This is a common saying in the numismatic community – to the point of becoming a cliché – but it still bears repeating: buy the coin, not the holder. Today I will share with you the details of an unfortunate purchase, which hopefully should serve as a cautionary tale for fellow Chinese coins collectors.
Collecting is a demanding hobby; to stay ahead of increasingly deceptive forgeries, ingenious alterations or tooling, one needs to keep on learning the most intimate details of Chinese coins. It may sometimes be tempting to simply rely on the knowledge of others and buy a coin that is “out of our league” with a relative peace of mind. I would urge my readers to resist this temptation, though. Certificates from grading companies and the opinion of more experienced collectors should only help confirm your own judgement.
I recently bought a very rare and beautiful Chinese coin from a reputed Shanghai dealer. The Dragon dollar was in a PCGS holder, and the seller guaranteed that the coin had not been repaired or cleaned. The competition to buy this beautiful rarity was intense and I had all the reasons to buy with confidence, so I gave in to temptation:
The coin I coveted is a particularly interesting variety of the famous Kiangnan Pearl Scales Dragon (also known as Dragon with Circlet-like Scales). The dragon lost its tongue to weak strike, and has longer spines on its back and tail (江南戊戌珍珠龙长毛无舌版). Additionally, this particular specimen has a very special characteristic, that I had never seen before: the top of the 庫 character, probably due to a die chip, was perfectly rounded (圆头庫).
When I received the coin and could carefully examine its surface, I started to experience this uneasy feeling familiar to collectors: the left brain knows something is amiss, while the right brain emotionaly defends the purchase. The coin was definitely genuine, but I could not help but think the toning and surfaces had some unnatural quality to them. Pushed by intuition, I started researching the pedigree of this coin online; something I should better have done before buying! When I came across the picture below, my unease only grew:
At first glance, it seemed unlikely that both coins were the same; the dragon dollar sold at the Shanghai Chongyuan auctions was heavily chopmarked. Both coins had a similar feeling to them though, and poring over the pictures, my troubled gaze feverishly jumping from identical circulation marks to the same rim nicks, I was increasingly convinced that it was indeed my coin, before it had been skillfully altered by a devious craftsman. I highlighted the details of interest below:
Carved right into the silver was the proof that the coin I bought was removed from its original GBCA holder, tooled with remarkable craftsmanship, artificially toned and successfully submitted to PCGS. Altering coins is a cardinal sin in numismatics: it is always done with the intention to deceive collectors and artificially inflate the value of a coin. I personally consider this practice tantamount to counterfeiting.
Circulation marks, nicks and scratches are the unique fingerprint of a coin. If on pictures two coins bear the same marks, there is only two possibility: either it is actually pictures of the same coin, or both are fake… As a more sinister example, please consider the picture below:
These two high level fake 1903 Fengtien dollars were spotted by reader Remetalk, using the same method I identified my altered coin. The coin on the left was listed at the April 2012 Hong Kong Auction, lot 21167, and graded NGC VF-20. The coin on the right was seen at the August 2012 Moscow Wolmar auction VIP №299, lot 1260. I spotted an identical fake in Beijing, graded VF details by PCGS.
With Chinese counterfeiters getting increasingly skillful at deceiving collectors and even world-class grading companies, it is more than ever necessary for fellow Chinese coins collectors to keep their eyes peeled, avoid impulse buying and always verify the pedigree of rare coins. Buy the coin, not the holder.
I recently acquired a new Chinese coin, struck over a century ago at the Fengtien arsenal mint in the nowadays Shenyang (沈阳) city. It is now one of the few cities minting coins for the People’s Bank of China, along with Shanghai and Shenzhen. Today one of the biggest cities of China and an industrial powerhouse, Shenyang can trace the beginning of its transformation in a heavy industry titan back to the establishment of the Fengtien machine bureau (奉天机器局) in the late Qing era.
The Ancestor of the Shenyang Mint: the Fengtien Machine Bureau
Created in 1897 at the instigation of the General Iktangga (依克唐阿), governor of the Fengtien province, the bureau was destined to modernize the provincial coinage. An early set of dies was commissionned from the Anqing (安庆) mint in Anhwei (安徽), and German-made steam-powered machinery were brought from Tianjin. The early test issues using the An Hui dies were denominated in maces and candareens, and were designed after the Kwantung dollar. With the success of the Peiyang arsenal dollars, subsequent issues were however redesigned and the first emission meant for circulation in 1898 features a reverse bearing the characteristic circular manchu writings in the style of the contemporary Beiyang coins.
The last emission, in 1899, has a very similar design. As far as I know, three dies were used for the 25th year of Guang Xu series. The coin I bought is of the first type, as seen below:
The first set of die used has a single dotted ring around the denomination on the reverse (单圈版 in Chinese). The reverse has an obvious error in the typography of the province name, with a huge empty space between the F and U of FUNG TIEN. The strike is also noticeably weak from the G to the T. On the obverse, this die is very different from the subsequent ones. The dragon face is beautiful, with some relief on the sides of the dragon nose and a large, “smiling” mouth. The fireball at the center is ornamented with a wide, incomplete spiral probably resulting from a weak strike.
The second strike features a new dragon design; the reverse issues were also partially fixed:
The province name on the reverse is now correctly typographied, but the strike is still weak on the area from the G to the T. The new dragon design is very different from the previous issue, with a flatter face and a thinner mouth. The spiral on the fireball is complete this time, running all the way to the center.
The last emission tries again to correct the problems of the reverse, keeping the new dragon design.
As seen here, the G and T are indeed slightly stronger, but the end of “TIEN” is weaker, while it was crisp in the previous strikes… It seems that like the Kiangnan mint, the early Shenyang mint had troubles with the die adjustement and thus produced weakly struck coins.
A solid circle was added around the denomination, inside the inner dotted circle.
This strike is known as the “Linear circle within dotted circle” die, or 双圈版 in Chinese.
After this third strike, the mint machinery was seized by the tsarist Russian army and the Shenyang machine bureau was burned down… The province of Fengtien (nowadays Liao Ning) was indeed going through dark times. Already the theater of the first Sino-Japanese war in 1895, it was then the scene of the conflict between the Russians controlling the leased territory of Liao Tung, and the Japanese army, leading to the Russo-Japanese war. The mint at the Shenyang machine bureau was briefly brought back online in 1903 after years of reconstruction slowed down by the Boxer rebellion.
Eventually, the province fell under Japanese control, later becoming part of the Manchukuo puppet state. The Japanese army and investors continued to develop heavy industries in the region, furthering the move toward automatization that had begun in 1897 with the creation of the Fengtien machine bureau.
Beware of the Forgeries !
As usual, if a coin is rare, a lot of fakes tend to surface around. The example below is interesting :
The fake coin mixes happily the chinese calligraphy of the 1898 coin with the 1899 first dragon design, except for the fireball which has a complete spiral…