Diana put a stamp on our memory Mementos: Collectors are besieging philatelic suppliers for samples bearing the likeness of the princess.

September 14, 1997|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,SUN STAFF

On Labor Day weekend, John Van Emden received an emergency call from his office: The phones were ringing nonstop. Everyone wanted the Princess Diana stamps.

So Van Emden and the two owners of the International Collectors Society interrupted their holiday and headed to the office in Owings Mills.

This was no time for mourning or philosophical debates about good taste. They had a business to run.

That business is selling celebrity stamps. And it just so happened that the International Collectors Society had in stock several thousand sheets of Princess Diana stamps that had been issued in June by the Republic of Togo.

The stamps -- nine in all -- had been timed to coincide with the charity auction at Christie's in New York, in which the Princess of Wales raised money for her favorite causes by selling several of the gowns she had worn.

But now Diana was dead, killed in a car wreck in a Paris tunnel. The entire world seemed grief-stricken. The market for any collectible with her image on it was sure to explode.

"Don't underestimate how personally people get involved in this material," Van Emden says. "What people collect is a very big thing to them."

Just this week, two countries -- the Marshall Islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean island of Nevis -- announced that they will issue Princess Diana commemorative stamps as quickly as possible.

At the Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corp. in New York, which represents more than 70 postal authorities around the world, "We have 350 free-lance artists who design stamps, and right now all of them are working on Diana," says Lonnie Ostrow, a company spokesman.

Ostrow says 20 companies already have ordered Diana stamps. More are sure to follow. So many, says Ken Martin of the 56,000-member American Philatelic Society, that the stamp tributes to Princess Diana may surpass those issued after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

"There's going to be a deluge," Martin says.

So the clock already was ticking when Van Emden, the president the International Collectors Society, scheduled the emergency meeting on Labor Day with the company's owners, Jeffrey Franz and Scott Tilson, to plot strategy.

"When you get 7,000 phone calls like we did, you sit there and say, 'We'd better get organized,' " Van Emden says.

The company agreed to buy more national advertisements in several newspapers. It would change the ads to point out that these stamps had been issued before the fatal wreck. It would contact the Republic of Togo to buy all the Diana stamps remaining. It would make a donation to the Princess Diana charity. It would not raise the price of stamps -- $9.95 for a set, plus $3 for shipping and handling.

"We made that decision on day one," Van Emden says. "No price rise. Our business is based on our relationship with the collectors."

In all, the company had about 100,000 sheets of Diana stamps from Togo. "They will sell out, absolutely," he says. And he has an answer for those who suggest the company is exploiting a tragic event for commercial gain.

"This is not some sort of speculative fever by people who are in some sort of feeding frenzy," he says. "What we have here is a lot of people who are hurt by what happened and they want a memento. We have people who really and truly care."

They care enough, in fact, that the International Collectors Society, which opened five years ago, now has 60 employees and a mailing list of 800,000 members, making it one of the largest stamp-collecting outlets in the world.

They sell Elvis stamps. Marilyn Monroe stamps. James Dean stamps. Jerry Garcia stamps. Walt Disney stamps. "Star Wars" stamps. Winnie the Pooh stamps.

Some of the countries issuing the stamps are so tiny and obscure you only hear them mentioned during "Double Jeopardy!" Between 230 and 250 governments -- from Aitutaki to the Isle of Man to Vanuatu -- issue 10 to 50 stamps a year.

There's more at work here than a desire to honor the famous. "For most of them, it's a cash cow," says Martin of the American Philatelic Society.

For example, in St. Vincent, a country with 100,000 people, stamps represent its No. 1 export, Martin says.

Competition is fierce -- among countries and the companies that sell stamps. Another company, Morgan Mint of New York, also is advertising Princess Diana stamps, another set issued by the Republic of Central Africa.

"There's been a tremendous awakening of interest in the public's mind for collectibles of their favorite icons," Van Emden says.

Traditional stamp collectors say the celebrity stamps are to the philatelic world what Precious Moments figurines are to sculpting and P. Buckley Moss prints are to art.

"They're not as appealing to our members," Martin says.

But Denise Hatton, senior editor of Linn's Stamp News, says another camp within stamp-collecting believes "any publicity to get people interested in stamps is good."

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