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First Unified Machine Struck Imperial Tael

By Chris Chatigny, Cataloger

Author: Stack's Bowers Galleries / Thursday, July 11, 2013 / Categories: Crossing the Block
With only a month left before the August Stack’s Bowers and Ponterio Hong Kong auction the time has come to showcase one of the finest examples of an extremely rare Chinese pattern coin. Coinage reform came to China via a slow and tumultuous path, and this coin represents the largest denomination from one of the first series of proposed coinage reform. At the time of this coin’s striking in 1903, China’s last Qing Dynasty emperor – Kuang Hsu – and his government were unsuccessfully attempting to reform China’s coinage system. More than a decade had passed since Kwangtung Province had begun minting its “7 Mace & 2 Candareens” silver dollar, and in that decade other provincial viceroys had lined their pockets (and garnered excessive power) by minting their own local coinage. This would grow into one of the most chaotic monetary systems in the world, and the Imperial government was fully aware of the corrupt and inconsistent scheme. Unfortunately the central government lacked the competency to create a lasting reform that could supplant the local provincial governors and their various mintages. A positive note is that the excessive provincial issues and various unified currency reform series would later be a great boon for collectors, as it provided a diverse range of collectible material.

The obverse features the dragon emblem synonymous with China. The imposing beast is shown mid-flight in a fierce side-winding pose. From the bottom of the coin’s design the dragon’s long serpentine body starts with eight vicious tail-spikes, coils abruptly to the left, then wraps back to the right, and then gathers up towards the top of the design behind the head of the dragon. Four arms and claws jut out from the body, and the entire body is adorned with rounded overlapping scales. A row of spines designates the dragon’s spine, and they culminate with a veritable crown of barbs and ridges at the dragon’s head. Whiskers from the dragon’s face draw the eye toward a flaming pearl issuing from the dragon’s mouth, an iconic piece of Chinese coinage design. Elegantly swirled cloud designs encircle the dragon, and delicate vaporous tendrils cling to the dragon’s body, creating an ethereal aura. This central design remains beautifully lustrous, and just as the dragon is framed by the outer legends, so too is the central luster framed by a strong yet not overbearing gray toning. Hints of orange highlight the peripheral toning and further enhance the striking visage. The outer English legend: “29th Year of Kuang Hsu” and “Hu Poo” are divided by single dots on either side, and they provide the date (1903) and locale -- Hu Poo refers to the Board of Revenue in Peking. This location was to serve as the central mint, effectively producing silver coinage for the entire country so as to assure its uniformity.

The reverse provides an exclusively Chinese and Manchu legend. Within a beaded circle four Chinese symbols denote: “Valuable Coin (of the) Kuang Hsu (regime).” Four Manchu characters appear above the outer ring and convey the same meaning as the central inscription. Two singular dots separate the Manchu and Chinese legends, and the two symbols at the exact right and left signify “Hu-Poo” or Board of Revenue as the location of minting. The four Chinese characters at the bottom represent the denomination: “1 K’uping Tael.” The reverse is toned in a more even pattern, with a gradual change from a lovely orange on the left to a muted purple. Light wispy hairlines are visible, but do not detract from the pleasing nature of the coin. This coin bears the distinction of being the finest graded by PCGS or NGC, at an impressive Specimen 63. The rarity of this piece, and of its series of proposed reform coinage, cannot be stressed enough. The extremely limited numbers of these patterns produced were never destined for circulation, partially because the scheme of Chinese coinage reform (at that point in time) was doomed before it started. As such, these coins are exceedingly rare, and the individual who acquires this impressive piece will certainly place this coin at the center of his or her collection.

This coin represents the largest denomination (one Tael) of the attempted first unified machine struck series. In the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900-01 and the Mackay Treaty, Great Britain pressured China to agree to create a unified coinage system. To enact this restructuring, the esteemed Sir Robert Hart, Inspector General of the Maritime Customs, proposed a uniform national silver coinage. One key point to Mr. Hart’s coinage reform was to base the system on a gold standard. He proposed a system with four values; 1 Tael, ½ Tael, ¼ Tael, and 1/10 Tael (1 Mace). However, when the Chinese officials sent their order to the Osaka Mint in Japan to create the master dies, five denominations were specified; 1 Tael, 5, 2, 1 and ½ Mace. After the Osaka Mint created the original dies, they were sent to the Tientsin Mint to be struck as proof or specimen quality.

Hart’s plot to oust the provincial viceroy’s control over the coinage system of his adopted country ultimately failed. The local and foreign influences that stood to lose the most profit from the centralized monetary system blocked the reforms. Another roadblock in enacting this sweeping reorganization was the vast number and types of paper money in circulation, including the items issued by the foreign holdings within China proper (the British colony of Hong Kong and the Portuguese colony of Macau are but two). Though Hart and the Qing emperor and government that hired him were unable to wrest control of the coinage system from the provincial leaders and foreign influences, their attempts led to this wonderful specimen of numismatic art. This silver dollar sized coin is of the utmost rarity and is certainly a treasured feature of our upcoming auction.

Look for this and other Asian numismatic rarities in our upcoming August Hong Kong Sale. Preview this impressive coin along with the rest of our auction this August at the Stack’s Bowers and Ponterio office located in Irvine, California. For details please refer to the Auction Schedule/Details link under Current Auctions at www.StacksBowers.com. To schedule an appointment, please call 800.566.2580. While our Stack’s Bowers and Ponterio Hong Kong sale is closed for further consignments, we are currently taking consignments of world and Asian coins for our November Baltimore, January 2014 New York International, and April 2014 Hong Kong sales. If you are interested in consigning your coins and paper currency (whether a whole collection or a single rarity) be sure to contact one of our consignment directors.