The entrance to the Israel Philatelic Service’s building, appropriately located on Hadoar (The Post) Street in Jaffa, resembles a fortified compound. Seated behind the glass partition is a guard who joylessly takes my ID card and exchanges it for a visitors’ badge. “Wait here for someone to come and escort you. No one walks around this building on their own,” he says.
The atmosphere is different three floors up. Yaron Ratzon greets me with a smile. The 47-year-old is the director of the Israel Philatelic Service, a once-in-a-lifetime job that apparently ends only at retirement. He has been in the post for five and a half years and has had only two predecessors in the job, which is as old as the state. “Moshe Cohen was the first, and after him came Yinon Beilin, [former MK] Yossi Beilin’s brother,” he says.
What are they so afraid of? Why all these security arrangements? “We are a statutory body, which operates on the basis of the law and answers to the communications minister. A stamp has the same status as a currency bill, the flag or the national anthem. It is an indicator of national sovereignty that must be protected,” says Ratzon.
“Each stamp is the product of a government decision and is issued by the state. We are like a bank. There are stamps here of very great value, and also sketches of stamps that have not yet been shown in public and that are liable to fall prey to counterfeiters. They are worth a great deal of money in the world and are assets of the State of Israel that must be protected.”
Resting behind Ratzon’s large desk is a picture frame with rows and rows of stamps in it. The story behind them makes them a collector’s item of particularly high value. “These are Israel’s first stamps. Their value comes to six figures in dollars,” says Zohar Noy, 66, an active stamp collector and a member of the Israel Philatelic Federation.
Israel’s first stamps did not even bear the name “Israel” on them, but rather the words “Hebrew Post.” They were printed before the establishment of the state, when the name of the country had not yet been decided. Israel’s independence was declared on Friday, May 14, 1948. Less than 48 hours later, on the Sunday morning, the state issued its first stamps while enemy aircraft were already circling in the air. It was an historic achievement, making Israel the only country in the world whose initial stamps were issued simultaneously with its independence.
During those days the state had to overcome a shortage of appropriate paper, of differing thickness and color, and antiquated printing machines. As part of the effort, the new postal service even made use of the Haaretz printing press.
On the other side of Yaron Ratzon’s desk, behind a glass display, is a collection of cups and medals.
“We are a philatelic world power,” says the proud Ratzon, who recites a long list of prizes and titles that Israeli stamps have garnered in recent years. “Even the pope issued a stamp in conjunction with us the first time ever that the Vatican issued a stamp together with another state.”
“Israel may not have won any medals at the Olympics, but we have,” says Noy. “We have earned a place of respect worldwide, and are putting Israel on the map.”
There is a perceptible gap between the rather gray public image of stamp collecting and the sense of achievement and rejuvenation that springs from every corner of the philatelic service’s building.
“It is a small medium, a tiny bit of paper that transmits messages on behalf of the state,” says Noy. “A beautiful visual medium that people still buy and carefully choose in order to adorn their letters.”
If you’re having a hard time recalling the last time you actually bought a stamp at the post office, you’re not alone. The postal service reports that only 100 million of the 800 million pieces of snail mail sent in the country each year actually bear a stamp.
“Philately has been in decline worldwide for many years,” Ratzon admits. “Life is hard all over the printed stamp world.”
However, he says that in recent years, energetic marketing efforts have enabled the local philatelic service to successfully penetrate the digital “shell” of the younger generation: “We are in the Internet era, in which there is strong competition over children’s leisure time. Conversely, the Internet has actually opened new avenues of commerce and communications between philatelists around the world.”
The service has realized that stamps in themselves are not likely to draw the attention of young people, and that in order to attract them, the stamps have to be wrapped up with or somehow tied into other products. There are many such examples: an anthology of children’s stories that includes stamps with pictures from familiar kids’ books like Miriam Roth’s “Hot Corn” and “A Tale of Five Balloons”; a kit that is called “Young Chefs for the Holidays” that contains recipes, blessings, songs, stories, a chef’s hat and also a matching set of stamps; and even a stamp that features a flower which, when rubbed, emits a pleasant odor.
Apparently, the greatest attraction in this realm is the My Stamp series a personal stamp that may be ordered through the philatelic service.
“Now, everyone can be the Queen of England and appear on a postal stamp,” says Noy. “These stamps enable every person to commemorate himself, a late relative or a family event.”
Thousands of people have already taken advantage of the new service, sending personal photos in to the service that are then produced as stamps. “It enables us to get around the rule according to which only someone who has died can be commemorated on a stamp. Now, anyone in Israel and his brother can find himself gracing an envelope,” explains Ratzon.
There have also been those who sought to exploit the opportunity and tried to create provocations. “Someone sent in a picture of Hitler. If we hadn’t noticed it, you can only imagine what would have happened if the State of Israel had issued such a stamp,” says Ratzon. Larissa Trimbobler tried to print a stamp of her husband, Yigal Amir (Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin). This initiative was also squelched by the service.
The offices of the Israel Philatelic Federation are located in a colossal, threatening and depressing old office building on Pinsker Street in Tel Aviv. The federation is an umbrella organization that includes 25 clubs and a few societies of stamp collectors around Israel. Its website offers answers to the questions that trouble stamp collectors. A few examples: What are more expensive canceled stamps or new stamps? How can you remove rust from stamps? What is the value of the envelopes from the opening of the first post office in Sdom (near the Dead Sea)?
The federation publishes a philatelic magazine on a bimonthly basis, called Shovel, which translates as “tab” and is also the Hebrew word for the paper found along the margin of a sheet of stamps (an added element that differentiates Israeli stamps from others).
During the “glory days” of stamp collection in the decades after Israel’s independence until the 1980s the daily newspapers would devote space to the hobby of collecting them. The weekly philately section in Davar covered two whole pages every Friday. Haaretz also had a regular stamp section, in which for decades Dr. Haim Galon reported all the latest philately news, including exhibitions and fairs, auctions, thefts and counterfeits, and also guidance for novice collectors.
“Nowadays, to our dismay, there are no longer any stamp columns in the national press,” says Noy. “You only find articles about stamps when there is an interesting story behind them. Aside from the crossword puzzles, none of the hobby sections appear anymore.”
Here’s an example of a column written by Galon, Haaretz’s correspondent, from October 1, 1976, under the headline “Stamp albums to help the collector”: “Numerous appeals by readers in regard to the protection of Israeli stamps and their arrangement have been received by this column.”
Galon noted especially a letter from Zerubavel Lev of Kibbutz Be’eri: “I have in my possession a collection of Israeli stamps from 1948, and I do not know how to arrange the stamps or the envelopes in a manner that would enable me to both protect them and also look at them whenever I wish. I have not dealt with stamps for a long time, due to lack of time, and now I would again wish to arrange them. I would like to know how I could do so, and to whom I might turn to purchase an album. I thank you for any details you might provide.”
$10 billion a year
The IPF also organizes conferences and sends representatives to philatelic events around the world. The regulations of the Federation Internationale de Philatelie require each country that organizes a conference to also invite states with which it does not have diplomatic relations. So it was that in 2008 Israel invited representatives from Iran, but sadly the latter did not grace the locals with their presence. Two months ago, Israeli representatives took part in a conference in Indonesia.
“We were received very nicely there,” says Noy. “Our representative even sat alongside the Iranian representative at the congress that was held there.”
“There is no denying the fact that philatelists have a sort of lackluster image,” admits Tibi Yaniv, 65, managing director of Israel’s federation, adding, “We have the image of being antiquated. Once upon a time you would receive a letter with a beautiful stamp on it. That sort of thing no longer exists. In today’s very commercial and competitive world, it is difficult to find budgets to promote this field. We are a poor organization,” he sighs.
However, Yaniv refuses to succumb to the gloominess that some associate with the dusty stamp albums. “Apparently philately is still the biggest collection hobby in the world,” he says. “The Internet proves that its scope is colossal. On any given day, you will find 600,000 philatelic items on sale on eBay. Recent studies indicate that the global market has a turnover of $10 billion a year.”
With the scant resources at his disposal, Yaniv tries to promote activities and clubs for Israeli youth, primarily in the peripheral areas.
For his part, Noy is a veteran collector who specializes in stamps from the world of cinema.
“True, I do not have the same appetite that I had when I was a kid, when I’d search through the mailbox for an envelope with a special stamp on it. But the search, the research, the chase all of this gives you a sense of sheer fun. It’s a hobby with lots of energy,” he says. “Everybody needs a hobby. Some people prefer outdoor activities, like fishing or sports; on the other hand, stamp collecting is a domestic hobby that does not require much of an investment. You can start with only two hours a week.”
It is difficult to ascertain precisely how many stamp collectors are active in Israel, or anywhere else in the world. According to federation estimates, there are approximately 200 million collectors worldwide.
“The collection provides an indication of the collector’s character. If he’s a banker, the collection is boring and well arranged and technical; if he is a poet or a writer, his collection is very creative,” adds Noy.
Alongside the federation and the collectors, the third part of the philately triangle is the dealers. One of the world’s most prominent dealers is Yacov Tsachor, 66, who operates out of Tel Aviv. Tsachor, a construction engineer by training, completed his studies in the early ‘70s at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa. He worked in his profession for 20 years. “But all that time, I was tempted to just deal with stamps,” he says now.
In 1990, Tsachor took a chance and opened a company that deals in stamps, from which he has earned his livelihood ever since; there are 2,000 subscribers to the sumptuous catalog that he publishes twice a year. His attraction to this world began when he was a child.
“In the ‘50s and ‘60s, everyone collected stamps,” he recalls. “Back then there was no computer, video, telephone or apps. Stamps were our only connection to the world. When I saw a stamp from Jamaica, I felt an indescribable surge of happiness. For us, it was a whole world. Today, on the other hand, you can see Jamaica on the computer screen whenever you want. The world has totally changed.”
Years working in the field have left Tsachor both cynical and pragmatic. “There’s nothing you can do about it,” he says. “Young people dominate things now, and they think differently than we do. The youth have stopped collecting stamps altogether. They have other alternatives. It’s of no interest to them. There has been a very steep decline in stamp collecting, so now the philatelic service is printing Elvis Presley stamps. And if Shas asks for it, stamps with Rabbi Elbaz, too,” he says.
As both a stamp collector and dealer, he testifies that stamp trading in Israel is “very limited”: “Our big collectors have either stopped collecting or are no longer with us. They have not been replaced by a new generation,” he says. “Someone comes in, buys a stamp for $200 and then heads home. You no longer have the collectors who spend $20,000.”
But the situation abroad is different, Tsachor says: There you have people who “still believe in stamps,” as he puts it. Some are buying them as an alternate investment within a basket of other investments. Even the stamp fairs that take place abroad have a different atmosphere: “There, along with the bald heads and the gray hair, you see some young people as well. In Israel, there are none. Maybe if you simultaneously held an apps exhibition, then people would come.”
On rare occasions, young people contact Tsachor to say they have come into possession of an old collection. “A 28-year-old guy calls me up and tells me about stamps from the 1960s. For him, it’s an antique. For me, it’s modern,” he says.
Tsachor reveals that some collectors concentrate on “error stamps” stamps with poor inking or missing perforations, stamps without any stated monetary value, or with mysterious circles ornamenting them. Others are interested in sketches for stamps submitted to the philatelic service but never printed.
“Somehow, there was always a trickle of misprints from the printing press, and now they are sought-after collector’s items,” he says.
Other collectors focus on stamps issued in Israeli cities that were besieged in the War of Independence, such as Jerusalem, Safed and Rishon Letzion. And there are those people who go a bit further still and collect envelopes from planes that crashed.
“Yes, yes, there are collectors of materials that survived plane crashes,” Tsachor says and holds up a few of these envelopes, stamped with a special seal attesting to the fact that they had undergone such an incident.
Will stamp collecting survive the shake-ups of the 21st century? Where will philately end up as a means of entertainment for children or a financial vehicle for experts? The true collectors are apparently already an extinct breed. Perhaps a stamp will be issued someday to commemorate them.