I bought a Fengtian dollar a few months ago, for the hefty sum of 40,000CNY – about $6000 USD. It was a very crisp looking, almost uncirculated, but unfortunately badly cleaned dollar. The edge was very convincing too, with a little bit of what looked like verdigris in some reeds. I was just somewhat intrigued by hints of a black substance around the legends and the rim. It didn’t look like carbon spots, more like some kind of ink. I wasn’t too worried though: quite often, people dipping coins are disappointed when they find out it doesn’t tone anymore, so they try to artificially colour the coin. Using chinese ink is not so uncommon for that purpose. Even with these issues, Fengtian coins with full details are very hard to come by, so I bought it.
As time went by, I found out a few minute difference between my coins and some similar ones sold in auction houses. The cloud below the rightmost claw of the dragon was not exactly the same shape than on the pictures. The left 口 of 器 was calligraphied slightly differently as well: on other coins, the right stroke is sticking out a bit at the bottom. One Manchu character on the reverse lacked a serif. Since these differences were very subtle, I thought it was maybe just another die variation. I searched for more pictures of genuine coins of that type, but I eventually was unable to find one looking exactly like mine: all of them shared the same features.
At that point it seemed less and less likely that my coin was genuine. I went back to the market where I had bought it, with the idea to get it assayed by expert coin dealers there, and to get my money back if they confirmed it was a forgery. Two of them examined it carefully and said they were not sure if it was genuine or fake, but that it looked convincing enough. The third one said it was probably genuine, but warned me he was not a specialist of the coins from this province.
I was not satisfied by these answers. I was about to leave, when I decided to try asking a last coin dealer. She was a nice elderly lady, and when I asked her if she thought the coin was genuine, she didn’t reach for her magnifying glass like everyone else. Instead, she simply took one of her coin, a British trade dollar, and hit my dollar with it. Then she hit the trade dollar with my coin. It didn’t sounded the same… That was definitely a bad sign, and I felt a bit ashamed to not have used this old trick myself before.
She then fetched a tiny portable weighing machine. The coin weighed 25.9 grams. One gram underweight. The verdict was clear: the coin was fake, as the kind old lady was now telling me. She also quickly checked if it was magnetic, but there was no real need at that point. While all of us, proud of our knowledge of chinese numismatics, were pondering if the coin was real or not by looking at the minute details of its surface, she found out the truth in the most elegant way. She just went back to the basics and worked it out from here.
Reader Angie recently sent me some pictures of her Yuan Shi Kai dollar for evaluation. After a quick examination, I instantly knew the coin was fake. It is particularly interesting nonetheless. Can you spot what is wrong with this coin?
Well, aside of the usual suspects (colour, crude calligraphy…), the main problem is in the date. Yuan Shi Kai dollars have been struck continuously from 1914 to 1921, but only four dates appear on the coins: 3rd year of the Republic of China, 8th, 9th and 10th year.
Even if you can not read Chinese, the coins made in the 3rd year (1914) are easily identifiable because there is only six characters above the bust of Yuan Shi Kai. Subsequent years all have seven characters, due to the addition of the character “造” (which means “Made during…”).
Here, you can see that there is six characters on the obverse. So, this should be a 1914 dollar, isn’t it? If you can read chinese numerals, you will see this is not the case. The number “3″ is written “三” in Chinese, and here we can see that the coin is dated from the 4th year (四), 1915…
I had already seen some fake Yuan Shi Kai coins were the characters had been replaced by floral patterns, but I had never seen that kind of forgeries before. It can apparently be bought for a little more than $1 USD on TaoBao (the equivalent of eBay in China).
This is an interesting case, as the forger has boldly chosen to rely on the collector’s excitement and pride at the idea of having found a rare, previously unknown variation of a common coin to lure them!
Kiangnan dollars were minted at the Nanking mint from 1897 to 1905. Early coins have a unique design and are quite scarce, but from 1899 on, the Nanking mint was one of the most prolific mint in China and the subsequent issues are common chinese coins. Some later years emissions have scarce variations or interesting varieties, though it may not be easy to immediately identify them for the casual collector, since the coins are all dated using the sexagenary cycle of the traditional chinese calendar.
A picture is worth a thousand words: the table below should make it very easy for anyone to identify the year of production of the various Kiangnan dollars.
Amongst them, the 1903 Gui Mao (癸卯) and the 1905 Yi Si (乙巳) coins are the scarcest and most valuable. In this article, I would like however to focus on the 1904 Jia Chen (甲辰) coin, which is more common but has an interesting history.
Starting from 1901, all the Kiangnan coins had some marks added next to the characters indicating the year. In the year of Xin Chou (辛丑), the initials of the British assayer H. A. Holmes, working for the Nanking mint, were apposed on the coins as a guarantee of their purity. Indeed, sloppy minting in the previous years raised concerns that people would start to distrust the coins and return to using the foreign currency circulating at the time. On the Gui Mao (癸卯) coins, a distinctive five pointed rosette was added as well.
In 1904 (Jia Chen (甲辰) year), two different marks were used in addition to the usual HAH initials: TH and CH.
According to the mint records, only one million coins with the TH mark were minted. It is generally supposed that “TH” are the initials of the die engraver, but his name has unfortunately been lost. Some have said that “TH” stood for the first two letters of the name of the auxiliary mint director (副厂长), Deng Ju (邓矩), but this seems unlikely. The Wade-Giles romanisation (in use at the time) of his name would be Teng Chü, not Theng.
While the meaning of the TH initials remains obscure, it is probable that CH does actually stand for the name of the new director of the mint, who took up his functions the same year. At the time, the direction of the mint changed frequently due to the fact it was a very lucrative – and thus, coveted – position. In April 1903, Shen Bang Xian (沈邦宪) was appointed director, then replaced in September of the same year by Pan Ru Jie (潘汝杰), himself succeeded in April 1904 by Zhang Qian Jie (张迁杰)… Zhang Qian Jie was in charge during the time the Jia Chen coin were minted, and the initials of his surname (romanised Chang at the time) match the CH mark.
If this is indeed the meaning of the CH mark, it becomes easier to put a timeline on the production of the different versions of this coin. The coins marked TH use the same design than the previous year, likely because the engraver didn’t had the time yet to complete the new dies. Some CH coins use the old dragon design too, but with a new reverse, as seen below.
Why the haste to engrave a new reverse and put it in production when the obverse wasn’t even completed? Well, it must have been tempting for the newly appointed director to seize the opportunity to immortalise his name on the new dies, knowing full well that his successor in six months would not be able to replace them before the next year… This scheme worked even better than he could have expected when the Jia Chen dies bearing his initials were reused from November 1911 to February 1912, after the fall of the last Emperor.
From this timeline, it is easier to determine which coins were minted during the Qing era and which coins are republican restrikes: coins bearing the TH marks, and early CH coins featuring the old dragon design, were both obviously made in 1904. For subsequent coins, things are somewhat less clear. Coins with the new dragon design and the CH initials have die differences too; and the most common of them is the addition of dots on the reverse.
As seen above, the new dragon design only differs subtly from its predecessor. The face of the dragon and the design of the flame to the left of the central fireball are the most distinctive differences; one can see that the weaker strike on the tail of the dragon (next to its right hindleg) has also been fixed.
The coin pictured above features another interesting difference: a dot has been added next to the denomination. This alteration was probably made on republican restrikes, like the variant of the 1911 imperial silver dollar (with a dot after “DOLLAR”) which was actually minted after the fall of the Manchu regime. Coins with dots on the reverse but without the dot after the denomination were thus quite possibly minted during the Qing era.
A scarcer variation exists, with rosettes instead of dots on the reverse. It is likely that this coin was minted in 1904 as well.
Of all these variations, the coins bearing the TH mark are the scarcest and the most expensive. The CH coins are all much less valuable, due to their relative abundance. This lead less than scrupulous coins dealers to scrub the C out of their common coin, and replace it with a T in an attempt to “upgrade” their coin and sell it for an higher price. Unfortunately for them, these initials is not the only difference between these coins. As we discussed before, some CH coins have the same dragon design than the TH coins, but not all. Even if the counterfeiter is careful and pick the right dragon pattern, the reverse of these coins has obvious differences for the connoisseur.
- The “legs” (3rd and 4th stroke) of the Yuan character, 元, are connected on a genuine TH
- The 甲 character points between the top and middle horizontal bars (1st and 2nd stroke) of the 元 character on a genuine TH coin
- The 甲 character points to the 2nd stroke of the 元 character on a CH coin
- the 辰 character is slightly “higher” (closer to HAH) on a genuine TH coin
As usual, always be careful and exerce your judgement when you buy an old chinese coin !