THE SIMULATED "bullet holes" on the six stamps that the United Nations issued earlier this month were supposed to add a humorous touch to the serious issue of crime prevention.
But then some collectors began closely examining photographs of the 36-cent stamp in the set -- and they didn't like what they saw.
The three figures on the stamp -- bearded men in long, black coats carrying bags of booty from a burning building -- represented "a Nazi-like caricature of Jews as thieves," said a widely circulated unsigned flyer distributed to news organizations shortly before the stamps were released.
Officials of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith in New York examined photographs of the stamp and sided with the critics. The characters "bear a disturbing and uncomfortable resemblance to caricatures of religiously garbed Jews found in anti-Semitic literature, particularly of the Hilter era," wrote Justin J. Finger, the ADL's associate national director, in a letter to UN officials.
Finger appealed to Anthony J. Fouracre, chief of the UN Postal Administration, to recall the stamp. Fouracre seriously considered the request, but since the UN had already released the stamp to its sales agents around the world, he rejected the idea, UN stamp spokeswoman Rita Fernando said.
UN officials said in a statement that it "very much regrets" that the stamp "is being viewed by some as anti-Semitic." But, the statement added, it would be "absurd . . . to assume that this was anyone's intent."
Fernando said that Czechoslovakian artist Josef Ryzec, 47, had no intention of casting any slurs on any group. "He said very clearly he had no intention of repudiating any nationality," Fernando said after speaking with Ryzec.
Fernando acknowledged that the UN, which operates its own postal system at the organization's facilities in New York, Vienna and Geneva, has been inundated with complaints, mostly from Jewish groups in the United States and Canada. The complaints have been especially troubling, she said, because the UN has a large number of Jewish collectors who collect the organization's stamps.
Most of the complaints followed distribution of the flyer, which Fernando said features a distorted enlargement of the stamp. She said the flyer altered Ryzec's design, making the noses on the men "hooked to make them more sinister."
In its July release announcing the stamps, the UN had said that Ryzec "has displayed a folkloric style that has overtones of slightly sinister humor." It had described the 36-cent stamp in the series as addressing the problems of "organized crime and criminal activities" and a companion 25-cent stamp, showing an apparent holdup, as dealing with young offenders.
All were part of a six-stamp set that the UN released Sept. 13. Few collectors have complained about the stamp, Fernando said. Sales of the stamps have been "usual, nothing extraordinary," she said.
In addition to the two stamps issued for New York, Ryzec also designed a pair of stamps for use in Geneva and a pair in Vienna. All bear his bullet holes motif and deal with different types of crime.
"Although infused with a sense of lightheartedness, as well as a slightly sinister appeal, the artist has succeeded in communicating, simply and clearly, the urgent need for crime prevention," the UN had declared in announcing the stamps. But that was months before the controversy erupted.
THE U.S. MINT'S plan to limit sales of its proof gold coins seems to be paying off. The Mint announced that as of mid-September it had sold out of the $999 four-coin sets and the $285 half-ounce gold coins. Both were being offered at prices below those of the previous year, reflecting a decline in gold prices.
In an effort to boost interest in the coins, the Mint announced this summer that it would for the first time limit the number of proof coins it would sell to the public. Mint spokesman David L. Karmol said that since the mintage levels were set about 15 percent ahead of last year's sales levels, the sellout was welcome news to the Treasury Department agency.
The Mint's announcement came when its sales of the four-coin set combined with those of the half-ounce gold coin hit 52,000, the mintage limit that it had set for the half-ounce coins. Individual orders for the three other gold coins in the proof set are still being taken by the Mint.
Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff.