Local stamp mans collection sticks it to the competition

You can lick 'em, but you can't beat 'em.

Walk into the House of Zion stamp store in Redwood City, and you'll find tons of tongue-tingling sticky squares. But you'll never taste the glue on these stamps.

That's because they comprise perhaps the largest inventory of collectible Holy Land stamps in the world.

In fact, Ed Rosen, owner of the House of Zion, is carting his stock with him to Israel for next week's Israel '98 World Stamp Exhibition. There, philatelists will barter, hustle and scrutinize stamps from around the globe.

Rosen owns specimens of every stamp that has ever been produced in Israel. He also has many that were issued during the pre-state era and others from the surrounding territories. His collection dates back to the 1880s.

Rosen, a philatelist of 30 years, recalls the day he became a serious collector — Israel's birthday. The 8-year-old and his father joined thousands who bought the stamps in sheets to support the infant nation.

By the time he was an adult, stamp collecting had become a serious hobby, so he made a career of it.

"The business started with all Israel stamps, then I got pre-Israel — Ottoman Empire and Palestine Mandate — Judaica, anything philatelic" from the Holy Land, Rosen says. Those included stamps from French, Austrian and Italian post offices that were established in the pre-World War I days because the Turkish mail service was unreliable.

Israel's first stamp is the most valuable stamp issued by the Jewish state. Dubbed "Doar Ivri," or "Hebrew Post," it fetches up to $5,000 for a set of nine if all are in mint condition and still have the tabs on the bottom. Other rare stamps from around the world can be worth more than $350,000.

Most hobbyists don't make money buying and selling stamps, Rosen says. They reap their riches only in the pleasure of acquisition.

"If you bought only investment-quality stamps from the beginning, you would make money. But most get caught up in the enjoyment of buying some that won't necessarily make money."

The Bay Area native is one of only two U.S. dealers of Israeli stamps to have a booth at the upcoming exhibition at Ramat Aviv, just outside Tel Aviv. In fact, there are no more than 10 or 15 Holy Land dealers in the world, he claims.

The May 13 to 21 event has been promoted as part of "Israel at 50" festivities. Last year's expo was held at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, where 150,000 people participated in trading, national pageantry and scholarly lectures on philately.

At the shows, "you see customers that you've known and meet new people that you have something in common with," Rosen says. "There's a tremendous amount of camaraderie. I've been to Israel 50 times, and it's still a thrill."

But, "the real excitement is in dealing with the stamps and the history of the Holy Land. When you get a cover from World War I in Palestine, it's pretty exciting."

A cover is the decorative envelope that is issued with collectible stamps.

Rosen has watched the value of Israel stamps rise and fall over the years with inflation, depression and war. Israeli officials decided in the mid-1950s to cash in on the collectors of their stamps and began to mass produce them.

"Israel thought they had a golden egg. Then the market fell flat," Rosen recalls.

Today, Israel stamps have never been hotter. The stability of the new shekel and the country's economic boom have kept philatelic values high for much of the decade.

Rosen expects a good turnout in Ramat Aviv of European dealers, many of whom avoided Israeli shows in the past because Israelis historically haven't had much expendable income. Overseas dealers couldn't recoup their expenditures on travel, shipping and the dreaded 17-percent value-added tax on their sales.

A dealer usually doesn't make more than $10,000 to $25,000 at an Israel show, Rosen says. By contrast, a dealer can procure up to $250,000 at an international show in the United States.

"With Jewish people, it's always a harder sale," he says lightheartedly. "They are tougher at bargaining."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.