TWO NEW YORK stamp collectors have produced what is probably the most magnificent book any philatelist ever put on a coffee table. That's where "Stamping Our History: The Story of the United States Portrayed on its Postage Stamps" belongs.
It's an impressive picture book that deserves to be placed where guests can enjoy it. One glimpse and they'll discover what many stamp collectors have long known: that some of America's best art can be found on postage stamps.
What makes this 254-page book so attractive are its 300 color photographs of stamps, some of them magnified more than 2,000 times. They include many of the best looking stamps the nation has produced since 1847.
Authors Charles Davidson and Lincoln Diamant have shunned the deliberately flashy multi-colored commemoratives of recent vintage in favor of the single color, hand-engraved designs of the past.
Since this is a coffee-table book, it is best not to worry about the text. Davidson and Diamant labored to use the stamps to tell the story of the nation. That's something the U.S. Postal Service did quicker, and perhaps more effectively, in the 12-minute video presentation called "An American Journey" shown during last year's World Stamp Expo in Washington.
Unfortunately, what is flawed in "Stamping" is the authors' failure to acknowledge in more detail the fine work of the banknote engravers at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. It is this handful of artisans who have taken designs that are pedestrian and transformed them into tiny but extraordinary masterpieces.
"Stamping" does list the designers whose work the Postal Service selected, but it does not name any of the engravers or the others at the bureau who produced the stamps the book celebrates. That's a shame; these artisans deserve much of the credit.
That aside, "Stamping Our History," published by Lyle Stuart of New York, is worth its handsome price of $49.95.
ALTHOUGH U.S. Postal Service officials hailed the joint release of four stamps with the Soviet Union earlier this fall as another sign of glasnost, some remnants of the Cold War are dying slowly. And that includes the stamps being issued by the Soviet Union.
Not all of the Soviets' new stamps carry the images of friendly sea creatures as did the recent joint U.S.-Soviet issue the countries released in Baltimore and Moscow.
Last month the Soviet Ministry of Communications announced a return to a hard-line philatelic theme with the release on Nov. 20 of five stamps honoring Soviet intelligence officers. What was surprising was the inclusion in the set of three of the Soviets' most infamous spies. They were:
Col. Rudolf I. Abel, said to have been the Soviet's most successful American spy at the time of his arrest by the FBI in 1975. He was later traded for U-2 pilot Gary Francis Powers.
British double agent Kim Philby, described by the Soviets as "the most successful Soviet double agent of the Cold War period." He worked for the Soviets for 26 years and is believed to have funneled many American secrets, as well as British ones, to the Kremlin.
Gordon Arnold Lonsdale, a Canadian who provided the Soviets with extensive details on submarine warfare. Like Abel, he was swapped after his arrest for a British businessman held by the Soviets.
Also honored in the series were Stanislav A. Vaupshasov, described in an Associated Press dispatch from Moscow as a highly decorated agent in Nazi-occupied Byelorussia during World War II, and I. D. Kudrya, identified by the Soviet news agency Tass as an underground resistance fighter.
The stamps, which carry a face value of 5 kopecks, were printed by an engraved process. The Philby stamp was described by the AP as the first stamp to honor a Western defector in a continuing Soviet series honoring members of the KGB. Philby died in Moscow in May 1988, 25 years after he fled to the USSR.
According to Tass, more stamps in the series will be released next year.
THE U.S. MINT has claimed success with its previously announced plan to limit sales of proof sets of its 1990 gold and silver coins. Officials last month projected a sellout of all the coins in the set.
"We are pleased at the strong response," said Mint Director Donna Pope, disclosing that the orders were running 15 percent above the 1989 levels. That may force a slight delay in filling orders, she noted.
This year for the first time the Mint clamped limits on the number of its proof coins, in order to boost the sales and improve the coins' value in the resale market. Coin dealers had long urged such a limit, expressing fears that collectors were tiring of the large number of collector coins produced by the Mint.
INFORMATION about the Soviet stamps may be obtained from the USSR Stamp Agency in North America, One Unicover Center, Cheyenne, WY 82008-0012.
Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff.