Israeli commemorative stamps get seal of approval at S.F. expo

An Israeli consul could hardly believe his eyes on Thursday of last week when the Israel Postal Authority unveiled its 1997 commemorative stamps.

The two stamps — depicting the Jewish archives of Geniza in Cairo and the Judean Desert home of the Dead Sea scrolls — were themselves beautiful. But what astonished the diplomat was that more than 150 people had crammed into a small meeting room of San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center for the unveiling.

"I'm surprised to see so many philatelists," said the consul, Eran Etzion, to the crowd of stamp collectors. "I didn't know there were that many of you."

The Israeli ceremony kicked off Pacific97, this year's 11-day World Stamp Exposition.

More than 100,000 philatelists came from around the globe to wheel and deal and tell old yarns about "inverted Jennies," "penny blacks" and the one that got licked.

With magnifying glasses in hand the mostly white, male, elderly collectors ogled mini-portraits of world figures and scenes from history, folklore and culture. Hundreds of exhibitors from as far away as Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and the Caribbean island of Aruba offered vintage specimens and recent issues depicting landscapes, pop heroes and even sea goddesses.

Philately caught on soon after Britain issued the world's first stamp in 1840, a 1-cent specimen depicting Queen Victoria. Other nations quickly followed.

"There was something exotic…about a tiny engraving that had traveled across the country or halfway around the globe and whose postmarks hinted at the romance of faraway places," Kal Wagenheim writes in his book "Paper Gold."

At the Israel ceremony, officials gave out free samples of the new stamps on decorative envelopes. Inside were invitations to visit the Holy Land.

"The average man doesn't understand the symbolic value that a stamp has for a country," Etzion told the crowd. He noted that one of the first demands made by the Palestinian Authority at the Oslo Accords, at which he was present, was to have their own postage stamp.

"A stamp is the signature of a nation," Etzion said. "Sometimes we take such things for granted."

Expo organizers honored the 150th anniversary of the first U.S. postage stamps with commemorative issues depicting George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who was the first U.S. postmaster general.

During opening ceremonies, a drummer and fife player in colonial costume played "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and other period tunes. The keynote speaker was a white-wigged individual dressed as Ben Franklin.

Thousands rushed the convention floor at noon when the trading began. While the best deals always go down in the first hour of any stamp show, professional philatelist Ed Rosen of Redwood City said the Israeli stamp market has been less predictable.

The Jewish state long had a loyal following among philatelists, and its stamps promised quick investment returns, said Rosen, whose House of Zion trading company specializes in Holy Land stamps.

But by the 1970s, Rosen said, longtime collectors — most were Jews who began buying stamps in 1948 to support the struggling nation — died and their collections flooded the market.

Collectors began to cool on the stamps in the mid-1970s, when Israel's soaring inflation devalued both Israeli currency and the Jewish state's stamps. The kiss of death came with the massacre of Sabra and Shatila camp refugees outside Beirut in 1982. The killings soured some philatelists on Israeli stamps, Rosen said.

Almost two decades later, he said, Israel's stamp market is slowly reviving.

Ernie Feld of San Francisco has has been waiting for that comeback. He walked away from the Israel Philatelic Agency booth with $80 worth of stamps to add to his large collection.

A Czech native, Feld was liberated from a German labor camp in 1945. The 18-year-old spent his first days of freedom wandering through deserted and bombed-out towns. In an abandoned house on the Austrian-Hungarian border, he discovered thousands of stamps strewn haphazardly across the floor. He gathered them up and sold them for about $600 in Prague, using the cash to buy shoes, clothing and other necessities.

Today the emigre's most prized stamps are two that came on letters sent to him by David Ben-Gurion.

While the stamp expo continues through Sunday with collector club meetings and seminars on special subjects, most of the heavy trading is over. Only diehards remain.

But the hardcore crowds will reassemble for another World Expo next year in Tel Aviv.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.