“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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St Valentine’s Day massacre

There was a period, not so long ago, when Myanmar’s stamps, cards and cancels reflected relentlessly the distinctive iconography of its particular totalitarianism: the statues of the three kings, the grandiose fountains and architecture of Naypyitaw, the stick-breaker statuette and so on, not forgetting – in the final days of the Than Shwe era – the white elephant. As officialdom demanded the same images every time in slightly varying combinations, the stamp designers didn’t have to think too much about their task. In today’s “democratic” climate they seem more uncertain.

On February 14 Myanmar Post came up with a set of three Valentine’s Day cards and a commemorative cancel – a brave new departure. The cards are, frankly, awful: icky globalised clip art, enlarged and stretched. Why, to pick on just one point, is the girl doll blonde? The accompanying cancellation repeats one of the designs but, significantly, manages to omit any national or post office name; someone, it seems, simply forgot about that, and on the day staff had to bring out the GPO pictorial canceller and apply that too, just to demonstrate an origin.

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Apparently there was zero publicity, and the cards and cancel were only available at Yangon GPO. I’ve no idea how many were sold to the few collectors in the know, but it can’t have been a lot. A special postmark on your Valentine’s card is a nice idea, but it’s one for the general public, and that requires promotion and availability. And as all the items are dated for 2016, they won’t be able to use the remainders next year.

For me, the disappointment lies in the nature of the designs. Myanmar has a long tradition of romantically themed pictorial stationery, and I like to collect such cards and covers, but there’s always been something distinctively Burmese in the graphics, which has been lost here. It’s almost enough to make you remember fondly the bad old days of totalitarian design … Well, not quite.

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.

world cup
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.