World Stamps

Modern and classic Chinese rarities claimed in successful New Year auctions

Apr 27, 2021, 11 AM

The new year kicked off with a four-day series of auctions by Interasia in Hong Kong Jan. 11-14, demonstrating that the market for Chinese stamps and postal history remains not only robust, but full of fascinating stories.

The 140 room bidders were joined by 60 on the phone and hundreds more online to push the sale total to $10.5 million, a third more than the presale estimates, making it the third largest auction ever of Chinese and Hong Kong philatelic material.

Interasia’s director, Jeffrey Schneider, said the result showed the market was “very healthy and vibrant.”

In addition to rarities of the People’s Republic of China, there were impressive realizations on early customs mail from Taiwan, large blocks of the 1897 Red Revenue stamps, early postal history to the United States and local post issues from turbulent periods in the 1920s and 1940s.

The top seller was an example of the unissued large-format 8-fen The Entire Nation Is Red stamp of 1968 (Yang W83) shown in Figure 1. The horizontal stamp is pictured and described in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue following Scott 999A.

Despite some faults, the example in the Interasia auction brought the equivalent of U.S. $652,000. All Interasia realizations include 15 percent buyer’s premium.

China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s resulted in numerous stamps commemorating Chairman Mao and the communist takeover, some of which were prepared but abandoned for political reasons.

Whether the large-format Entire Nation Is Red stamp was withdrawn because some minor islands were omitted from the design (the official reason), or because Taiwan was shown in white, or because the stamp was simply deemed too big, fewer than 10 appear to have survived in collectors’ hands. The example in this sale, retouched where a heavy crease disturbed parts of the design, was otherwise fresh with never-hinged gum. Its previous owner had bought it four years ago for about a third less than its latest realization.

Later in 1968, the stamp was reprinted in a smaller, vertical format (Scott 999A), still showing Taiwan in white. Issued but immediately withdrawn and now highly sought after, a never-hinged example in the Interasia sale with marginal imprint and ballpoint signatures on the reverse brought $148,000.

A set of two stamps prepared to mark the 5th International Students’ Union Congress in 1958 was withdrawn because the inscription referred to the student gathering without correctly naming the organization. The stamps were reprinted with a corrected inscription, but not before a few of the errors had been sold to the public.

The unused 8f and 22f stamps, without gum as issued, went for $148,000. Shown here in Figure 2, they are noted in the Scott standard catalog as varieties of Scott 370-371.

The provisional Red Revenue overprints of 1897 are generally considered China’s first national stamps, prepared by the nascent Imperial Post when it took over from the foreign-run Customs Post that year. As an emergency measure, authorities surcharged some unneeded revenue stamps for postage. Some of the overprint varieties are scarce, and all are popular.

A used block of 80 of the 2¢-on-3¢ Red Revenue (Scott 79), neatly canceled by a “Customs Shanghai” double-ring datestamp of Feb. 24, 1897, showed a number of minor surcharge varieties that identified it as coming from the scarcer first printing of just 300 sheets. It sold for $178,000.

A used marginal block of 25 of the 4¢-on-3¢ Red Revenue with large figures in the overprint (Scott 82), still with full original gum despite its nine “Customs/Canton” postmarks, brought $118,500.

Last summer, Interasia offered several items of postal history from the Ruhstrat family correspondence between Taiwan and Germany in the 1880s, documenting the outbreak of the brief Sino-French War (Linn’s, July 22, 2013). The present sale had further items from the recent find.

An 1884 registered cover sent to the wife of the president of the German state of Oldenburg from her son, who was stationed with the customs service in Taiwan, shows numerous scarce customs handstamps tracing its journey out of China.

The cover pictured in Figure 3 was sent from the customs office in Takow (present-day Kaohsiung) on the same day the French landed in Taiwan. Perhaps because of that, it took several weeks to reach Amoy (now Xiamen), where its pair of Hong Kong stamps was canceled, before proceeding via Hong Kong to Italy and then Germany. The only known registered cover from the Customs Post in Taiwan, it fetched $385,000.

An 1883 cover from the same family correspondence was disinfected on its way through Suez because of a cholera outbreak in Egypt, as shown by telltale slits made to allow fumigation of the letter. Besides its scarce customs markings, it is thought to be the only disinfected cover from southern Taiwan. It brought $237,000.

An uprated postal card sent from the Chinese post office in Kiachta, Mongolia, believed to be one of just two surviving pieces of China postal stationery used there, brought more than five times its estimate to sell for $326,000. Both the 1¢ card indicia and the 3¢ stamp are of the design used from 1913 to 1923 depicting a type of Chinese boat known as a junk. The card was mailed to Irkutsk, Russia.

An 1884 cover sent from Newchwang (Ying­kou) to England via the French post office in China bears a strip of three 3-candareen Imperial Dragon stamps on thick paper (Scott 8), tied on the reverse by six strikes of an endorsement handstamp reading, in Chinese, “Postage already paid, do not demand, do not pay.”

The nicer of two so-called Large Dragon covers canceled by this marking, it also has a French 25-centime stamp (Scott 99) on the front, tied by a “Shang-Hai/Chine” circular datestamp. Illustrated in two different reference books and with a provenance going back to a Robson Lowe sale in 1953, the cover fetched $252,000.

An 1882 cover originating in Tientsin (Tianjin) and sent to New York via the Shanghai customs office was said to be one of the nicest of the eight covers known bearing both Chinese Large Dragons and United States stamps.

The back has a pair of 1ca stamps on thin paper (China Scott 1) and a 5ca stamp with wide margins (6), tied by Chinese-style seals, while the front has a 5¢ Zachary Taylor (United States Scott 179) tied by a cork cancel. Markings show the letter was turned over from the Customs Post in Shanghai to the U.S. Postal Agency there, and continued on its way via San Francisco to New York. The cover is pictured in Figure 4. It sold for $237,000.

Beyond high-priced stamps and postal history, the sale featured many items that simply told colorful tales.

As communist forces battled through Anhui and Jiangsu provinces in eastern China during the winter of 1949, pursuing the nationalist forces in their retreat to Shanghai, they struggled to set up a functioning postal system. Since supplies of stamps in those areas had run out, a mimeograph machine was pressed into service to produce interim postage labels.

A specialized exhibit of the resulting stamps, assembled by Hugh Lawrence, was included in the Interasia sale. One of the top sellers was an unused Central Jiangsu $200 black stamp of December 1948, considered a rare type for the issue (Yang EC359c). Consisting of a hand-drawn square with Chinese figures in the center and “200” in each corner, validated by a red chop, it sold for $22,000. The stamp is pictured in Figure 5.

During the chaotic period of the 1920s, when different parts of China were still ruled by local warlords, acts of terrorism and banditry were common.

On May 6, 1923, a luxury train from Pukou to Tianjin was attacked by bandits, and its 150 passengers, about 50 of whom were foreigners, were kidnapped for ransom. The hostages included Lucy Aldrich, sister-in-law of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., so the affair quickly escalated to an international crisis.

Although Aldrich was released almost immediately, the remaining prisoners were marched to a mountain camp called Pao Tzu Ku, where they passed the time writing letters home. Two of the prisoners were shot, but the stalemate went on for several weeks.

One of the Red Cross representatives negotiating for their release decided to lighten the mood by printing some 300 “bandit post” stamps for the hostages to use on their mail. They consisted of a black-on-beige stamp reading “Pao Tzu Ku/Bandit Post/Ten Cts” and a larger red stamp with Chinese inscriptions, the outline of the mountain, and an erroneous “50 cents” instead of 5 cents. The labels were not needed for postage, as the Red Cross paid it on the hostages’ behalf.

When Chinese postal authorities got wind of this, they quickly forbade the use of the labels, but meanwhile a number had been used, sparking interest among collectors. On later reprints and forgeries, the “50” error was corrected.

A cover sent by one of the hostages to San Francisco, franked with 10¢ in Chinese stamps and one of each of the bandit labels, sold for $31,500. The cover is shown in Figure 6. The enclosed letter describes the kidnapping and subsequent standoff between the 1,200 bandits and 2,000 Chinese soldiers.

“I guess we will remain here until we are either shot or released,” the sender wrote. The hostages were released on June 13, and the bandits were given amnesty.

Cherrystone Auctions held a sale in New York Jan. 14-15 featuring U.S. and worldwide stamps.

The top item, shown in Figure 7, was a rare Chinese overprint error, the 3¢-on-4¢ inverted surcharge of 1925 (Scott 274a). Unused with a small hinge remnant, this is one of just five unused and three used examples known. It sold for $276,000, including the 15 percent buyer’s premium that Cherrystone adds to all lots.

A Hungarian error of 1925, the 5,000-korona Madonna and Child with inverted center (Scott 386a), used, was described as one of the “very few opportunities for a collector to obtain one of these beautiful rarities in sound condition,” with some 38 of the 100 originally discovered, including many of the used examples, “tied up in museums.”

Pictured in Figure 8, it sold for $16,100, about double its value in the 2014 Scott Classic Specialized Catalog of Stamps and Covers.