Armenia's First Stamps: Mount Ararat and the Tri-color

Independent Armenia's first stamp was printed in 1992. (Photo 8) In 1991 a competition was announced for the stamp design in which 100 individuals submitted some 400 entries. The theme of the first stamp had already been selected - Mount Ararat and the Tri-color flag. Graphic designer Harutyun Samuelyan was the author of that first stamp.
Mr. Samuelyan states that, "That stamp was my first attempt at such a design. Sixteen years later I still believe it's one of my best stamps, even though I see some shortcomings in it. If I were to draw it now, I'd make Ararat taller, as it appears in the winter months with more snow on its peaks.

In the sixteen years since he's designed more than 100 stamps. The artist confesses that designing stamps is one of his best-loved pastimes. He continues to submit new sketches to the HayPost committee responsible for new stamp design.

"The only difference, he says, is that back then I'd use pencil or water colors and now I use the computer. After the printing of the first stamp the Minister for Communication and Transport decreed the creation of the firm "Namakanish Ltd" (Namakanish is the word for stamp in Armenian). It has been involved in stamp preparation and circulation since 1992.

Harutyun Samuelyan is the head artist in "Namakanish". He relates that it wasn't right that most of the stamps printed lately were his creations. He confesses that this resulted from the fact that it's been difficult to get young artists interested in stamp design due to the low honorarium involved; about $5 per stamp.

He notes that stamps designed during Armenia's period of independence are of much higher quality, both aesthetically and informatively, than stamps of the Czarist and Soviet eras and that the themes represented are more diverse and expansive.

Stamps are a lucrative business

In November 2006, management authority of HayPost was ceded to the "HayPost Trust Management Ltd" firm. During the years 1992 to 2006 "Stamp Ltd." issued some 300 stamps. Today, however, HayPost has decided that these stamps cannot be used as postage but only for collecting purposes.

This decision was not accidental. Starting in 2003 relations between "Namakanish" and HayPost had soured due to the fact that the printing and issuing of stamps had become big business. "Namakanish" would print a stamp and sell it to HayPost for 80 drams per piece. HayPost, in turn, would put the stamp into circulation for 100 drams, thus making a 20-dram profit. This situation lasted for some time since the brother of the director of "Namakanish" was a Parliamentary Deputy with influential connections.

Hans Boon, Director General of HayPost Trust Management, during an April 27, 2007 interview he gave to the newspaper Delevoy Express described the situation thusly, "While HayPost was the one providing mail service, it was Namakanish that was raking in the profits.

There were other reasons for the disagreements as well. Given that it had sole issuance rights, Namakanish would often sell stamps in bulk overseas. While not prohibited, it reached such extreme levels that stamp collectors abroad would get their hands on Armenian stamps before local collectors. Also, stamp sales overseas were quite profitable. Stamps with a face value of 150-500 drams were being sold for 1-3 Euros.

One of the people we interviewed familiar with the workings of Namakanish said that the firm had entered into an exclusive arrangement with a buyer named Barsumian in London. According to the agreement Namakanish would sell this person Armenian stamps and couldn't sell stamps to anyone else for a period of six months in order for Barsumian to recoup his initial investment.

All this resulted in the scarcity of stamps for postage in Armenia. Lara Tcholakian, Deputy Director General for International Relations Manager at HayPost Trust, told us that, "We had a scarcity of stamps in 2006. Thus, we were obliged to employ bar codes in order to somehow verify the sale of stamps."

Hans Bon states that, "Even though stamps were being printed in large quantities only a tiny amount would reach HayPost. The monies realized from stamp sales didn't cover the expenses of the mail services provided."

HayPost could no longer tolerate this set-up and refused to circulate stamps issued by Namakanish. During 2006 Namakanish had printed up some 51 various stamps that would wind up not being publicly circulated. As it turned out, Namakanish and HayPost could never iron-out their differences to at least circulate the already printed stamps. The Ministry of Communications remained neutral in the matter.

Stamp collector Yuri Kupalyan laments that; "In the end it was Armenian philately that suffered from this war over money by these two departments. In the 2006 print run were four stamps dedicated to the victories achieved by six of our chess masters. The stamps have never been put into circulation and thus these events have never been duly recorded in stamp form."

The 2006 stamp run remains in limbo. In order to recoup the money spent to print these stamps the Ministry of Communications and Transport decreed that they be put on sale.

Yuri Kupalyan argues that, "This approach doesn't serve the interests of stamp collectors. Stamps are issued to be used as postage and are later collected by aficionados. What collector would buy a stamp that hasn't been used as postage?"

In 2007, after lengthy debate, the Armenian government granted the sole right for stamp printing and circulation to HayPost.

Throughout the world it's accepted practice to print and circulate artistic miniatures that resemble stamps. However, these items aren't considered true stamps. Other than the word "Hayastan" (Armenia) on legitimate stamps there is little else besides the word "post" in Armenian and English.

Lara Tcholakian states that, "We are now establishing links with agents that sell stamps overseas. Through them we will be selling Armenian stamps at just a bit more than face value. The agents will compete with each other and thus the prices Armenian stamps will not increase to the extent that people loose interest in collecting them. Presently, we don't really know how many stamps are being sold overseas since we're new to the game and haven't yet done the research. In 2008, however, we foresee selling 15% of our stamps abroad."

But it's still not clear how many varieties of stamps will be issued in 2008 and what their themes will be. The Stamp Committee over at HayPost has presented their stamp designs for the current year to the Ministry of Communications and is awaiting an answer. In any event, these stamps should have already been printed.

It's commonly accepted throughout the world for collectors to know at least one year in advance regarding upcoming stamp issuances. Collectors in Armenia can only guess regarding the future. Lara Tcholakian assures us that in the coming years the authorization process for stamp issuance will be corrected and that information regarding upcoming stamps will be published in advance as well.

HayPost issued 27 stamps, ranging in value from 50-350 drams, for circulation in 2007 and 1 2006 that was a joint Armenian-Russian venture. The "Yevroba" stamp issued by HayPost was judged to be the finest stamp, from among those of 50 postal operators, at the 2007 European stamp competition. The "EUROPA" stamp is dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Scout Movement.

It's next to impossible to say to what degree Armenian stamps are cherished by collectors or how well known they are since oftentimes stamps are collected not according to the country of origin but by thematic content. Thus, postal agencies tend to print stamps according to themes: nature, culture, sports, cuisine, etc. Even stamp series are issued, for example Armenian churches or universities. Most competitions however are won by collections that are comprised of stamps from individual countries.

Lara Tcholakian agrees that, "In terms of the business end, thematic stamp runs are the most advantageous since you'd probably only find a handful of people in the world interested in a stamp say dedicated to Nemrut Baghdasaryan, the father of photo-journalism in Armenia, or to the 150th anniversary of the birth of troubadour Gusan Sheram." According to HayPost figures only 1% of stamps sold in Armenia are bought for collection purposes. Overseas, this figure is closer to 15%.

She adds that, "We are studying the market to see what types of stamps are of most interest in the world. This doesn't mean that we'll be neglecting famous or worthy individuals in the eyes of Armenia. No, we'll print stamps dealing with these people as well."

Collector Yuri Kupalyan says, "My fear is that we'll soon be seeing only trees and flowers on our stamps and that the faces of important people will be forgotten. Yes, business is business, but through stamps we can introduce the world to our country and noteworthy sons and daughters. This aspect must not be overlooked."

Any one can suggest a theme for a stamp. Before finalizing its stamp program for the coming year, HayPost makes the rounds of various state and private departments for proposals for stamp themes. The HayPost stamp committee then reviews these proposals and the chosen themes are in turn submitted to the appropriate committee at the Ministry of Communications and Transport. Once the themes are chosen, the work of the artists and designers begins. Armenian stamps are printed in Holland.

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