I’ve illustrated a 1921 yuan from China that is commonly called the “Fat Man” dollar. Thirty or so years ago it was rather difficult to find one of these coins at a large show unless there was a major dealer in foreign coins. Today, it seems that these coins have flooded the market.
One dealer at the American Numismatic Association show in Chicago in August had a pile of them in his case. While dated 1914 and 1919-1921, the Standard Catalog lists an estimated mintage of 750,000 pieces struck continuously until 1929 and later in the 1950s. This number may actually be low. Because of the restrikes, the coins are not rare; yet authenticating them with 100 percent certainty has become a problem. I credit this to the improved counterfeits being produced in China and the rising value of genuine coins in uncirculated.
To begin with, these coins are not very detailed. Their design is in low relief and lacks the sharpness found on most world coins made in the 1920s. This makes them easy to fake. Additionally, the genuine coins were struck at many different Chinese mints. Looking at a dozen or more specimens together, you would be hard pressed to find any coins struck using the same dies. For example, each coin might have a different lapel collar design. The coins we see also have different edge reeding in both style and reed counts. Since the major requirement of coin authentication is to know what the genuine coin should look like, this series presents problems to begin with.
So what is genuine? The coins I see in this series fall into three major groups. In one are the typical fakes that have the appearance of the genuine pieces and can be passed off to most people as genuine. These coins are out of tolerance with respect to fineness and weight. They look dull and gray. Most numismatists can spot one of these from a foot away.
The next batch is better struck and silver in color. They need closer examination to detect. Any collector familiar with the defects normally seen on struck counterfeit coins should be able to detect these or at the least seek another opinion from a qualified numismatist.
Finally, we come to the coins that I am writing about here. They are good looking, die struck, lustrous silver coins.
The problem is this: If you don’t know what an absolutely genuine coin that’s been in a museum collection since the 1960s looks like, you really cannot be 100 percent sure that any of these die struck coins are genuine and struck officially during a specific time period. Perhaps that’s because of the restrikes. It has even been hard to pinpoint what the exact weight and fineness of these coins that “look genuine” should be. In practice, the specific gravity and weight of these coins fall all around the norm of .890 fine silver and 26.4 grams.
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When the newly established American Numismatic Association Certification Service was located in Washington, D.C., we were “burned” on a few occasions by relying on the opinion of expert consultants regarding world coins that “looked good.” After that, nothing was certified as genuine until we were without a doubt. In some cases, authenticating particular foreign coins took several months of research aided by consultants at coin shows and museums who had similar specimens. Back then, the submitter was happy to allow us any amount of time to reach a conclusion on the authenticity of his piece. The business of authentication is much different today because customers want fast results. Services rarely have the option of holding suspicious coins to seek comparison pieces or similar specimens to look for the repeating marks characteristic of die struck fakes. Fortunately, the major services have strong guarantees that back their opinions.
I cannot say what the future holds for coins such as these. Regular readers will recall my recollections from almost 40 years ago about controversial Pillar dollars and British Trade dollars that turned out to be virtually all genuine. Hopefully, that may be the case here; but the new generations of die struck counterfeits argue against it. The “tourist” coins that are not fine silver, lightweight and crude will always be rejected while those coins that “look perfectly good” will continue to be traded as genuine (which they all may be) until more study is done. For now, it’s best to purchase only those coins in this series that have been certified by one of the major grading services.