NGC Certifies Extremely Rare China Kirin 1884 Uniface Spelter Coins

Posted on 6/9/2015

Extensive research and metallurgic analysis aided NGC in certifying a set of five trial strikes.

Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) has certified a set of extremely rare uniface trial strikes of the 1884 Kirin, China coins. Pedigreed to the famous collections of W. H. Woodward and Eduard Kann, these trial strikes (or “splashers”) were purchased by the “NC Collection” in 1976 for the then-significant price of $10,000. After extensive research in conjunction with Chinese numismatic expert Bruce Smith and metallurgic analysis, NGC has authenticated this set of five trial strikes.

1884 Kirin Pattern Set of Uniface Spelter Strikings
Standard Issue 1885 China Tael

This set was previously displayed by Champion Auctions at its Special Numismatic Display during the August 2014 Hong Kong, China show and Champion Auctions has plans to tour the set in China later this year.

The trial strike set has been studied in great depth by Smith, who has written an article on this piece that is reprinted in its entirety below.


by Bruce W. Smith

Determining which coin was China’s first struck coin depends on the definition of the term. The Chinese style coins of Tibet, China made in the 1790’s and early 1800’s and the Moslem style coins of Sinkiang made in the 1870’s were struck by hand, without machinery. The 1856 Shanghai taels, the Old Man and other early dollars of Taiwan, Province of China, were made on a crude lever press or drop press operated by a winch. The Chekiang struck cash made at the Paris Mint in 1866 was only a sample, made overseas and never circulated in China. The first Chinese coins produced in China by modern steam powered machinery were the 1884 Kirin dragon coins. These coins, in values of 1, 3, 5 and 7 ch’ien or mace, and one tael, are decorated with long, very thin dragons (almost like snakes with legs) typical of those seen in art of the Han Dynasty, two thousand years earlier. According to Eduard Kann, the designer of these unique coins was Wu Ta-ch’eng.

Wu Ta-ch’eng (1835-1902), also known as Wu Ch’ia-chai; Wu Heng-hsuan and Wu Ch’ing-ch’ing (Kann’s Wu Chin-chin), a native of Soochow, was a prominent calligrapher, antiquarian, coin collector and government official. Receiving the chin shih degree in 1868, in 1870 he was sent to Wuchang, Hupeh as secretary to Li Hung-chang. In 1880 he was sent to Manchuria as part of a government effort to improve defenses along the border with Russia. In 1881 he began the establishment of a modern, machine equipped arsenal at Kirin, which was completed in 1883. In 1886 he was appointed governor of Kwangtung province, and later, in 1892 became governor of Hunan. He compiled numerous books on bronzes, jades and seals, and a major work analyzing some 5,700 ancient, pre-Ch’in characters found on bronzes and coins. His biography can be found in Hummel’s “Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period” and in Ting Fu-pao’s encyclopedia of Chinese coins.

Due to a chronic shortage of copper coins in Kirin, the Mongol, Hsi-yuan, who was military governor of Kirin from April 1883 to June 1888, reported in a memorial dated 9 January 1885, that he had sent 5,000 taels from the military rations fund to the Kirin arsenal to be made into silver coins of 1, 3, 5 and 7 mace and 1 tael as an experiment. They are described as having the date on one side and the weight in ch’ang p’ing taels on the other side. The ch’ang p’ing scale was the local weight standard, and is so called from the Chinese name of the city, Ch’uan Ch’ang (literally “boat factory”). The city was founded by the Manchus about 1670 as a shipyard to make boats to defend the area from the Russians. As the capital of Kirin Province it is also known as Kirin City, because it sits on the Kirin River (also known as the Sung Hua or Sungari).

Though Kirin at that time was a remote and backward area, the arsenal was staffed with workers from south China and managers with experience at other modern arsenals. The manager during the 1880’s and 1890’s was Sung Ch’un-ao, who had been trained at the Kiangnan Arsenal in Shanghai, and later worked at the Peiyang Arsenal in Tientsin. The assistant manager was Hsu Hua-feng, who was also trained at the Shanghai arsenal. An Englishman, H. E. M. James, visited the arsenal during the summer and fall of 1886, and left this account in his book, “The Long White Mountain”:

“The principal thing of interest at Kirin is the arsenal, which has recently been established under the management of a gentleman named Sung, who received his training under foreigners in the arsenals of Tientsin and Shanghai. He was exceedingly courteous and friendly, and showed us over the place. It was very interesting to see a large establishment filled with foreign machinery, some German and some English, with boilers and engines and steam hammers, just such as one might see at Woolwich or Elswick, all erected and managed by Chinese without foreign assistance of any kind. It would open the eyes of those Europeans who think that western nations have a monopoly of mechanical and administrative ability. Most of the artisans were from Ningpo, and had also practical experience before they came. They can turn out anything, from a gingall to a repeating rifle. The Chinese verdict on English compared with German machinery was that the latter worked more quickly and did delicate work better, but the English was more solid, and could always be depended upon for accuracy.”

Though work on the Kirin arsenal began in 1881, the arsenal was not completed until 1883. The North China Herald for 11 October 1882 reports that a stone wharf was being built at Newchwang (the port for Manchuria) to receive the heavy machinery, which was expected to arrive in November. This machinery could not have been set up and working till sometime in 1883. For this reason, the 8th Year (1882) Kirin tael (Kann 914) could not have been made at the Kirin arsenal – at least not in 1882.

The 10th Year (1884) coins, dated incorrectly in Kann as 1885, all have the same design, differing only in size and denomination. The obverse has a border of circles, each with a dot in the center. The tael has 48 such circles while the smaller coins have correspondingly fewer circles. In the center is a box containing 12 seal script characters stating that the coin was made in the Kirin arsenal in Kuang Hsu Year 10. Above the box is the seal script character “shou” (long life) in a circle, and to the left and right a long thin dragon stretches around the box. The reverse has a similar border of circles, with a smaller box in the center containing four characters in ordinary script, stating the weight according to the ch’ang p’ing tael. A Manchu word appears on each of the four sides of the box, with wispy clouds separating the words. The Manchu word on the left is “gilin” (Kirin); that on the right is “teherebuku” (ch’ang p’ing scales weight). The top and bottom words give the denomination, with the numeral above and the weight below. Amazingly, mintage figures for these coins survive in a memorial quoted in “Chi Lin Chu Pi” (1996): 1 tael 198 pieces; 7 mace 1,071 pieces; 5 mace 1,420 pieces; 3 mace 866 pieces; 1 mace 825 pieces. This totals only 2,000 taels indicating that the full 5,000 taels sent to the arsenal was not used.

This brings up the question of who made the dies for the 8th Year and 10th Year coins? There were no other modern mints in China then – the Canton Mint had not even been thought of yet. Engraving a steel die requires special skills and special tools, both of which were not readily available in China at that time. It is possible the dies were made in Germany or England, where the machinery was produced, but the coins look too crude to have been made from European dies. Another possibility is that a model of each coin was carved in relief in stone or copper, and from this an iron die was cast. Such a die likely wouldn’t last very long, but this could explain the die varieties which exist in the 1884 coins, despite their low mintage. Kann records 18 varieties of these 5 coins, not including the spelter pieces. Or perhaps there was someone in China, perhaps in Shanghai, with the skills to make a die.

This brings us to the set of uniface spelter coins seen here. The technical term for such pieces is splasher, a word I have been unable to find in any English dictionary. Prior to the 19th century every working die was engraved by hand. It was time consuming and the die had to be examined from time to time to make sure the wording and designs were in the correct locations and proportions and that the carving was deep enough where it needed to be so. To check the die, the engraver would melt a small amount of lead or tin or zinc or some combination of these metals. If it was primarily tin and lead, it was called pewter; if it was primarily zinc or zinc with some alloy, it was called spelter. All of these metals and alloys have one thing in common – very low melting points, under 800 degrees Fahrenheit. A small burner on the work table would melt the metal and a small puddle of the metal would be poured on a piece of paper. While the metal was semi-liquid, the unfinished die would be pressed into the cooling metal and a relief impression would be revealed. The engraver could then examine the cooled “splasher” carefully to see where he needed to alter or strengthen his design. After each examination, the splasher would be thrown back into the pot to be melted, ready for its next use. Because the splashers are destroyed after examination, they are extremely rare among collectors. If any at all survive, there should only be a single splasher for each die, perhaps retained by the engraver as a souvenir. It is also possible that a set of die splashers would be prepared for examination by an official before the dies or the equipment were ready for actually striking the coins. All of the few known Chinese splashers appear to be unique.

We know that Eduard Kann had a set of uniface splashers of the Kirin 1884 coins. In a letter of 30 November 1950 to Howard Bowker, Kann indicates that he had just bought this set from Hans Schulman, who was breaking up the Woodward collection on behalf of Woodward’s widow. When Kann’s collection was sold, the Kirin splashers appeared in the first Kann sale in 1971, where incredibly they were broken up into 5 lots (Lots 1039-1043). What happened to them afterwards is unknown, but the most likely explanation is that someone purchased all five lots to keep the set together, and it ended up in the hands of Hong Kong, China collector Chang Huang. In 1976 he sold the set to NC Collection for US $10,000. At that time the set was housed in a special box (probably made for H. Chang), but the box has been lost. It seems virtually certain that Chang’s set is in fact the one previously owned by Eduard Kann. The ten piece uniface set has piedfort (double thick) coins without reeding on the edges. This makes perfect sense because the splashers would not have been made inside a collar (which puts on the reeding), and the pieces could be struck in any thickness of metal desired. We will probably never know whether this unique uniface set of splashers was made for presentation to a government official or was retained by the engraver – or perhaps by Wu Ta-ch’eng himself – as a souvenir of China’s first modern coinage.

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