By Quanmo Yishanren
This article will reflect on the dragon culture and dragon coins in China, focusing on the logical analysis of and empirical inference on a unique phenomenon of dragon coins. The purpose is to lift the shroud on a mystery and to explore the culture and varieties of Chinese precious metal coins. Reader comments are welcome, so that the subject can be studied in depth and the issue further researched.
I. Dragon Culture and Dragon Coins
(Omitted – translator)
II. Highlight and Mystery of the 1988 Lunar Dragon Coins
1988 was a year in the Chinese numismatic history that deserves close attention, because it was not only the first year after the formal founding of the China Gold Coin Inc. on December 22, 1987, but also the Year of Dragon in the lunar calendar system. The Central Bank started the 1 oz, 5 oz and 12 oz gold coin types when releasing the lunar coins, which have been very popular among Chinese gold coins. Among the small number of gold and silver coins of the year, many have been the topics of conversation up till today. It is not an exaggeration to say that error coins, error medals, patterns and world award winning coins all happened to make their appearance this very year! These include the error coin of the 15th Winter Olympics silver coin (mistaken for 16th), the error commemorative gold medal for the Basel Coin Week, the wrong use of the design on the 24th Olympics gold and silver coins as well as the rumor of their patterns, the rare phenomenon on the design on the obverse of the 1988 5 oz silver panda, and the mystery of the lunar Dragon coins. Among these, the Dragon coins are quite an eye opener!
Although we are only 25 years away from 1988, the time through the quarter of a century obliterated many facts, including the complete historical information on the approval, production and sales of the lunar Dragon coins. Against the fast moving China and Chinese gold coins after the reform and opening up, everything seems to be fading away with the passage of time. If we fail to dig out and comb through historical data in a timely fashion right now, we will leave even more doubts and bigger mysteries to the next generations. If we are lucky, we can manage to restore the truth in the coming days. The mystery of the varieties of the 1 oz Dragon coins is one such case.
1. Outstanding Year of Dragon Coins
Among the 1988 Dragon coin types, the 1 oz and 12 oz coins were minted by Shanghai Mint. The theme of twin dragons playing a ball was taken from the artistic work on the Nine Dragon Screen in the Imperial Garden. The design came from Mr. Zhu Dechun, who is now deceased. The 12 oz coin was engraved by Mr. Zeng Chenghu of Shanghai Mint, and the 1 oz coin was engraved by Mr. Yi Shizhong, who was working for Shanghai Mint then. For that matter, the design of the twin dragons playing with a ball on the 1 oz platinum, gold and silver coins was slightly different from that on the 12 oz gold and silver coins.
Later, it was proved that the 1988 lunar Dragon coins were more than outstanding. The 1 oz gold, silver and platinum coins became the flagships of their respective series. Moreover, the 12 oz silver coin won the "Best Silver Coin" award at the 1990 Klaus and World Coin News World Coin Grand Prix. Even today, the 1 oz piedfort silver lunar coins series, with its start in the Year of Dragon, are still chased by lunar coin collectors.
2. Mystery Surrounding the 1 Oz Lunar Dragon Coins
Interestingly, the two obvious varieties of the 1 oz gold and silver Dragon coins gradually caught collectors' attention. As officials keep their mouth shut, common folks have different interpretations, including the so-called "large date" and "small date" varieties, with the large dates from Shenyang Mint. Other claims include sighting of the large date gold coins in a ten-piece plastic sheet, and large date platinum Dragon coins.
a. Initial Exploration of the Varieties of 1 Oz Lunar Dragon Coins and Counter Argument
Despite the different views in the collector community, the first person who focused on this issue was Mr. Ge Zukang. He contributed a special post "On the Different Minor Varieties of 1988 Lunar Year of the Dragon Gold Coins" (http://bbs.jibi.net/dispbbs.asp?boardid=70&Id=204471) in July, 2010, thus opening a door for discussing this issue. Only Mr. Ge missed a couple of points in our current view when he discussed the varieties of the 1 oz Dragon coins, probably because it was the first time for him to touch on this issue: First, he defined the varieties of the Dragon coins as minor. In my view, these different varieties are far from minor. (I have my own definitions of major and minor varieties. Those interested can refer to http://bbs.chngc.net/forum.php?mod=viewthread&tid=42969&extra=) Secondly, in the varieties that Mr. Ge analyzed, Zeng Chenghu Variety 1 actually does not exist. It is a picture taken from the official catalogs of the China Gold Coin Inc. There is no such physical coin. (Just in passing, there is no shortage of similar official pictures from China Gold Coin Inc. Although some are indeed pattern designs, more are just distorted pictures.) The Yi Shizhong Varieties 2 and 3 are actually the same, the only difference being that Variety 2 is a picture of the coin, while Variety 3 was the physical coin. That means that only Yi Shizhong Varieties 3 and 4 actually exist. Third, it is not quite right to call them Yi Shizhong varieties, because the difference is on the obverse, and the obverse was not engraved by Mr. Yi Shizhong. The so-called "large date" variety not only has a large date, but all the other details are different. It is because the obverse of the so-called "large date" 1 oz Dragon coin was taken from the obverse of the 1 oz Panda gold coin of that year. The designer of the obverse and reverse of the 1988 1 oz Panda gold coin was Mr. Yan Jingkui. (The 1986 Panda gold coin designed and engraved by Mr. Yan Jingkui won the "National One Hundred Flowers Award for Arts and Crafts".) The engraver of the non-large date variety of the 1 oz Dragon coins was Mr. Chen Jian of Shanghai Mint, who engraved the obverse of the 1982-1984 and 1987 Panda gold coins. In this sense, the so-called Yi Shizhong Varieties 2 and 3, which are the non-large date Dragon coins, should be Chen Jian Variety, and the Yi Shizhong Variety 4, which is the so-called "large-date variety", should be Yan Jingkui Variety.
b. Further Investigation of the 1 Oz Lunar Dragon Coins
We have gained a basic understanding of the 1988 1 oz lunar Dragon coins. But a crucial question arises for the masses of coin collectors and researchers: Why did two varieties of the 1 oz Dragon coins turn up, the Yan Jingkui Variety (Yan Variety for short) and the Chen Jian Variety (Chen Variety for short)? What is their significance and what was their respective mintage?
In fact, before looking further into these questions, we have to bring up the 1 oz piedfort Dragon silver coin and the 1 oz Dragon platinum coin, because so far, in addition to the common Chen Variety 1 oz piedfort silver Dragon, we have observed on the market the more scarce Yan Variety 1 oz piedfort silver Dragon. Moreover, the difference between the Chen Variety and the Yan Variety piedfort silver coins is not limited to the obverse. The designs of two dragons playing a ball on the reverse are obviously different, which does not exist on the gold Dragon coins of the Chen and Yan Varieties. It is rumored that someone saw the platinum Dragon coin of the Yan Variety. I am not going to dwell on it since I have never seen it. As for the official coin pictures of the 1 oz piedfort silver Dragon, the only record available is in the official book The Printing and Minting of Modern Chinese Currencies, published by the China Financial Publishing House in 1998. In addition to the picture of the silver coin of the Yan Variety on page 147, it specifically mentions the few "new technological successes for our country's commemorative coins through continuous research and experiment……'Two dragons playing a ball' proof lunar gold and silver coins were first released in 1988" in Bullet 3 of "Minting Technologies" under the minting "Exploration and Innovation" section on page 150.
This shows that the Chen and Yan Varieties not only exists on the 1 oz gold coin, but also on the 1 oz silver coin, and probably on the platinum coin. Returning to the topic above, why did these varieties occur?
Through inquiries to those involved, and based on official written data available for perusing now (which are my own methods of research), the basic conclusion is: the Yan Variety Dragon coins were trial strikes from the need to test technologies in the trial production of coin types of these specifications. This is my basic understanding of the coin types after excluding them from the possibilities of fakes, error coins or special strikes, and this understanding is agreed on by Shanghai Mint. The answer from the mint to my conclusion that the 1 oz Dragon coins were trial strike is: it was the first time for the mint to produce coin types of these specifications. Due to the lack of technical readiness and time crunch, the die of the obverse of the Panda gold coin of the year was used temporarily in the trial production of the Dragon coins. By the time of formal production, the matching obverse design was still not available. As it was considered improper to use exactly the same design as the obverse of the Panda gold coins of that year, the obverse of the 1987 Panda gold coin was adopted, which was also a world renowned classic design. The 1 oz lunar coins started to have a uniform obverse design of the national emblem with flowers from the 1989 Snake coin to the 1999 Rabbit coin. In fact, as far as the possibilities I can come up with, I feel that apart from technical considerations, decision-making and human relations during that particular historical period might also have played a role in the background of this issue. Of course the actual happenings on this perspective are difficult to investigate, and it might not be a good idea to do so as our focus is on the varieties themselves.
Has our current understanding of the coins as trial strikes added new members to the rank of Chinese precious metal coin patterns on the market, with interesting and simultaneous appearance of coins made of gold, silver and platinum? It may not be that simple, because there are different views on Chinese precious metal coin patterns in the trade, especially among coin collectors. These differences arise on the nature of patterns, their categorization and their valuation. We can refer to the patterns of milled coins of the pre-PRC times in our understanding and determination of Chinese precious metal coin patterns, but they are also distinctly different. Those patterns of milled coins of the pre-PRC times are no longer under the legal protection of our country, and so many of them are fakes (as their steel dies are available at auctions) with no legal protection. On the other hand, the patterns of Chinese precious metal coins, as the currency issued by the current regime, are not suffering from this weakness. Yet they are faced with another dilemma: according to the applicable law of our country, patterns of issued coins are confidential, while patterns of unissued coins are top secrets. Under these conditions, what is the proper perspective on patterns? Thanks to the unique circumstances during the specific historical period, some patterns of early Chinese gold coins still turn up on the market, get circulated and fall into strong hands. This is a highly interesting numismatic phenomenon deserving close watch! It is worth further exploration in the future.
A related question is the quantity of the patterns. Based on the consensus on the market and in the collector community, patterns of Chinese gold coins are very small in number! Without agreement on the nature and concept of patterns, some would claim that a pattern should be the only specimen; others say that patterns normally come in four. The 1989 Dragon and Phoenix and the 1992 Dragon and Horse are relatively larger in number with undetermined quantity, but still remain extremely rare. These facts remind us that our understanding and research of patterns still need improvement! As for the number of the 1 oz Dragon coins of the Yan Variety, we cannot decide on their individual mintage, but based on the norm of trial strikes at that time, they should be very small in number – currently, it is mostly the 1 oz gold Dragon coin of the Yan Variety that is sighted once in a while. Even though trial strikes do not have a fixed number in production, i.e. they can be more or less, depending on how soon the specifications are met, what is the largest number by estimate? According to those working at the mints, the maximum number of trial strikes is a few dozen. Of course, when it is hard to find the number in the records, we can let time solve the puzzle as it flows on. The purpose of my focusing on this topic and of my research is to promote and expand the awareness among more people, so that owners of these coins will come forward. That will take us closer to truth!
c. Looking Deeper into the Mystery of the Varieties of the Lunar Dragon Coins
Apart from previous discussions, the following question may be asked: since the design, production and melting of trial strikes follow a relatively strict procedure, how did the 1 oz Dragon coins of the Yan Variety survive melting and make it to the market, if they were indeed trial strikes?
With our holistic view of the Chinese precious metal coins during the 80s and 90s, my conclusions through comprehensive observation and investigation include the following: (1). This coin is not unique in getting to the market. Other trial strikes are available on the market, too. Even trial strikes of gold coins with the wording "Pattern" on them have been sighted. Some trial strikes currently deemed extremely rare were sold from official channels. For example Quanyouzhai (name of an official coin outlet – translator) sold the gold trial strikes of the Decade of Women. (2). The business meeting held on October 20, 1995 by China Gold Coin Inc. to focus on the inventory of gold and silver commemorative coins (on page 29 of Annual Book of China Gold Coin Inc., 1987-2007) specifically cited what needed to be removed from the coin inventories, which included two categories of gold and silver coins: those not minted according to approved patterns and those minted beyond the planned mintage. In 2002, the China Gold Coin Inc. monitored their melting following the document Approval of Melting of Some Gold and Silver Commemorative Coin Inventories from the Gold and Silver Division of the Central Bank. This proves that the Dragon coin of the Yan Variety was not a unique case. (3). As a legal entity, the China Gold Coin Inc., registered and founded at the end of 1987, did allow for leeway for such coins to be marketed due to ownership and similar issues in its own process of adopting independent accountability and self-financing.
Although I cannot claim that the mystery of the 1 oz Dragon coins is totally cleared up for now, at least we have a better understanding of this issue. Or we can say that another window is opened to gain more knowledge about it. The Numismatic Society of Shanghai Mint has included these coins in their study after I contacted them for information. It is said that the Rongli Institute in Shanghai (under the management of Huang Ruiyong – translator) is also working on them. I hope more people can join the research on this coin, and reach more solid and convincing conclusions!
III. The Motivation and Purpose of My Research on the 1 Oz Dragon Coins
I have three motivations/purposes in the research of the 1988 1 oz Dragon coins as an individual case of study:
First, through this case study, I wish to explore the mechanism of some phenomena associated with early Chinese gold coins, so that I can better grasp similar phenomena and trigger collective reflections and explorations by fellow collectors of Chinese gold coins as an attempt of empirical study and cultural development. This case study in particular can enrich and deepen my knowledge of Chinese numismatics. The publication of my initial research findings can trigger discussions, which may in turn lead me as the researcher to more findings! Of course, by sharing the findings, more people will stand to gain knowledge or benefit.
Second, through this research, I wish to gain better understanding and a more rational estimate of the trial strikes of Chinese gold and silver coins. At present, it seems that trial strikes are deemed extremely elusive and expensive, beyond the reach of common folks. The reality may be very different. Although there is a big gap between the numismatic culture and valuation of coins of our country and those countries relatively more developed, we in fact have our originality and a solid foundation in numismatic research. What we need is the building of a Chinese gold coin culture and expansion of the market, based on correct understanding of the coins and of ourselves.
Third, this study opens our eyes to many anecdotes and research subjects previously unknown or unfamiliar to us. These anecdotes are extremely interesting, and the research subjects offer chances of great value. For those who are devoted to the enjoyment and study of coins, these research subjects are well worth watching out for and getting deeply involved in, which in turn will greatly accelerate the evolution of Chinese gold coins and the numismatic culture.
Nine Dragon Screen (added by translator)