More Than a Hobby: Stamp Collecting

Features Issue 64 Jul, 2010
Text by Arjun Rimal

At his residence, Toya Bahadur Dhakhwa  immediately brings out  his impressive collec- tion of stamps upon  our arrival. With decades of hard work gone into collecting such treasures, he is a fountain of enthusiasm. “The most fascinating aspect of stamps,” he opines, “is that they are silent ambassadors of each of the countries they represent. Each particular series of stamps is issued only once. It’s a collectable item from the beginning.” For Toya Bahadur, it was a hobby turned passion from the time he was 8 years old. Ever since his father gave him an album full of stamps on his 8th birthday, he has been constantly saving every valuable stamp he can lay his hands on.  A founder member of the Nepal Philatelic Society, he is a respected figure in Nepali Philately.

‘Stamp collecting’ is the collection of postage stamps and related objects, such as covers and postmarks of specific post offices. It is one of the world’s most popular hobbies, despite the advancements in electronic communication that threaten to make it obsolete. When it comes to philately, Dhakwa is an authority, with his vast knowledge on the subject. Anyone who has considered pursuing philately has sought his guidance and taken advantage of his expertise on the subject. His fame has traveled beyond the country. “I was the first person to start philately in Tibet,” proudly states this Lhasa veteran (see ECS October 2006 pg.78.) While in Lhasa around 1958/59, he mailed letters that had both Tibetan and Chinese stamps on them, since there were Tibetan and Chinese post offices functioning simultaneously in Tibet at the time. The Tibetan post offices were for internal services and the Chinese for external services. This act made Tibet (then little known to the outside world) known to the world at large. Dhakhwa’s cover mail has become rare since it consists of stamps belonging to two different countries. It is hard to find them today.

Later, when Toya Bahadur was in Bhutan, he revolutionized the Bhutanese postal system by introducing handmade postcard and postmark. He was in Bhutan in 1965 on a business trip, and had to send letters. But in Bhutan at the time, postcards were non-existant. So, he took it upon himself to cut a piece of paper to make a postcard, which he duly mailed. This innovative approach of sending letters soon caught the imagination of the locals there. It made history in the philatelic world.  

History of Postal Stamps
The history of  postage stamps goes back to the Britain of 1840. The world’s first postage stamp, One Penny Black, was issued that year picturing a young Queen Victoria. It was issued without perforations (imperforate), and consequently, one had to cut out each stamp from the sheet with scissors in order to use it. The history of the postal stamps in Nepal dates back to 1881, when a one anna (aana = monetary unit), two anna and four anna stamps were issued on 13 April of that year. These stamps are now rare and can fetch up to NRs. 50,000/- for mint condition stamps and up to NRs. 25,000/- for used ones. “Stamps are valued for their rarity and age. Once issued, the same stamps are never issued again and this adds to their value. However, the older the issued date, the higher the price it will fetch according to its condition and rarity,” says Dhakwa.
The issue date does play a significant role in determining the price of the stamps. However, it is not so all the time. One such case occurred in the US. The value of many U.S. stamps issued in the 1920s rose rapidly. During the 1930s, many American collectors stockpiled mint US stamps with the hope of selling them for a sizeable profit in a few years’ time. This however, never materialized, and more than 60 years later, one can still find many 1930s US issues used in letters. While on the other side of the continent, One Penny Black, the first issued stamp of Britain, are quite scarce. They can still fetch anything from US $25/- to US $150/-, depending upon their condition.

It was not until the 1920s, that publicity about valuable stamps encouraged a growth in the number of stamp collectors. This rapid increase in postage stamp values was largely due to a very few of the older stamps being saved in good condition. Errors in stamps also make them very valuable. Since stamps are printed using modern technology, errors are a rare occurrence. But when errors are found, they are a goldmine for any collector. There are many types of errors. “An obvious one is the error in print. They are mistakes that happen while printing. Other types are perforation errors and errors in the color. The recent printing errors in Nepali stamps were reported in the stamp of NRs 5/- denomination. They were wrongly perforated and were being sold from the Biratnagar post office. A collector with a keen eye happened to notice it and bought them. All in all, there are only four sheets of these in existence,” says Dhakwa.

Stamp Collecting and Philately

Even though stamp collecting and philately are closely related and the words are sometimes used synonymously, they are quite different. Philately is the study of stamps. A philatelist often does, but need not, collect the objects of study. It is also not necessary for the collector to closely study what one collects.

Despite the challenges arising from the rapid technological development of the last twenty years, stamp collecting has remained one of the most popular hobbies in the world. It is evident in the efforts of serious collectors like Jaya Hari Jha and Rishi Tulsyan. As a researcher of Nepali Postal History, Jha’s works have unearthed various facts about its history. On the other hand, Tulsyan’s work as a collector has taken him places and his exhibits, specializing in Nepali rare stamps, have gained him and his work international recognition.
Other collectors
As an employee of Personal Record Keeping (Nijamati Kitabkhana in Nepali) at Pulchowk, Jaya Hari Jha had seen a large number of official letters in his office, and had seen how they would be discarded once they had served their purpose.

With stacks of letters coming into the office, resources were close at hand for Jha to begin his quest of stamp collecting. However, there was a dearth of expert guidance. But, that drawback was to end soon, when by chance he bumped into two avid stamp collectors. Toya Bahadur Dhakhwa, renowned collector, and Nanda Govinda Rajkarnikar, the then Headmaster of Adarsha Kanya School, Mangal Bazaar were discussing and trading stamps. He couldn’t have asked for more. “I waited for them to finish their meeting and caught up with Toya Bahadur Dhakhwa later for a chat,” says Jha, adding, “He urged me to join the National Philatelic Society. But on a shoe-string salary, I was hard pressed to find enough money to pay for the membership fees.” He soon figured out a way to come up with enough money to cover the costs, without breaking his back. He took out a loan of NRs 900/- (a lot at that time) and paid upfront to become a Life Member of the Philatelic Bureau, which cost him NRs 500/-. The rest was also put to good use as they were spent on expanding his collection.

However, financial constraints hindered his passion for collecting stamps as he had a family to support. It was then that he hit upon an idea. “To support my own stamp collection and to earn more, I decided to become a stamp dealer as well,” says Jha. Initially, he sold stamps from his own home. One regular buyer was a curious person named Rishi Tulsyan. Tulsyan has now become a collector of international repute.
“At first, I only supplied stamps of foreign countries, The sales were good and soon other shops were asking for Nepali stamps,” says Jha. Then in 1992, he opened his shop which in his own words, “was the only philatelic shop in the Valley at the time.” He visited many countries to exhibit his stamp collection and was a member of the Nepali team that visited Singapore in 1995 for the World Philatelic Society Exhibition. He has also visited India, Hong Kong and Thailand to exhibit his collections. As a dealer, he has the opportunity to guide novices to set them on this journey of stamp collecting. He has helped many a collector like Rishi Tulsyan to expand their collections. But what stands out is his contribution as a researcher. As a researcher in both Nepali paper money and postal history, he has helped unearth many interesting facts about their history.   
After retiring in 1996, he devoted all his time to research, which had taken a back seat during his tenure with Kitabkhana. And contributed he has. His research on the bank notes of Nepal has resulted in a successful book entitled ‘An Overview of Nepalese PaperMoney’. His articles related to postal history like, ‘Nepal Postal History fromNijamati Kitabkhana’ throws deserving light on the post offices lost to time. The article was published in the October 2006 issue of Postal Himal, Quarterly Journal of the Nepal and Tibet Philatelic Study Centre. The journal is published by Nepal and Tibet Philatelic Study Centre. His research has been put on par with those  of prominent Nepali postal history researchers like Dr. Wolfgang C Hellrigl, Dick van der Wateren, Jit Bahadur Manandhar and Surendra Lal Shrestha.   

Over time, he has sold off his stamp collection, mainly to fuel his research. As a researcher of the Nepali postal history, his work is thriving as he is continually challenging the findings of other scholars and presenting the real history that would have otherwise been lost.
Jha’s old customer, Rishi Tulsyan took an interest in stamps as a schoolboy. While in 5th grade, he had seen his friends collect anything from cartoon strips and flowers to stamps. Along with his friends, he also soon started to collect, eventually settling for stamps. “Stamp collecting is the hobby of kings, and the king of hobbies,” says Tulsyan.

In his school years he settled for attractive stamps; stamps that caught his fancy. He collected what came his way.  It was only after he completed his schooling that his interest took a serious turn. Soon he was visiting philatelic exhibitions everywhere and taking part too. He joined the Nepal Philatelic Society in 1990 and under the excellent guidance of Late Hari Dayal Singh and Nanda Govinda Rajkarnikar, he brought a sense of direction to his collection. Hari Dayal Singh was a national collector of international repute. He had received over seven Large Vermeil medals. Their inspiration and encouragement guided Tulsyan to collect Nepali stamps, particularly because of their history. “Nepal has a rich postal history going back to 1881,” says Tulsyan. The most prized stamps in his collection are those from the Classic Period of Nepal (1779-1930) and Postal Stationery of Nepal (1887-1959).

Tulsyan has come a long way since his first participation in the National Exhibition in 1992, where he had participated as junior exhibitor and bagged his first award. For NEPHIL (Nepal Philatelic Exhibition) organized in 1998, he won a Gold medal for his Nepal Collection. In 2000 he won a Large Vermeil for his ‘Nepal Collection’ in Bangkok. In 2003, he bagged another gold. His winning streak didn’t end there.  Again in 2003, he won another Large Vermeil  at the philatelic exhibition in Bangkok. Two years later in 2005, he won one more Large Vermeil, again for ‘Nepal Postal Stationery’ in an exhibition organized in Australia. He is now chasing the coveted gold medal, an honor yet to be bestowed on a Nepali Collector in an international exhibition, at the World Philatelic Exhibition EFIRO 2008, Bucharest, Romania.  
In 2006, he was appointed the National Commissioner of Romania. His duties as commissioner are the same as that of a national representative. He will be doing the same for the EFIRO 2008 exhibition in Bucharest. “I will be representing our country through stamps,” says Tulsyan. He has also held that post in other instances as well. He was commissioner for both Japan World Stamp Exhibition ‘Phila Nippon 2001’ and Australia World Stamp Exhibition ‘Pacific Explorer 2005’. Winning the Large Vermeil has qualified Tulsyan for jury duty in national exhibitions. As a jury member for national exhibitions, he has  chaired the National Stamp Exhibition in 2005 and 2006.       

Speaking of his collections, the most prized item in his collection is the half anna vermillion. It is one of the first stamps issued in Nepal and prized by any collector. He also has a one anna 1st issue. These stamps were first issued in 1881 through 1885 and were printed on European Paper in three different colors; dull blue, milky blue and ultramarine. And Tulsyan has them all, in near mint condition, a rarity for stamps of that period. Currently Tulsyan’s grade point stands at 87, making him the first Nepali after late Hari Dayal Singh to reach that level. The points are awarded by FIP, a philatelic regulating body. The points go up with every medal at the international level.

Will stamp collecting turn obsolete due to the rapid advancement in electronic communication? Tulsyan isn’t worried. On the contrary, he thinks it will only add more charm to it. “People  around the world still use the postal service to get their messages and greetings delivered. Even if they do become obsolete, the rarity of stamps will only fuel the zeal of the people to collect them,” says Tulsyan.