Peru’s 5-centimo Locomotive and Arms stamp of 1871 (Scott 19) generally is considered to be the world’s first commemorative stamp, followed by a long gap until 1888-89, when New South Wales issued a series of six commemorative designs (77-82).
Europe was lagging in the commemorative race until Belgium issued three stamps (Scott 76-78) in 1894 to mark the Exposition International d’Anvers in Antwerp in 1895. The same design, Antwerp’s municipal coat of arms, appeared on all three values, each in a different color, and the public disliked everything about the stamps, according to Jules Bouvez in the American Journal of Philately of March 1896.
“In this regard, Belgium was one of the most backward countries in the world,” Bouvez wrote.
From May to November 1897, Belgium would be hosting the Brussels International Exhibition, and in October 1896, King Leopold II decreed that special postage stamps should be issued for the occasion, to be used concurrently with the ordinary postal issues.
Jules H.P. Vandenpeereboom, the minister of railways, posts and telegraphs, had overseen the maligned Antwerp exposition stamps and apparently was still seared by the experience. His solution to avoid criticism of the Brussels Exhibition stamps was to bring the public into the design process through a competition.
Designs were solicited for two values of stamps, 5 centimes and 10c. Drawings were to be submitted in black ink on white paper, suitable for engraving on steel and then printing by typography, and “entirely finished, so as not to require any touching up,” according to Bouvez.
For the design of this issue, the postal ministry was going to be blameless.
The submissions were to include what are now known as dominical labels: detachable tabs that carried an instruction in French and in Flemish stating, “Not to be delivered on Sunday.” Vandenpeereboom had devised these labels beginning in 1893 to let the mailer decide whether the item should be delivered according to the standard seven-day work schedule of the Belgian post office or not, indicating this by detaching the label at its perforations or leaving it as part of the stamp.
The jury for the competition comprised artists and state officials, and a prize of 1,000 francs would reward the artist for the best design “with regard to the subject and the esthetical value of the work,” Bouvez wrote in the March 1896 American Journal of Philately. Other worthy designs also could receive cash prizes. The deadline for submissions was March 3, 1896.
The first prize was awarded to Alfred van Neste, a 22-year-old artist from Bruges who was then performing his Belgian army service. Van Neste had studied art from an early age, but the stamp competition supplied what Hollywood would call his “breakout role,” launching his career as a book illustrator, engraver, painter and art professor.
Van Neste’s design, used for the high-value 10c orange brown stamp shown in Figure 1 (Scott 80), depicted St. Michael the Archangel (the patron saint of Brussels) pinning down Satan, in the form of a winged human, so as to slay him with a spear. Recognizable parts of Brussels appear in the background, including city hall and its tower and the domed Palace of Justice.
The stamp was issued Oct. 15, 1896, to a lukewarm reception from collectors, according to Bouvez’s report in the December 1896 American Journal of Philately. Bouvez grudgingly did allow that the engraving was “pretty well executed.” Van Neste’s design also was used on the 10c lilac brown stamp issued Nov. 15, 1896 (Scott 81).
The other winner in the competition was Gerard Portielje (sometimes misspelled Portieltje), a painter born in Antwerp in 1856. Portielje also chose St. Michael as his subject, and the design appeared on the 5c deep violet stamp (Scott 79) issued Oct. 15, 1896, and shown here in Figure 2.
Louis-Eugene Mouchon was the engraver for both of the winning designs.
The stamps were very large (15/16 inches by 13/8 inches), twice the size of Belgium’s ordinary stamps at the time. In fact, they were wider than the diameter of the canceling devices, and the postal administration advised clerks to overlap each stamp with two cancels. The size would make the stamps difficult to use on general correspondence, and Bouvez predicted that their main use would be for receipts and commercial papers.
Assuming the best, however, the postal administration had 5 million 5c stamps and 2½ million 10c stamps printed, in sheets of 25, perforated gauge 14 by 14.
The stamps remained on sale until Dec. 31, 1897, but were usable as ordinary postage until June 30, 1898.
Interesting and collectible because of their historical status as early European commemoratives and their unusual jumbo appearance, the Brussels Exhibition set is very modestly valued in the 2014 Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940.
A set of Scott 79-81 is valued at $10 mint and $4.45 used. Those values are for stamps with the label attached; stamps without the label sell for much less, the catalog notes.
The high-ticket item is the full 25-stamp sheet of the 10c orange brown stamp: $425 mint and $300 used.