Some readers have asked which dragon dollar is the most popular amongst collectors. The most famous chinese silver dollar from the late Qing era is most likely the Y31 silver dollar, colloquially referred to as “宣三” in China. It was minted in 1911 (3rd year of the rule of Xuan Tong) at the Central Mint in Tianjin. It was the last imperial coin issued before the regime was toppled by the Xinhai revolution. The design of this chinese silver dollar is considered by many collectors to be the most beautiful, and it is also the only imperial chinese coin bearing the “ONE DOLLAR” face value to have been circulated. While not rare by any measure, the Y31 dollar has seen its market value rise steeply in recent years due this popularity.
This dragon dollar was issued by the central authority, which means it had standardised weight, metal composition and design, but there exists nonetheless three die variations of this chinese coin.
The most commonly seen is called “浅版” in China, or “shallow strike version” (see below). Since it was struck with old dies, the details of the design are less clear in this version than in early ones. By looking carefully at the DOLLAR word on the reverse, one can see that the R was repaired by adding back a missing leg. It is labelled as “w/o Flame, w/o Dot” by PCGS:
The earliest version is called “深版“, or “deep strike version”. The details of this version are very sharp, the R in DOLLAR is still intact, and an additional spine which was lost to weak strike or die deterioration in subsequent versions is still visible at the tip of the tail of the dragon, across the cloud. While this version is only slightly scarcer than the 浅版, it is usually more expensive due to its popularity. This coin is labelled “Extra flame” by PCGS, due to the “additional” spine at the end of the tail of the dragon:
The last version is actually a restrike of the 浅版. In the years following the 1911 revolution, old dies were reused to issue new coins and avoid currency shortages. The already well worn dies of the 浅版 Y31 were briefly reused to mint the Y31.1 dollar, much scarcer than the earlier “official” issues. The only difference with the original dies is the addition of a dot after the word “DOLLAR“. Similar alterations were done to other revolutionary restrikes, like the 1904 Kiang Nan dollar with dots in the denomination.
Since the Y31.1 dollar is much more rare and expensive than other versions, many unscrupulous coin dealers or counterfeiters have tooled genuine dollars to add a silver dot, thus instantly doubling their profits. Most of these coins have been polished or cleaned first, though, to make the modification less obvious.
It is therefore advised to avoid buying cleaned or polished Y31.1 dollars. Genuine coins from the type “dot after dollar” (带点) were all made using the “w/o Flame, w/o Dot” 浅版 dies, so they have the same characteristics: fixed “R”, unclear details, and one spine less on the dragon tail. Uneven toning around the dot should be considered with extreme suspicion. A dot on a “Extra flame” dollar is a certain indication of tooling. Once again, be careful when buying chinese coins!
In one of these internet message boards I frequent, a fellow Chinese coins collector produced pictures of a coin he had just bought from a dealer in Bangkok. I immediately identified a 英文大字珍珠龙: a nice variety of one of the most beautiful Chinese coins, the Kiang Nan dragon whose scales are ornate with pearls. This coin (often called “dragon with circlet-like scales” in English) was minted briefly in Nanjing at the beginning of the year 1898, before being replaced with a simpler design. There is several die varieties known, all very scarce.
Chinese characters on this particular variety are written with thicker strokes than usual, and the English legend is bolder as well. This concerned the new owner of this coin; did the unusual shape of the characters meant it was a forgery? I knew the design of the characters was normal, but finding a genuine 珍珠龙 (dragon with circlet-like scales) is a rare occurence, so the pictures still deserved a careful inspection.
The low resolution of the pictures didn’t allow me to get a good impression of the surface and relief of the coin. It looked like it had been dipped, but the details were convincing enough. The weight seemed a bit light (26.5 grams), but nothing egregious either. The picture of the edge was too blurry to be useful. At that point, I would have said it was a genuine, albeit badly cleaned coin. Nonetheless, something smelled fishy about it; something didn’t felt quite right, but for now I was unable to pinpoint it.
The next morning, higher resolution pictures were posted. Right upon looking at the edge, I knew the coin was fake. The reeding didn’t have the soft, rounded shape common to all the Kiang Nan silver dollars.
Now confident about the true nature of this coin, I had to announce the sad news to its owner: the case of the Bangkok pearls was closed. One day later, the Chinese coin collector posted a follow up. He had got confirmation from another coin dealer that the coin was indeed a forgery, and was able to return it for a refund. This case had a happy ending; not all do…