Mutants - Lin Yangchen
©Lin Yangchen

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So one afternoon I went to one of the good old stamp shops, pushed open the door, walked in and said, “could I take a look at your BMA Malaya?”

He looked at the unannounced visitor, paused for a moment and said, no we don’t have any.

I found it hard to believe. The last time I was here, there was a massive hoard. But he explained that the whole lot was sold out, all gone. Yes I recognize you from a year or two ago. Other customers came and bought them all.

My mission seemed doomed to failure even before it had started. I looked helplessly around the shop, hoping that BMA stamps would somehow materialize.

I began to marvel at the ceiling-high shelves crammed full of albums, their spines labeled with the countries of the world in handwritten letters—Germany, Aden, South Africa, Johore, UK, Nigeria, Singapore, France, BMA Malaya, China, USA …

BMA Malaya!

Hey that says BMA Malaya, could I just take a quick look, I asked earnestly, trying not to sound overexcited. Ok, he said, somewhat bewildered, but they haven’t been sorted and valued. No problem, I’ll just take a look, as I nudged him along, millimetre by millimetre.

I could understand why he wouldn't want to go there. BMA is full of booby traps for the stamp dealer. Due to post-war disorganization and incessant changes of policy, stamps were all over the shop. The Crown Agents kept sending in piecemeal orders to De La Rue (Barker 1993, Vousden 1996b, Cockburn 1998, Proud 2000), creating a fertile breeding ground for out-of-control paper and ink variations, plate flaws and printing errors (Cameron 1950, Wells 1963, 1968, Pratt 1968, Ruffle 1964, Stanway 1992, Tyre & Stanway 1991, Glover 1994, Peters 1994a, Robinson 1994, Hale 2002, Crabtree 2012, Pollard 2000a, 2012, Brown 2015, 2017a, 2017c, Chum 2015, Cockburn 1998, 2015, 2016a, Murray Payne 2015a, b, Morris 2017, Staffeldt 2017).

Of late, I had become caught up with plate flaws. Plate flaws occupy the zenith of stamp-collecting nerdiness. Critics lament the time wasted looking for "flyspecks". But nothing beats an afternoon in a cosy stamp shop hunched over album pages filled with nothing but 10-cent BMA stamps, squinting through a distorted magnifying loupe in search of a gash in the king’s eyebrow or a hearing aid behind his ear.

The author's hand-annotated map of bma malaya plate flaws, more than 45 in all, compiled from Wells (1968), Tyre & Stanway (1991) and Hale (2002). The northwest region of the stamp is surprisingly flawless.

Map of known stamp positions of BMA plate flaws on the sheet as reported by Wells (1968) and Hale (2002). For each position, the illustration indicates whether the flaw is found in the vignette or the surrounding design. This map does not distinguish between Die I and Die II or between pre-war and post-war printings. Stamp 41 (first stamp on fifth row) has three different flaws, two on the key plate and one on the duty plate, although they do not occur together. Two flaws—the gash in eyebrow and the acousticon—are known to be from the same plate, but they are more than half the width of the sheet apart and there is no evidence that they happened at the same time. The problems seem more concentrated toward the southwest portion of the sheet, but no mechanistic theory has been postulated for this spatial heterogeneity. Some of the flaws developed while the plates were stored in London during the war (Hale 2002). I imagine they endured some rough handling and not infrequent vibrations from German shelling. Graphics by Lin Yangchen.

Stamp 7. The "bubble" flaw as it is commonly known. The author calls it an intracellular vesicle erupting at the surface.

Stamp 41. Gash in eyebrow.

[image coming soon]

Stamp 57. This flaw has the most sophisticated name of all, acousticon (a hearing aid), as originally coined by Wells (1968).

Stamp 75. I call this Nintendo Super Mario Bros, for its resemblance to the multiple interconnected levels of subterranean passageways in the computer game. It's officially described as "The thick red horizontal line below Malaya is not joined at its right hand end" (Hale 2002).

A coconut can fall and hit you on the head
And if it falls from high enough can kind of knock you dead

Frederick Seidel

Stamp 93. The notorious 'falling coconut' plate flaw just below the lowest frond on the right-hand palm, from the London printing of Plate 1 (Hale 2002). Like shark attacks, falling coconuts are recognized as a categorical cause of death.

Close-up of the 'falling coconut'.

High chance of falling coconuts: a multi-pronged coconut tree (see Furtado 1924) in Malaya.

The Reincarnation of Archaeopteryx

Possibly the broken frond on right-hand palm reported by Wells (1968) without an illustration.

Out of Focus
An even weirder phenomenon becomes apparent on zooming out. One coconut tree appears crisper than the other, as though the latter is out of focus. The trunks and the ground below show a similar left-right difference. The plate could have been warped or unevenly inked.

The background lines of this duty plate form a misshapen boundary with the upper right arc of the vignette frame. Rather than accidental damage, this looks more like a shoddy hand repair or a disturbance during electrotyping. It is not recorded as a plate flaw by philatelists and probably not regarded as such by the printer.

The white forehead of storied vintage in bma circles (Cameron 1950, Wells 1968, McClaren 2001, Pollard 2001, Toh 2001, Chang 2003). Some have postulated that the plate somehow wore faster on the front of the king's face. Such differential wear and tear may be a consequence of the plate having infinitesimal deviations from perfect flatness. Peter Cockburn (comm. 2017), however, attributed these varieties to variations in plate pressure.

The mysterious dots that seem to change shape and hop about amongst the letters of straits (Tyre & Stanway 1991, Glover 1994, Robinson 1994) appear here before the word and between the letters t and r. These are not strictly plate flaws as they are thought to have been machining debris being shaken around during printing (Robinson 1994). But no one seems to have explained why they don't appear elsewhere on the stamp.

The defects shown on this page are minor. On another occasion the damage was so great that the stamp had to be repainted. See $5 retouch.


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