Top five early bird stamps - thematics
Enhance your stamp collection with a thematic devoted to bird stamps, as Ed Fletcher identifies beautiful designs from the 'classic' collecting period of 1840 to 1940.
Thematics experts says we have more than 30,000 stamps featuring birds metaphorically fluttering through our catalogues, many displaying the work of talented artists who have undoubtedly created some beautiful and ornithologically accurate portrayals of the world’s feathered wildlife. For enthusiasts who enjoy birdwatching and all-world stamp collecting it’s a fabulous resource.
Alas, it’s also a stockpile that holds precious little attraction for collectors who have drawn a line in the sand at the year 1940 and made the bold decision to restrict their interest to the classic 1840 to 1940 century when stamps primarily performed postal functions.
But wait. Has that line in the sand really created a chasm across which a bridge cannot be thrown? I’ve scoured my pre-1940 catalogues and – granted a little artistic license – come up with a few score stamps that depict birds in styles and settings that satisfy my requirements for that sometimes elusive classic or vintage appeal. If you are a fencesitter my offerings should push you to one side or the other. Meanwhile, I’ve made space at the back of an album for a few pages of ‘Early Birds’ worthy of a place in my gilded cage.
1. North Borneo, 1909
The North Borneo 24 cent issue of 1909 displaying a dwarf cassowary earns a place in my classic collection thanks to the profusion of lettering, in both English and Malay, with which its framework is adorned. Add its black, mauve and white colour scheme; and the odd mix of serif and non-serif lettering; and its case could rest.
But there’s more. When the few indigenous North Bornean tribesmen who ever clapped eyes on a postage stamp heard whites describing the cassowary as a bird they shook their heads in disbelief. In their taxonomies the cassowary could not be a bird. Asked why not by an inquisitive anthropologist, they argued that the creature was heavier than a pig; had no wings; possessed no feathers; and when its skull was cracked open before cooking it was found to contain a brain smaller than any bird they ever made a meal of.
Despite that evidence, I’m keeping my North Borneo 24 cent of 1909 cooped up with my other bird stamps. The British North Borneo Company who administered the territory in those days explained that a mix-up with artwork belonging to the natural history set they issued that year (in part to attract schoolboy collectors eager for pictorials) had handed Waterlow & Sons the wrong illustration. The stamp ought to have shown a magapode, which everyone agreed was a bird.
2. Armenia, 1922
This Armenian 500 trans-caucasian rouble stamp of 1922 shows a common crane in a style heavily influenced by Art Nouveau; the bird falling far short in anatomical accuracy and plumage colours of the demands made by thematic purists.
Yet the common crane has for long held a special place in the hearts of Armenians, who have looked on it as symbolizing national solidarity and the sanctity of family life. In 2010 they chose it as Armenia’s Bird of the Year, citing its bonding communal dancing displays and its habit of pairing for life as behaviours to which Armenians should aspire.
3. Colombia, 1880
In medieval Spanish literature an evergreen olive wreath was often placed on the head of a guilty character to signify that he/she accepted responsibility for past wicked deeds. On the Colombia 1888 10-peso stamp of the newly created Republic a condor, symbolizing freedom from Spanish domination, is rising into the sky with an evergreen olive wreath grasped in its beak; about to fly to Spain to deliver the verdict of the Colombian people on King Alfonso XIII whose imperial yoke they had just thrown off.
These events occurred at a time when worldwide interest in the stamps of South America multiplied, with demand outstripping supply and many forgers moving in to redress the balance.
4. France, 1941
A bird rising in flight often symbolizes a break with the past.
On this Free France 1941 issue of French Equatorial Africa, the bird is a phoenix rising from the ashes and flames of the occupied mother country.
5. Bolivia, 1925
The magnificent Andean condor over mountains on a Bolivian 1925 stamp marks a century of independence.
Extract taken from an in-depth feature in the May 2017 issue of Stamp & Coin Mart magazine, available from our store.