July 08 2011
Simon de Burton
Most people regard a little light philately as a perfectly harmless pursuit. Not so the late Mao Zedong, who considered it such a despicable and bourgeois occupation that (along with education and creating the wrong sort of art) he decided to ban it. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that in February a block of four stamps produced during the Cultural Revolution fetched HK$8,970,000 (over US$1m) when sold in Hong Kong by InterAsia Auctions.
The so-called “Japanese Worker” stamps were produced in 1968 but never officially issued because Japan’s government objected, fearing that they might incite communist feelings among its population. But the four that slipped through the net now hold the record for the highest amount ever paid for a block of Chinese stamps.
Yet this record is unlikely to stand for long, because Chinese buyers are demonstrating a latent enthusiasm for their country’s philatelic history that is every bit as strong as their recently discovered love for bordeaux wine and modern art. Indeed, the country is served by 50,000 philatelic societies.
“The market for Chinese stamps has really taken off in the past two or three years,” says Keith Heddle, sales and marketing director at the Stanley Gibbons Group, the 155-year-old company that specialises in all areas of stamp collecting. “Prices are being driven up primarily by the new wealth in China, but also by the fact that the Chinese do not attach a stigma to philately in the way many people do in the West, where it is often seen as a bit of an ‘anorak’ hobby. The Chinese also like the fact that stamps are a ‘home-grown’ product, unlike the French wines or European paintings that they also collect.”
China’s current exuberance for what are often described as “the most valuable objects in the world by weight” is not, however, always tempered by a scholarly approach. The country’s strong tradition of superstition means stamps combining the lucky colour red with the lucky number eight are now fetching considerably more than most experts think they are worth. The eight fen “Red Monkey” stamp of 1980, for instance, was produced in about 5m examples and is far from being a rarity, but a good one will fetch around £1,300, more than five times what would normally be expected.
Dr Arthur Woo, widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest stamp collectors, warns against such an approach: “I have been collecting since 1945 and would strongly advise anyone to build up their knowledge before buying. Speak to people with a minimum of 10 years’ experience in the stamps of China before rushing in – it is clear that we are seeing the start of a major boom in the area, but where or how it will end is difficult to say. I developed my own Chinese collection many years ago, when there was little interest in the subject as most people were buying Hong Kong issues.”
True connoisseurs of Chinese stamps are in pursuit of a small range of rarities. And as the number of people who can afford them is growing, a classic “supply and demand” situation is emerging.
Independent expert Tony Banwell, who trained under the legendary philatelist Robson Lowe before working as a stamp specialist at Sotheby’s through the 1990s, says the market for Chinese stamps has been turned completely on its head: “The tide actually started to turn as long ago as the early 1970s. Before then, Chinese collectors of Chinese stamps simply didn’t exist, and they were all bought by Westerners. Now I can’t name a single world-class collector in the UK, and there are very few in Europe.”
Probably the most famous Western collectors were Sweden’s Anna-Lisa and Sven-Eric Beckeman, whose extensive range of Chinese albums were sold off from 1997 to 2007 for around £25m. Now, according to Banwell, they would be worth up to £100m. “But little has changed in terms of what are the most desirable Chinese stamps,” he says, “the only difference is that they have become a great deal more expensive and they are now being bought by people from China.”
The league table of the most valuable Chinese stamps (those of Hong Kong can be considered a different discipline) is topped by the small one-dollar “Red Revenues” that were produced in 1897 under Imperial rule during a transition of currency. No more than two sheets are known to have been circulated, and an individual example now has a catalogue value of an astonishing £650,000 – three times more than a decade ago.
From the same era came the celebrated Dowager Empress, another new currency revenue stamp, which depicts a Chinese dragon. The surcharge is printed in English and Chinese, but one stamp in each sheet of 80 shows the Chinese figure four in an incorrect type. These are not especially rare, but a single known example also has the surcharge inverted – and is therefore worth £35,000.
As seen in InterAsia Auctions’ record sale of the Japanese Worker block, stamps from the era of the Cultural Revolution have also become extremely valuable. One particularly sought-after type is the eight fen version known colloquially as “The Whole Country is Red” stamp – except it isn’t. Depicting an image of Chairman Mao over a map of China, it was withdrawn when someone noticed that they had forgotten to colour in Taiwan. A single, standard-sized example is worth about £150,000 and the rarer, large-sized versions around £350,000.
Also sought after are “miniature sheets” – a single stamp with a blue surround – depicting Chinese opera star Mei-Lanfang who died in 1961. Just 20,000 were printed and an individual example is now valued at £15,000-plus.
Occasionally, however, stamps turn up that are not quite what they seem. Banwell recalls being shown a sheet of 1878 Large Dragon stamps that appeared correct in every aspect of design, colour, paper and gum. “The stamps had been produced by a very well-funded faking outfit, but they had made a single, major error: when the sheet was subjected to mild warmth, it curled up in the wrong direction. The weave of the paper was running vertically instead of laterally.”
Expertise, you see – it can get you out of all manner of sticky situations.