Earnings from the sale of U.N. postage stamps fell two-thirds in the 1980s, a problem the U.N. postal agency blames on unpopular themes and a vanishing generation of collectors.
"Our base group of collectors started in the 1950s and it is dying, to put it bluntly," says Gisela Grunewald, head of the U.N. Postal Administration.
Stamp sales are also hampered by agency reliance on political and social themes: "Our subjects are much more political; we cannot put out a puppy-dog or LOVE stamp," Grunewald adds.
While most political stamps simply fail to attract collectors, some political issues actually repel them.
In 1981, the General Assembly instructed the U.N. postal agency to issue a stamp proclaiming "the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people."
Michael Lawrence, editor and publisher of Linn's Stamp News, the authoritative guide for collectors, says the stamp was a disaster because "many of the stamp dealers in the United States are Jewish."
"I think we answered 20,000 letters on that issue," says Grunewald. "There was a rumor that the U.N. was issuing a stamp to honor the PLO and that revenue from the stamp would be sent to Mr. (Yasser) Arafat. It is very difficult to explain to the public the difference between the PLO and the Palestinian people."
Income from U.N. stamp sales goes into the general budget, reducing the assessment member nations pay. It does not go to the cause or agency pictured on the stamp.
U.N. stamps vary in their value to collectors. The 1954 Human Rights stamp, one of the most popular, had a face value of 3 cents. It now sells for up to $9.50. A three-stamp block in 1955 that honored the U.N.'s 10th anniversary had a face value of 15 cents; now its value ranges from $190 to $320.
A recent audit of all U.N. agencies noted that net income of the U.N. Postal Administration declined from $13.5 million in 1980 to $4.5 million in 1987. It criticized the agency for lacking a marketing plan and for leaving two of three marketing directors' posts vacant.
Grunewald says a marketing plan will be in place by the end of the year.
The agency has been unable to fill marketing posts under the U.N.'s general hiring freeze, but other employees have been performing most of those duties, she says.
"There is an inherent Catch-22 situation in trying to run a commercial enterprise in an organization with bureaucratic restraints," she adds. "It's not something that comes as a surprise to any of us, although it's sometimes very frustrating."
The real crisis, she says, is that stamp collecting, the hobby that has added tens of millions of dollars to the coffers of the cash-poor United Nations, is in decline worldwide.
Lawrence says that sales by nations such as Andorra, San Marino, Liechtenstein and Monaco, which aggressively market their stamps for collectors, suffered a slump in the 1980s.
In 1979-80 there was a boom in all collectibles because of a high inflation rate that cooled in the 1980s, says Lawrence. Sales of stamps, coins, gold, antiques and other tangible goods peaked in 1980 and tapered off afterward.
Stamp collectors generally start the hobby as children, drop out in their teens and take it up again in their late 20s or 30s.
"It is not easy for us to find collectors at the young age because of our topics," says Grunewald. Marketing surveys show that political subjects are the least favored by collectors, while stamps featuring butterflies and flowers are the most popular.
"In all postal administrations, the question is: 'How can we get 6, 7, 8-year-olds to switch off the video and go to stamp collecting?' " she says. "I have to tell you that I have not heard a convincing strategy yet.
"Everybody in the trade and in the business who has children tells me their own children don't collect. My children don't collect. They aren't interested."