned in passing the Myanmar government’s security printing works (SPW Myanmar) at Wazi, where bank notes, postage stamps and revenues are printed. Time was when the location of Wazi was a state secret, but not any more, thanks to Google Earth. To find it, go to Chauk (in Magwe Division), head up the river branch to the north west, and two bends up you’ll find it, a rectangular compound just above Lan Ywar township, connected by road to Lan Ywar air strip. The last time I snapped a Google Earth image of Wazi was in 2007, but not much appears to have changed, though the white area with blue roofs outside the perimeter at the left is a more recent addition.

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Since the Referendum issue of December 1973 all Burma and Myanmar stamps have been lithographed or photogravured in house at Wazi. Stamps are despatched from the works in nice fat packets of 50 sheets, the majority of issues at 50 stamps per sheet. The packets are folded out of sheets of stout security paper, often with metallic speckles, and a “window” is cut diagonally across one corner, to enable sheets to be counted before opening. The flaps are sealed by a typographed label which is tied each side to the packet by a circular hand stamp in violet, inscribed “SECURITY PRINTING WORKS” around an “S”, all in English.

The labels are all similar, with only minor variations. Each bears the SPW logo in a pleasing engine turned style. (Click images for slide show.)

Each label spells out the number of sheets, the number of stamps per sheet, the value per stamp and the total value, followed by a rubric exhorting postal staff to count the sheets and return the packet unopened if any discrepancy is found. On the reverse a hand stamp provides a space for the packet number and the pencilled signatures of the two staff who counted the sheets before sealing the packet.

Is there another postal administration that still prints all its own stamps? The US Bureau of Engraving and Printing closed its stamp production in 2005 after an illustrious 111 year history. It’s much to be hoped that the incoming Myanmar administration will not be tempted or bribed into outsourcing production to some dreadful wallpaper agency such as IGPC. Myanmar’s stamps, whatever their limitations, are distinctive and locally relevant, and the issuing policy is conservatively modest. Myanmar’s stamps are printed to be used, and they remain the predominant means of paying postage. Long may things stay that way!

 

Mr Peter and the mystery overprint

It’s some years now since the too early death of Peter McBride, the Northern Ireland stamp dealer. A decade ago he made frequent visits to Myanmar to wheel and deal, and his tall, imposing figure was regularly seen at Yangon GPO, where as “Mr Peter” he rather enjoyed playing the District Commissioner.  He was happy to cultivate the acquaintance of local officials, offering his opinion that the Burmese people were “not ready for democracy” and deriding Aung San Suu Kyi. His ultimate aim was to gain entry to the state security printers at Wazi, but this prize eluded him, which was probably for the best. Meanwhile, packets of sheets of musical instrument definitives went out in his luggage on departure; fortified by grossly inflated catalogue prices based on “official” exchange rates, these passed into a speculative market, and some even found their way to Afinsa. (At one point, before sensibly suspending valuations, Gibbons had the K100 definitive at £44 mint or used. Today K100 is the lowest step postage rate. Peter’s argument was that as the wholesale export of Myanmar’s stamps, like its currency, was illegal, this created de facto rarity.) With the stamps travelled covers with improvised “Railway Letter” marks, vintage cancellers perhaps from some back shelf at the GPO godown, and much other loot.

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A dearth of new issues in 2005-6 (prolonged even by Myanmar’s standards) was interrupted by the startling appearance of a commemorative overprint, the first since 1963, to mark the football World Cup. This was done heavily by letterpress on the 2004 FIFA issue, and read gaba loun: bo: loun: pwe: 2006 – “World Football Festival 2006”; oddly, albino impressions of parts of the overprint showed in left and right selvages. The issue was not announced in the local press, contrary to the routine practice, and Yangon collectors knew nothing of it. Apart from anything else, Myanmar’s national team were not even participating in Germany 2006, having withdrawn from a 2002 preliminary, to be disqualified as a result. As Peter had been recently in Yangon, I asked for his views.

“It would not surprise me,” he emailed, “if an individual in GPO bank of medium level ‘privately’ may have overprinted 500 sheets and distributed them at a small premium through some post offices.” He had obtained “some” himself and had contrived to have a couple of dozen cancelled on cover. “A legitimate but short lived issue available in some offices” was his verdict.

Legitimacy is a fluid concept, and all this now appears a tad disingenuous; at this distance can there be any harm in suggesting that the World Cup overprint must have been Peter McBride’s personal creation? Let’s just say, in Peter’s own words, that it would not surprise me. In July 2006 the International Bureau of the UPU at last extracted a response from Myanmar’s Ministry of Posts, confirming officially that the administration had not produced the overprint. By then, those new  issue dealers who were happy to buy the stamps had probably bought them. 500 sheets would make no less than 25,000 copies; they must all still be floating around somewhere out there, but are not seen today that often. As for the favour covers, I’ve yet to encounter one.

Back at the turn of the Millennium Peter had been most vocal in his opposition to the proliferation of “illegals” and to those who sold them. It’s a pity that the gamekeeper was tempted to turn poacher in this instance, but at least the overprint survives as a small memento of a buccaneering dealer’s brief intervention in the philately of Myanmar.

Bobby Roberts’ Yano seals

Don’t you hate it when owners deface the backs of their stamps? Expert marks, dealer marks, initials, catalogue numbers – a mess! But here’s a defacement I haven’t erased.

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This block of four ‘Yano seals’ came from the collection of Brigadier G L “Bobby” Roberts, co-author of the seminal The Japanese Occupation Stamps of Burma, 1942-1945, published in Lahore in 1947. In May 1942 the Burma post office, under Japanese military administration, set 1 June as the date for the re-opening of services, but then found that stamps could not be printed in time. As a provisional issue the personal seal of administrator Yano Shizuo was hand stamped onto pre-perforated sheets of 104 positions (13 rows of 8 columns). The sheets were imperf at the upper and right margins, and the paper had a sheet watermark of an elephant and “Absorbo Duplicator”. The lowest (thirteenth) row was always, for some reason, a little deeper than the rest, creating taller stamps, as in this block.

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On the back of the block (shown here with contrast tweaked) Roberts pencilled this sum:

  13
8
—-
104
2
—-
208
118
—-
326

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Brigadier Roberts

I’ve often puzzled over these numbers. The first three rows are easily explained: Roberts was calculating the number of stamps per sheet. Two sheets make 208 stamps, but what was the additional 118? This last figure seems to have nothing to do with numbers issued to post offices, and I can only assume that Roberts was totting up known surviving copies of this stamp – two full sheets plus 118 stamps in smaller multiples or singles. Perhaps on this basis, he concluded that the stamp was “rare” and that “only a small percentage of the 45,760 copies printed [440 sheets] have survived.”

This stamp has been much forged, including on the correctly watermarked paper! To spot a forgery, compare with those here, especially the break in the circle at four o’clock, the closeness to the circle of the top right curved bar of the right hand character, and the upper portion of the central character, which should resemble two interlaced triangles. The whole issue has been best documented by Ito Kyoichi; a translation appears in Japanese Philately 34 / 2 (April 1979).

Finally, here’s an unlisted variety – a partial double impression. Hardly surprising during (as Roberts dutifully calculated) eleven solid man hours of hand stamping.

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