Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure to travel back to the Szechuan province to pay an overdue visit to an old friend. Between enjoying the wonderful food in Nanchong and sipping tea by the Jialing river in Langzhong, I asked my friend to show me the antique market where the year before she had impulsively bought a lot of sixty fake coins. It was an excellent excuse for a stroll and I was curious to see if there would be anything genuine there. After walking through the crowded streets of the old Nanchong, we reached the market and went from shop to shop. There was indeed nothing of value, and I was ready to leave when a seller in a 旮旮旯旯 (pronounced kakagogo’r) corner of the market told me that he could show me interesting Chinese coins if I came back tomorrow.

Szechuan dollar Y-238 L&M 345 Doubled Die Obverse

 

The seller kept his word and indeed presented me genuine coins the next day. One of them caught my attention: it was one of the famous Szechuan three musketeers (四川三剑客). The Sān jiàn kè is a trio of rare and famous varieties of the Szechuan dollar, particularly coveted by Chinese coin collectors. These varieties are very difficult to find in good shape, some having been struck with badly duplicated dies, like the one I just found.

Szechuan dollar Y-238 L&M 345 Doubled Die Obverse

Szechuan dollar Y-238 L&M 345 Doubled Die Obverse

The coin I had in front of me was a 剑毛龙 (sharp spines dragon), with a misshapen 庫 character on the reverse: the top of the vertical stroke of 車, which normally should connect to the 广, was missing. The full name of this rare variety: “Sharp Spines Dragon, with a decapitated Chē and a rosette with dot” (剑毛龙无头车(花心带点)) sounds like a dish from a French restaurant menu but it is necessary to precisely identify this particular type amongst more than two hundred recensed varieties of the Szechuan dollar.

Szechuan dollar Y-238 L&M 345 DDO - Reverse

Szechuan dollar Y-238 L&M 345 DDO – Reverse

Szechuan dollar (detail): dot in rosette, decapitated 車 in 庫

Szechuan dollar (detail): dot in rosette, decapitated 車 in 庫



This variety is famous for the doubling of the English legend, especially on the word PROVINCE. The weak strike on the dragon scales and right eye are also normal for this particular type, most likely from trying to duplicate an already damaged die. If we had to draw a parallel with the Three Musketeers from Alexandre Dumas, this dragon burdened with a doubled die may be Aramis, struggling to reconcile the double life of an aspiring abbot become soldier…

The 7 Mace and 3 Candareens error Szechuan dollar

Szechuan error coin: 7 mace and 3 candareens

Szechuan error coin: 7 mace and 3 candareens

The coin I got in Nanchong is only second in rarity to the 7 mace and 3 candareens Szechuan dollar. That error coin is very hard to obtain in good condition, with most specimen available only in VF grade or less. The Chinese name of the variety is 尖角龙七三误书, or Pointed Horns Dragon with 7.3 lettering error. Despite its stated weight of 7 mace and 3 candareens in English on the obverse, the coin has a Chinese face value of 7 mace and 2 candareens, and a regular size and weight, contrary to the early Kwang-Tung dollar of same denomination that actually had a higher silver content. This rare error coin is affectuously called 三剑客老大 by Szechuan dollar collectors: the beloved elder of the Szechuan three Musketeers. I guess this rare and fierce dragon could be compared to Athos, the stern fatherly figure which is also the last to make its appearance in the book.

Szechuan dollar Y-243 L&M 352



The third musketeer is conversely the easiest to find of the trio. Called 大折金珍珠龙 in Chinese, or Pearl-scaled dragon with Crooked Gold, its particularity resides in the bold bottom stroke of the 金 part of the character 錢, which features an extravagant hook.

Szechuan dollar Y-243 L&M 352 - Obverse

Szechuan dollar Y-243 L&M 352 – Obverse

Szechuan dollar Y-243 L&M 352 - Reverse

Szechuan dollar Y-243 L&M 352 – Reverse


Szechuan dollar (detail): crooked 金 in 錢 character

Szechuan dollar (detail): crooked 金 in 錢 character

The Pearl-scaled dragon is one of the most beautiful varieties of the Szechuan dollar: most collectors will only seek it in higher grade, with all its scales still visible (全龙鳞), rejecting lesser condition coins (somewhat harshly called 垃圾龙, dragon-trash). Porthos, the elegant musketeer from Dumas’ epic, would likely have most fancied this last variety.

Reader Arun sent me pictures of the Kwang-Tung dollar below, seeking confirmation of its authenticity. While I could see the coin was fake at a glance, I also thought it could make a good case study.

A fake Kwang-Tung dollar, courtesy of reader Arun

A fake Kwang-Tung dollar, courtesy of reader Arun

When beginner or casual collectors attempt to detect forgeries, they will usually try to determine if the coin they have in hand looks similar enough to a known “good coin”, usually from an illustrated coin catalogue. The problem with this method is the pictures included in printed catalogues are mostly meant to help identify a coin type and therefore rather small; they do not expose enough details for this comparison process to be meaningful.

The Kwang-Tung dollar is especially ill-fitted for this approach. A lot of them suffer from weak strike, and it can be easy for the unaverted eye to mistakenly match the overall coarseness of a fake coin with the fading details of a genuine coin struck with worn dies.

A genuine Kwang-Tung dollar

A genuine Kwang-Tung dollar

Even using the high resolution picture above, an inexperienced Chinese coins collector may think both coins are identical. This is because most casual collectors will “read” the coin: instead of seeing that the shape of the lettering is different (much bolder on the fake coin), they will see the text on both coins is the same. More subtle details like the coin denticles are likely to be ignored, as a boring frame for the devices of the coin: the attention of the beginner will be focused instead on the dragon, which is badly struck on both coins and thus actually rather similar.

It is however entirely possible to see that this coin is fake without even examining its devices. The “grainy” aspect of the surface of our reader’s coin, and the many “bumps” I circled in red are clear indication that this coin was struck with low quality cast dies. Such dies suffer from a common defect, called gas porosity voids, which results of the expansion of gas entrapped during the metal handling or in the injection process. A coin struck using such dies will exhibit the lusterless, pimply surfaces typical of a low grade forgery.

"Pimples" caused by a cast die defects

“Pimples” caused by a cast die defects (click to enlarge)

If you ever find such a poor replica coin in a shop, it is a safe bet that you will not be able to find a genuine coin there…

Last month I wrote that chinese coins collectors ought to be especially careful in hunting fantasy dollars. Counterfeiters are well aware of the growing interest in these very special coins and have been increasingly daring and creative to profit from this trend.

This month I would like to show you a very interesting sample: a Szechuan dollar struck over a Sinkiang tael.

Szechuan dollar struck over a Sinkiang 1917 tael (obverse)

Szechuan dollar struck over a Sinkiang 1917 tael (obverse)

Szechuan dollar struck over a Sinkiang 1917 tael (reverse)

Szechuan dollar struck over a Sinkiang 1917 tael (reverse)




This unusual Chinese coin has been cleverly crafted to deceive advanced collectors. The design of this Szechuan dollar could reasonably be attributed to some unofficial or private mint, and details of the host coin are immediately noticeable underneath, particularly on the reverse.

Overstruck Xinjiang 1917 tael

Overstruck Xinjiang 1917 tael

Xinjiang tael (1917)

Xinjiang tael (1917)




This intriguing coin is obviously tempting for the warlord dollars collector. It is however a cheap forgery. The weight of this coin (35 grams) is consistent with its face value of one Xiāng Píng Tael (湘平壹两), and the worn out surfaces effectively conceal the abnormally soft details of the host coin. The shallow strike on the rims is still visible though and should immediately arouse suspicion. More generally, a 1917 coin of an higher denomination overstruck with a demonetized, lower face value coin type should also raise a few eyebrows.

The main problem with this coin though is that this particular Sichuan dollar design is a well-known fake Chinese coin type. From that point on, it is easy to guess that some enterprising counterfeiter decided that striking fake Xinjiang taels with an odd-looking Szechuan dollar would make them more interesting and less obvious to spot.

Fake Sichuan Dollar

Fake Sichuan Dollar