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First Read: Chopmarked Coins: A History; the silver coins used in China 1600-1935

First Read, a CoinWeek continuing series of essays about classic and contemporary works of numismatic literature

Essay by Michael E. Marotta for CoinWeek …..

Chopmarked Coins: A History; the silver coins used in China 1600-1935 by Colin James Gullberg

Chopmarks are counter-stamps or punches, struck into coins by Chinese merchants. To many numismatic authorities, anything that happens to a coin apart from the actual, intended minting process is damage; and damage lowers the value and collectability of a coin. Chopmarks have long been considered damage. Nonetheless, a small but growing group of collectors has come to find them alluring in their own right. Unfortunately, until now, information about chopmarks has been slight, often unattributed and contradictory. This new book provides a much-needed authoritative overview of the marks themselves and the coins that carry them.

Damaged goods

chopmarksfirstreadFor most of his professional life as an advisor to collectors for Krause publications, as well as an ANA governor, the late Alan Herbert warned against attempting to collect damaged coins.

“There is absolutely no way to prove when or where any alteration of a coin such as this was done. Anything that occurs in the minting process, up to the final impact of the die pair, can be proven to have been part of the minting process,” he cautioned. A collector found a Lincoln cent with the head of President Kennedy stamped on the obverse. Said Herbert, “The coin is authentic, but the Kennedy bust was stamped on it after it left the mint. These are sold as novelty coins, with little or no collector value, since they are an alteration.”

Herbert’s venerable advice is echoed by Doug Prather, who serves as a moderator (username GDJMSP) on Peter T. Davis’ CoinTalk.com discussion board: “To me chopmarks are nothing more than one of the many forms of damage that can be done to a coin … Chopmarks were made as a matter of convenience by Chinese merchants … they were most definitely an individualized identifying mark punched into the coin. And that’s why I consider them as I do – to be nothing more than another form of damage.”

Prather’s comments were part of a long argument. More collectors are coming to see chopmarked coins within a historical context that includes counterstamps by government mints and other officials and authorities. Moreover, money serves social purposes and so is always subject to folkways and unofficial traditions.

Global Trade and Local Trust

Go to any Mexican restaurant and you can order rice, which is totally un-Mexican. Rice, of course, came from China. The Spanish empire of the 17th century created a trans-oceanic trade in foods, textiles, and precious metals. The Portuguese, French, Dutch and English were no less eager for China’s tea and silk. The Chinese found the westerners to be ready with silver, their own preferred money for wholesale trade and taxes. Spanish silver 8-reales “dollars” from Mexico, Peru, and other mints, became a standard for international trade and commerce. For 250 years, merchants wanting to do business in China often bought Spanish and then Mexican coins, usually with gold. By the late 1800s, the United States (1873), France (1885), and the United Kingdom (1895) created their own “trade dollars” to facilitate trade in China.

But then, as now, enterprise in China was often on the dicey side: fake coins were a problem. The solution was the chopmark. Merchants would test coins and then stamp them with a mark of their own. The merchants were often from a special class of trained technicians called “shroffs.” The word originated in the Arabic/Islamic lands. Schools of shroffage blossomed in China. From the 1600s to the middle of the 20th century, shroffs were moneychangers and bankers in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and other centers of trade where western buyers met Chinese sellers.

And so millions of silver coins, usually the big dollars, but almost any silver coin, were stamped. The marks are often Chinese characters, such as tien for heaven or li for profit. Sometimes they are more abstract, a sunburst or swastika. The numeral “8” familiar to us is also common by way of cultural transference because “8” is widely considered a lucky number in East Asia.

There are many ways to validate a coin, the most laborious of which is the specific gravity test. You cannot do a bag of a thousand silver dollars one at a time that way. Instead, you can balance the coin on your finger and tap it. It will ring. We believe that shroffs could pick, balance, brush, and hear a coin in a second.

Ultimately, while some were preferred over others, almost any silver coin could be accepted.

A Historical Catalog

This book provides a chronological narrative of international trade centered on China. That story is illustrated with chopmarked coins. They appear according to the first year of issue. The silver “cob” of 1607 is illustrated with an example from 1659. An example from 1848 stands for the 1825 Cap & Rays; the American Morgan dollar is represented by an 1880-S. In addition to the long run of Spanish and Mexican silver, Dutch guilders, British East India rupees, and American gold and copper coins passed through the shops of the shroffs to be struck with chopmarks.

chopmarkbook1Gullberg mined an impressive inventory of research sources to construct this history. He explains the ebb and flow of silver into and out of China and the ramifications on the country. Good times were peaceful; hard times brought revolts. Charts, graphs, and tables summarizing the statistics support his historical essay. In addition, rare photographs substantiate the descriptions of daily commerce.

Chinese merchants came to prefer the “Carolus” 8-reales of Spain of 1772-1810. They called them “Four Work” because the Roman numerals in the king’s name CAROLVS IIII look like the Chinese character gong for work. But Charles IV passed away, and Spain lost its American colonies. New coins came from an independent Mexico. Even though the Mexican “Cap and Rays” coins were equivalent to the Carolus issues (27.07 grams; .903 fine), the older coins were preferred and commanded a premium.

Many other coins are also imported, as well. The Gullberg collection is a pursuit of at least one example of each type of coin chopmarked for trade in China. He brings the passions of a new collector because he only discovered these issues in 2006.

“I am from Canada,” Gullberg writes in the Introduction, “and had collected coins as a boy. I started collecting when I was around eight years old. My father was in a military bans and he had been posted to Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1972 as part of the NORAD band (a combined U.S. and Canadian band). He often toured Europe with the band brining back coins of the Western European countries he had visited … I continued to collect until near the end of high school when I guess I got interested in other things. The coin bug lay dormant for 20 years.

“I moved to Taiwan in 1992 and became an English teacher. I got married, and had a son in 1998. Like me, he started to become interested in coins … While visiting one dealer, I happened to pick up a catalog of his company’s upcoming auction … The first 70 lots or so were mainly chopmarked coins. They fascinated me.”

That led him to the only English language reference, the catalog of the Frank Marvin Rose collection, published in 1987. Gullberg joined the Chopmark Collectors Club, became the newsletter editor, and brought the organization into the ANA family of local and specialty clubs.

This book was financed by Michael Chou. Michael and his brother Peter bought the original Rose collection and, more importantly, the copyright to the catalog. They were able to locate and photograph many of those coins for this new book. In addition to the Rose and Gullberg collections, examples come other collectors, the British Museum, and Stack’s Bowers.

Numismatics itself is a collection of specialty interests. A century ago, American collectors did not care much about mintmarks. Then, the 1909-S VDB caught their attention. Now, repunched mintmarks are a specialty. Similarly, few American collectors cared about Asian or Mexican coins, mostly because hardly any of us actually had family roots in those places. Now, more of us do. And that brings in others who find the coins appealing and the stories compelling.

Chopmarked Coins: A History; the silver coins used in China 1600-1935
by Colin James Gullberg
187 Pages, 8-1/2 x 11, color illustrations. iAsure Group JEAN Publications, June 2014. $40 MSRP.

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  1. Fantastic endeavor! As a side note, I will pay $100 just to view a bonafide 1875-P chop marked trade dollar with no damage in the mint mark area. My personal opinion is that none went to China…or at least none came back!

  2. I have a 1783 Washington Colonial Cent – Baker 4. It has 2 Chop marks on each side of the coin.
    On the front with Washington facing left a slant letter N and the letter B on the backside of the figure. Turning the coin over a figure of a lady holding a branch. Below the branch is a letter E. On the backside of the lady holding a staff is the letter W. All the letters are perforated holes.
    I know my description is difficult to explain and confusing. At any rate if you could lead me in the right direction to solve my problem it would be appreciated.


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