My Childhood Passion
It started as an innocent hobby. It turned into a capitalist venture.
Since around the age of eight in Hungary until I actually realised my dream and made it to the West, I was absolutely fascinated by the Western World: in particular, its wealth, its various consumer products and the freedom of Western people—including being able to travel freely.
There was a luxury hotel, called Palace Hotel, only a five minute walk away from our flat in Budapest. I lingered around that hotel for hours, at least three times a week, in the hope of meeting as many Western tourists as I could.
Fridays, were particularly good, because lots of Austrians tended to arrive then in their posh, deep-red Mercedes buses.
I would stand in front of the closed door of the bus as it pulled in to the curb to let off the tourists at the hotel entrance.
I held a brand new Hungarian box of matches in my hand and showed it to the disembarking passengers, while repeating the single English word I knew:
I don’t know how, but most of them seemed to understand that I wanted to swap my box of matches for theirs, so they readily reached into their pockets to see if they could find a box of matches for me.
Often, they had no matches and then they sometimes gave me their own change; a foreign coin or two. I built up a collection of quite a lot of foreign coins.
But my real passion was the matchbox labels.
I generally scored 10-15 matchboxes per afternoon.
I took them home, cut off the tops of the boxes with the labels on them. I soaked them in lukewarm water until the labels separated from the carton tops. I then put the labels between sheets of serviettes and pressed them between the pages of heavy encyclopedias.
The idea was to get the labels dry without wrinkles. However, the labels, after such operations, no matter how carefully pressed, tended to look second hand and crinkled. Nevertheless I put the labels in rows in a nice stamp album. I enjoyed looking at them.
The pictures on the labels were a personal way of educating me about the world beyond Hungary’s Iron Curtain.
Soon after I began to collect the matchbox labels, an important development occurred.
I discovered that there was an actual club nearby for matchbox label collectors.
It took only a ten minute tram ride from my place to the club.
The first time I went, I was stunned by the great number of collectors there, the quality of their matchbox labels and the quantity of the labels exchanged or sold.
Most of them were in immaculate condition; often they were acquired by the collectors directly from the matchbox factories as collectors’ items which never ended up glued to matchboxes.
They were from all over the world.
Most of them were released as series by the factories, just like postage stamps sold in series to the collectors.
Having every label in the set was essential for the value of the set.
Gone was for these club members the collection of crinkled, individual, used labels harvested from the top of matchboxes.
The emphasis was on the collection of complete set of immaculate matchbox labels which were never attached to matchboxes. To make a substantial collection of such beautiful sets was quite an expensive business.
Two further developments occurred, which helped me to acquire just such a collection. First, I was asked by the parents of a primary school student in my class to tutor their son in reading and writing for a couple of years. They put me on a good weekly pay for this job. I invested all my earnings in buying magnificent matchbox label sets from various parts of the world.
I also bought 30 copies of every sets of Hungarian matchbox labels issued by the national matchbox factory. I catalogued and kept them in boxes, exchanging some of them for foreign series in the club and keeping the rest as an investment which I hoped would become scarce in the future and get more valuable with each year passed.
Secondly, in one of my visits to the Palace Hotel, I happened to come across an Ukrainian professional matchbox label collector. I made a deal with him that I would send him several copies of every new Hungarian match box label set release and he in turn would do the same with the Soviet releases.
He and I became friends over the years, writing to each other in Russian. My Russian teacher at school was kind enough to translate his letters to me and translate mine for my friend. It was an amazing privilege for me to have this wonderful collectors’ relationship and friendship with this man.
It was the more so, because he happened to be the chief trainer manager of the entire Soviet Gymnastic team, which in the late 1950s and 60s was the best in the world.
The Soviet Union used matchbox labels to showcase the beauty of Soviet statues and buildings from Moscow to Leningrad, the Soviet Olympic Games and the various achievements of the Soviet Union, including the sending of the first Sputnik, the first dog and the first cosmonaut, Uri Gagarin into orbit around the earth.
As some of these matchbox label series were very beautiful and glossy, I managed to exchange them in our club, for lots of fine matchbox label series from other countries.
By far the finest matchbox labels were produced by Japan. They were also the most expensive. Having been cashed up and offering beautiful Russian series to trade, helped me to build up a magnificent portfolio of Japanese match box labels.
I acquired the cream of match box sets produced by Japan. They included series of Japanese masks, traditional folk costumes, warriors, nudes, flowers and uniquely Japanese landscape paintings cleverly miniaturised in authentic colours on fine paper.
One of the most beautiful of these was the series of paintings of the Tokaido mountain region of Japan, consisting of more than 150 labels, each a triumph of Japanese colour photo, miniaturisation and printing technology that succeeded in turning matchbox labels into pieces of fine art.
I managed to bring my Japanese album with me to Australia in 1964 and now 50 years later these labels still look as splendid as they were when I acquired them.
Over my ten years of collecting matchbox labels, I managed to make a huge international collection of several thousand matchbox labels. In addition I bought up for investment tens of thousands of factory release Hungarian match box labels.
I hoped their value would multiply over the years. But when in 1974 I went from Australia to Hungary for a visit and tried to cash in my large number of labels, I was shocked to find that I could not make any money from them. When I tried to re-visit my old matchbox label collectors’ club, I found the club, but no one was collecting matchbox labels any more. Serviettes were the latest rage.
Well, there went my childhood dream of eventually making a fortune from my huge collection. Matchbox label collection did not survive as a popular hobby, like stamp collection did.
Had I invested all those childhood earnings in stamps instead of match box labels, I would have indeed made a fortune years later.
But although my matchbox label collection did not turn me into a millionaire, the adventures and the fun I had in my childhood in pursuing my hobby were truly enriching experiences.
Bio: Had Andris invested the effort and money he did in his childhood into his huge collection of matchbox labels into stamps instead, he could be a multimillionaire today. Though this did not happen, the fun and learning he gained from pursuing his childhood passion was more than money can buy.