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.
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.
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:
The rightmost Manchu character is broken, like the handle of a battered teapot. The “戊” character is also missing a stroke, left forever unfinished:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
This is a common saying in the numismatic community – to the point of becoming a cliché – but it still bears repeating: buy the coin, not the holder. Today I will share with you the details of an unfortunate purchase, which hopefully should serve as a cautionary tale for fellow Chinese coins collectors.
Collecting is a demanding hobby; to stay ahead of increasingly deceptive forgeries, ingenious alterations or tooling, one needs to keep on learning the most intimate details of Chinese coins. It may sometimes be tempting to simply rely on the knowledge of others and buy a coin that is “out of our league” with a relative peace of mind. I would urge my readers to resist this temptation, though. Certificates from grading companies and the opinion of more experienced collectors should only help confirm your own judgement.
I recently bought a very rare and beautiful Chinese coin from a reputed Shanghai dealer. The Dragon dollar was in a PCGS holder, and the seller guaranteed that the coin had not been repaired or cleaned. The competition to buy this beautiful rarity was intense and I had all the reasons to buy with confidence, so I gave in to temptation:
The coin I coveted is a particularly interesting variety of the famous Kiangnan Pearl Scales Dragon (also known as Dragon with Circlet-like Scales). The dragon lost its tongue to weak strike, and has longer spines on its back and tail (江南戊戌珍珠龙长毛无舌版). Additionally, this particular specimen has a very special characteristic, that I had never seen before: the top of the 庫 character, probably due to a die chip, was perfectly rounded (圆头庫).
When I received the coin and could carefully examine its surface, I started to experience this uneasy feeling familiar to collectors: the left brain knows something is amiss, while the right brain emotionaly defends the purchase. The coin was definitely genuine, but I could not help but think the toning and surfaces had some unnatural quality to them. Pushed by intuition, I started researching the pedigree of this coin online; something I should better have done before buying! When I came across the picture below, my unease only grew:
At first glance, it seemed unlikely that both coins were the same; the dragon dollar sold at the Shanghai Chongyuan auctions was heavily chopmarked. Both coins had a similar feeling to them though, and poring over the pictures, my troubled gaze feverishly jumping from identical circulation marks to the same rim nicks, I was increasingly convinced that it was indeed my coin, before it had been skillfully altered by a devious craftsman. I highlighted the details of interest below:
Carved right into the silver was the proof that the coin I bought was removed from its original GBCA holder, tooled with remarkable craftsmanship, artificially toned and successfully submitted to PCGS. Altering coins is a cardinal sin in numismatics: it is always done with the intention to deceive collectors and artificially inflate the value of a coin. I personally consider this practice tantamount to counterfeiting.
Circulation marks, nicks and scratches are the unique fingerprint of a coin. If on pictures two coins bear the same marks, there is only two possibility: either it is actually pictures of the same coin, or both are fake… As a more sinister example, please consider the picture below:
These two high level fake 1903 Fengtien dollars were spotted by reader Remetalk, using the same method I identified my altered coin. The coin on the left was listed at the April 2012 Hong Kong Auction, lot 21167, and graded NGC VF-20. The coin on the right was seen at the August 2012 Moscow Wolmar auction VIP №299, lot 1260. I spotted an identical fake in Beijing, graded VF details by PCGS.
With Chinese counterfeiters getting increasingly skillful at deceiving collectors and even world-class grading companies, it is more than ever necessary for fellow Chinese coins collectors to keep their eyes peeled, avoid impulse buying and always verify the pedigree of rare coins. Buy the coin, not the holder.
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.
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):
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!