The Block of Four 四方连

This is THE stamp of China, forwarded to me by David Lu.

The provenance – BoF’s owners –

  1. 1897 acquired by R. A. de Villard 费拉尔, directly from the post office where he worked
  2. 1927 by M.D. Chow 周今觉, for Ch$3,500
  3. 1947 by Allan Gokson 郭植芳, for US$20,000
  4. 1982 by Lam Manyin 林文琰, at US$280,000
  5. 2009 – by Ding Jing-Song 丁劲松, at an undisclosed amount6; file 20782

Each country has its own Holy Grail of stamp, this one is for China – a block of four $1 Small Character Surcharge on 3¢ Red Revenue Stamp 红印花加盖小字当一元 四方连, the block of four or 四方连 for short, for those in the know. Perhaps the 1918 Inverted Jenny is for the US philately.

What made this block of four “known as the rarest piece of stamp in the Eastern Hemisphere”1 is due to the rarity of it – there are only 32 recorded copies in the world and described as “the king of stamps” in China, and only one block of four.

The Red Color Revenue stamps Converted into Postage Stamps are usually abbreviated as Revenue Surcharges. In his Revenue Surcharges (Taipei 1983), L. Y. Woo stated that because of their attractive color that symbolizing good luck in Chinese tradition and the fine printing with the intaglio process, these stamps have long been cherished by collectors.

In January 1896, Censor Chen Pi of Chinese Imperial Government petitioned the Emperor to approve a project for raising revenue by the issuance of revenue stamps. The proof was submitted to Sir Robert Hart (1835-1911), Inspector General of Customs, for approval on March 26, 1896. One batch of revenue stamps was actually ordered and printed in England. The plan for issuance of revenue stamps was later abandoned because of the objection from the public (democracy?). Of the revenue stamps ordered from England, only a portion of the 3¢ stamps was printed and shipped to China. These stamps were stored in the Shanghai Customs Statistical Department and were later overprinted for postal use.

The above picture of BoF was sent to Mr. Ren-Long Zhao by Mr. Lam Man Yin in 1983.  Mr. Zhao is a well known researcher on the Red Revenue stamps who’s 90 years old now. Mr. Lam purchased the block of four in February 1982 from Allan Gokson‘s estate. When Gokson (1911-1967) passed away in San Francisco, he left a specific instruction that this BoF has to remain in the hand of a Chinese, even at a discounted price. His wife religiously followed it. But unfortunately no noe could afford it .. .. till Lam.

Visiting Robert Chin 秦志敏 in San Francisco
If memory serves me well, Robert Chin said that Gokson used to invited his dear friends to view the BoF at his bank safe – he was the younger member of this privileged group. I would have imaged that they converged at Gokson’s sunken living room or wood paneling study, with a fine cup of tea in hand, enjoying this rare beauty. Capping the day with a poem or two, serenading her?
Chin laughed softly.
‘No. We all went to the bank vault.”
The insurance must have played a hand here? The idea of a group of men marching into a bank .. is just very funny. We all know how barren and small the viewing area in the bank vault can be. I thought of The Thomas Crown Affairwhen Pierce Brosnan would enjoy his spoil, at least in his living room!

When this block of four showed in Beijing during the international stamp shows, government would always place 2 army soldiers with riffles guarding it!

The provenance of a stamp, like any important work of art, assumes great importance. Given the holy grail status of this particular BoF and the prominence of Ma’s Illustrated Catalogue of the Stamps of China, but I was shocked by the discrepancies between its Chinese and English versions in the catalog’s various editions.2It had Chow’s acquisition date from de Villard as 1920 in English and 1924 in Chinese. Is there a reason for this apparent contradiction? L. Y. Woo who specialized in red revenues used 1924 in his 1983 book.3

Too well known for needing a provenance? There is a sizable assaulting force out there research and discuss the Red Revenues. Hongxue Red Study 红学 has two meanings: for literature it’s the 红楼梦 A Dream of Red Mansions, and for scrappy paper, it’s the red revenue stamps, BoF in particular.

Neither 1920 nor 1924 were correct: Chow did not start to collect stamp till 1923. Secondly De Villard died in 1904 and Chow said that he secured this collection after “twenty odd years”, thus making 1924 questionable. The strongest support came from two sources. An article written by Huang Kuangcheng 黄光城 published in Youpiao Shijie (Stamp World, No. 17) in 1982 – (forwarded to me by David Lu 2/18/2006) stated plainly that the transaction year was 1927, at price of 2,500 代价银二千五百两 (其时每银一两合银元一元四角).4The second piece of evidence came from Chow himself, when he excitedly showcased the BoF in his 1927 issue of Philatelic Bulletin.5 Chow inflated the acquisition to 5,000, Huang said this practice was common at time.

It was originally owned by R. A de Villard 费拉尔. According to Huang, in the beginning of 1897 (正月上旬), the large $1 Red Revenue stamps went on sale at the post office, mixed with few small $1. Many foreign postal and customs workers/philatelists learned the sale and rushed to purchase. De Villard was the manager, and got the most: 7 in all – a block of four plus three singletons. Juan Mencarini was there too, got only two. He observed and later wrote in his book Descriptive Catalogue of Chinese Postage Stamps with Appendices 华邮记要 that there were about 40 of the small $1.

The road Chow took to acquire this BoF was rough and winding: Mrs. de Villard, a Chinese was very difficult to deal with. Chow wrote about it too, complained about it loudly.

Gokson became the new King. He was the host to the members and friends of The New Light Philatelic Society in connection with the Shanghai Stamp Exhibition at his home – but the BoF was not on display. (???) The Shanghai Exhibition was very bitter sweet for Chow who had just lost his most treasured possession – need the money to bribe authorities/officials. Chow died the following year in 1949. Our family members all believed the heartache caused by the block of four was the major reason.

d-red1.jpgFrom L: David Lu, myself, 郑炳贤 Mr. Tay Peng Hian (Zheng Bingxian became president of FIP in 2010 获选为国际集邮联合会的会长. file 27050) of Singapore, Mrs. Lu and Mrs. Zhao of New York, after the 2006 World Philatelic Exhibition held in Washington DC. Manhattan Bridge is in the background.

The New York Collectors Club had Karl Rove as the special guest at their luncheon during the 2006 stamp show in DC. Rove was in hot water at time politically but was funny at lunch – he knows a thing or two about stamps. He was pretty entertaining according to the attendees.

I have been in correspondence with David and his wife May for a while and we finally met in New York after the show in 2006. I first heard of David was at the Collector’s Club. One of the members mentioned his presentations at the club few years ago completed with an interpreter. He likes to write with traditional characters, vs the simplified set, and in the very traditional tone (style). (Amusingly, he uses Irene to address me, rather than 张凝.) Thus I have always pictured him to be an old man. One day I was chatting with May and she laughed.
“You’re not the first one.”

Apparently others thought him as an older man too: Once they were in Shanghai meeting with an old philatelist. Upon seeing them, the elder kept on referring to David as ‘your father’, instead as ‘you’. It took David a little while to realize that the old man thought he was the son of ‘David’.

At the dinner in Chinatown in 2006, the group (the Lus, the Zhaos and Zheng) was all very jolly and in high spirit. They talked about the show, the party and all. I kicked myself for missing this opportunity. David kept a straight face said ..
“You can always attend the next one,” he paused, then added “it’ll be .. .. in New York.”

“Really?” My face must have light up. Can’t believe my luck .. “When?” I pestered him.
Were my ears malfunction-ing?
No .. apparently, the stamp show is held every decade.
No worry, I’m still able and relatively young 🙂
Have you pencil the date in? I did.
See you all in my Noo Yawk in 2016.


1 Ma Ren-Chuen, Ma’s Illustrated Catalogue of the Stamps of China (Shanghai, 1947), 50.
2 I did not see all Ma’s editions. Few pages of photocopy from 1947, 1988, 1995 and 1998 editions’ English contents which use 1920 as the year.
3 C.L. Woo, Revenue Surcharges (Taipei, 1983), pg 18.
4 I’ve been trying to assemble a list of Chinese currencies since late Qing, but haven’t had the time for it. I won’t try to convert it into USD. I did find All The Monies of the World by Franz Pick but of little use to me.
5In the inaugural issue of Philatelic Bulletin in 1925, Chow proudly included pictures of his most valuable rarities, none of which included the block of four. In each of his subsequent issues, Chow followed the same pattern of showing off his prized possessions, and the block of four did not make its debut until 1927.
6According to one source in Sept 2010, the Chinese philately world isn’t too happy with this because they felt the RE developer hijacked the stamp with his wealth (doesn’t deserve to be the new King ..).. vulgar new money or snobbery old guards/diehard fans .. another story .. another time.

By 黄光城 Huang Guangcheng

2014.07.09, 邮票拍卖诞生新纪录投资珍邮仍有风险

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