After lying for decades unseen, one of the foremost Chinese, and indeed world, rarities has surfaced.  I last had the privilege of seeing this icon of philately some twenty-five years ago. Since that time I have handled a number of single examples (there are perhaps twenty or so extant) and I’ve had the privilege of selling at auction the magnificent horizontal pair owned by the great Chow Chin Tso FRPSL (in April 1996). Another single exists on a cover registered to Shanghai which was sold for around HK$ 5m.

But my first encounter with a single example of this beautifully engraved bi-coloured stamp was at the sale of the collection of Major James Starr, Mr Chow’s sole collecting rival in the West, in September 1991. That in itself was enough to set the pulse racing, so to finally handle the unique block just a few years later was truly the icing, as they say.

It’s now believed that just two sheets of fifty (each 10 x 5) were printed with the error in Peking in 1915, one of which we know emanated from the Hankow Post Office, and the other is presumed destroyed. The Peking printings formed part of a series of issues termed “Junk”, not because they were considered inferior, but because the design on the lower values was that of a Chinese “junk” vessel (other values showing the design of a reaper or, as in this case, the famous Hall). The first printing was made in London by Waterlow in 1913; then in 1914 when the Chinese Bureau of Engraving and Printing took over with new engraved plates.  It was then that the error was made.

Looking at the mint block in more detail, the upper pair shows a broken perforation pin (resulting in a “blind” perf) and while the lower pair shows signs of tropicalisation, the whole remains in a remarkable state of preservation, with just a central hinge remainder. And as if a bonus were needed, it displays a central horizontal guide line. This line appeared at the foot of the second row in the sheet, but only in the Peking printings; so none in the London printings.

So how does this phenomenal multiple rank in world terms? In my opinion (and doubtless countless of other people’s opinion) it’s well up there with the very best. It can be compared to the famous Small Dollar block of four, separated by just a couple of decades, which has been valued at up to £6m. That is also unique (to the best of current knowledge). And if we look at the similarly iconic USA “Inverted Jenny”, of which there are no less than SIX surviving blocks, and consider that they make up to £1.5m (one sold last year, also with the favoured guide lines, for US$1.74m), then we begin to see just how important this “Hall” piece is.

That the Chinese people revere their stamps as icons of cultural heritage is well known. It is as normal in China to show house-guests a fine philatelic rarity as it would be for any other great artifact, be it a painting or objet d’art. For this reason, two solid blocks of super-quality Perspex screwed together are often used to facilitate general handling, and of course for optimal preservation. So, it is not just philatelists who know about “The Four Treasures of the Chinese Republic” (as the greatest rarities are generally referred to). Many lay Chinese also know. For the record, the others comprise two inverted overprints from 1923 and 1925, and another “Hall” design from Sinkiang Province with transposed characters of overprint.  But note these others are all just overprint errors, and thus not integral to the original stamp.  The greatest of the treasures x 4 must trump a “full set” !

Tony Banwell, June 2020

Tony Banwell worked with Robson Lowe from 1980 to 1992, going on to develop auctions of Chinese stamps in HK with Sotheby’s until 2000. He is now a consultant for David Feldman SA based in the UK.