Stamp News November 2008
'78 Trees usage material doesn't grow on 'em
Regular readers of this column will know that I love the thrill of the chase in Philately. Seeking out the elusive and unusual, without the price tag usually mandatory for such material, is what gets my philatelic corpuscles multiplying. Conversely, paying large sums for over-hyped, over-priced, just plain over-the-hill material, can't do that for me.
Philately is brimming with "little unsung heroes", patiently awaiting their day in the philatelic sun. The 1978 Australian Trees, usage of them that is, are a case in point. This set when issued experienced an attempted "take over" by a syndicate of well-healed punters, based in South Australia. Never before on that scale had Australian Philately seen such irrational exuberance. These were the early days of the heady boom we had to have, and there was no shortage of entrepreneurs willing to try their hand at innovative speculation. With a massive stock of the set acquired at the outset of issue, the syndicate committed to forcing up the price of the set, strategically paying increasingly higher prices, particularly at Public auction, where their frenzied activity would receive maximum exposure. As with most such ill-conceived concepts, however, the venture was a failure, a folly, a burn your fingers recipe par excellence.
The failed venture did, however, have a lasting legacy in Philately. It served to materially reduce the available supply of the "Trees" set for contemporary postal use (the subject of the column this month), and it contributed generously to the reservoir of discount postage, enjoyed by the rest of us.
The above base rate stamps (ie above 18c, which itself is not hard to get on cover), the 25c, 40c and 45c, are really hard to find on contemporaneous commercial postal articles. So hard, in fact, I came close to abandoning the subject for lack of adequate material! Aside from the effect on supply already detailed, this set was well bought-up by collectors who, having seen previous commem sets rise rapidly in value, were not about to squander potential by using these stamps for postal purposes. In fact, this was not a commem set, rather it was Australia's first "Special Issue", a category of stamp issues introduced to allow Australia Post greater flexibility to feature alternative Australian subjects. The set remained on sale for one year, although a month after issue postal rate increases rendered largely redundant the original usage purposes. Here follows the selected subjects:
25c Ghost Gum
Figure 1. Scarce usage to notable Lady
This denomination, prior to the rate increases of 1 July 1978, was issued primarily to service (a) Zone 1 air mail rate; (b) surface letter rate to countries outside Asia-Oceania; and (c) priority mail fee; and from 1 July 1978, (d) 1st weight step for non-standard articles within Australia. Figure 1 is a (d) usage, 3 August 1979 Blackburn to Parkville (Vic). This is a rather late use of the stamp, although I'm certain it's commercial; Royal Children's Hospital would have maintained a stock of stamps for office use, and demand for a 25c would have been such that it could have lingered in stock for some months. I've noted just two solo frankings of the 25c, the other from the same correspondence. I haven't seen usages (a) or (b). Value : $100 (off cover 40c).
Figure 2. Probably from a Pom enjoying a great escape to NT
Rare usage finds are a delight to we aficionados. You can buy a mint £2 Kangaroo any day (make that every day). Readily available, they represent no challenge, just a lot of hard-earned readies. Figure 2 is the type of item which one could spend a lifetime seeking, and never find. Show your mint £2 Kangaroo to a seasoned Philatelist (this one, anyway!) and don't be surprised at a "so what" response. On the other hand Figure 2, shown to a usage aficionado, would be more inclined to raise the response, "nice" (which is usage-speak for "grouse"). Usage collecting is all about seeking unusual frankings, and this subject is certainly that. A 20 June 1978 use of a pair of 25c, from Nhulunbuy (NT) to U.K., this is an unsealed envelope, which likely contained postcards or a greetings card. The rate for unsealed, second class air mail articles to Zone 5 was 25c per 10gms, hence 50c was double rate. Second class air mail items are hard to find, and far more so double rate. Nhulunbuy P.O. must have been short of 50c denomination stamps, which was fortunate, delivering us as it did this rare usage item. Value $125 (stamps off cover 80c).
Figure 3. Attractive and rare, always a nice combination
Figure 3 is a (c) usage (see above), 29 June 1978 Hobart to Launceston, where the 18c was for Letter rate and the 25c Priority paid fee. Two days later the Priority paid fee increased to 30c; there was only one month in which the 25c could have been used for this purpose. This is another rare usage item, the only example I've noted of the 25c used for this purpose, and is a gem for a usage collection. Value $100 (stamps off cover 55c).
40c Grass Tree
Figure 4. 40c as make-up component in franking of another Priority article
The 40c is about on a par with the 25c in the usage scarcity stakes. In a word, tough. Until 1 July 1978, it was used primarily to service (a) 3rd weight step for non-standard articles within Australia; (b) Zone 4 air mail rate; and from 1 July 1978, (c) 2nd weight step for non-standard articles carried by air within Australia; (d) 3rd weight step for letters to countries in Asia-Oceania; (e) Zone 3 air mail rate; and (f) 2nd weight step for Zone 1 air mail. I've seen only (c) above (!), and that's after 19 years of searching, which gives one an adequate insight in to just how hard to find is this type of material. Other than for (b), a small number of which ought to be awaiting discovery in North America, the other potential solo uses for this stamp will be very hard to find, if found at all! Figure 4 is a rather nice make-up use of the 40c, a 14 June 1978 Priority paid article Hamilton to Erina (NSW), for the 43c combined Letter rate (18c) and Priority fee (25c), as in the preceding subject. Value : $50 (stamps off cover 75c).
Figure 5. This correspondence has yielded many welcome usage items
Figure 5 is the (c) usage mentioned above, a 27 June 1978 registered airmailed item from Melbourne Airport to British High Commission in Canberra. Here the 40c paid 2nd weight step for a non-standard (too long) article carried by air, and the $2 paid registration fee. This is a cracker usage item. Value : $125 (stamps off cover 80c).
45c Cootamundra Wattle
Figure 6. 45c the most difficult of a difficult trio
The 45c was issued primarily for Zone 5 air mail, an example of which is shown in Figure 6. A recurring theme with this month's subjects, it's the only example I've seen, a 12 June 1978 use from Ipswich to Switzerland. More will turn up (eBay-trawlers take note!), but it'll always prove elusive. The 45c I've found to be the scarcest of the three denominations under review. Value : $75 (off cover 70c).
Figure 7. Double rate with a twist
When the 45c was issued, the Zone 5 air mail rate was 45c per 10gms (up to 50gms). A double rate item (10-20gms) therefore was 45c x2 = 90c. After the 1 July 1978 rate rise, however, there was also some tinkering to the rates for weight steps. Zone 5 went to 55c for 1st 10gms, 90c for 10-20gms. Therefore, a double rate item thereafter became not 45c x2, but 55c (10gms) + 35c (next 10gms) = 90c. A neat little twist for the Postal Historians amongst us. Figure 7 is an example from this two-tiered rate regime, 1 June 1979 Bondi Junction to Austria.
In conclusion, I'm staggered at just how difficult the 25c, 40c and 45c "Trees" are to find used on postal articles in their contemporary time. To me, the challenge which such usage collecting represents is a refreshing element of pure, real Philately. The next generation of keen Philatelists won't necessarily be looking for the same type of material which turned on the Baby Boomers. It's a bit like every generation changing hairstyles! Count on Usage collecting being foremost amongst serious Generations "X" and "Y" Philatelists. Trust me.