A FEW DAYS before last month's Super Bowl, agents for the Caribbean island of St. Vincent hurriedly announced that the country had come up with its latest stamp spectacular: two sets of stamps marking the 25th anniversary of the professional football championship.
One set would feature reproductions of the National Football League's official Super Bowl posters and the other would carry action photos from the first 24 games. Offered in their own albums at a price of $39.95, the stamps are "sure to catch the attention of both stamp collectors and tens of millions of professional football fans around the world," declared the agents.
The announcement by Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corp. of New York heralded the latest in a series of sports stamps that have made the former British colony one of the most prolific stamp-issuing nations in the world. Last fall, it issued a set of 18 stamps saluting the 1990 Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, a set that followed a 1989 set honoring the '89 Dodgers.
The island also reissued several sets of 1988 sports stamps last year, belatedly overprinting some Olympic stamps with the names of several Gold Medal winners from the 1988 games in Seoul. After Texas Ranger pitcher Nolan Ryan threw his sixth career no-hit game and later won his 300th game last summer, the island quickly issued its second and third stamps honoring him. All of which made the St. Vincent Post Office a major source of international revenue for a 19-square-mile island that has 109,000 residents.
But St. Vincent's philatelic output also has infuriated many stamp collectors and dealers. Despite the flood of colorful stamps small nations like it produce, critics accuse these countries of ruining their hobby by issuing more stamps than their nations need or than many collectors can afford.
After years of debate, their complaint may have found a forum. The Universal Postal Union, the United Nations agency that regulates the world's mail, has announced that its executive commitee will meet in Bern, Switzerland, on April 24 to consider "harmful issues of postage stamps."
The meeting follows complaints that three international stamp groups have lodged with the UPU about the stamps from St. Vincent and 10 other nations. In a series of monthly bulletins, the three organizations have accused the countries of releasing stamps that violate a "code of ethics" UPU member nations adopted during a 1989 convention in Washington.
The code, which was adopted with little debate, basically requires the countries to ensure that its stamps are issued primarily for postage and not for other purposes, presumably fund-raising. The rules also require countries to sell their stamps at face value, a step designed to prevent countries from dumping large quantities of stamps on the market at wholesale prices.
The UPU rules have never been tested and the code does not include any suggested sanctions for violators. The U.S. Postal Service will send representatives to the Bern meeting who will agree that "some restrictions" are needed, according to Postal Service spokesman Dickey Rustin.
But Rustin said the Americans are wary of any regulations that might prevent the United States from issuing stamps that mark what the Postal Service believes are appropriate stamps for America and accurately reflect the country's values.
The three organizations which are urging UPU action, the International Federation of Philately, the International Federation of Stamp Dealers Associations and the International Associations of Stamp Catalogue Editors, have said they will ban exhibition of stamps listed in their bulletins at shows they sponsor and have warned that the suspect stamps may be "ignored" in catalogues and albums.
"This phenomenon of degeneration, which jeopardizes the survival of modern philately, has continued without interruption despite all the warnings of the philatelic organizations and of the UPU itself," the three groups said in one of their bulletins.
Their campaign, however, has not won uniform support.
"Every generation fights this battle, but the war is never won," noted Michael Laurence, editor of Linn's Stamp News, shortly after the organizations issued their first warning.
"For almost a century, well-intentioned collector groups have tried and failed to limit new stamp issues," he said. "Ironically, after the passage of a generation or so, blacklisted stamps are often highly desired by collectors."
Laurence cited the outcries from a London group called the Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps in the 1890s after the United States issued its first commemorative stamps to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage. The stamps carried a face value of $16.34, a price so high that many then feared the hobby was endangered.
A major problem with their complaint, Laurence noted, is that a set of "Columbians" today is valued at more than $10,000.
"I deplore the profusion of exploitative new issues as much as any collector," said Laurence. "But, given the individualism of the stamp hobby, one collector's exploitation is another's treasure."
Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff.