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10 Unusual World and U.S. Coins and Patterns

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
 

People have been striking coins for almost 3,000 years, and the vast majority of coinage minted during that time fulfills our expectations of what a “coin” is: round, engraved with a design, and made of metal. Nevertheless, as could be expected for anything produced over the course of three millenia, there are exceptions. The following are just 10 of the stranger numismatic creations manufactured in the United States and around the world. And while my list of unusual coins is entirely subjective, common historical circumstances can be discerned that seem to encourage more radical innovation.

Encased Postage Stamps

Unusual Five and Ten cent encased postage "coins". Image: Stack's Bowers / CoinWeek.
Unusual Five and Ten cent encased postage “coins”. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

The American economy was in shambles during the Civil War. With a massive dearth of coinage across the country, many people turned to other economic devices for their everyday needs. Copper tokens, struck to look like a U.S. cent to greater or lesser extents, were frequently employed. However, one of the more unusual responses to this financial emergency was the encased postage stamp, which was made possible after the United States monetized postage stamps in July 1861.

The creation of entrepreneur and inventor John Gault, these stamps are attached to a cardboard circle and backed by an outer brass frame. The face can be viewed through an extremely thin and transparent layer of mica. Gault’s creations were all the size of a U.S. quarter and contained examples of the 1861 one-cent, three-cent, five-cent, 10-cent, 12-cent, 24-cent, 30-cent, and 90-cent stamps. To make a profit, he sold them at a small markup over the combined value of the enclosed stamp and production costs.

Unfortunately for Gault, the Federal Government released five-cent, 10-cent, 25-cent, and 50-cent postage currency starting in August 1862. Despite this, it is estimated that roughly 750,000 pieces of encased postage–worth roughly $50,000 in total face value–were put into circulation. Around 3,500 to 7,000 examples are known to have survived and are worth hundreds of dollars.

Fiber Coins from the Japanese Occupation of China (Manchukuo)

Unusual Coins: Manchukuo 5 Fen. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.
Manchukuo 5 Fen. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.

At the start of World War II, the Japanese home islands did not have great reserves of natural resources. This was one of the factors driving Japan to declare war on the United States, for example, as oil was in short supply and the Imperial Navy alone consumed 305,000 tons of fuel oil per month.

By 1944, Japan also faced severe metal shortages – which was felt especially dearly in the puppet state of Manchukuo in northeastern China and Manchuria. Unable to spare even aluminum for coinage, the occupying Japanese turned to a so-called fiber material for their 1 and 5 Fen coins.

Appearing to be made of cardboard, these coins were actually formed by mixing rubber with magnesite and are quite durable. They circulated from 1944 until the Soviet invasion of Manchuria in August 1945 and the subsequent Japanese surrender on September 2. While exact mintage figures are unknown, these coins can be acquired for less than $10 a piece.

The First Plastic Circulating Coins (Transnistria)

Unusual coins: Transnistria Plastic Coins. Image: CoinWeek.
Transnistria Plastic Coins. Image: CoinWeek.

Officially called the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, Transnistria is an unrecognized breakaway state created and maintained by Russia that claims independence from Moldova. Initially, the Transnistria region did not have any minting facilities and contracted with the Mint of Poland to strike domestic coinage. This coinage was transported by armed truck convoy through Ukraine.

In response to official complaints by the Moldovan Government, the Polish Mint stated it was striking tokens, not coins. To stop the shipments from being seized, the Transnistrian president Igor Smirnov opened the Tiraspol Mint on November 18, 2005. Nine years later in 2014, this mint released the world’s first series of officially circulating plastic coins. Each of the four coins is a different shape and color: the round mustard yellow 1 ruble, the square green 3 rubles, the blue pentagonal 5 rubles, and the pink hexagonal 10 rubles. While the 1-, 3-, and 10-ruble coins all depict famous Russians (General Alexander Suvorov, Count Pyotr Rumyantsev, and Empress Catherine the Great), the 3-ruble coin portrays the 18th-century Flemish engineer François Paul Swerts de Wollant, who built military fortifications for the Russian military. The reverse of all four coins bear the same repeating pattern formed by the date and logo of the Trans-Dniester Republican Bank.

Intended to replace existing bank notes, these unusual coins are cut from an advanced polycarbonate and are virtually indestructible.

Japanese Bar Money

Japanese bar money in gold and silver. Image: Stack's Bowers / CoinWeek.
Japanese bar money in gold and silver. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

The second coin type on this list struck by Japan, so-called Bar Money, first came into being in 1599. These small, rectangular gold and silver coins would be used across the country over the next 250 years until the nation’s currency was reformed in the 1860s.

The series has many types, but it can be broken down into two basic kinds: Bu and Shu, with 4 Shu per Bu. By the mid-1800s, one Shu was equal to a day’s pay for a semi-skilled worker. Each (Bu and Shu) came in 1 and 2 denominated units. A single Shu and Bu were called Isshu and Ichibu, while the double denominations were Nisshu and Nibu, respectively.

Despite having a denomination, the coins were often traded as bullion by weight. Naturally, none of these coins are dated in a Western way; instead, each coin has the name of the imperial era in which it was minted. As a result, they have a date range and not a specific mintage date.

Yemeni Pentagonal Coins

Yemen 1/8 Real. Image: Stack's Bowers / CoinWeek.
Yemen 1/8 Real (1955). Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

As the second-to-last ruler of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, Ahmad bin Yahya Hamidaddin (ruled 1948-62) was a brutal tyrant, the target of at least one coup attempt and many failed assassinations. Despite this, he died in his sleep at the age of 71. While he was a hardline conservative, Ahmad was at his core anti-British, and as such sought economic and military support from both the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China.

During his reign, the Sana’a Mint struck two unusual five-sided denominations: the silver 1/8th and 1/16th riyal. The smaller 1/16th riyal was struck in 1949 and 1951 while the 1/8th riyal was struck from 1949-54 and in 1956.

1 Trillion Mark Notgeld

Westphalia 1 Billion (Trillion) Notgeld. Image: Stack's Bowers / CoinWeek.
Westphalia 1 Billion (Trillion) Notgeld. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

Coming in sixth on this list is the highest denomination coin ever issued, the one trillion mark notgeld coin from Westphalia. Designed by Heinrich Kissing, this coin depicts Heinrich Friedrich Karl Reichsfreiherr vom und zum Stein (1757-1831) more commonly known as Baron vom Stein. The Baron was a German statesman of the 18th and 19th centuries who was known for a series of reforms that promoted the abolition of serfdom and helped create the modern German municipal system.

The one trillion mark coin is the product of the hyperinflation of the interwar Weimar Republic. It is important to remember that the German “billion” is actually equal to the English trillion. Struck from a copper-nickel-zinc alloy called neusilber, only 11,113 pieces were minted, making it relatively difficult for modern collectors to obtain an example. Today, prices range from $400 to $600 USD.

Seleucid Serrated (“Bottle Cap”) Coins

SELEUCID KINGDOM. Antiochus VI Dionysus (144-142/1 BC). AE serrate. Image: NGC / CoinWeek.
SELEUCID KINGDOM. Antiochus VI Dionysus (144-142/1 BC). AE serrate. Image: NGC / CoinWeek.

From 187 until 141 BCE, a number of Seleucid mints in modern-day Syria struck bronze coins with serrated edges. Known colloquially as “bottle cap” coins today, these coins have notched or toothed edges and have proved to be a historical enigma.

It is unknown exactly why the Seleucid authorities started producing these coins. Unlike the later Roman silver serrati that may have been created as an anti-counterfeiting measure, these Seleucid coins were all bronze. No serrated silver or gold coins from the Seleucid Empire have been found. This means that the coins serrated feature could have been purely decorative.

To create this pattern, the moneyers poured molten bronze into specially prepared molds, and then struck the resulting planchets with standard dies. Due to their relatively common nature, examples of these unusual coins in low to middle grades can be acquired for under $100.

1942 Glass Cents

1942 Glass Cent pattern. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.
1942 Glass Cent pattern. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.

While the United States Mint has struck circulation coins from gold, silver, copper, and steel, they have also experimented with more exotic materials. Arguably the most unusual is the 1942 glass cent.

Driven by the need to reduce or eliminate copper usage during World War II, the Mint contracted with a number of private companies to create pattern coins. One such firm, the Blue Ridge Glass Company of Kingsport in East Tennessee, developed an intriguing glass cent. Only two known examples survive, one of which sold for $70,500 at auction in 2017.

To ensure a round design, the planchets were smoothed by hand after striking. The obverse design features a bust of Lady Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap with the words LIBERTY and JUSTICE to either side, and UNITED STATES MINT surrounded by a wreath on the reverse. It is believed that these coins were struck with cold dies, which resulted in weak details.

The yellow amber glass (think beer bottles) proved too fragile for serious coinage and tended to have very sharp edges.

Irregular Coins of the Bagrationi Dynasty in Georgia

Copper alloy fals of T'amar, Tiflis (1184-1213). Image: American Numismatic Society.
Copper alloy fals of T’amar, Tiflis (1184-1213). Image: American Numismatic Society.

From the 11th to 12th centuries CE, the Bagrationi dynasty of Georgia in the Caucasus produced a series of remarkably shaped bronze coins. While many of these coins are simply amorphous, under the reign of Giorgi IV Lasha (1213-23) a number of planchets were made into semi-recognizable fish shapes.

Due to their generally small sizes, the designs are often only partially visible, and the portion that can be seen is sometimes obscured by countermarks. Many of these irregularly shaped coins bear the inscription ႵႱႾႪႨႧႠ ႶႧႠ ႨႵႬႠ ႽႣႠႨ ႥႺႾႪႱႨ ႠႫႱ, which translates as “In the Name of God, This Silver Piece Was Struck”. Which is odd, considering that none of the coins were made of silver.

It is believed that these coins did not have a fixed monetary value but were instead traded based on weight. They were often produced concurrently with standard circular coins.

Zhou Dynasty Knife Money

 Zhou Dynasty. Warring States Period. State of Qi. Four Character Knife Money, Image: Stack's Bowers.
Zhou Dynasty. Warring States Period. State of Qi. Four Character Knife Money, Image: Stack’s Bowers.

Produced by the Zhou dynasty of China between 600 and 200 BCE, knife money (刀幣, dāo bì) is pretty much what the name suggests. These cast bronze coins are made in the shape of crude knives.

Their origins are lost to time, and it is unknown exactly why Chinese authorities decided to produce such an unusual coinage. One probably mythical account describes how a prince used knives to pay his troops as a form of barter. This supposedly proved so popular that knives became widely accepted as payment. Regardless, it is generally accepted that the provinces of Qi, Yan, and Zhao were the first to develop dāo bì. The earliest examples were based on a simple scraping knife.

Broken down into various categories (Qi, needle tip, pointed tip, Ming, Straight, etc.), there are a wide variety of styles and types. Two hundred years after dāo bì fell out of use, knife coinage was reintroduced. The brainchild of Wang Mang during the Xin dynasty interregnum (9 – 23 CE), these short stubby pieces were denominated as qì dāo wǔ bǎi (“Inscribed Knife Five Hundred”) and yī dāo píng wǔ qiān (“One Knife Worth Five Thousand”).

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Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University's Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies sustainable international development and conflict resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., he worked for Save the Children, creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the U.S. from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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1 COMMENT

  1. Being a German collector I’m rather partial to the porcelain Notgeld (cities of Meissen and Freiburg in Saxony being the most common) from 1921-23.

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