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Dear Matthew:

Are pictures on U.S. stamps commissioned by the government, or do artists submit their work for consideration as with any other widely published media? Do the artists receive royalties, or do they just get a break on filing taxes for a few years?

-- Australopithecus, Nowhere near the Net

Planning to submit some thumbnail sketches for a "Salute to Dryer Lint" series? "Famous Felons of the NFL"? "Best Crashes of the Indy 500"? "Giant Vegetables and the People Who Grew Them"? Well, unless you're a well-established, professional illustrator, you probably don't stand a chance. The feds have a Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee that recommends stamp-illustration ideas to the Postmaster General and commissions the art work from a stable of professionals according to their particular style and expertise. They're paid a flat fee, about $3000 for a five-by-six-inch original painting, all of which is immediately reported to the IRS, so that tax-break notion is a dud, of course. Having a postage stamp design on your résumé is supposed to make up for the bucks they don't pay you.

One of the reasons the U.S. Postal Service is so hot on these stamp series is to encourage people to buy them, then stick 'em in an album. Buying a stamp is the same as prepaying for a service. If you buy a sheet of Marilyn Monroe stamps, frame 'em, and hang them in your breakfast nook, that's pure profit in the P.O.'s mailbag, except for the penny or so it cost to print the sheet. The biggest profit-maker was Elvis; they sold half a billion, and we failed to lick about two-thirds of them, even though they made the glue taste like fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. (No, no... Calm down. Not true.)

But there's one more postage stamp possibility if the feds turn you down. There's a private company in New York, the Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corporation, that designs and prints stamps under contract to foreign governments. They work a lot with smaller countries who hope collectors will want a Mickey Mouse commemorative from Trinidad-Tobago or Damon Wayans on an Aruban air-mail. The principle's the same; they hope you'll buy the stamps but won't fly to the Caribbean to post your Visa payment.

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