Minh Mạng thông bảo - 7 tiền (1834)

Minh Mạng thông bảo - 7 tiền (1834)

This large silver coin could be a riddle even for Chinese readers. The reverse is similar to traditional Chinese coins – the name of the ruling Emperor, here “明命” (Míng Mìng in mandarin) and the characters 通寶 (coin of the realm). The obverse depicting the classical imperial flying dragon motif is also reminiscent of Chinese coinage, but its style and execution is unusual. Finally there is a date: 十五, 15th year of this Emperor era… It all looks all so very familiar, but there never was a “Ming Ming” emperor in China. Indeed, this coin is actually an early Vietnamese coin, issued in 1834, the 15th year of the rule of Emperor Minh Mạng!

Modern Vietnamese language is written using the latin alphabet, sprinkled with a lot of interesting diacritics, but this was not always the case. During their long history, Vietnam and China weaved a complex relationship together. For one millenium Vietnam was actually a Chinese vassal state, and this left a profound imprint on Vietnamese culture. China brought the Confucian society structure and Chinese characters to Vietnam, where they continued to evolve independently way after Chinese influence in the region had waned. This shared cultural background is the reason why this coin looks so familiar to the Chinese coin collector, in an uncanny way.

This “Minh Mạng thông bảo” coin has a face value of 7 tiền. The “tiền” unit is roughly similar to the Chinese 钱 (qián) unit we are accustomed to, and this silver coin weighs unsurprisingly about 27 grams. Its diameter is also comparable to Chinese dragon dollars at 40mm, but it actually predates them from half a century! The first Western-style dollar coins of the Asian continent were indeed actually made in Vietnam in 1832. Emperor Minh Mạng, despite the disdain he showed for European culture, had some interest for their technology and weaponry, which he sometimes imported in the otherwise very conservative Vietnamese society. These dollar coins are probably the result of one such experiment.

Vietnamese dollars were not struck – the Palace lacking a modern mint – but cast like traditional cash coins. The fine details and sharpness of their surfaces despite being made with such a crude process is a testament to the care and mastery with which they were produced. Due to the casting process a lot of varieties exist, but these coins are rare, moreover in good condition and with sharp details. The coin pictured above is the most common variety for the year 1834, the stylized flames around the fireball in the dragon’s claws having two “forks”. A scarcer variety for the same year only has one of such “forks”.

Minh Mạng Thông Bảo - 7 tiền single fork variety

Minh Mạng Thông Bảo - 7 tiền single fork variety

These dragon dollars were nicknamed Phi Long, the Vietnamese reading for the Chinese characters 飞龙 (Fēi lóng). While they are very scarce and beautiful, these coins are still cheaper than Chinese coins of similar rarity: a 1834 7 tiền coin in AU grade is worth about $2500 USD at the time of this writing. The price of Vietnamese coins has risen sharply in recent years though, following the growth of the Chinese numismatic market. The shared cultural themes between the two countries makes old Vietnam coins attractive to Vietnamese and Chinese collectors alike. For example, the design of the rare 5 tiền coin shown below, made during the rule of Emperor Tự Đức, is actually a great visual pun with an auspicious meaning!

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I have been to Chengdu in December and made a detour by the local coins market during my stay there. The 1908 Chihli dollar is a very common coin, but one specimen I saw there caught my attention, for it had a very uncommon feature: a huge dot just above the back of the dragon.

Since the coin did not look like a forgery, I bought it for the regular market price of the time, about¥2000 CNY. As soon as I went back to the hotel, I started looking for information about this peculiar variety online. Despite scouring many online boards and obscure blogs, I could not find any information about it. I was only able to find a single picture of a coin just like the one I had just purchased, but it was not taken to illustrate the variety: simply for sale.

Peiyang 34th year dollar - with dot

Peiyang 34th year dollar - with dots

I highlighted the differences in red on this picture. One could be tempted to argue that the big dot is the result of some problem with the die or minting process, but looking at the details of the back of the dragon, there is a second, more subtle difference. There is another dot between two spines of its dorsal crest. Here is a regular 1908 Peiyang dollar, for comparison (click on the picture to enlarge it):

Peiyang 34th year dollar

Peiyang 34th year dollar

When I went back to Beijing, I showed my coin to several of my coin dealer friends. All of them confirmed it was indeed genuine, but only one of them had encountered this variety before. He had seen two such coins in his career, but did not knew anything about the history behind this strange variation.

My theory is that since at least four coins exist with the exact same differences, including the smaller dot between the spines, proves it is not the result of a freak minting incident but a bona fide variety. I sent my own coin to NGC this month, and I hope getting my specimen slabbed will be a first step toward recognition of this very scarce variety!

I recently acquired an unusual Chinese coin, a fantasy silver dollar depicting Yuan Shih Kai as emperor Hung Hsien (洪宪). The coin is undated, and although its intricate and beautiful design is clearly the work of a skilled craftsman, there is no indication at all of the place and time of its production. This fantasy dollar is listed in Colin R. Bruce II’s “Unusual World Coins” as X-M1380, without further details, except that a gold variant is known to exist.

The design of this fantasy dollar mixes and matches elements of contemporary coins: the flames surrounding both sides are very similar to those on the 1916 gold 10 and 20 yuan coins. The dragon is clearly modeled after the Hu-Peh (湖北) silver dollars. The same portrait of Yuan Shih Kai in emperor garb is seen on other fantasy dollars, but not with such exquisite details.

Many such fantasy dollars were cast or minted in the 1930s in western China. This kind of coin is called 臆造币 in Chinese, and they were not intended to be used as currency, but rather as bullion or gifts. It is therefore likely that this coin was made during this period. The beautiful design of this particular coin makes it stand out, though, and it is unfortunate indeed that there is so few informations about it. If any reader knows more about it, please share your knowledge !

Hung Hsien Fantasy Dollar (X-M1380)

Hung Hsien Fantasy Dollar (X-M1380)