Hidden Dragons of Hunan: The 1898 Dollar and Half Dollar

CHINA-HUNAN ND(1898) One Dollar Silver Proof Pattern. Heaton Mint Collection - NC Collection, NGC SP67 2014 Champion Auction private transaction, USD 1 million+

CHINA-HUNAN ND(1898) 50 Cents Silver Proof Pattern. Heaton Mint Collection - NC Collection, NGC SP67 2013 Champion Auction private transaction

Until now, the origins of the Hunan Provincial Mint at Changsha have been obscure. Kann’s History of Minting in China dated the opening of the mint to 1901 but notes that there are Hunan ten cent coins dated 1898 and 1899. Our most reliable source of information on the early mints in China, the annual reports of the Chinese Maritime Customs Bureau, are of little use here because Changsha was not opened as a treaty port until 1904. The first treaty port in the province, Yochow, was opened in 1899, by which time the Changsha silver coin mint was already closed.

Hunan had the reputation of being the most antiforeign province in China. Foreigners were not allowed into its capital, Changsha, until the early years of the 1900’s. Why then would Hunan purchase a foreign style coinage plant, which would require the presence of foreign workmen to set it up and a foreign supervisor to keep it running? The answer is Ch’en Pao-chen (1831-1900), Hunan governor during 1895-1898, and a prominent member of the 1890’s reform movement in China.

Writing in the 1900 Chinese Customs Report for Yochow, Alec. W. Cross, gives a brief account of the mint:

“A mint was opened in Changsha by Governor Ch’en Pao-chen towards the end of 1897. During its two years working existence only 20 cents and 10 cents pieces were minted, the latter preponderating. I have been unable to find out the total number coined. Their fineness must be very much better than that of the subsidiary coinage of the other provinces, as they exchange for the same number of cash, proportionately, as the dollars. Dollars, preferably Hupeh, are in current use at the capital, but the obnoxious habit of “chopping” has been introduced by the Cantonese merchants, of whom there is quite a large colony in Changsha and Hsiangtan.”

The Changsha silver coin mint was closed in late 1898 or early 1899 as a result of the collapse of the “Hundred Days Reform Movement.” Ch’en had been one of the leaders of the reform movement, but when the Empress Dowager returned to power and imprisoned Emperor Kuang Hsu, Ch’en was dismissed in September 1898 and replaced by Yu Lien-san. The 1901 customs report for Yochow comments:

“Under the enlightened governorship of His Excellency Ch’en Pao-chen, instructors were engaged to drill the Hunanese forces according to western methods, a mint was set up in Changsha, and electric light installed. On the appointment of the present governor, however, all these reforms were at once abolished, and nothing of the kind has since been attempted.”

Research by Richard N. J. Wright in the Heaton Mint records reveals that Heaton received an order in April 1898 for assorted small equipment for the Hunan mint and for master dies for a dollar and half dollar. The order did not include any other dies nor any stamping machines. Since no earlier records for Hunan coins were found at Heaton, it is unclear whether the 1898 order was for additional equipment for an existing mint–supplied by some other firm–or whether this order was a supplement to an earlier order which has not been found.

Looking at the coins which were actually issued, the 20 cents appears to be struck from Heaton dies, but the 10 cents coins seem to be struck from locally prepared dies. The extremely rare Hunan 5 cents coin is clearly modeled on the Kwangtung 5 cents coins of 1889 and 1890, but with stars instead of crosses as decoration. Whether Heaton made the dies or not is unclear. The Heaton Mint collection does not contain any dies for 5, 10 or 20 cents coins, nor any examples of such coins. This brings up the possibility that the original Changsha mint was set up by someone else. Though the 5 and 20 cents coins are in Heaton style, we know from other examples that both American and German die makers copied the Heaton Mint’s Kwangtung coins when supplying dies to China.

The clues to the origin of the Hunan Mint have now been found, in a small article published in the North China Herald for 15 January 1897. Published without a title, the account reads:

“A dispatch received from Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan, reports that Governor Ch’en has bought or set aside some houses in that city to be used as a mint for the coinage of silver dollars and subsidiary coins. The machinery and artisans to work it are now on the way from Canton in a gunboat detailed for the purpose, and will be unloaded at Wuchang or Hankow, whence boats sent from Changsha will take them by the Tungting Lake to that city.”

From this it seems that Governor Ch’en avoided the problem of foreigners setting up or running the mint in Changsha. Apparently the machinery and the workers were supplied by the Canton Mint, and were delivered by a Chinese gunboat. This makes sense because Ch’en was an associate of the famous reformer, Chang Chih-tung, who had founded the Canton Mint, and was at that time Governor-General of Hunan and Hupeh provinces. Since the article is dated in the middle of January, the planning for this mint must have begun in 1896. When the Canton Mint opened in 1889, it was the largest in the world, with 90 stamping machines (compared to 16 at London’s Royal Mint and about 10 at the Philadelphia Mint). In the 1890’s many of those machines often sat idle as demand for the new coins was slow to develop. A survey of the number of minting machines in each Chinese mint published in the North China Herald for 23 June 1905, showed that the Canton Mint had only 80 machines at that time, and that the Changsha Mint had 4 old machines plus 36 new machines (for making 10 cash copper coins). Those four old stamping presses were probably the original machinery of the Changsha Mint, supplied by Canton.

There is still the question of who supplied the dies for the Hunan minor coins. It is possible that the Canton Mint made the dies for the 5, 10 and 20 cents coins, but for some reason did not or could not supply the half dollar and dollar dies. The Changsha Mint was already in operation when Heaton’s received the order for dollar and half dollar dies in the spring of 1898. This order was apparently cancelled because of Ch’en’s removal from office in September 1898.

It was only in 1974 that Richard Wright published for the first time photographs of the Hunan dragon dollar and half dollar. These two coins had never been seen before and were a stunning discovery. Wright found the coins in the reference collection of the Heaton Mint along with the master dies used to produce the coins. Combined with the April 1898 sales record, there can be no doubt that Heaton had made the dies and struck these samples in 1898. It would seem that the dies and the samples were never sent to China, no doubt due to the collapse of the reform movement and the closing of the Changsha Mint.

Just about the time Wright was doing his research, the Heaton Mint was bought by another company, which ordered all the duplicate coins in the Heaton collection to be sold. Hundreds of coins from various countries, struck by Heaton’s over the previous century, went to the British coin firm Spink’s, or perhaps a combination of Spink’s and the American firm, Paramount. These two companies began marketing the coins in 1975. The first Hunan coin to be offered was the mysterious dragon dollar. Paramount somehow knew that I had some information about this coin, and one of their associates, James Jelinski, brought the coin (and 14 other Chinese coins from the sale) to the Krause Publications office in Wisconsin, where I was working on the Standard Catalog of World Coins, for my examination and some free publicity. I told their representative that I knew of only one other example of this coin, the one in the Heaton Mint collection. I did not yet know about the sale of the Heaton company or its collection. Paramount claimed the coin came from the collection of an old mint master. World Coin News published a story about the coin, saying it was one of two known, and that information was also published in the Paramount auction catalog. After the sale, Richard Wright wrote to me saying that the coin was not one of two, but that there were about a dozen of the Hunan coins. I published this information, and Wright wrote again pointing out I had misunderstood his previous letter. There were not a dozen dollars and a dozen half dollars, but about a dozen in total – approximately six pieces of each coin.

The first Hunan dollar to be sold was in the Long Beach Sale of the Paramount International Coin Corporation, August 7-10, 1975, Lot 84 (pictured on the front cover of the catalog). The catalog description reads:

“Hunan, 1898 Dollar, Proof. Lovely delicate lilac toning and flawless surfaces. The existence of a Hunan dollar was not even hinted at in Kann. Our research indicates that only one other specimen exists and that is permanently impounded in The Mint Birmingham Museum. This represents the first time this rarity has been offered at auction. One of the highlights of this sale that could approach the five figure mark.”

Of course Paramount, or at least Spink’s, knew that there were other examples of this coin available, but at the time, no one else knew. The coin sold for $15,500 – the highest price ever paid for a Chinese coin at the time. It was an historic purchase.

This was not, however, the first example of a Hunan dragon dollar to enter a private collection. The Italian collector of Chinese coins, Guissepe Ros, somehow obtained a specimen of the coin sometime before 1921, when a rubbing of it was obtained by the American Numismatic Society in New York. Ros never published the coin and the rubbing lay forgotten in the ANS files until I found it in 1993. In addition the 1909 annual report of the British Museum says that in 1908 a Hunan dollar was given to the museum by Major E. H. McKenzie Elliot. I have been unable to confirm the presence of this coin in the British Museum collection; perhaps this was a typographical error for Hupeh.

The next sale of a Hunan dragon dollar contained another surprise–a matching Hunan half dollar–also never seen before. This was the NASCA Auction, December 5-8, 1977 – the first part of the Wayte Raymond Collection. It is highly unlikely these two coins were in the Raymond collection; rather they were probably consigned by Spink’s or Paramount. The dollar is described as “One of the Three Known Hunan Dollars” and the half dollar is described as “Possibly Unique …… almost certainly the only collectible example in the world.” Spink’s and Paramount knew this was not true, but NASCA probably did not know. According to the Prices Realized list published by NASCA, the dollar sold for $23,000 and the half dollar for $12,000. There is a problem, however, as both of these coins turned up for sale again. The half dollar appeared in the Money Company sale of June 1979 (Lot 231) and the dollar showed up in the Money Company sale of January 1980 (Lot 260). Did someone buy these coins and resell them two years later or are the NASCA prices fictitious?

In the years that followed, four more half dollars and three more dollars have appeared in auction through 2008. In addition a Hong Kong museum has a Hunan dollar which has not appeared in auction and NC collection has a half dollar which apparently has not been seen in an auction. This brings the total known examples to six dollars and six half dollars – plus one of each in the Heaton Mint collection. Although all of these coins were undoubtedly struck from the same pair of dies, and probably on the same day, they can be identified because they have toned in different patterns over the past century