Weekend: ANTIQUES & COLLECTING: Magic of Midlands' Printers; Harry Hawkes Examines the History of the Humble Postage Stamp from the 'Lick 'Em and Stick 'Em' Victorian Era to the Hi-Tech 'Abracadabra' Set of Magic Stamps out of the Hat Next Week

Article excerpt

Byline: Harry Hawkes

In the century and a half since the former Birmingham schoolmaster, Rowland Hill, invented the world's first pre-paid postal charge label, the Penny Black, the world's postage stamps have changed out of all recognition.

The first edition to the little square of paper was a watermark, a security device to deter forgers.

Then came perforation holes to enable the stamps to be torn out of a sheet without having to find a pair of scissors and that basically was just about it.

Today you do not even have the bother of licking. Instead, the 'peel and stick' sheets of self adhesive stamps have brought new levels of convenience.

Now, however, Royal Mail isabout to release a magnificent set of magic stamps which have been printed here in the Midlands and which must have tested the technical abilities of Walsall Security Printers.

These stamps have been issued to commemorate the centenary of the Magic Circle, universally recognised today as the world's premier magical society.

It was July 1, 1905 when the Magic Circle was founded by a 23strong group of amateur and professional illusionists and magicians meeting at Pinoli's Restaurant in London.

They were meeting to discuss suggestions to improve and diversify the tricks they had been performing for many, many years. Its crest is a circle of Zodiac symbols with the motto Indocilis Privata Loqui which roughly translated means 'Not advisable to disclose secrets.'

As we are not members of the Magic Circle, however, I do feel at liberty to let you into the secrets of the Royal Mail stamps.

'It is lovely to get an issue which we can have a bit of fun with,' a spokesman from Royal Mail confided. 'It is a refreshing change to get a novelty, something new. Well, have you ever heard of a postage stamp which has either heads or tails? Walsall Security Printers have done a marvellous job.'

The spokesman explained: 'Thereare five interactive stamps in the Magic issue, but it is on the first class stamp where trickery meets technology to produce the first-ever stamp that can't make up its mind.

The issue features the UK's first 'scratch and reveal' stamp and a world first in that if you rub the first class stamp with a coin it could reveal a heads or tails image.

'The printers operated a split-run printing with two different details on the face of the coin using specially formulated ink - which is rubbed to reveal the image.'

Royal Mail used a similar technique which allowed an image to be revealed in 1997 for a Flowers Greetings Retail Book. This featured a panel printed on the inside back cover - which customers had to rub with a coin to see if they had won a bouquet.

Royal Mail also created philatelic history in 2001 when the Nobel Prizes issue featured six different printing processes.

Some of these techniques are featured on the magic stamps alongside all the magician'straditional tools of the trade: rabbits, top hats, playing cards and spotted scarves.

The 40p stamp uses an optical illusion in which people can bring the stamp towards their nose and see the rabbit jump into the hat. …