Sometimes it feels as if it is the coins that find the collector, rather than the way around. Last month, a reader contacted me intrigued by a dragon coin he had unearthed in the woods around Riga (Latvia). He was used to find Russian coins, but this time it was a superb Large-Mouthed Dragon from the Fung-tien province that made ring his metal detector.
When I saw the pictures he sent me, I knew immediately that this beautiful coin with hints of verdigris and earthy surfaces was a genuine Chinese silver dollar, buried alive over a century ago. The Large Mouth dragon is a very rare variety of the 1898 Fengtien dollar, hard to find even in China. How did such a rarity end up in Latvia?
At the turn of the century, both the Liaotung peninsula (which encompassed most of the Fengtien province) and Latvia were under Russian rule. So it is very likely that the coin somehow traveled in the pockets of Russian soldiers or the coffers of merchants, from Port Arthur in Russian Manchuria to the Imperial Port of Riga in Latvia. It was lost or hidden there for a hundred years before being found by our fellow reader.
After more than a hundred years and against all odds, that rare Fengtien coin found its way back home to Northern China after I forwarded the pictures to a fellow Chinese coin collector in Shenyang who was looking for this variety to complete his set of 1898 Fengtien coins.
In these lucky encounters lies one of the most joyful thrill of collecting. Yesterday, I serendipitously found two charming bracelets made of genuine 3.6 candareens silver coins from the Szechuen province – in Bourges, France, out of all place. I did not expect to find Szechuan dragons while travelling abroad! While these holed coins have already lost all numismatic value, these bracelets are still fascinating artifacts:
They were brought to France by an Admiral serving in French Indochine before the First World War. This kind of jewelry was common in China at the time: smaller silver coins were fashionned in buttons to fasten the coat of wealthy merchants, sequins on bridal headdresses, or bracelets adorning the wrists of beautiful women. Along with the two bracelets came a moving black and white photograph of their former owner, framed in carved fragrant wood. According to the handwritten note behind the picture, it was taken in Chongqing in 1906:
It is rare to have such a precise idea of the provenance of the coins we collect. These lucky bracelets which were brought to France in a military corvette will soon return home to China, in my pocket as I fly back to Beijing.
Most of you likely have or have seen a 1908 Chihli dollar. It is one of the most commonly seen Chinese silver coins due to its relatively high mintage, it is also one of the most affordable, and it is therefore many a collector’s “first dollar”.
The famous dragon with its wide, crocodilian grin and delicate scales has more to offer to the devoted collector than it appears: while the Y73.2 type that everyone knows is abundant, the varieties currently filed by default under the Y73.4 catalog number are both excitingly rare and hard to find in good condition. There is also scant literature about them in English.
Advanced collectors will already know about the “crosslet 4″ or “fancy 3″ varieties that sometimes appear in auctions, but these labels currently conflate merely scarce varieties with extremely rare ones. For example, the coin below, labelled as “Fancy 3″ is actually called 北洋肥3 in China (“Pudgy 3″ in English):
This very rare variety in AU condition is worth ￥60,000 yuan Renminbi, almost $10,000 USD. This is an order of magnitude more than common “Fancy 3″ varieties, like this coin sold at Baldwin’s Hong Kong auction 48 in 2010:
Even holders labeled as Y73.2 can be full of surprises. Consider this coin from my collection, which I bought in an NGC holder with the grade AU55. An oblivious collector might dismiss it as banal, while it is actually the best known specimen of the extremely rare 丑3 variety (literaly “ugly 3″ in Chinese) and is worth north of ￥80,000 yuan Renminbi ($13,000 USD).
This variety is the rarest of the whole 34th year of Kuang Hsu series, with only a dozen of coins found across China. It is the missing link between the early “Fancy 3″/”Cross 4″ Y73.4 varieties, which use a typeface similar to the 33th year of Kuang Hsu, and the classic Y73.2 typeface. As awareness of this historically significant variety grew amongst Chinese collectors, an even rarer subtype was discovered last year:
Only a few coins with this flatter 3 have been discovered, all in VF conditions. So, dear readers, keep your eyes peeled and do not look down upon common types. Like in the story of the Ugly Duckling, appearances are often misleading: the Homely 3 which had been handled as a banal Y73.2 Chihli dollar has already risen to the rank of numismatic star.
Summer is nearing its end, and the Hong Kong auctions season begins. August is usually an interesting time for Chinese coins collectors, when rare coins are made available on the market and new prices are set.
I was browsing the catalogue of Rarehouse, when I was intrigued by one of the highlight of the auction. The denticles of the lot 1355, a rare Yuan Shih Kai pattern coin, bothered me. These teeth reminded me a lot of two other coins I have seen before.
The first coin was introduced to me by a good friend, who was already in the midst of negociation with the owner and wanted my opinion about the deal. It was a beautiful specimen of an extremely rare Yuan Shih Kai dollar, with the signature of the famous Italian engraver L. Giorgi.
The price tag was not too high for this type – ￥200,000 CNY, or about $32,000 USD. This looked like a good deal, but I usually collect Imperial dragon dollars, so I decided to learn more about this type online.
That’s how I stumbled upon the sister of that coin. It was sold in 2005 on Coinsky, one of the largest numismatic forums in China, by the same collector from the Jiangsu province that now proposed to my friend the coin that sparked my curiosity.
The identical scratches could not lie; as in previous articles, this was an indubitable proof that both coins were fake (click on the picture on the right for higher resolution).
Both replica coins also shared a strange defect, especially for pattern coins: the denticles on their obverse were really badly struck. Here is for comparison a picture of a genuine, graded pattern, lot 41099 at the upcoming Stack’s Bowers auction:
Small details matter: as you can see, the denticles are sharp and well struck.
My advice to fellow collectors looking forward to acquire rare and expensive Chinese coins this season would be to favour coins graded by PCGS. Raw coins can be cheaper, but if they end up being fake, you are on your own. For this kind of high level items, this can mean a $32,000 USD setback…