THE decision by auction house Sotheby's to make Hong Kong the venue for its next Asian stamp auction signals a major shift in the region's status as a centre for stamp investors. Sotheby's held its last Asian stamp auction in London to sell off stamps belonging to British collector Major James Starr. It forced large numbers of buyers from the region to travel to Britain to add new stamps to their collections. ''After the larger than expected auction turnout it made more sense to bring the stamps to Asia, rather than buyers making the trek to Britain,'' said Sotheby's stamp expert Anthony Banwell. ''This is the first Asian stamp auction that Sotheby's has ever held in Hong Kong and judging by the response to the preview, it won't be the last.'' Prices of stamps from Hong Kong and China have rocketed in recent years, boosting their popularity among investors and collectors in the territory. In Hong Kong, Mr Banwell said there was still a large number of valuable stamps held by people unaware of their value. ''Mostly they turn up in old collections inherited from relatives but there are many other stamps still stored away that have yet to come to light,'' he said. The rare status of many early Chinese stamps has increased after the destruction of early stamp collections during the Cultural Revolution. The latest batch of encouraging stamp prices stems from the auction of Major Starr's Chinese collection. It had been expected to fetch up to GBP1 million (about HK$11.3 million) but was sold for double that to a Taiwanese buyer. The 150 lots of Asian stamps to be auctioned by Sotheby's in Hong Kong in May will offer opportunities for the full spectrum of investors and collectors. Mr Banwell said: ''Whereas Europe has had 150 years to develop stamps as a valuable collectable item, in China the concept is still new. ''There is little doubt that demand for stamps from Hong Kong and China will steadily increase in the next few decades.'' One of the peculiarities to emerge from the Asian market is the buying preference for Asian stamps. ''Asian buyers are strongest within their own market and it only takes some activity from one or two big buyers from Europe to substantially upset the market,'' Mr Banwell said. Demand for stamps from Hong Kong and China was overtaken by a sharp increase in the demand for stamps from Thailand last year. ''The Hong Kong and China market went off the boil temporarily but this often happens after intense buying periods,'' Mr Banwell said. One of the earliest letters ever sent from China will also be auctioned. The letter was sent to Portugal in 1614 and is expected to fetch between $100,000 and $150,000.