A 150-year-old Hong Kong stamp estimated to be worth between HK$7 -8 million is set to be auctioned locally on January 17. In 2011, the stamp was sold for a record HK$6.4 million.

The 1865 96c. olive-bistre block of four is the only unused multiple of its kind in existence. Only forty eight unused examples of the stamp have been recorded.

According to Spink, the British auction house selling the piece, the stamp has a “very short but sweet life story.” It was released by the Hong Kong Post Office around January or February 1865, and was withdrawn when the correct brownish grey stamps arrived in late July or August that year.

1865 96c. olive-bistre block of four. Photo: Spink.

Spink wrote on the stamp’s auction page that “this is, without question, the most important item of Hong Kong philately.”

“Initially the Hong Kong Post Office failed to notice that this new supply of stamps was printed in an olive-bistre colour. There was no reason for this change and it is believed that it was simply a mistake on the part of De la Rue [stamp printer].”

“The fact that this stamp is not known overprinted ‘SPECIMEN’ also indicates that it is a genuine error of colour. The mistake was discovered when the stamps were needed by the Post Office, but it was too late to prevent this incorrect colour being used.”

“Naturally the issue of this stamp was not advertised by the Hong Kong Post Office, as it was associated with the embarrassing ‘variation’ of colour.”

Dan Wade, head writer of collectors’ website JustCollecting, told HKFP that “96c. was a lot of money in 1865. In fact, it could send a letter from Hong Kong to the US – and back again. Which meant there was little demand for the stamp, resulting in few being sold. The unused stocks are thought to have been pulped.”

The image of Queen Victoria featured on the stamp was based on sketches made by Sir Hercules G. R. Robinson, governor of Hong Kong from 1859 to 1865, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

A Hong Kong stamp celebrating 150th Anniversary of the Hong Kong Post Office featuring a Queen Victoria era post box (left). Photo: http://www.hkstmp.com/

Neill Granger, a stamp specialist at Spink, told HKFP: “Although we sold this block in 2011, the current owner feels that he is ready to part with it.”

“It is difficult to predict what will happen at the auction. There are many collectors who would love to be able to add this block to their own collections, but it is a lot of money so, quite naturally, not necessarily their first choice of acquisition.”

“The market for Hong Kong stamps has softened over the past few years. There are a number of influencing factors, notably that HK stamps and covers were extremely popular and we are now past that peak,” Granger said.

‘Sensational sale’

Dr Andrew Cheung, Chairman and Editor of the Hong Kong Philatelic Society, told HKFP that although the auction may not start at HK$7 million, it will be a “sensational sale.”

However, Cheung believes that the other part of the auction, the Qing Dynasty stamp collection of Japanese collector Meiso Mizuhara, may attract even more attention.

“Currently, there’s a Chinese fever in the stamp collector circle,” Cheung said.

Changing fashion

Mr Granger also commented on Chinese stamps’ steady price rise.

“The recent increase of prices of certain Chinese stamps over the past few years has taken the focus off HK stamps and, with the passing years, a lot of the keen collectors are now becoming older and less active.”

“[S]tamp collecting does have fashions and the popularity of different countries can vary quite considerably as fashions and interests change. Even among Chinese philately there are changes with different collecting areas being affected differently and there is still quite a lot of speculation with Chinese stamps, particularly the recent PRC issues.”

“Some aspects of Chinese stamps have seen a decrease in prices over the past couple of years. However, collectors are always keen to acquire those superb and special items, such as the 96c. block.”

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.