A national postal service in China was officially approved in March 1896 and inaugurated on 20th February 1897. Prior to this the Postal Service was a division of the Customs House. The new design "Imperial Chinese Post" stamps were not ready (from the Japanese printer) in time for the inauguration, so existing stocks of Imperial Customs stamps (the 1885 Small Dragons & the 1894 “Dowager” stamps) were surcharged with values up to 30c, but it was soon evident that these would be insufficient to meet public demand. A stock of unissued 3c red Revenue Stamps (printed by Waterlow & Sons in London) were called into service for surcharging. As these stamps had never been in use, the danger of counterfeits was minimised thus allowing for some higher values to be created.
As these high value stamps were urgently needed the first surcharging on the 3c Red Revenue was for the $1 – this rarity was surcharged with the Chinese "Equivalent to One Dollar" characters applied vertically in small type (SG 95). After only a small number had been produced, it was decided that small type was inappropriate for such a high value stamp and a change was made to large characters (SG 91). Later a $5 surcharge and low value surcharges (1c, 2c and 4c) were produced to satisfy urgent requirements.
Originally regarded as an uninteresting monochromatic issue, it has over the years become one of the most sought after areas of China philately, perhaps because forgeries of the surcharges were not encountered - the unsurcharged 3c stamp itself is a considerable rarity. A mint example of the $1 on 3c (SG 95) sold in 2010 for HK$5.5 million (US$710,000) and is today catalogued by Stanley Gibbons at £800,000. Although all the Red Revenue surcharges are in great demand, some can be obtained for more modest sums - see lots 5973 and 5974 in our 26 February Sale.