Antiques and Collecting: A-Head of the Rest for Centuries; Harry Hawkes Finds Royal Mail Were Up to the Challenge of Wishing a the British Museum a Happy Birthday

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Byline: Harry Hawkes

The world's oldest national public library celebrates its 250th birthday this month, and to mark the occasion the British Museum in London is to issue six new postage stamps in its honour.

However, such is the variety of material in this vast treasure house in Bloomsbury that only one of the stamps is able to reflect the museum's title. For the sole British subject depicted on the stamp set is on the E value (38p basic letter rate to European destinations).

This stamp shows an Anglo-Saxon helmet believed to date from 600AD which was part of the most lucrative find of buried treasure ever to be made in this country, the Sutton Hoo burial chamber treasure ship at Sussex in 1939.

The ship is believed to have been the burial place of King Redwald, AngloSaxon overlord of East Anglia. The helmet, which has been restored and renovated is one of only four known of its type.

Months of deliberation, debate and discussion had preceded the final decisions on what the stamps should show. Royal Mail, historians, archaeologists and artists were faced with the problem of a massive embarrassment of riches. They struggled to answer the key question: what six objects should we select out of a collection of more than seven million objects -should the museum's most famous or most valuable exhibits be shown?

The remarkable Rosetta Stone which enabled the previously incomprehensible hieroglyphics of ancient Egyptian writings to be decoded swiftly and accurately for the first time would have been an odds-on favourite in this category.

And what about those irreplaceable frescoes from Grecian antiquity, the Elgin marbles?

A pretty decision indeed. And with the Greeks testily demanding back their marbles now joined by the Egyptians seeking the return of the Rosetta Stone, passions could run high -wars could be triggered by less.

The solution, it was decided, was to use six faces from different parts of the world and from different ages. …