A reader from France recently sent me pictures of this Chinese silver coin with beautiful double dragons on the obverse. I was astonished: usually, this kind of coins is only seen in large auctions and I never had someone contacting me about a genuine one. Not only this coin was obviously genuine, but it was the better, very rare Large Characters variety:
As you can see, on the Large Characters variety the manchu script at the center of the coin is connected to the surrounding Chinese characters in two different places. On the more common Small Characters variety, the characters don’t connect.
The 1904 Hupeh tael, whichever variety, is always a rare coin. It only circulated for one month before being scrapped, and only 648,000 were minted in the first place. It is impossible to know how many survived, but there is only 224 coins graded by PCGS to this day, of which only 25 with the “Large Characters” variety. On June 25, Heritage Auctions sold a perfect one for $360,000 USD in Hong Kong.
The strangest thing about my reader’s coin is the circulation wear:
Most of the surviving 1904 Hupeh Tael are in high grade because they were thesaurized as high denomination coins and left untouched. It seems this one somehow escaped the Hupeh province and circulated elsewhere, likely for its weight in silver ?
PCGS certified this coin VF30: this is the lowest grade for this type, but a privilege to even hold it in one’s hand. Only two dozens are known to exist in the world right now, and it is a very rare pleasure indeed to help add one to the census !
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):
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:
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).
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:
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.