Sunday, March 05, 2006

Brazil Souvenir Sheets

Brazil's souvenir sheets can form an interesting group to collect. By the cutoff date of Scott's 2006 catalog, Brazil had issued 134 different designs of souvenir sheet, of which Scott gives catalog numbers to 129; the other five are mentioned after Scott # 1874 but not given catalog numbers. There are also a number of varieties, some given a footnote in Scott, others not; I'll ignore those. The 134 sheets contain 245 different stamp designs, most of which were not issued in any form except in the souvenir sheets; those which were issued in another form can all be distinguished from stamps taken from the souvenir sheets, mint or used, by paper, watermark (or lack thereof), or perforations (or lack thereof). The first of Brazil's souvenir sheets was issued in 1938, Scott # 465, and they have come along at irregular intervals ever since.

All 134 of these souvenir sheets can be acquired mint without much difficulty, although some are a bit pricey; a complete set of 134 bought at retail as one group from a Brazilian dealer would cost roughly US$1200.00 to $1500.00. However, if one keeps one's eyes open, most of the pricier ones can be found occasionally on the Web for considerably less, so a complete set can probably be acquired over time for $600.00 or thereabouts. Finding most of them canceled is also not too hard, although a few are considerably scarcer canceled than mint. However, locating many of them postally used can be a real challenge, even though many of them received considerable postal usage by philatelists and on controlled mail. For example, I recently examined 39 postally used copies of the common and heavily used souvenir sheet Scott # 908, and of the 39 only one was VF without faults, two others were F-VF without faults, four more I judged to be in good enough grade and condition to be acceptable to most collectors, but 32 were damaged in one way or another. The explanation is simple; souvenir sheets are large enough so that the process of affixng them to envelopes or packets and the handling they receive in the postal system tends to damage perfs, crease or stain or scuff the sheet, introduce substantial wrinkles, and/or result in truly horrendous cancels.

Because the stamps in the souvenir sheets can all be distinguished from stamps issued in other forms, one can also seek examples of the stamps postally used but detached from the sheet. Some of these are extremely common, such as the stamp from Scott # C86A. Others are almost impossible to find, even if the sheet is easy to find postally used; for example, I have seen only one cover with the stamps from Scott # C53 cut from the sheet and used for postage. Even some of the easy-to-find postally used stamps from souvenir sheets can be very hard to find and very pricey used alone to pay the proper rate during the normal interval of use. For example, Scott # 498, from the souvenir sheet #498a, is quite common postally used, cataloging only $2.50 VF without defects; however, that stamp on cover properly used to pay the then-current 4th tier international airmail rate is extremely scarce, and without defects in either stamp or cover such a cover would sell at retail in Brazil for US$300.00 to $400.00.

If one just wants to acquire the souvenir sheets postally used off cover, most can be found by sufficient searching. The key ones that are really difficult to find postally used are Scott # 497a, which sells for a good deal more than the italicized Scott catalog price of $110.00 when a postally used sheet VF without defects shows up in the market, and Scott # 1181, which is seriously underpriced by Scott both mint and used; a favor canceled copy of #1181 retails for roughly US$80.00 compared to a Scott italicized price of $24.00, and a postally used copy of #1181, on or off cover, VF without defects would go for somewhat more than $80.00. The five 1983 souvenir sheets not given numbers by Scott, and the stamps from them, are also very hard to locate postally used, although they do exist.

A long-term project that could produce a really nice show exhibit would be to find, mount and describe the complete group (or nearly the complete group) of Brazil's souvenir sheets postally used on cover. I'm certain that such covers of all 134 sheets existed within a year or two of issue, but a few may no longer exist in that form. Whether all the sheets, and all the stamps from them, exist (or ever existed) postally used alone on cover to prepay the correct rate at the time of issue, I don't know, but I suspect that Scott 465 and 466 do not; they did get postally used by one pioneer Brazilian philatelist, but considerably overpaying the needed postage.

For reasons that aren't clear to me, a few of these souvenir sheets that are fairly common are sometimes offered on the Web as "rarities"; e.g. Scott # 1145, currently cataloged by Scott at $4.50 VF MNH and $3.50 used. It's a nice topical, and well worth having in any event, but I see no need to pay more than Scott catalog value for it mint or used. I doubt that the overenthusiasm of some sellers is due to any dishonest intent; they seem to be collectors or dealers who didn't know where this sheet is readily available. But it's wise to be a bit skeptical about descriptions of Brazil philatelic items as "rare" unless one has reason to believe that the item is in fact rare.