World Stamps

Stamp year sets: a hobby marketing tool that’s fun to collect

Mar 21, 2014, 6 AM

The use of stamps on mail seems such an archaic endeavor in these days of instant e-mail, social media, texting and tweeting.

Despite this, postal administrations continue to churn out stamps, ever mindful of the impulse that motivates many collectors to be complete and to keep adding stamps to their albums.

How ironic that some countries are increasing their philatelic output in a vain effort to stanch the flow of red ink from rapidly declining first-class mail volume by enticing collectors to spend even more money on stamps that will never be used to carry a letter.

In recent years, postal officials around the world have taken a more aggressive approach to marketing their stamps.

From splashy display ads to short video clips on websites, stamps are being portrayed as dynamic, exciting and — dare I say — hip reflections of the countries they represent.

And one product that fits nicely with this campaign is the annual year set that many countries produce to bundle their stamps in an attractive package.

What makes these sets appealing, aside from the stamps, is their cost: In many cases, a year set is sold for the face value of the stamps therein, or for a modest premium above face.

Furthermore, the stamps usually are displayed in an albumlike folder with accompanying pictures and descriptions that tell you about the subjects and provide fascinating windows into a country’s culture and history.

These factors make them ideal gifts for both collectors and noncollectors alike. I’ve no doubt that some in the stamp-hobby fraternity joined because of a year set given to them by a collector friend or relative.

Not too long ago, I acquired year sets from 11 stamp-issuing entities: Aland Islands (a province of Finland), Cyprus, Czech Republic, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Great Britain, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, San Marino and Sweden. Most are 2008 sets.

My intent was to see how these countries went about presenting their stamps.

Obviously, this is not a representative sample of year sets from around the world. But it did show patterns that likely are used by most postal administrations.

In most cases, each country’s year set comes in a folder that can be opened out to view the stamps, which are arrayed on pages similar to those found in a typical black-background stock book.

For those sets with descriptive text, more than one language is often used. This is savvy marketing, because the summaries can be appreciated by more purchasers who don’t read the native language.

In the 2008 Iceland year set, for example, basic information about the stamps is given in Icelandic, Danish, English and German.

Presentation runs from rather plain, with few or no details about the stamps, to colorful, with accompanying pictures and summaries that spark interest.

An example of the former is the 2011 year set from Cyprus: simple but functional.

Illustrated in Figure 1 is the front of the folder. Figure 2 pictures the folder opened out. I received the set with the stamps arranged as shown.

What makes this set interesting, however, is the “SPECIMEN” overprint that is printed diagonally across the face of each stamp. Overprinted thus, the stamps cannot be used on mail.

The overprint is easiest to see on the postal tax stamp (Scott RA28) at right in the bottom row of the left-hand page.

This stamp, removed from the folder, is illustrated in Figure 3. To my knowledge, all stamps included in modern Cyprus year sets bear a “SPECIMEN” overprint.

On the other end of the presentation spectrum is the 2008 year set from San Marino.

Figure 4 shows the front of the folder, which features a picture of Mount Titano.

When opened out, as shown in Figure 5, the folder takes the shape of a cross. Nestled within are four loose stock pages that house the stamps.

Detailed descriptions of the stamps, in Italian and English, include a summary of the subject, issue date, denomination(s), print quantity and method, perforation, stamp or souvenir sheet size, and the designer.

One caveat to keep in mind: It is doubtful that any of the folders used to house the stamps are of archival quality. If the stamps are kept in the folders for a long period of time, permanent damage could result.

I almost forgot to mention a nice bonus: Some countries use stamps when mailing out their year sets and other postal products.

Illustrated in Figure 6 is the quartet of stamps on the large envelope that Sweden Post used to mail its 2008 year set of booklets and souvenir sheets. From left to right, the stamps are an 11-krona Carl von Linne (Scott 2550), a 10kr Butterfly Wings (2589) and two of the 20kr Butterfly Wings (2553).

Two clear strikes of a Feb. 5, 2009, postmark from Kista, Sweden, tie the stamps to the envelope.

Post Greenland used three stamps when sending its 2002 year set (and several product catalogs: smart marketing, that), as shown in Figure 7. A Feb. 20, 2009, Tasiilaq, Greenland, postmark ties the trio: a 28-krone Arctic Station at Nuuk (Scott 526), a 100kr Parcel Post Centennial (497), and a 1kr Fossils (521).

I particularly appreciated the use of the Parcel Post Centennial stamp, because it has a Scott catalog value of $37.50 used.

Should you desire to order a year set, the fastest way to do so is online, via the country’s postal website. Other online sources of year sets may be found by entering the country’s name followed by “stamp year set” in a search engine.

You also can order year sets from many stamp dealers.

And while you’re at it, consider giving a friend or relative a year set from a country that interests them.

Who knows? By doing so, you might plant the seed that will bring forth a new stamp collector.