A grandfather's Chinese stamps could be worth $1.5 million


August 18, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

String-saving Quakers never threw anything away. The houses of their descendants were jampacked with family heirlooms from five, six, seven generations. The vaults of Philadelphia's banks are still filled with world-class collections of watches, Faberge, Chinese snuff bottles, jewelry, grandmother's silver and grandfather's stamps.

The most recent Philadelphia discovery is 24 volumes of Chinese stamps that had been in a safe-deposit vault since 1948. They are expected to bring between $1.5 and $2 million when Sotheby's sells them in London in September.

The collection was formed in the 1920s by Maj. James Starr, who, at the time of his death in 1948, was known as a leading authority on the stamps of China.

His grandson, always aware that the stamps were safely tucked away, has decided to sell them.

"When I got a fax from Philadelphia telling me about 24 volumes of Chinese stamps I faxed back that big collections of Chinese stamps don't exist," said Richard Ashton, Sotheby's stamp expert, on the phone from London.

But Mr. Ashton's research in reference books showed that Starr had collected some rare stamps. That was enough to get him on a plane to Philadelphia where he spent the next four days in the bank vault going over the hoard. "What I saw was the finest collection of Chinese stamps known; it was by far most exciting find I have ever made," he said.

Mr. Ashton says Starr's method of collecting was modern insofar as he collected stamps in singles and multiples, mint and used. What's more, in the 24 sealed packages were stamps that none of the leading collectors today had ever seen.

The most valuable single stamp is a boring-looking 1897 red 3-cent stamp overprinted in black with some Chinese writing and "1 dollar." Mr. Ashton has estimated it at $130,000 to $160,000. It is one of only 32 known out of 40 printed.

The rarest and the most expensive lot is a block of 25 five candarin (a monetary unit) dragon stamps that are much prettier. "They could go for anything. No one collected whole sheets back then. They should make at least $200,000," said Mr. Ashton.

Who was this Major Starr? James Starr was born in Germantown, Pa., in 1871 and in one way or another was related by blood or marriage to almost everyone who was anyone in Philadelphia, starting with the founding fathers James Logan, Isaac Norris, George Emlen and John Markoe -- big money in the 18th century.

Starr attended Germantown Academy, St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., and the University of Pennsylvania. He fought with the 1st Troop of Philadelphia City Cavalry in the Spanish American War and during the First World War commanded a cavalry troop. In 1901 he married Sarah Logan Wistar, a distant cousin, and settled in the Wistar family place in Germantown, called Belfield, once owned by the artist Charles Willson Peale.

The Starrs did a fine job of maintaining the old family farm: Major Starr oversaw the gardeners and greenhouses, horses and cows, and in the evenings retired to his library to work on his stamps. Summers were spent in Nova Scotia, where Wistars had summered since the 1790s and still do.

Major Starr's only grandchild, Dan Blain, remembers working on his own small collection of American stamps at a desk placed DTC next to that of his grandfather, who pored over his collection of Chinese stamps. Starr began to collect stamps in 1928 after an illness forced his retirement. He died at Belfield in 1948 when Mr. Blain was 10.

On the phone from Nova Scotia, Mr. Blain said, "I figured the stamps were getting more valuable, but my grandmother always told me, 'When you get rid of something, you don't have it anymore,' " so I kept them as an investment."

Now, Mr. Blain says, is the time to sell. "I need the money," he commented.

Although Marco Polo described the Chinese postal service as something far more advanced than anything in Europe, the first Chinese stamps were not issued until 1878, rather late as postage stamps go. Before the dragon stamps came, out the Chinese experimented with a design showing an elephant. A sheet of them in the sale is known as an essay or proof sheet. At the bottom of each stamp are the words "5 CASH." Cash and candarins were both measures of Chinese currency before dollars and cents came in, in 1897. Though the stamps with CASH on them were never in circulation, Mr. Ashton believes this may be where we got our word cash from. The Chinese have used "CASH" since 200 B.C.; it was originally a measure of silver.

The two-volume Starr Collection catalog is available in the United States for $95 postpaid from Sotheby's, 1334 York Ave., New York, N.Y. 10021.

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