Rare 'Red' stamp fetches record 7.3m yuan
The red campaigns on the mainland may have quieted since the political downfall of the movement's champion, former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai , but collectors' enthusiasm for Cultural Revolution relics appears to be going strong.
The latest evidence is a rare communist-themed stamp from 1968 that sold at auction last week in Beijing for a record-breaking 7.3 million yuan (HK$8.9 million) - more than double its HK$3.7 million auction price less than three years ago.
The unissued, large-sized 'The Whole Country Is Red' stamp was sold by China Guardian Auctions after more than 20 rounds of bidding at its spring auction on Monday, becoming the single biggest stamp sale ever at a Chinese auction. The final price: 7,302,500 yuan.
That is a far cry from the face value of eight fen that it was given when printed at the height of Mao Zedong's infamous campaign to enforce ideological purity across the mainland. The stamp's sale accounted for more than a third of the entire auction.
Mao's government issued the stamp - measuring 6cm by 4cm - to celebrate the revolution's 'complete victory', even though the movement would continue until the chairman's death in 1976.
It remains one of the most well-known rare stamps issued by the government and only eight are believed to have been preserved. The image features a map of China, painted red to show the 'revolutionary committees' that were then set up all over the mainland. Notably, the whole map is red, except Taiwan, which, like today, was run by the Kuomintang.
The design, which was printed by the Beijing Stamp Printing Factory, also depicts peasants and soldiers holding Mao's iconic 'little red book' of quotations. Red flags of revolutionary committees and crowds of peasants and soldiers' marching triumphantly fill the background.
The slogan 'Long live the victory of the great Cultural Revolution' is written across the bottom.
'It is brand new, rich in colours and in good condition,' said Guo Xueguang, China Guardian's general manager for stamp and coins. 'The record price reflects its scarcity and the fervent attention from the collectors.' The stamp is especially rare because it was a second version of which only samples were printed for leaders' approval. The first design featured images of Mao and his right-hand man Lin Biao against the backdrop of flags, slogans and people.
It was ordered to be withdrawn and destroyed after top leaders changed their guidance on publicity to require less usage of leaders' images and quotations, said Zhu Tong, vice curator of the China National Post and Postage Stamp Museum in Beijing.
Zhu said the stamp's designer, Wan Weisheng, drafted a small number of samples for approval, including the one auctioned last week. The country's then premier, Zhou Enlai , said the stamp was too large and covered too many elements.
A third, smaller version of 'The Whole Country Is Red' - this one 4cm by 3cm in size - was printed and issued on November 25, 1968. But it was ordered suspended and destroyed, but not before some stamps were sold and passed into circulation.
Wan told Xinhua the stamps were withdrawn due to an inaccuracy with the map. But it was not, as many speculated, because Taiwan was not red, he said.
'It's not red because there was no revolutionary committee there,' he said. 'Actually, it was a concern that the unclear southwest boundaries might cause cross-country conflicts.'
'I was terrified to be accused as a 'counter revolutionary',' he said. 'I didn't expect that I would not be punished. I continued designing stamps until retirement.'
Wang Banghua, vice secretary-in-general of the China Association of Collectors, said that the stamp was the product of special times.
'That thing which is rare is dear,' Wang said. 'It's not surprising.'
The recent auction was not the first time the stamp appeared in the market. It was successfully auctioned for 2.8 million yuan in 2009 and 1.79 million yuan in 2010 by China Guardian, according to artron.net, a mainland artifact archiving website.
This time, both the sellers and buyers of the prized stamp remain unknown because the auction house has kept the information secret.
Where the stamps went between their withdrawal and auction is still a mystery. Wan was surprised to see one at a Beijing auction in 1996 and later told Philatelic Panorama he had no clue where it came from. That is likely because there would have been a risk in disseminating an unapproved stamp.
'It was clearly against the then regulations, especially during the Cultural Revolution,' said Zhu. 'It's why the stamp appeared in the market so late.'
The auction value of the bigger version rocketed over past two decades. It sold for 1.4 million yuan in 1999 and HK$3.68 million in 2009, which broke the world record for the highest stamp auction price, the Global Times reported.
Six smaller ones, measuring 3cm by 4cm each, were sold in one lot for more than HK$2.9 million.
China overtook the US as the top auction market in 2010. It solidified that position last year with US$4.79 billion worth of art sold, or more than 40 per cent of the global market, said a report by Artprice, an agency that monitors art sales and auctions around the globe.
The mainland's share of global art sales last year, which further strengthened its status as the top auction centre in the world