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.
The “Lao Kiang Nan” (老江南) silver coin is one of the most sought after chinese dragon dollars. The Heaton Mint at Birmingham was commissioned in 1897 to produce a series of five silver denominations for the Nanking Mint. Upon completion, a small number of proof strikes along with sets of dies were shipped to the mint in Nanking. After their arrival the mint began production using the original Heaton Mint design, the only modification being the addition of a security edge.
The first set minted by the Nanking mint for circulation, and the scarcest, has a reeded edge. The english legend has some distinctive differences: the weak crossbars of the “A” in “KIANG NAN” make them look like inverted “V”. Also, the calligraphy of the character 省 on the reverse was modified (the top of the 目 part of the character is open).
Subsequent strikes used an ornamented edge; this type is called 人字齿 or 人字边 by Chinese collectors, due to the pattern. The Lao Kiang Nan with an ornamented edge are far more common, and less expensive. You can see below a comparison of the edges of three ornamented edge Lao Kiang Nan, and one reeded edge:
Amongst the ornamented edge strikes, there is few known die differences. Even “common” Lao Kiang Nan coins are still quite scarce!
The ornamented edge Lao Kiang Nan is closer to the original design from the Heaton mint: the english lettering is identical, but the Chinese calligraphy used is the same than on the reeded edge. This is the most commonly found type of Lao Kiang Nan.
An early type of ornamented edge Lao Kiang Nan is much scarcer, with a reverse identical to the original Heaton design. It is called 人字齿目省 in China.
It is difficult nowadays to find uncirculated, even XF grade Lao Kiang Nan silver coins. Beautiful genuine coins are hoarded by collectors, so the market is saturated by fake or low grade coins. Outside of auction houses, finding a good looking reeded edge Lao Kiang Nan can be quite a challenge. The value of Qing era Chinese silver coins has soared in the recent years, and as one of the most coveted dragon dollar, the Lao Kiang Nan is no exception: an XF-45, uncleaned, reeded edge Lao Kiang Nan can be easily sold for 5000€.