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)

A reader from Germany contacted me recently about an enigmatic coin he bought on the flea market for 5 Euros. While not a coin collector, he loves curiosities and was profundly intrigued by this unusual Dragon Dollar


A lucky dollar!

A lucky dollar!

… a beautiful Almond Eyed Dragon from the Peiyang Arsenal mint, one of the rarest variety of an already scarce type. It was obviously handled with great care; the dragon had kept all its scales, his fierce eyes still as piercing as a hundred years ago, when it first went out of the Peiyang Arsenal.

Without the mounting marks at 4 and 8 o’clock, this coin would be worth at least 4,000 Euros!

The design of the early Peiyang dragons is interesting as it is very strictly conforming to the traditional nine anatomical attributes of the Chinese Dragon:

  • Deer horns
  • Camel head
  • Demon eyes
  • Bull ears
  • Snake neck
  • Sea-serpent (蜃) belly
  • Carp scales
  • Eagle claws
  • Tiger soles

Additionally, the Chinese dragon has a growth on his forehead, the Chĭ Mù (尺木), without which it is unable to ascend to the sky (龙无尺木,无以升天).

The depiction of the dragon on the coins issued in the 23rd year of Guāng Xù has been altered multiple times, with most changes related to the dragon’s eyes – probably due to the difficulty in finding a Demon to pose and capture its gaze…

The Evil-eyed Dragon (三角眼)

Evil-eyed Dragon Dollar

Evil-eyed Dragon Dollar

The dragon engraved on this first variety has evil, sightless “Triangle Eyes“, not unlike the 1896 test piece. It had most likely a high mintage, since it is only slightly scarcer than the most common variety for this year, the Beady Eyed Dragon, but it is hard to find in good condition nonetheless. Most of the surviving coins are worn out and damaged. There exists two additional variations of the “Evil Eyed Dragon”, both extremely rare:

The Hidden Cross (异形龙尾上十字)

The Hidden Cross (异形龙尾上十字)

The Hidden Rose (异形龙尾上花)

The Hidden Rose (异形龙尾上花)

The “Hidden Cross” and “Hidden Rose” die variations. In both varieties, a mysterious mark was added above the tip of the coiled tail.

The Almond-eyed Dragon (过渡眼三角眼)

Almond-eyed Dragon Dollar

Almond-eyed Dragon Dollar

This beautiful die variation can seem superficially very similar to the Evil Eyed Dragon, with only the addition of irides to the previously blind triangle eyes. However, by looking carefully, one can see clearly that this variety is not a mere modification of the original “Evil Eyed Dragon” but a whole revision of the initial pattern. The shape of the clouds surrounding the dragon is different, more intricate. The thigh of the dragon is now shorter. Five dots disposed in a cross pattern were also added to the pearl of wisdom. This type is only second in rarity to the mysterious Hidden Cross and Hidden Rose varieties.

The Beady-eyed Dragon (圆眼龙)

Beady-eyed Dragon Dollar

Beady-eyed Dragon Dollar

The Beady Eyed Dragon (which is the most common variant of the 1897 Peiyang dollar) has rounded eyes, contrary to the all the previous dies made that year. Like the Almond Eyed Dragon, it is a complete redesign, with the surrounding clouds and the shape of the eyes being modified. The change from a triangular to a rounded shape will persist in all the subsequent issues of the Peiyang mint.

The Dog-headed Dragon (狗头龙)

Dog-headed Dragon Dollar

Dog-headed Dragon Dollar

This very rare type is the last one minted in the 23rd year of Kwang Hsü. The dragon’s head has been completely redesigned, with short horns and a much bigger Chĭ Mù (尺木) on his forehead. The shape and style of the clouds has also been refined. This coin likely served as the prototype for the 24th year of Guāng Xù dollar, which keeps most of the new cloud details and the same Dragon face, although engraved in a crude fashion. The very striking difference in style makes me wonder if the Dog Headed Dragon dies could have been commissioned from another mint, but there is no conclusive evidence to support this theory.

All these dragon dollars are hard to find nowadays, due to the initial unpopularity of these coins: they were the first Chinese coinage denominated in Yuan (圆) and Jiao (角), while the whole country was still using the traditional monetary system based on weight. Their rejection caused most of them to be melted in order to mint new coins denominated in Mace and Candareens.

Congratulations to our German reader for making such a wonderful Snäppchen!

I have been to Chengdu in December and made a detour by the local coins market during my stay there. The 1908 Chihli dollar is a very common coin, but one specimen I saw there caught my attention, for it had a very uncommon feature: a huge dot just above the back of the dragon.

Since the coin did not look like a forgery, I bought it for the regular market price of the time, about¥2000 CNY. As soon as I went back to the hotel, I started looking for information about this peculiar variety online. Despite scouring many online boards and obscure blogs, I could not find any information about it. I was only able to find a single picture of a coin just like the one I had just purchased, but it was not taken to illustrate the variety: simply for sale.

Peiyang 34th year dollar - with dot

Peiyang 34th year dollar - with dots

I highlighted the differences in red on this picture. One could be tempted to argue that the big dot is the result of some problem with the die or minting process, but looking at the details of the back of the dragon, there is a second, more subtle difference. There is another dot between two spines of its dorsal crest. Here is a regular 1908 Peiyang dollar, for comparison (click on the picture to enlarge it):

Peiyang 34th year dollar

Peiyang 34th year dollar

When I went back to Beijing, I showed my coin to several of my coin dealer friends. All of them confirmed it was indeed genuine, but only one of them had encountered this variety before. He had seen two such coins in his career, but did not knew anything about the history behind this strange variation.

My theory is that since at least four coins exist with the exact same differences, including the smaller dot between the spines, proves it is not the result of a freak minting incident but a bona fide variety. I sent my own coin to NGC this month, and I hope getting my specimen slabbed will be a first step toward recognition of this very scarce variety!