The National Philatelic Collection owned by Australia Post comprises extensive holdings of Australian Commonwealth stamps as complete sheets, stamp artwork, proofs and the associated postal and philatelic products. In essence, the collection presents the background story to stamp issues through items such as source photographs, artwork illustrating the development stages of the stamp design and printed proofs of the finished stamp. The collection is a source of information not only to philatelists, but also to those interested in the history of graphic design, printing and postal services in Australia.

The origins of the National Philatelic Collection extend back to the late 19th century, when Australian colonial postal administrations regularly received requests from dignitaries, collectors and overseas postal administrations for samples of Australian stamps. With this need in mind, the colonies began maintaining dedicated stocks of current and obsolete stamps. In 1891, the eight Australasian colonies (i.e. including New Zealand, British New Guinea and Fiji) joined the Universal Postal Union (UPU) as a single member called “Australasia”. This development obligated the colonial postal administrations to supply examples of their stamps, as they were issued, to the UPU Headquarters for distribution to other member countries.

Also from the 1890s, the practice started of selling sets of postmarked-to-order stamps at under face value to collectors. The higher denomination stamps might be overprinted Specimen for greater security against reuse in the mails. Obviously, adequate stocks of current stamps had to be maintained to meet this requirement. A further use for the Archival Stamp Stocks involved the preparation of presentation stamp albums as gifts for people, such as Postmasters-General and senior postal officials, on the occasion of their retirements. (Until the 1950s, the most important recipients of presentation albums were given simplified sets of stamps from the Kangaroo issues onwards.)

By the early 1950s, the National Philatelic Collection (such as it was) comprised the Archival Stamp Stocks that had been reserved for UPU distribution; the preparation of collectors’ sets; and as presentations to designated individuals. Indeed, the collection was really an accumulation, because there no thought was given to “collecting” every item of philatelic significance. As far as the Postmaster-General’s Department was concerned, only stamps representing a face different change in design needed to be put aside for the Archival Stocks.

The various printings of Kangaroo and George V stamps featuring different watermarks were not significant enough in themselves to warrant being included as separate issues in the Archival Stocks. Only changes in denominations and colours caused new stocks to be set aside. However, various watermark printings are represented in the Archival Stocks, because stamp sheets were put aside when required at particular points of time and, of course, these stamps would be extracted from current stocks.

Over the years, the preservation of Archival Stamp Stocks had been a routine, clerical activity, which involved no effort to retain stamps according to philatelic definitions of what constituted distinct and significant items. The largest gaps in the Archival Stocks are focused on pre-1890 colonial stamps, which were never saved systematically for the purposes described above. Nevertheless, the contents of the Archival Stamp Stocks are impressive enough, with many instances of full sheets and large multiples being the largest, surviving items of their kind.

As well as the maintenance of the Archival Stamp Stocks before 1950, overseas countries’ stamps were received from the UPU and assembled into separate collections formed by the various state and headquarters administrations of the Postmaster-General’s Department. The assumption behind the UPU stamp exchange system was that a member country could refer to its reference collection to check the validity of any particular stamp in question. Although it is doubtful that this need arose on more than a handful of occasions, the UPU collections in Australia were maintained assiduously.

Prior to the early 1950s, the Postmaster-Generals’ Department did not think it was their role to retain most items associated with stamp production, such as original artwork and die proofs. Once this material had served its purpose, it was generally destroyed (or in some instances it passed into the private possession of officials). Consequently, the collection lacks many items integral to the development of stamp designs of the entire colonial and the early Commonwealth periods. The few items that have survived in the collection are of special significance.

Some examples of early philatelic items that did survive include pre-production die proofs of the 1928 3d Kookaburra and 1934 2d Centenary of Victoria stamps. The two stamp issues coincided with the staging of philatelic exhibitions in Melbourne. The Postmaster-Generals’ Department had prepared official exhibits, which featured coloured die proofs for selection of the adopted shade for printing (1928) and progressive die proofs illustrating the stages of engraving the stamp design (1934). Since these proofs remained in the hands of the Postmaster-General’s Department, rather than the Note Printing Branch, they escaped destruction – the inevitable fate of similar items of this era.

In 1951, the Postmaster-General’s Department appointed for the first time a Philatelic Officer, given the task of taking charge of stamp production and the provision of philatelic services to collectors. The occupant of this position was Phil Collas, editor of the Australian Stamp Monthly and for 54 years, until his death in 1989, a member of the RPSV. Transferring from the Victorian public service, Phil Collas started duty in November 1951 as the first Philatelic Officer – or Assistant Controller (Philately) to give him his correct title – in the Headquarters administration. It was the beginning of a 17-year career during which Collas established the basis of the present-day philatelic services and influenced the design and production of Australian stamps.

One objective adopted by Collas was to assemble the National Philatelic Collection. This was intended to be a definitive collection of Australian stamps, artwork, proofs and associated material, providing a record of the development of stamp designs. Naturally, all items of philatelic significance were retained for the National Philatelic Collection from 1951 and this has been followed as a matter of course ever since.

An early task was to gather together the scattered holdings of stamps, proofs and artwork into a coherent collection. When Collas arrived at the Postmaster-General’s Department in November 1951, there was already in Melbourne a large stock of obsolete Commonwealth stamps stored in envelopes and folders. From the NSW state administration in Sydney, Collas acquired an album of NSW colonial stamps in full sheets, which had been put together by A.F. Basset Hull, working as an honorary philatelic curator for the NSW Post Office around the turn of the century. There were also smaller holdings in the other state administrations, which were also transferred to Melbourne for inclusion in the National Philatelic Collection.

The collection as it was, lacked many essays and proofs, but a few were found still attached to Treasury files in Canberra. (Until 1924, the Treasury was the controlling authority of the Note Printing Branch.) The Note Printing Branch itself still held all the original dies of Australian Commonwealth and territories’ stamps, but it was not until 1996 that these items were transferred to Australia Post’s control.

On one occasion, Collas suspected that an officer employed at the Postmaster-General’s Department Headquarters had removed essays and proofs from official files. Accompanied by police, he was able to recover the items from the person’s possessions.

The task of mounting and annotating all this material onto album pages was a huge one and, as Collas once explained, he initially had to do this work during his lunch hours. The chief of the Finance Branch at Headquarters (who was Collas’ immediate boss) opposed many of the efforts to extend services to collectors and he insisted that the “non-essential” job of mounting the National Philatelic Collection could not be done during working hours. When the Finance Chief retired in 1953, Collas’ work in forming the collection became much easier.

In the years since 1951, the National Philatelic Collection has expanded greatly as new stamps, postal stationery and other products have been issued. In December 1986, Australia Post purchased the Chapman Collection of Australian Commonwealth stamps (1913-1965). Assembled over a period of 40 years, by Ray Chapman AM MBE, the collection was the first of its kind to gain a Gold Medal at a World Philatelic Exhibition. The Chapman Collection was acquired to complement the impressive, but incomplete holdings of the National Philatelic Collection.

Another major acquisition was the philatelic holdings of the Note Printing Australia, transferred to Australia Post’s ownership in the mid-1990s. This material comprises original steel dies of stamps from 1913 onwards and a comprehensive range of photogravure proof sheets. Australia Post has also purchased a limited number of individual items for the National Philatelic Collection through private transaction and auction sales.

It is an established practice to display material from the National Philatelic Collection at philatelic venues, regional galleries and at a permanent venue in Melbourne, the Post Master Gallery. The original permanent venue was the Canberra GPO, opened in April 1983, with the Canberra Philatelic Exhibition occupying the first floor level. In March 1992, the Post Master Gallery was established at Australia Post Headquarters in Melbourne, on the ground floor level. Six staff work full time on exhibiting and conserving the National Philatelic Collection.

Published by kind permission of the author
First published in Philately from Australia (June 2006)