Heritage’s December 5-6 Hong Kong World and Ancient Coins Signature Auction features a fantastically rare set of Chinese patterns, minted at the Ferracute Machine Company in New Jersey. Only three such sets are known to exist. The set contains coins ranging in denomination from five cents to one dollar, with examples of each struck in both silver and brass.
Each of the 10 coins in the set has been certified by NGC in grades of Specimen 63 or higher.
In 1896, the Imperial Government of China needed to modernize the Chengtu Mint in the province of Szechuan. Current technology was inefficient and large-scale, western-style production was impossible, so the search began for a company to supply new minting equipment and dies. The British Royal Mint was first contacted, which then made a few pattern coins and submitted a bid for the entire project (L&M 340-344, a five-coin set that is listed at a market value of $1.97 million). However, the American Trading Company — which was operating in China and Japan at the time — was also approached for a bid that was to be obtained from the Ferracute Machine Company of Bridgeton, New Jersey. While Ferracute was known for its metal presses used in canneries, they were also the current supplier of coin presses to the United States Philadelphia Mint.
In the end, the European company’s offer was undercut to secure the contract in mid-1896, with a winning bid that amounted to roughly $13,000 and included a complete mint setup, including five coin presses, punching presses, feed attachments, and coin dies.
On March 24, 1897, upon completion of the new machinery, a public demonstration was held at the Ferracute factory in New Jersey. A photo of this event shows formally dressed visitors inspecting sample coins that were struck on the new presses. Among the officials that attended this historic event was United States Mint Chief Engraver, Charles Barber, who engraved the dies for these Chinese coins using a Kwangtung dollar as an exact model save for the change in province. Ferracute struck a small number of patterns in silver and slightly more in brass to demonstrate the presses it built for China, handing out samples of the brass strikes to attending dignitaries.
Additionally, American engineer, inventor, and president of the Ferracute Machine Company, Oberlin Smith, had a few round wooden frames created to house a double specimen set comprised of five silver coins and five brass coins; these sets were presented as souvenirs of Ferracute’s success. Records indicate that of these sets, one was given to the Philadelphia Mint and now resides in the Smithsonian. A second set, which was put together by Henry Janvier, the Ferracute employee who traveled to China to set up the mint equipment, appears to have sold in the late 1980s and resides in a private collection in Asia. A third set–this one–was given to the American Trading Company and retained by the salesman who completed the deal with the Chinese government. And lastly, a fourth set is rumored to exist, kept by the factory and taken by the owner’s daughter when the factory closed, though its whereabouts are unknown.
Soon after the demonstration, the minting equipment and corresponding materials were prepared for shipment and crated. To assist with the installation of the new machinery, Ferracute engineer and press designer, Henry Janvier, along with his friend Sidney Bowen, undertook a lengthy, cross-country train trip followed by an overseas voyage across the Pacific, arriving first in Yokohama, Japan, just south of Tokyo. At their next stop in Shanghai, Bowen decided to return to the US while Janvier continued onward, accompanied by Henry Everall of the American Trading Company. Together, the two men traveled to Chengtu to complete the installation of the new mint.
Nearly 13 months after the leaving the Ferracute factory, the minting equipment arrived in Chengtu; however, the presses and dies were badly rusted from water damage due to improper handling along the way. Thus, Janvier spent weeks attempting to restore and rebuild the precision machinery. By July 12, 1898, he wrote in a letter home that the Chengtu mint was finally operational.
With the installation of the new mint complete, Janvier struck samples from the badly rusted dies and presented them to a representative of the Chinese government. Janvier expressed that the Chinese accepted the coins with delight and thought the unique rusted die pattern would make counterfeiting more challenging. Despite this, production at the new mint was delayed and few coins were struck before 1901, as Chinese workers created new dies to replace the badly rusted ones. These new dies, however, had a cruder appearance to them, with clumsy English lettering that was not at all akin to the perfect dies engraved by Charles Barber, though they did correct a minor mistake in the Chinese characters.
Incredibly, only a small sample of coins was struck from Barber’s original dies-and it can be surmised that those pieces were produced at the Ferracute factory prior to leaving the US and being damaged by water and replaced. A number of the brass issues from 1897 have sold throughout the years, most notably through the collection of author and historian Arthur Cox; however, this set — the only double specimen pattern set for all of China — is comprised of the finest-graded examples of each of the 10 types, with the exception of the brass dollar, for which a single SP63+ exists. In fact, no other examples of the silver denominations from this year have been certified at the present time.
Upon examination, each coin from this remarkable set exhibits the highest degree of preservation, which is noticeably perceived once in hand due to a distinctive, mirrorlike reflectivity that beams from the fields, unimpeded by any significant handling or contact. A wholesome, original aesthetic projects from the most imposing, and arguably the most important representative from this group–the silver dollar–which displays a light, silvery tone in the fields, contrasted by gentle touches of darker patination. Such allure, coupled with utter clarity in the strike, lends a simply inspiring appearance to this unimprovable specimen.
Looking to the set as a whole, each denomination displays a similar, subtle degree of patina, bestowing a look of refined age and elegance throughout, while highlighting the full character and inspiring beauty of the surfaces below. A slight rotation reveals a distinctive glassiness to the fields, which sets the expanses of the argent coins alight in mottled shades of gray and teal, while hues of amber layer the brass issues gently. Closer inspection of the strike reveals the highest level of precision across the denominations, both in the crisp engravings of Barber’s dies, as well as an exacting strike that was delivered during production.
This set likely represents the first, or is at the very least among the earliest Chinese coins to have been ordered from the United States, and to own such a set is to forever be a part of its legacy. Certified by NGC, each of the individual coins offered herein has been deemed of choice quality or finer, with an astonishing seven out of 10 issues ranking at the gem level–confirming that this group of specimens remains admirably close to the condition in which they were created during the waning years of the 19th century. Presented with the original wooden case, this remarkable compilation, so carefully preserved and obviously cherished, is the centerpiece of our December Hong Kong auction.