alexpgp: (Semeuse)
One summer, during one of my weekend visits to her apartment, my grandmother brought out a special keepsake for the two of us to look at. It was a thin, 3-ring black notebook with my grandfather’s stamp collection. Most of them were US stamps issued in the 1930s and 1940s, but there was also a smattering of stamps that my grandfather had picked up, here and there, when he had been in the military during and immediately after World War I.

There were some stamps with “REPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE” printed above the figure of a woman who looked a little like she was dancing; I correctly guessed they were from France. On the next page, there was a stamp with “DEUTCHES REICH” printed across the bottom, below a drawing of a helmeted woman wearing some kind of armor. My grandmother told me the stamp was from Germany.

The collection was small, but it had a large enough impact.

My interest was piqued, because the stamps represented a link – however tenuous – to my grandfather, who had died before my second birthday, and because the stamps opened up an exotic world of places far away from our apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens. I decided to also become a stamp collector, and learned enough about the hobby from library books to get started by the time school was back in session.

One day the following year, when I was in seventh grade, my mother told me she had made the acquaintance of some new neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Isheyeff, who lived in the apartment building next door. My mom was going over to visit with Mrs. Isheyeff to practice her French, and I had been invited to come along because Mr. Isheyeff also collected stamps and had expressed a friendly interest in seeing my collection.

On the appointed day, at the appointed hour, I turned out with my mother at the Isheyeff front door. I was in my Sunday-go-to-meeting best, and carried my beginner’s album under my arm. Mrs. Isheyeff opened the door and invited us to come in. It was like stepping through a time portal.

The Isheyeffs turned out to be an elderly Russian émigré couple, and their apartment had a definite style to it. The walls were painted sky blue, with white trim around the top edge. Large, dark oil paintings hung on the walls of the living room, in elaborate heavy frames. The sofas were soft and had lace on the armrests.

A tapestry depicting hunters sitting around a camp fire hung on the wall in the adjoining dining room, which was dominated by a long, broad table of dark wood that had a dozen chairs arranged around it. Aside from the table, which had two large silver candelabra on it, every horizontal surface in the place seemed crowded with photos and small knick-knacks. The apartment was cozy, and its atmosphere was cultured, and even somewhat... aristocratic.

After we were seated, Mrs. Isheyeff served refreshments, consisting of tea for the adults and a glass of ginger ale for me. There was also a plate of oatmeal cookies on the tray, and I was invited to help myself.

The adults spent a few minutes sipping hot tea and discussing the weather, and then my mom and Mrs. Isheyeff started to converse in French. The way my mom had explained it to me, this gave her an opportunity to maintain her conversational skills, but years later I decided she could not pass up an opportunity to shoot the breeze in French, with cultured Russians, while sitting in what looked and felt like a sitting room in St. Petersburg before the Russian Revolution. It was just the sort of historical re-enactment that would appeal to my mother, but I digress...

After a minute or so, Mr. Isheyeff quietly cleared his throat and announced that he and I would leave the ladies to their conversation and retire to his study and look at stamps. His study was a small room off the dining room, with a desk in the center of the room and bookshelves along most of the walls, except in one corner, behind the door, where there were a number of photographs mounted on the wall, under a white flag with a dark blue diagonal cross on it.

While Mr. Isheyeff looked at my album, I walked carefully around the room, looking at the bookshelves. Almost all the words on the spines were in Russian, but as my knowledge of the language was limited to just a few letters of the alphabet, my attention soon turned to the photos in the corner, and the flag.

“What flag is that?” I asked, turning to Mr. Isheyeff. He had finished looking at my album and had apparently been looking at me as I was examining his study.

“It is the Andreyevsky flag,” he said, and I knew, from the way his voice changed when he spoke the words, that he had said them in another language, probably Russian. “The flag of St. Andrew,” he continued, “the flag of the Imperial Russian Navy.”

“Who are all the men in the photographs?” I asked. One of the pictures showed an officer sticking his head through a large hole that had been shot through a much larger version of the same flag that hung on the wall. The man was smiling at the camera.

“Friends and shipmates,” he said. “I served as an officer on a ship in the Baltic Sea during the Great War.” I could faintly hear him take a slow, deep breath. “But we withdrew to my study to look at stamps, did we not?” he said, and then smiled and put a hand on my album. “You have the beginnings of a good collection, here. Would you like to see some of my stamps?”

I went over and sat in the chair opposite his as he opened an album of French stamps for me to look at. I recognized a series of stamps with the dancing woman design and pointed to them. “There are some stamps like that in my grandfather’s collection,” I said.

“Ah, yes,” said Mr. Isheyeff, “the very famous semeuse.” I didn’t recognize the word, and decided, since Mr. Isheyeff’s voice had changed again, that it was another foreign word. French, from the sound of it.

Seeing what was probably a blank look on my face, Mr. Isheyeff barked a little laugh and apologized. “Pardon me,” he said. “La semeuse is a woman who is... oh, what’s the word... she’s throwing seeds into the field. There is a word for that in English, do you know it?”

“Sowing?” I suggested.

“Exactly!” he said. “She is sowing seeds. Do you see the bag of seeds she holds before her? The seeds represent ideas. The entire image is a symbol, you see.” He opened a drawer, took out a magnifying glass, and held it out to me. “Take a look.” As I looked at one of the stamps through the magnifier, Mr. Isheyeff pointed out the sun rising in the background (which stood for a bright future) and the cap the woman was wearing, with its forward-pointing peak. “That is a freedom cap,” said Mr. Isheyeff, “and so, the whole design becomes a celebration of the ideals of the French Republic.”

Mr. Isheyeff turned the pages and pointed out special stamps. One of them was brown and had a picture of a bridge with a lot of arches. “Be observant if you ever see a stamp like that,” he said. “Some of them are worth quite a bit of money.”

There was a stamp showing two women, representing France and the United States, shaking hands to commemorate the 150th birthday of the US Constitution, and another with the Statue of Liberty, which had been printed to celebrate the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The rest of the visit went by in a blur, and eventually, it was time to leave. My mother and I said our goodbyes, and our hosts invited us to come visit again. Over the next few years, until our family moved out of the neighborhood, I did visit Mr. Isheyeff a few times and always came away with more knowledge – about stamps and other subjects – than I had arrived with.

One thing I learned is that if you try to collect everything philatelic you'll soon realize you have neither the time or money to spare, which is why eventually, collectors specialize. Some decide to collect stamps from just one or a group of countries; others might collect envelopes, or stamps depicting some common theme, such as butterflies or spaceships. Mr. Isheyeff, it turns out, collected the stamps of France and of French colonies throughout the world. As for me, I was reluctant to make any such choice, and eventually, my interest in stamps waned and my album was relegated to a shelf in a closet.

Now, decades later, I find myself again stirred by the lure of stamps, as a pleasant microcosm of all that people around the world feel worthy of commemorating, though in fact, I’ve specialized my interest.

Wouldn’t you know it? I collect the stamps of France.

alexpgp: (stamps)
Galina and I were out and about yesterday, driving around Kemah and talking about what it would take to live aboard a sailboat, when we ran across a moving sale that was being run by a couple of approximately our age as they prepared to sell off the last of their stuff and go live on a 35-foot sailboat.

I was a little light on cash, or I would probably have picked more than the two items that I did. One is a book of Robert Burns' Poems and Songs published as a complimentary giveaway for J & R Tennent Ltd. Wellpark Brewery in Glasgow, Scotland. What makes the book notable is its size, which is about 2/3 of a small Moleskine notebook. There is no publication date and I was not able to find any such animal on eBay, but the book is in excellent condition, with only an owner's name written in green fountain ink on the flyleaf.

The other item I picked up at the sale is a French-English dictionary of business and professional correspondence. I have to confess, French business language has always reminded me strongly of the rather stodgy, formal expressions one finds in old letters written in English ("I have the pleasure, sir, of remaining, etc.").

Then just now, I returned from the post box with a package of stamps I won in a recent eBay auction, from a fellow who appeared to have populated a bunch of stock cards with old stamps, willy-nilly but grouped by country, and then put them up for auction with very nearly identical one-line descriptions, e.g. "Old French stamps. Mixed quality." This kind of description is a clear warning that basically, what-you-see-is-what-you-get-and-less, because a group photo doesn't provide you with much information past the very obvious. Hinge marks, thins, torn perferations, and other possible defects just don't show up. Still, despite the caveat emptor nature of the sale, of the nearly dozen auctions I put bids on, I only won two.

So it was with a pair of very raised eyebrows that I took a close look at one small piece of the content on one card: a pair of stamps printed in 1920, the 2-franc denomination of the so-called "Merson" design. What puzzled me was that I could see no cancellation marks on the stamps (all of the other stamps on the card are well-and-truly cancelled, and for the price I paid, I expected them to be), which placed them in the "unused" category. When the gum on the back turned out to appear undisturbed, they became likely members of the "mint never-hinged" category.

I'll not brag about the catalog value of this "find" because my examination was at best cursory and stamp catalog values are not real, but I will say that if this pair is even worth 10% of catalog, the other stamps on the card - which, alas, I do not have time to look at too closely right now - came along for the ride for free. (If I were to add the stamps from the other card to the balance, it would be fair to conclude that I have come away with a good deal).

Ah, well... back to work!



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