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VATICAN LETTER Jun-3-2005 (930 words) Backgrounder. With photos posted June 2. xxxi

Treasure hunt: Queues of collectors seek first Pope Benedict stamps

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When exclusive sets of stamps marking the start of Pope Benedict XVI's papacy went on sale, two lines of collectors, armed with protective portfolios, snaked underneath the colonnade heading for the two tiny Vatican post offices on either side of St. Peter's Square.

Some confused tourists thought the lines were for the Sistine Chapel or the public restrooms, but collectors eagerly directed the sightseers to the right lines to weed them out and shorten their own wait.

"The line on this side is shorter. I waited a whole hour on the other side," said Pasquale Ventini, who was in line for the second time. Ventini and his wife, Anna, hoped to secure an extra set of the papal stamps.

"Someone told me these ones are going to be worth something because it's the first pope of the (new) millennium," he said, fishing in his pockets to make sure he had enough money left to make his prized purchases.

The exclusive set of three different stamps shows the pope in red, gold or white vestments.

The .45-euro stamp bears the words "Habemus Papam," Latin for "We Have a Pope." The .62-euro stamp says "Tu es Petrus," or "You are Peter." And the .80-euro stamp says "Episcopus Romae," or "The Bishop of Rome."

Buyers could get one set -- three sheets of six stamps each -- for $13.

But since a set of three sheets was limited to one per person, to get more than one complete set, hardcore enthusiasts either brought their spouses or friends to make the additional purchase or got right back in line for another set.

One man had traversed the line three times before the bells tolled noon June 2.

"This is the last time, though. It costs money, and I'm just doing it for myself and some friends," said Vincenzo Mescone.

But while the hobbyists were sweating it out, standing in line in the square, high-stakes dealings were under way inside the Governor's Palace, where the Vatican's Philatelic and Numismatic Office -- for stamps and coins -- is located.

About a dozen men were comfortably seated in the waiting room chatting about stamp collection prices and riffling through Vatican color brochures of recent releases.

With special permission from the Vatican, "only certified (stamp and coin) sellers can come up here because we are buying in bulk," said Bill, who asked that his full name not be used.

"There are no restrictions on how many stamps we can buy; it can be 1,000 or 10,000, but nothing like 100,000, since that could be seen as speculation," he told Catholic News Service.

Many of the bulk buyers were every bit as passionate as collectors standing in line in the square.

"I've been collecting stamps since I was a boy. It was so much fun waiting for a stamp to come in the mail and trying to fill my album with a stamp from every country in the world," Bill said.

But many of the stamp collectors at the Vatican that day complained that much of what they had collected over the years was now practically worthless.

Ventini said he saw some Pope Paul VI stamps selling in Rome for just $6.

"That's scandalous" that they were worth so little, he said.

"Stamps nowadays are worth nothing because they print too many," added Mescone.

The Vatican printed nearly 1 million complete sets of "Beginning of the Papacy" Pope Benedict stamps. A typical set, according to the Vatican brochures on hand, will run less than half that: 350,000 to 450,000 in number.

"The death of Pope John Paul gave great exposure to Vatican City" and it has resulted in "a great boom for 'Vacant See' and pope stamps," said one Vatican official at the Philatelic and Numismatic Office.

"We're happy we're getting noticed and people are interested," the unnamed official told CNS.

But while the Vatican perhaps wanted to accommodate as many curious souvenir seekers as possible by printing so many stamps, the resulting glut in the market has depressed both prices and sellers.

Bill explained what he thought was behind the sometimes-savage price fluctuations in today's market.

"When a new stamp comes out it's like a fad. Everybody wants it. But then when it runs out, no one cares. Even the old, rare stamps are practically worthless," he said.

"But let me show you something really special," he said as he reached into his insulated, plastic grocery bag, which held a number of binders bursting with stamp treasures.

The Vatican stamp connoisseur pulled out a manila-colored folio called an "Acta Apostolicae Sedis." The "Acta" is an official publication that promulgates the laws of the Holy See.

An "Acta" must be drawn up every time a new stamp set is to be issued and, according to the 70-year-old collector, only 250 "Acta" are published each time the Vatican announces the printing of a new stamp.

On one of the blank pages of the "Acta" published in April for "Vacant See" stamps, Bill had affixed the full "Vacant See" stamp set with official Vatican post office cancellation marks.

"Now this is worth some money because there are just so few of these around," he said while he gently slid the folio back inside its plastic holder. "I'm sure someday there will be a revival in people looking for old or precious things.

"Anyone who is really intelligent loves things that are beautiful and is attracted to what is rare, old and has a history behind it," he said.


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