Thumbnail pictures from Finland
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Two miniature sheets of stamps are being issued to celebrate Helsinki in 2000. The focus here is on architecture: the new Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, the Empire-style Lutheran Cathedral, Alvar Aalto's Finlandia Hall and the Glass Palace, an outstanding example of Functionalism.

Philately is the most popular form of collecting there is. There is certainly no shortage of material for practitioners of the hobby to scour the world for. All in all, around half a million different stamps - with a total print run in the trillions - have been issued. More than 10,000 new ones appear each year. The total in Finland exceeded 40 in 1999 and the first year of the new millennium will at least match that. Although up to four million copies of a special stamp can be printed and there is no limit to the number in the cases of some general ones, little Finland's stamps represent only a drop in the global philately ocean. Nevertheless philatelists who appreciate specialities and originality find them interesting. The most beautiful Finnish stamps have won several international awards. The Finnish postal service dates from 1638 and the first stamps were issued in 1856.

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Pirkko Vahtero's stamps featuring bears won a prize for best design in Vienna in 1989. Finnish stamps have won several international awards in recent decades.

Kaj Hellman of Finland runs a business that is well-known among top international philatelists. He explains the concept of philately, which is exceptionally broad: "At one end of the spectrum is the collector for whom it is just a fun hobby - at the other the real philatelists who take the matter as seriously as any top sportsperson. They compete for medals as resolutely as any Olympic athlete. The only way to get into the big exhibitions is through a severe process of elimination. Here we are not talking about the petty cash that small collectors have at their disposal; large sums of money may be called for."

Ship stamps unique collector's items

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A shipping line's round stamps on the envelope date from 1895.

"Philatelists certainly know Finland and appreciate our stamps, both older and new ones. There are a lot of countries whose stamps are quite boring - and that applies to more than just their visual appearance. Finland is not one of these countries," says Kaj Hellman. "At its most interesting, a stamp can tell about unusual circumstances and history. The stamps that shipping companies issued for their private mail services in the Baltic archipelago around the turn of the 20th century and the stamps franking them are coveted collector's items world-wide. In those days, the State-run postal service did not look after this traffic."

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The 25-penni stamp for the paddle steamer Runeberg dates from 1894.

"Just imagine: four thick books have been written about the world's ship stamps and one of them deals exclusively with Finland! I know of one Japanese professor who specialises exclusively in Finnish ship postage stamps."

Postage stamps have, naturally, always been printed in the numbers that practical needs call for. But a stamp can also be more than just a travel ticket for a letter. It can be issued to honour a person of exceptional merit, to tell about major events, to present art or nature, the range of themes is limitless. "For parts of the 1930s only 3 - 5 new stamps were issued each year in Finland, compared with dozens nowadays," says Kaj Hellman. "Things began to change around thirty years ago. It used to be that special stamps were rarely issued, for example in honour of a town celebrating the 500th anniversary of its foundation. Image size 9 Kb No one could have imagined in those days that Finland would issue a series featuring eight breeds of dogs. Such fine, funny stamps are just what people nowadays love. And when Mika Häkkinen retained his Formula One world championship title in 1999, the Post was immediately ready with a stamp and a miniature sheet honouring him. The star footballer Jari Litmanen was featured on a stamp as long ago as 1995."

History in stamps

The history of our era is another of the things that stamps record. One has already been issued to commemorate the Finnish Presidency of the European Union. Among the main issues in 2000 will be a stamp honouring Helsinki, which is celebrating its 450th anniversary in the same year as it is one of the European Cities of Culture. Also associated with Helsinki is a stamp featuring the Suomenlinna sea fortress, which lies just off the city and celebrated its 250th anniversary a couple of years ago. Some of the jewels of Finnish design are featured in a six-stamp booklet. An item that collectors are bound to hunger for in the future is the Millennium postcard bearing two date stamps: 31.12.1999 and 1.1.2000.

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Nature is the theme on many of the finest Finnish stamps. Erik Bruun's summer night birds took to flight on stamps issued in May 1999.

Kaj Hellman paints a glowing picture when he describes philately at its best: "A high-class theme collection must have a clear red line running through it. The theme can be anything, say Mozart's life story as depicted on stamps. A treasure in a collection like that could be a cover postmarked in the city of the composer's birth on the date of that event - without a stamp, naturally, because they had not been invented yet. A Finnish theme collection could be based on, for example, wartime field post material." He is amazed that no one has yet put together a collection on the theme of the Finnish Karelians' fate. "There is any amount of interesting material."
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