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An Obscure Endeavor

Intricate decoration and exotic scenes still attract philatelists to the stamps briefly issued by Tuva

For a man who claims he doesn't want to talk, Ken Simon says a lot. The portly 58-year-old with graying hair and a shaggy mustache, wedged into a corner booth of a Burger King, rattles on for more than three hours about Tuvan stamp collecting, digressing to hint at the occasional CIA conspiracy, enthuse about long-distance FM- radio reception, and describe his collection of postal artifacts from polar regions.

Simon, who lives a few blocks from the restaurant in a small pink house in Lake Worth, is founder and president of the Tannu Tuva Collectors Society (TTCS), an informal club of perhaps 200 philatelists from 37 states and 14 nations. They share an interest in stamps from the Central Asian land of Tuva.

Tuva, slightly larger than England and Wales, is located in a river basin nestled between the Altai and Sayan mountain ranges. For thousands of years, it has been home to a few tens of thousands of nomads who herd reindeer, yaks, and camels across the boggy forest, open steppe, and rolling hills. Tuva is also near the heartland of shamanism, which religious scholar Mircea Eliade calls the most ancient form of religion. Though Buddhism arrived around 250 A.D., for centuries after that, the great ethnic migrations and short-lived empires of Central Asia mostly passed by the secluded Tuvans.

The Soviet Red Army set up the nominally independent Tannu-Tuvinian People's Republic in 1921. From 1926 until 1944, during a period of quasi-independence from its powerful Soviet and Chinese neighbors, the Tuvan government issued about 125 stamps that caught the fancy of collectors worldwide: triangular and diamond-shaped beauties, some bearing exotic pictures of costumed riders chasing game, yaks being milked, archery contests, and local festivals. There were also heroic-style pictures of Soviet-era tractors, trains, and zeppelins -- objects few Tuvans would ever have seen.

Tuvan poet Salchak Toka, a puppet of Stalin, brought Tuva "voluntarily" into the Soviet Union in October 1944. Everything Tuvan was repressed: lamas and shamans were sent to labor camps, ancient statues were smashed, children were taught Russian, and reindeer herding was collectivized. The characteristic stamps disappeared too, except for the ones held by collectors.

The international renaissance of Tuvan culture began in California during the summer of 1977, when Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton fell to talking about the stamps Feynman remembered collecting as a child. "What ever happened to Tannu Tuva?" Feynman asked, according to Leighton's book Tuva or Bust! Richard Feynman's Last Journey. Feynman and Leighton were tantalized by the scanty but exotic information available about the region, then still shrouded by the Cold War. They set up the Friends of Tuva society in 1981 to share knowledge among the growing circle of Tuvaphiles. Feynman died in 1988, but Leighton and his brother Alan carried on. Friends of Tuva continues to deal in all things Tuvan: travelogues, contact information, videos, books, and music.

Feynman wasn't alone in fondly recalling Tuva's fascinating philately. During Simon's childhood in New Jersey, he acquired miscellaneous packs for beginning collectors that included Tuvan stamps. He drifted away from collecting when he entered the University of Florida in 1950 but picked it up again a decade later, he says. Around 1990, "I was at a stamp club, and someone offered me some Tannu Tuva stamps, and that brought back old memories," says Simon, who has written for numerous stamp magazines.

In 1993, Simon read Tuva or Bust! Soon after, he founded TTCS, spreading the word among his fellow collectors through stamp magazines and on-line. He set yearly dues at $5 to pay for a newsletter, office supplies, and books on Tuva for the society's library, which is kept in the Western Philatelic Library in Sunnyvale, California.

These days, most classic Tuvan stamps sell for around $1, and rare issues can go for $50 to $400, Simon says. Rarest of all are stamps once affixed to letters from Tuva. "At no time during Tuva's existence did they ever have a large, literate population," Simon explains. "Consequently, letter writing was a curiosity."

The most visible presence of TTCS, which has grown sixfold from the original group of 30 members, is on the Internet. The club has a Website (www.geocities.com/ttcsinc) featuring pictures of Tuvan stamps and postmarks, brief descriptions of Tuvan postal history, and lists of books, music, and films. Quite a few of the pictured stamps are post-Soviet, issued largely for the stamp-collecting community and featuring dinosaurs, kittens, and other appealing pictures. Many serious collectors frown on such gimmicky stamps, but Simon is not among them; TTCS has never been an elitist organization. "We accept everything from serious students to "I like the stamp because it's got a pretty picture of an airplane on it.'" He runs the club in the same informal, almost lackadaisical manner.

Perhaps only half of his official members regularly pay their dues, he says. For some, the fee is not required: "We've had people who have made large cash donations, and we give them life memberships," Simon says. He gave a few others free memberships in exchange for services rendered; that includes Ralph and Alan Leighton.

Simon recently raised the dues to $7.50, "for which we promise nothing," Simon says. "We allege to print a newsletter four times a year."

"Allege" is probably the correct word. J. Eric Slone, a technology consultant in Virginia who runs the Tuva Trader, an on-line business dealing in Tuvaphilia that is linked to the Friends of Tuva Website, says he began hearing complaints about a year ago that TTCS members weren't getting anything for their dues. He called Simon, who insisted nothing was wrong, Slone says. Simon then suspended club dues and sent out one newsletter.

"And then the complaints started up again a few months later," Slone sighs. He says perhaps a score of people complained, but he doesn't remember most of their names. When Slone tried to reach Simon again by e-mail, he got no reply. Then Simon announced to the Tuvaphile on-line community that he had booted Slone from TTCS life membership. Simon also urged members to ignore Slone.

Simon sent out a newsletter in November 2001 but can't recall when he issued the one before that. (One reason for the publication's irregularity, Simon says, is that there just isn't much news in Tuvan philately.) Now, Simon disdains mentioning his chief critic, Slone. "Other than He Who Will Not Be Named, I've had no complaints other than a couple of people calling me a lazy bum."

That's not strictly true. Considering that Simon has worked as a journalist (for newspapers including the Palm Beach Times), the newsletter is of very poor quality, says Andrew Farberov, a New York collector of Russian (and Tuvan) stamps and a TTCS member for five years. Farberov also says that several years ago, when he questioned the authenticity of a late-issue Tuvan stamp Simon was selling, Simon sold the stamp anyway. "I don't know what you're talking about," Simon responds. "I have no recollection of that whatsoever."

Simon also publishes and sells a book by Samuel Blekhman, The Postal History and Stamps of Tuva, translated from Russian by a TTCS member. But Simon doesn't hold the copyright. "I decided to take my chances. Nobody's sued me," Simon says. "I don't know who holds the copyright now."

(When New Times later informed Simon that the Rossica Society of Russian Philately holds the copyright for Blekhman's volume, he replied only: "So what?")

Simon says he's sold about 200 copies of the book (at $30 each) so far and prints more on demand. Slone, who helped smooth things over with Rossica when he was a TTCS member, also sold the book through the Tuva Trader -- for a third less than Simon, since it costs only $6.50 to print.

Indeed, beyond slapdash writing and uncertain publication, the complaints about TTCS come down to money. As Slone wrote on the Friends of Tuva Website's news page in April 2001 (www.fotuva.org), shortly after one of his last contacts with Simon, "Mr. Simon further stated that he was experiencing financial problems, and it would seem that he is using the club as a means to assist his own income."

Simon denies this, saying the amount of money TTCS generates -- potentially somewhere around $1000 a year -- is "not enough to be worth bothering about." He acknowledges, though, that this past July, a Palm Beach County judge ordered him to pay $10,121.72 for an old credit-card bill. The company won by default because Simon didn't show up in court. (He never got a summons, he says.) He still hasn't paid the debt; he's unemployed and has just a few hundred dollars in the bank, he says.

Simon admits to being a sloppy bookkeeper who often loses track of what he owes to whom. Nevertheless, he insists nothing is wrong and plans to run TTCS the same way he has for years. He generally refuses to discuss specific complaints. For that, he asks understanding. "People who run clubs by themselves tend to become a little paranoid and egotistical. I admit to that."


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