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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 !
I had previously written about the 25th year of Kwang Hsu Fengtien dollars, which is one of my favourite Chinese silver dollars. I would like to complete my previous article by introducing another interesting die variation, which brings the total to 4 main variations for this one year type coin.
1st variation: Smiling Dragon, Pearl Circle (细龙珠圈)
This is most likely the first variation produced. The style is very similar to the one of the previous year, and it is very well executed. However, die engraving is quite a technical art, and a small mistake can lead to damaged dies and coins defects. This particular variation was unfortunately afflicted with a die crack running through the 绪 character. The severity of the die crack varies depending on the time the coin was struck, but it is always present on genuine coins. You will also notice that the swirl on the fireball is weakly struck. On the reverse, there is a problem with typography (bad spacing between F and U) and weak strike (on G -).
2nd variation: Crude Dragon, Pearl Circle (粗龙珠圈)
This variation is a complete redesign of the previous one. It is likely that this pair of dies was made as soon as the defects of the previous one were known. Compared to its predecessor, it seems like a rushed job. The face of the dragon looks flat and crude compared to the first version. The spacing of the Chinese characters is unbalanced (局 and 造 are too close, 年 and 奉 as well), while the legend of the first version was evenly spaced. The reverse was improved though, the bad spacing in the English text was fixed and it is now clearly struck, however it was the turn of the pearl circle to suffer from weak strike.
3rd variation; Crude Dragon, Double Circle (粗龙双圈)
While overall the 25th year of Guang Xu Fengtien coins are rare, some variations are scarcer than others. The coins with a single circle of pearls are more common than the double circle variations. The first variation to present this double circle is actually an incremental revision of the 2nd variation. The obverse was reworked to correct the chinese characters spacing and slightly improve the dragon pattern, which remains cruder than the 1st design.
On the reverse, I suspect the solid circle was added while correcting the weak strike on the pearl circle. By superposing a pictures of the 2nd and 3rd variation, it is easy to see that the dragon pattern was heavily modified, but that the die for the reverse is virtually identical – only the circle was added. However, as seen above, it was now TIEN which was weakly struck…
4th variation: Smiling Dragon, Double Circle (细龙双圈)
This is the additional version that I want to introduce. It is in my opinion the most interesting variation for this coin. The reverse has been completely reworked, keeping the solid circle. The manchu script has been fixed, and the whole face is well struck.
However, a die crack appeared at 5 o’clock.
The dragon design has been updated as well, in the fine style of the 1st variation. Its face is artfully designed, in the fashion of previous Fengtien coins, with the smiling dragon seemingly flying toward the high relief fireball.
The dragon is much smaller than the one featured on the cruder variations, and the spacing of the Chinese legend has been improved as well, which makes this obverse much more balanced and good looking.
I believe this variation was the last silver dollar minted at the Fengtien machine bureau before the short lived 1903 dollar, four years later. Indeed, this particular design is often seen with a huge die crack on the reverse, and late samples seem to have been struck with very worn out and damaged dies. This leads me to believe no more dies were made afterward and the last ones were used until they broke down, their degradation mirroring the one of the political situation in the Fungtien province.