What a pair of rare China covers sold for at Interasia Hong Kong auction

May 1, 2021, 4 AM

Auction Roundup — By Matthew Healey

In Hong Kong, Interasia offered Chinese and Asian stamps and postal history over several days, from April 1-4. One of the more intriguing lots was an early cover from the nascent British postal agency in Shanghai.

The story of how Britain, together with other European powers, opened China to trade in the 19th century through dirty tricks such as the Opium War is well known. Less familiar to many is the postal history that accompanied this notorious chapter in history.

By treaty with China, Britain was able to operate in sovereign fashion out of several ports on China’s coast and rivers. Each of these so-called treaty ports had its own post office and postal markings.

Connect with Linn’s Stamp News: 

    Sign up for our newsletter
    Like us on Facebook
    Follow us on Twitter

The first British postmark used in Shanghai consisted of a large crown in a circle, surrounded by the words “Shanghae Post Office/Paid” but no date. Just 17 examples of this type have survived in collectors’ hands.

The one in the Interasia sale, on a folded letter that left April 13, 1858, passed through Hong Kong a week later, and reached its destination in Bolton, England, June 18, is the second-to-last use known.

It sold for the equivalent of $62,000, including the 15 percent buyer’s premium charged by Interasia on all lots.

A cover with a British-Chinese mixed franking, pictured opened out, demonstrated how mail coming into China was handled and paid for during the time before China joined the UPU in 1914.

The letter left Manchester Dec. 8, 1882, addressed to a foreign firm in Newchwang (modern Yingkou), in Manchuria.

It was carried by British ships to Hong Kong and Shanghai, where it entered the Chinese Customs Post and received a boxed, script “To Pay” handstamp, informing the local postal authorities postage needed to be collected for the letter’s journey within China.

Three 1-candareen Large Dragon stamps on thin paper (Scott 1), applied to the reverse, were canceled at Newchwang Feb. 17, 1883, before the letter was delivered.

The cover has a long provenance and is widely regarded as one of the great rarities of China’s Large Dragon period, being the only one bearing this “To Pay” marking. It sold for about $620,000.

All periods of Chinese philately were represented in the sale, including the provisional issues from the 1930s and 1940s, when local Communist authorities produced their own makeshift stamps prior to the establishment of a central Communist government in Beijing.

Issues for the so-called Liberated Areas typically had a low survival rate, and are scarce and sought after today as forerunners of the People’s Republic.

An unused ½¢ purple stamp issued by the Chinese Soviet posts in 1932 (unlisted in Scott; Yang SP1) shows a precursor of the Communist Chinese flag over a globe. Fresh and with large margins, it sold for about $74,000.