Most of you likely have or have seen a 1908 Chihli dollar. It is one of the most commonly seen Chinese silver coins due to its relatively high mintage, it is also one of the most affordable, and it is therefore many a collector’s “first dollar”.

The famous dragon with its wide, crocodilian grin and delicate scales has more to offer to the devoted collector than it appears: while the Y73.2 type that everyone knows is abundant, the varieties currently filed by default under the Y73.4 catalog number are both excitingly rare and hard to find in good condition. There is also scant literature about them in English.

Advanced collectors will already know about the “crosslet 4″ or “fancy 3″ varieties that sometimes appear in auctions, but these labels currently conflate merely scarce varieties with extremely rare ones. For example, the coin below, labelled as “Fancy 3″ is actually called 北洋肥3 in China (“Pudgy 3″ in English):

Chihli 1908 dollar Y73.4 "Fancy 3" - actually a rare "Pudgy 3"

Chihli 1908 dollar Y73.4 “Fancy 3″ – actually a rare “Pudgy 3″ (photo: 劉夢雲)

This very rare variety in AU condition is worth ¥60,000 yuan Renminbi, almost $10,000 USD. This is an order of magnitude more than common “Fancy 3″ varieties, like this coin sold at Baldwin’s Hong Kong auction 48 in 2010:

A common type of "Fancy 3"

A common type of “Fancy 3″ (photo: Baldwin’s Auctions)

Even holders labeled as Y73.2 can be full of surprises. Consider this coin from my collection, which I bought in an NGC holder with the grade AU55. An oblivious collector might dismiss it as banal, while it is actually the best known specimen of the extremely rare 丑3 variety (literaly “ugly 3″ in Chinese) and is worth north of ¥80,000 yuan Renminbi ($13,000 USD).

Chihli 1908 (34th year of Kuang Hsu) Homely 3 variety

Chihli 1908 (34th year of Kuang Hsu) Homely 3 variety (photo: 劉夢雲)

This variety is the rarest of the whole 34th year of Kuang Hsu series, with only a dozen of coins found across China. It is the missing link between the early “Fancy 3″/”Cross 4″ Y73.4 varieties, which use a typeface similar to the 33th year of Kuang Hsu, and the classic Y73.2 typeface. As awareness of this historically significant variety grew amongst Chinese collectors, an even rarer subtype was discovered last year:

Chihli 1908 Homely 3/flat head

Chihli 1908 Homely 3/flat head (photo: Coinsky)

Only a few coins with this flatter 3 have been discovered, all in VF conditions. So, dear readers, keep your eyes peeled and do not look down upon common types. Like in the story of the Ugly Duckling, appearances are often misleading: the Homely 3 which had been handled as a banal Y73.2 Chihli dollar has already risen to the rank of numismatic star.

Homely 3/flat head

Homely 3/flat head (photo: Coinsky)

Summer is nearing its end, and the Hong Kong auctions season begins. August is usually an interesting time for Chinese coins collectors, when rare coins are made available on the market and new prices are set.

I was browsing the catalogue of Rarehouse, when I was intrigued by one of the highlight of the auction. The denticles of the lot 1355, a rare Yuan Shih Kai pattern coin, bothered me. These teeth reminded me a lot of two other coins I have seen before.

The first coin was introduced to me by a good friend, who was already in the midst of negociation with the owner and wanted my opinion about the deal. It was a beautiful specimen of an extremely rare Yuan Shih Kai dollar, with the signature of the famous Italian engraver L. Giorgi.

Fake KM Pn33 - L&M 73 L. Giorgi pattern Yuan Shih Kai dollar

KM Pn33 – L&M 73 L. Giorgi pattern Yuan Shih Kai dollar (reverse)

Fake KM Pn33 - L&M 73 L. Giorgi pattern Yuan Shih Kai dollar (obverse)

KM Pn33 – L&M 73 L. Giorgi pattern Yuan Shih Kai dollar (obverse)

The price tag was not too high for this type – ¥200,000 CNY, or about $32,000 USD. This looked like a good deal, but I usually collect Imperial dragon dollars, so I decided to learn more about this type online.

That’s how I stumbled upon the sister of that coin. It was sold in 2005 on Coinsky, one of the largest numismatic forums in China, by the same collector from the Jiangsu province that now proposed to my friend the coin that sparked my curiosity.

Fake YSK pattern dollar (2005)

Fake YSK pattern dollar (2005)

Fake YSK pattern dollar (2005)

Fake YSK pattern dollar (2005)

The identical scratches could not lie; as in previous articles, this was an indubitable proof that both coins were fake (click on the picture on the right for higher resolution).

Identical scratches (2005 YSK dollar)

Identical scratches (2005 YSK dollar)

KM Pn33 LM73 L Giorgi with identical scratches

KM Pn33 LM73 L Giorgi with identical scratches

Both replica coins also shared a strange defect, especially for pattern coins: the denticles on their obverse were really badly struck. Here is for comparison a picture of a genuine, graded pattern, lot 41099 at the upcoming Stack’s Bowers auction:

Genuine Yuan Shih Kai dollar (L. Giorgi signature)

Genuine Yuan Shih Kai dollar (L. Giorgi signature)

Small details matter: as you can see, the denticles are sharp and well struck.

My advice to fellow collectors looking forward to acquire rare and expensive Chinese coins this season would be to favour coins graded by PCGS. Raw coins can be cheaper, but if they end up being fake, you are on your own. For this kind of high level items, this can mean a $32,000 USD setback…

Kiangnan beauty

On April 9, 2014, in Chinese Coins, byDragon Dollar

Basking in the diffuse light of the Beijing sky, five beauties from the Kiangnan province are quietly witnessing the end of another day. Everything under the setting sun is suddenly tinged with a nostalgic golden colour.

Kiangnan - 1898 Circlet-like scales dragon, cloud under K

Kiangnan – 1898 Pearl scales dragon, cloud under K

This glistening “Circlet-like scales” dragon is a rare breed. The doubled die turned its armour into a chainmail, delicately adorned with pearls. Below the K of Kiangnan Province, a lonely cloud has been struck in silver. The 江南戊戌珍珠龙K下多云 is an extremely rare variety, especially that well preserved. Most of the known specimen have already been worn down by a century of turmoil.

Kiangnan – 1898 Pearl scales dragon with long spines and no tongue

Kiangnan – 1898 Pearl scales dragon with long spines and no tongue

Collectors often wish coins could talk. This dragon would still be unable to tell them what it went through: he never had a tongue to begin with. His body covered in pearls is but skin and bones, meager and bristled with longer spines. The 江南戊戌长毛无舌珍珠龙 is a war-weary survivor, but it is still more easy to find than its cloudy cousin. This specimen hides more distinctive features on its back:

Kiangnan 1898 Pearl scales dragon - reverse

Kiangnan 1898 Pearl scales dragon – reverse

The rightmost Manchu character is broken, like the handle of a battered teapot. The “戊” character is also missing a stroke, left forever unfinished:

Kiangnan - 1898 Pearl scales dragon (reverse detail)

Kiangnan – 1898 Pearl scales dragon (reverse detail)

This particular combination of scars is uncommon; other coins of this type were usually struck with a complete date and Manchu inscriptions. The dragons with pearl scales are especially rare and beautiful, but other remarkable varieties were made the same year.

Kiangnan 1898 Hirsute Dragon

Kiangnan 1898 Hirsute Dragon

Endowed with a luxurious beard, the 江南戊戌大胡子龙 is a very popular variety amongst Chinese coins collectors. It is especially hard to catch one with all its exuberant pilosity left intact despite the passage of time.

Kiangnan - 1898 Eyeball Rev Dot, with long denticles

Kiangnan – 1898 Eyeball Rev Dot, with long denticles

The darting glance of its silver irides and the dot on its reverse are easily identifiable: this is a 江南戊戌凸眼龙满文中心点, a famous and desirable 1898 Kiangnan variety. However, it still has a subtle je ne sais quoi which makes it more pleasing to the eye than usual. After a while, the Chinese coins collector may realise that the dragon is framed within a circle of long denticles, conferring a unique harmony to the whole. While long denticles on the obverse are nice, long denticles on both sides are better:

Kiangnan - 1898 Eyeball Rev Dot, with long denticles (reverse)

Kiangnan – 1898 Eyeball Rev Dot, with long denticles (reverse)

Of course, this tasteful variety is extremely rare. There exists a similar “long denticles” variety for the last appearance of the Old Dragon, on the 1899 已亥 Kiangnan silver dollar:

Kiangnan - 1899 Long denticles

Kiangnan – 1899 Long denticles

Like the toning on this last Kiangnan dollar, the sky has already turned dark. Then all the charm is broken, and I leave the Kiangnan beauties to their contemplation.