The Hardcore, Rare, And Beautiful World Of Stamp Collecting
In the beginning, postage stamps kickstarted the Olympics. Athens was preparing to host the first modern games in 1896 but was short on funds. The city still needed a rifle range, a cycling track, and facilities for nautical sports. Greece issued 12 commemorative stamps to fund construction.
As the modern Olympics movement bloomed, the stamps tradition grew. Host and non-host countries have memorialized the games on postage for over a century, producing an indespensible historical archive—as well as a community of devoted collectors, called philatelists.
Former landscape architect Mark Maestrone is the longtime president of Sports Philatelists International and the editor of SPI’s Journal of Sports Philately. He’s also the vice president of the International Olympic Committee’s newly minted collectors association, established this summer to support the world’s aficionados of Olympic stamps, coins, and pins.
Maestrone’s own collection, which includes thousands of stamps, focuses on men’s gymnastics uniforms and snowboarding. His gymnastics exhibit recently earned honors at the decennial World Stamp Show in New York. During Rio’s closing ceremony, GOOD talked to Maestrone about stamps in the digital age, the historical importance of collecting, and how trademark rules shut down Olympic stamps in America.
How did you start collecting postage stamps?
I got into it young. We were living in Iran at the time. My father was in the foreign service. I was just a little kid. We were down on the Gulf in Qaem Shahr, which was right near one of the big oil refineries. My folks had an Iranian friend. One day, he gave me a cigar box with old Persian stamps in it. That started it off. I just thought they were very cool.
What makes a good stamp collection?
Rarity is one factor. You do have to tell a story. You have to follow certain rules. The quality of your material has to be good quality. It’s fun to just be able to delve into Olympic history and find a little known fact about some athlete you’ve never even heard of before, and somehow connect them to a piece of philately.
What role do stamps play in sport history? Do you view yourself as an archivist?
A little bit, maybe. I think philatelists all have a certain responsibility to take care of the material they have. It’s a finite group of materials and you want to make sure it’s properly archived, available to the next generation of collectors. Stamps are very ephemeral. You have to take care of them. They’re not like Olympic pins, or something like that, which are pretty much indestructible.
What happened to Olympic stamps in the U.S.?
The U.S. Postal Service has what’s called the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee. They decide [what] should be subjects for stamps in any particular year. We never even really had to approach the CSAS to ask about an Olympic stamp. It was just an automatic thing. Now we don’t have that flexibility anymore.
The problem is, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the USPS butt heads. The USPS did not want to pay for the right to use the Olympic rings or the Olympic logo. The USOC controls those rights in the United States. We have to figure out how to reconnect both sides. If the USOC is expecting money, how much are they going to get from the postal service? What do they want? Blood from the stone?
What’s next for the Olympic collecting community?
We just started a new section of our website, which we think is going to be our most important work. We’re going to offer a catalog of every single resource around the world, no matter the language, that has to do with Olympic collecting. Right now, 500 pieces of reference material from Warsaw are in our catalog. We’re asking our member associations to send us their catalogs and materials. Eventually, we want to have a central library for Olympic collecting.
Images from Mark Maestrone’s stamp collection
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