Stamping ground

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Stamping ground

When was the last time you received real mail? A letter, for instance, with a colorful stamp or two and a postal seal with real ink? Not just junk mail that arrived in an impersonal envelope printed with a "Postage Paid" mark where the stamp should be?

For most of us who take electronic mail for granted, about the only time we get real mail in the mailbox is at Christmastime when a few old-fashioned souls actually take the time to write and send genuine correspondence.

In this age of instant communication, speed is of supreme value and people no longer have the patience to wait a week for a letter from abroad. Yet who can deny feeling a little nostalgic at the childhood memory of receiving a letter from a faraway land and its exotic stamps? Back then, stamps were tiny windows offering a glimpse into another country, another culture, another world.

They still are.

What's better than a 26-millimeter-by-36-millimeter rectangular stamp depicting an Eagle Owl issued in June 1999 to perk a child's interest in Korea's endangered birds?

For Jeong Jong-hyun, 57, it was his father who introduced him at the age of 10 to the world of stamps. "When I was a boy, Korean stamps were black and white," says Mr. Jeong. "I was fascinated by the colorful foreign stamps that I saw at stamp corners in department stores. Mr. Jeong is standing in the COEX mall, southern Seoul, preparing his collections for the Phila Korea 2002 World Stamp Exhibition, running now until Sunday.

Nearly 50 years into stamp-collecting as a hobby, Mr. Jeong, a director of the Philatelic Federation of Korea, has a vast collection of stamp albums filling about 10 bookcases at his home in Yangsu-ri, in Gyeonggi province. There is, however, a great difference between a mere stamp collector and a philatelist, according to Mr. Jeong. "Philately is like writing a thesis with stamps, which is far more involved than just gathering stamps," he says. To enter the current exhibition, each entry must have at least five frames, each frame containing 16 23-by-30.5 centimeter sheets of relevant material and information.

Mr. Jeong cites an example of a difficulty faced by a fellow philatelist, a linguistics professor, as he tried to compose a five-frame "thesis" on linguistics with stamps. "It was extremely difficult to locate, if they existed at all, and then obtain the stamps that would perfectly illustrate the thesis he was presenting," Mr. Jeong said.

Mr. Jeong has two entries competing in this year's exhibition: a series of flags of countries that participated in the Korean War and a collection of rare postcards issued by the Great Han Empire during 1900-1909. Although Mr. Jeong collects all categories of Korean stamps, he specializes in postcards. His collection of Korean postcards from 1900 to 1953, which includes Korea's first postcard ever printed, won him a prize at the Phila Korea held in 1994. "Korean postcards are notoriously difficult to collect because Koreans are averse to having their correspondence seen in public," he says. "This leads to a scarcity of postcards available for collecting."

What attraction does philately hold for Mr. Jeong? "There is a certain ecstasy or a thrill when you fill in the blank of a sheet," he says. He still remembers the anticipation of standing in line in front of the post office at 4 a.m. just as the night curfew was lifted so that he could get his hands on first issues. Frequent visits to local stamp dealers, bidding at international auctions and attending stamp exhibitions where stamp dealers from around the world set up booths are routine for Mr. Jeong as he scours for the stamps that he needs.

Like a true lover of stamps, he refuses to put a value to his collection or reveal his investment in the hobby over the years. "Let's just say I worked at a bank but I do not have a savings account to my name," says Mr. Jeong, who is now retired. While people may see stamp collections as an investment, it should just be a hobby, according to him. "The collections may become valuable over time, but it should really be seen as a hobby to be enjoyed."

A hobby sometimes has a funny way of becoming a passion, as it has for Saverio Imperato, 65, a professor of immunology at the University of Genoa, Italy, and an exhibitor at the Coex. He says that he is the first person in the history of Federation International de Philatelie Olympique, an international body of philatelists, to enter three collections in the championship category. This is the highest-level competitive category, reserved for entries that have won three grand gold medals in the federation's exhibitions over the past 10 years.

The collections of stamps of the Papal States, mail between Italy and the United States, and mail between the Papal States, the Mediterranean and the Orient are important primary materials for historians.

"If you look at the postal rates, for example, the rates were lower for states that enjoyed friendly relations while a higher rate was charged for mail sent to unfriendly states," says Mr. Imperato, who has been collecting stamps since he was 14.

Among the highlights of the Phila Korea 2002, which features more than 50,000 stamps from 150 countries, is a collection titled "Australasian Birdlife," by Damian Leage of Germany. The collection, which has won several international awards, traces the 1-million-year history of birdlife in Australasia, their evolution, the introduction of new species by immigrant settlers and nature conservation in the South Pacific.

For those who must know, the most expensive item on show is an envelope from Bangkok sent in 1883 to Hamburg, Germany, that bears an 8-cent stamp and a 5-cent stamp. For its trip to the Seoul show, the envelope was insured for $3 million. The value of all the stamps on exhibition has been put at nearly 65.8 billion won ($55.4 million).

For youngsters who may be inspired by the exhibition to start their own collections, Mr. Jeong suggests choosing a theme that interests them. "Birds and dinosaurs are popular among kids. Those stamps are easy to find. There is no need to start too ambitiously."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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