1903 Fengtien Tael, King of Chinese Coins, Sells for Over $6.9 Million

By CoinWeek …..
 

On August 10, 2022, the Beijing ChengXuan Auction Company sold the famed 1903 Fengtien Tael, called the “King of Chinese Coins”, for just over $6,900,000 USD. This sales price, nearly two million dollars over the insurance estimate, makes this Tael officially the most valuable Chinese coin ever sold at auction. What makes this coin so special? Not only is it unique, but it is also a testament to an interesting transitional period in Chinese numismatic history.

By 1900, there was a lively debate in the Imperial Chinese government over whether or not the country should reform its currency. Due to the economy being flooded by foreign silver dollars for centuries, the national currency was full of different types of coins–mainly Spanish silver dollars. Worth the equivalent of 7 Mace and 2 Candareens in the Chinese tael weight system, these coins were the workhorse of the Chinese economy. As a result, several provincial mints began striking coins identified by weight as 7 Mace and 3 Candareens, in an effort to make their coins more intrinsically valuable and hopefully replace foreign silver. The denomination, however, was still being worked out, with various examples denominated by either tael or yuan (also called “dollars”).

Since the tael was a unit of weight and the dollar a unit of currency, it was important to settle on one. However, it wouldn’t be until 1933 that the government finally abolished the tael and replaced it with the yuan.

The coin sold on August 10 was struck by the provincial Fengtien Machine Bureau, also called the Imperial Moukden Mint. More recently, this facility would become known as the Shenyang Mint. Started in 1897 by the governor of Fengtien province, this facility was originally stocked with machinery sourced from Germany. Destroyed in the Sino-Russian War of 1900 during the Russian invasion of Manchuria, the mint was reopened in 1903 with a staff of 50 workers operating seven new Scottish steam-powered machines. As with all silver coins produced at Fengtien around the turn of the century, this specimen was struck in metal bought from local mines and refined in-house.

For the most part, the design of this coin is pretty standard. On the obverse, in the outside ring, is the Chinese legend, which translates as “Made in Fengtien Province,” with the date (1903) flanking and weight below. Within the inner dotted circle are four Chinese characters, which translate as “Valuable Currency (of the) Kuang-hsu (period).” In the very center of the design is a small four-letter Mongol inscription.

The reverse of this piece depicts a dragon, flying through a series of clouds with its body wrapped around a fiery ball with seven flaming tails – all of which together represents the emperor. Above the imperial dragon is the legend FEN – TIEN PROVINCE. This represents a departure from the norm because most coins struck by the Fengtien Machine Bureau were inscribed with FUNG— TIEN. The denomination ONE TAEL can be seen below.

As a trial coin, this piece was included in a large display at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis, Missouri. It is unknown what happened to this coin for the almost 50 years after the exhibition, as it did not resurface until purchased by Eduard Kann. Kann had been searching for years with the help of several contacts in China in an attempt to locate this coin. Eventually, in 1952, the president of the Hong Kong Numismatics Association, Zhang Zuo, sent Kann a rubbing of the coin with a requested price of $2,000 ($22,360 adjusted for inflation). Overjoyed, Kann quickly purchased the coin for his collection.

Considered by Kann to be the rarest and most important coin in his collection, and of all Chinese dragon coins, this piece was sold to famed numismatist and collector Irving Goodman during the 1971 Schulman auction. At $3,000, this coin was the highest-priced lot in the entire Kann sale. Goodman held the coin for 20 years until it was purchased by Zhang Xiuqing in Superior Stamp & Coin Co’s 1991 sale, for the then-record price of $187,000. The coin changed hands again and was purchased by the former president of the Taipei Numismatic Society, Chou Chien-Fu.

In 2010, the coin was purchased in a private sale by the Shanghai-based collector Zhou Dawei for an undisclosed amount and brought back to China. This repatriation was part of a growing trend wherein a new elite has been purchasing Chinese art and artifacts and returning them to China. Later submitted to PCGS during the April 2012 Hong Kong International Coin Convention & Antique Watch Fair with the help of PCGS Authorized Dealer Chun-Yo Chou, the coin was graded AU 55 and insured for five million dollars. Most recently on August 12, 2022, the Beijing ChengXuan auction sold this coin for 46,575,000 RMB, or just over $6.9 million USD. The 1971 Kann and 1991 Goodman coin tags were also included in this latest sale.

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Sources

Wright, 1976 – https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/42664795.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A581af7cab04210dd1f188862e622810b&ab_segments=&origin=&acceptTC=1

Schulman 1971 Sale – https://archive.org/details/eduardkanncollec00hans/page/30/mode/2up

Kann, Eduard. Illustrated Catalogue of Chinese Coinshttps://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015025952790&view=1up&seq=113&skin=2021

https://archive.org/details/chinacatalogueof00chin/page/2/mode/2up?q=coin

https://archive.org/details/irvinggoodmancol1991supe_r5r5/page/118/mode/2up

http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Terms/money-qing.html

https://www.pcgs.com/news/pcgs-certifies-1903-fengtien-tael-one-of-chinas-most-important
 

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