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A Collector's Envy: Bhutan's Playable Postage Stamps
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A Collector's Envy: Bhutan's Playable Postage Stamps

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A Collector's Envy: Bhutan's Playable Postage Stamps

A Collector's Envy: Bhutan's Playable Postage Stamps
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In 1972, the country tried some novel fundraising: selling postage stamps embossed with a playable recording. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with journalist Chris May who wrote about the oddity.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now a story for a very particular group of hobbyists - stamp and record collectors in perfect harmony. In 1972, the country of Bhutan issued a set of postage stamps that you could peel off and play on a turntable...

(SOUNDBITE OF BHUTAN NATIONAL ANTHEM)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing in foreign language).

SIMON: ...Like this recording of their national anthem. Chris May is a journalist who's written about the stamps for thevinylfactory.com. He says they were the creation of an American adventurer named Burt Todd who fell in love with Bhutan, befriended its king and tried to help the government raise money by issuing postage stamps.

CHRIS MAY: He produced arranges that are typically exotic flora and fauna-type stamps, which were pretty enough but not sensational enough to make any impact on the international stamp collecting market. So he realized he would need to do something which was going to get more attention. And he started producing really quite wacky ideas. He did a series of Buddhist banners printed on silk, a range of scented stamps, some dye stamp, plastic three-dimensional stamps representing traditional Bhutanese sculptures. And then the crowning glory really - in 1972 he had the idea of doing these talking stamps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURT TODD: The kingdom of Bhutan, Druk Yul, or Land of Dragons, is a landlocked country of 18,000 square miles.

SIMON: And so there's Burt Todd's voice on a stamp?

MAY: Yes. One of the stamps - most of them did Bhutanese folksongs, but two of them did plotted thumbnail histories of the country. One of them in Dzongkha, which is the local language. And the other one which was narrated by Todd in English.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TODD: The Bhutanese people, numbering approximately 1 million, are a strong and well-built race whose religion is Buddhism.

SIMON: A very effective narrator.

MAY: Indeed, wasn't he? And really good audio quality too when you consider.

SIMON: That it's a stamp (laughter).

MAY: Right.

SIMON: Yes.

MAY: Yeah (laughter).

SIMON: Were the stamps successful as a fundraising idea?

MAY: Yes, they were. And they didn't reprint them. It was a one-off. But I believe they sold about 300,000 sets.

SIMON: And today as a - if I might put it this way - a mere collectible, how much are these stamps worth?

MAY: Well, about 300 pounds in English money

SIMON: Three hundred pounds is worth about 430 U.S. dollars right about now.

MAY: Right, right. And they're going up. You know, I mean, five years ago they were worth a fraction of that. And the reason they've gone up so much in price I think is you not only got stamp collectors appreciating them now but - the angle from which I was originally interested in - people who were collecting vinyl, as well, because...

SIMON: Oh.

MAY: And so you got this perfect Venn diagram of obsessive stamp collectors and obsessive vinyl collectors and driving the price up.

SIMON: Can you play them?

MAY: Yes, you can if they're in - you know, if they're in good nick. If they're in good condition, you can absolutely still play them. And if - actually I'm told you can still use them if you find yourself in Bhutan. I need to send an airmail letter and have one of these stamps. They will honor it.

SIMON: That's a lot of money to say wish you were here.

MAY: (Laughter) Sure.

SIMON: Chris May is a journalist who's written about Bhutan's playable postage stamps for thevinylfactory.com. Thanks so much for being with us.

MAY: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing in foreign language).

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