IT'S BEEN 45 years, but there is another stamp collector at the White House.

Unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt, the last serious philatelist at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., this one isn't dashing off sketches of new stamps and he doesn't have the time to see that his collection is carefully mounted and kept up to date.

Indeed, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu is the first to admit that his collection has been somewhat dormant since his election as governor of New Hampshire in 1982. Then along came last year's World Stamp Expo '89, the huge Washington stamp show sponsored by the Postal Service.

"It really rekindled that old spark," Sununu said in a recent interview in his West Wing office.

Not only did Sununu formally open the show and appear as a platform guest during several new stamp ceremonies, he spent an entire Saturday there. And, some of his aides note, it was the Saturday before the Malta Summit when most senior White House staffers were closeted at Camp David plotting strategy for President Bush's meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev.

"Oh, I spent all the time there I could," Sununu quickly acknowledged. His interest in stamp collecting, he said, dates to his childhood in New York City and to his father, also a collector, who would regularly bring home a grocery bag full of stamps from the mail received at his import-export business.

Sununu said he would eagerly soak the stamps off their envelopes and then mount them in his Scott's loose-leaf album. "It was my window on what was going on around the world," he said of the hobby.

New York was the center of the stamp industry in those days, and when his parents would go to Macy's on 34th Street, Sununu would tag along. "While my folks would go shopping, I'd hang around the stamp counter," he said.

Like many young collectors, Sununu amassed a collection of contemporary stamps, taken from mail and the large bulk bags of used stamps that dealers sell. But about 20 years ago, Sununu said he got serious about "filling in the gaps" and started buying stamps.

"I couldn't afford what I wanted, but I wanted what I could afford," he said with a laugh. So what did the man destined to be the one of the country's leading conservatives collect?

Not surprisingly, the former governor's philatelic tastes are like his political ones: conservative and traditional.

"I've got a couple of penny blacks and a two-cent blue," he said, referring to the first stamps ever issued, the 1840 set of British stamps bearing Queen Victoria's portrait. The blue, currently valued at $300 in used condition, is "not in great condition, but it's in good, average condition." The black and the blue are his favorite stamps and the two-cent blue is also the most expensive stamp the governor said he ever bought. Used copies of the penny black -- and Sununu says he has several -- are valued at $140, although the price varies widely.

Although the chief of staff has a strong collection of British Commonwealth stamps, his U.S. collection includes an early New England envelope that predates the first U.S. stamp in 1847. Sununu's U.S. stamps begin with the two-cent 1861 Andrew Jackson stamp known to collectors as "Black Jack."

Sununu said he has no idea what his collection is worth. "This is a collection based on love, not resources," he said.

"For a lot of folks, stamps are an investment. For me, it's just a labor of love. It was always a big investment of time, never a big investment of money."

Asked about contemporary American stamps, Sununu demurred. "I'm a great believer in the old-fashioned designs," he said. The old stamps have "a little more substance to them, a little bit more detail. They look a little less like {Christmas} seals and more like stamps."

Sununu said he shared his views with Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank during last year's ceremonies at Mount Vernon for the release of the presidential bicentennial commemorative. He also said he understands the Postal Service's need to produce large numbers of stamps and its budget constraints.

"So I understand the reality, but that doesn't take away from the sentimentality," Sununu said.

Would he use his office to try to press a stamp idea? "No, I don't want to be in that position," said Sununu. He wouldn't mind offering the informal advice of a collector, he said, but he wants to steer clear of that often-contentious arena.

"A: It would probably backfire and whatever I was interested in would suffer and B: they {the Postal Service} do a good job," he said.

As governor of New Hampshire, he did mix some philately with his office, approving and personally signing several hundred sheets of duck-hunting stamps for sale to collectors as a special "governor's issue."

The idea angered some duck-stamp dealers who viewed it as another gimmick to get more money out of them. Sununu said he approved the state wildlife officials' idea to raise more money for the state's wildlife fund, not realizing it might be viewed as controversial. "I thought it might be a positive thing for the collectors," he said.

Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff.