Mention the name of Burt Todd to the average collector or dealer and the odds are you will get a blank stare. They have never heard of him: Yet Burt Todd has had an influence on the philatelic world that is likely to reshape the thinking of postal administrations for decades ahead. For Burt Todd is the mastermind behind the stamps of Bhutan and has been largely responsible for a major breakthrough in the concept of STAMP MANUFACTURE.
Postal administrators and designers everywhere are having to discard the traditional concept of a stamp as being a piece of paper. Instead they are being forced more and more to the revolutionary idea that a postage stamp is after all, only a receipt for a service, and, as such can be almost any shape, size or design which can be produced within the limits of modern technology.
But to understand Burt Todd’s ideas you must first understand the man and appreciate his motivations.
Those who know only of his association with the Bhutan Stamp Agency sometimes think of him as a smart American operator seeking to exploit both Bhutan and the collecting public. Such operators do exist in the philatelic world, but Burt Todd isn’t one of them. His motivations are quite different and the monetary side of his philatelic activities are of little concern to him because in his own right Burt Todd is an enormously wealthy man, a millionaire many times over. In any list of the hundred wealthiest and most influential families in the United States. Burt Todd and his family would figure very prominently.
To understand his involvement with Bhutan, a tiny kingdom in the Himalayas, it is really necessary to go back more than a quarter of a century when Todd as a young man had just received his discharge from the U.S. Air Force after wartime service in Italy. He felt that before returning to the U.S. to take up a position to guide the destiny of his family holdings in the steel industry in Pittsburgh he should widen his horizons by study and travel.
As the first step in this programme he went to Oxford to study and there met a fellow student from Bhutan, a young woman who was a member of the Bhutanese ruling class. She so interested young Todd in her country that when he finished his studies at Oxford he determined to visit the tiny state on a hitchhiking tour across Europe, the Middle East and Asia on his way back to the U.S.
This hitchhiking expedition was undertaken with two other students and when they finally arrived in India they discovered that getting into Bhutan was not such a simple matter as they imagined. In those days there were no air services and no roads into the country. The only access was on foot or on the back of mules over wild mountain tracks through the foothills of the Himalayas. But they persevered and finally made it into the capital of where they received a right royal welcome from friends of their Oxford Bhutanese classmate.
Despite, or because of, its backwardness, Burt Todd fell in love with Bhutan, with the traditional centuries-old customs, with the friendly, hospitable people of the country. He was so “sold” on Bhutan that when he returned to America and married he insisted on taking his bride back to Bhutan for their honeymoon!
His wife equally enchanted with this fairy-tale like land in the Himalayas, and that was really the commencement of a life-long love affair between the Todds and Bhutan.
On each of his visits Todd was entertained by members of the Royal Family of Bhutan and because of the influence of his family on the US. industrial scene he was asked to become an honorary financial advisor to the Bhutan government, a task which he readily assented to as a means of repaying the countless acts of hospitality he had received at the hands of the Bhutanese. Besides, by this time he really wanted to do something to help the Bhutanese solve some of their major problems – mainly in the fields of health, social services and transport.
When the Bhutanese government decided to apply to the World Bank for a $10-million loan to help built hospitals, roads and an airfield, Todd became a key advisor in shaping the application. Came the fatal day when the application came up for consideration, and Todd was amongst the small delegation presenting the Bhutanese case. But the answer of the World Bank was NO. This was because relations between Bhutan and India were extremely touchy at the time and the World Bank did not want to appear to be taking sides.
Going down in the lift after the meeting, Burt Todd was speaking to the top-ranking U.S. government official who had attended the talks as an observer. The U.S. official told Todd not to worry unduly about the setback and suggested that there were other ways that a small country like Bhutan could raise revenue. Todd said “Such as?”
The official asked whether Bhutan had ever considered postage stamps as a revenue producer, adding that quite a few small states such as San Marino and Monaco balanced their budgets in this way.
Burt Todd was not a stamp collector and had never given a thought to postage stamps but, never one to pass up an idea, he made some investigations and found that what the official had said was true.
Up to that time Bhutan had never issued any stamps. They were not really needed on the primitive internal postal system. and the small amount of international mail leaving the country at the time was sent to the nearest Indian post office where Indian stamps were affixed for onward transmission. It was a clumsy and inadequate system but it had not been questioned because so many other things in Bhutan operate that way.
Todd put a submission to the Bhutan government that they should issue their own stamps as a means of raising revenue. The Bhutanese were extremely sceptical about the ability of postage stamps to raise revenue, but liked the idea for an entirely different reason. At the time relations with India were very strained as a result of conflicting border claims, and the Bhutanese saw in the issue of stamps a way of declaring their independence to the world as a sovereign state. It was their way of telling the Indians to stay in their own backyard.
They therefore agreed to the idea of issuing postage stamps and asked Burt Todd whether he would undertake the arrangements for printing and distribution outside of Bhutan.
Burt Todd knew nothing whatsoever about stamp design and production and even less about the mechanics of distribution to the world stamp trade, but with typical thoroughness he set about learning.
He had an artist prepare designs, and thus the first stamps of Bhutan came into being in 1962, a set of seven quite attractive definitives featuring a postal runner, the Crest of Bhutan, an Archer, a Wild Yak, a Map of the Country, and the Maharaja fortress and monastery.
To say that the philatelic world fell over backwards over these stamps would be an over-statement. Collectors virtually ignored them, largely because they didn’t know of their existence. This was because Todd had no knowledge of the complex philatelic trade channel system or of philatelic journals which could have helped him promote the issues. For this, and for several subsequent stamp issues the going was rough so far as generating revenue was concerned. Todd sought and got lots of advice, philatelic and otherwise, and this was not always sound, as he cheerfully admits, but gradually the philatelic world became aware that a new country had been added to the albums of the world.
After three years, Burt Todd took stock and had to admit that although the stamps he had designed for Bhutan were pleasing to the eye, he hadn’t exactly set the philatelic world on fire or raised the revenue he had hoped.
Never one to accept defeat easily, Todd began to cast around for ideas and gradually came to the realisation that if he was to achieve his goals for Bhutan he would have to make the country’s stamps so DIFFERENT that they would be instantly recognisable as coming from “that unusual little state in the Himalayas”. They would have to get themselves talked about. To do this, he realised, he would have to depart from orthodox thinking on stamp design and printing.
His first experimental issue was the 1966 Gold Coin issue to mark the 40th anniversary of the accession of King Jigme Wangchuk to the Bhutanese throne. These stamps were circular in shape and embossed on gold foil backed with a multicoloured patterned paper.
The set was frowned upon by serious philatelists but received an enthusiastic reception from general collectors. A triangle-shaped series followed showing the “Abominable Snowman” and this set also sold very well, possibly due to its unique theme.
But it was the 1967 three dimension space stamps that really put Bhutan on the philatelic map. These were produced in Japan after exhaustive tests and created a philatelic sensation. The designs showing spacemen and spacecraft were printed on to a laminated prismatic-ribbed plastic surface which gave them a startling three dimensional effect. Three dimensional printing at that time was quite a novelty and for hundreds of thousands of collectors, the Bhutanese space stamps were the first three dimensional pictures they had seen. And they flocked to buy the stamps in multitudes.
The success of the 3-D stamps spurred Burt Todd on to greater efforts and in the intervening years he has produced a remarkable range of stamps that would have Rowland Hill turning over in his grave.
For example, there were the Religious Banners series of 1969 printed on silk, and there have been several unusual series of paintings produced in bass relief giving an amazing effect, especially for the impressionist issues. But perhaps the most unusual of all were the 1971 Sculptures of Antiquity series die stamped on plastic. If possible, these are even more startling in their appearance than the three dimensional issues.
A very large body of philatelic opinion of course, is solidly against these novelties from Bhutan. They have been roundly denounced as “gimmicks” both by philatelic societies and stamp editors, and they have been boycotted by some world catalogues – though this particular boycott will be difficult to maintain now that Bhutan is a member of the United Nations.
The main objection to the issues seems to be that they are different to the normal concept of what a postage stamp should look like. It is very difficult for the average collector to accept the quite revolutionary thought behind Burt Todd’s creations – that a postage stamp need not necessarily comprise a design printed on to a piece of paper. Once this concept is accepted, there is really no limit to the size, shape or dimension of a stamp, and this is how designers of the future will approach the issue.
The 1967 Bhutan space stamps were three dimensional in appearance. The 1971 Bhutan Sculptures were in fact three dimensional in touch. Who knows but stamps of the future might be round balls – or cubes – or squares. So long as they can be attached to a letter in some way, there is no limit to the possibilities. The mind boggles at what the designers of the future may conceive after sessions in philatelic “Think Tanks”.
Burt Todd has pioneered this new field of stamp design just as Rowland Hill with his Penny Black of Britain in 1840 pioneered a new form of prepayment of postage on mail.
And what kind of a man is this who has turned the philatelic world upside down in less than a decade? He is a quiet, unassuming individual, with a delightful sense of humour and a down to earth manner. He is quite unlike the typical picture of the American multimillionaire and industrial tycoon. Although his enormous and varied interests in steel, oil and a number of other industries occupy the major port of his busy daily life, he still finds time to think of new ideas for stamps for his Bhutanese friends.
The time and effort he has put into this hobby far outweighs any financial returns but this is quite immaterial to his thinking on the issue. He points with enormous pride to the airfield, to the hospitals and the schools which have been built in Bhutan as a direct result of the revenue raised by the sale of the stamps he has created and sold to collectors throughout the world. For to Burt Todd, Bhutan is more than a tiny inaccessible state in the Himalayas. It is his spiritual home and if he can assist the people of his second homeland through postage stamps he cares not a whit what the philatelic purists think.