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Rare Coins from Japan, China Shine Light on the Numismatic Scene in Asia

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In the last decade the world has seen a global shift toward Asia, as such we continue to see unprecedented prices in Asian numismatics. Untold numbers of coin collectors and investors are active participants in the numismatic hobby across Asia, and China continues to lead the way with record participation and collector demand. A nation whose numismatic legacy goes back millennia to its earliest forms of money, China offers a plethora of collecting opportunities. Much the same can be said for Japan, which – inspired by the successful monetary systems in China – developed its own currency around the eighth century, A.D.

The coinage of China and Japan were heavily featured in an April 2021 Stack’s Bowers Galleries auction that was held in Hong Kong. Stack’s Bowers Galleries is a leader in numismatic auctions in Hong Kong and one of many such numismatic auctions in Asia, where the appetite for world coins has only grown in recent years. This was vividly illustrated when several major rarities from the famous Pinnacle Collection, all certified by PCGS, inspired fervent bidding between collectors and helped set a multitude of price records.

Among the lots was a PCGS SP64 Year 17 (1928) China Silver Dollar Pattern, which surpassed its presale estimate of $150,000 to $250,000 by many multiples to realize $2,280,000 – a world-record price for a Chinese coin. Meanwhile, a Hishi Oban (10 Ryo), ND Tensho Era (Ca. 1588) from Japan and graded PCGS MS60 claimed $1,920,000, or more than double its presale estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. Another interesting offering was an eight-piece pattern set of Japanese coins from Year 3 (1870), with all pieces graded PCGS SP66 or higher and collectively taking $1,560,000.

Let’s examine some of the pieces that traded for big money and why they are so important in the numismatic scene.

Japan Obans and Plate Money

These rare gold pieces were made from the 16th century up through the 19th century and carry face values of 1 Ryo to 10 Ryo. They predate the modern era of Japanese coinage, which began under the reform of 1870 and was precipitated by the 1868 political revolution in Japan that saw the end of centuries-old military rule and restoration of imperial leadership.

(1573-91) Japan Oban, JNDA 09-1 Tensho-Hishi, PCGS MS60. Click image to enlarge.

Obans, a type of Tokugawa coinage, are extremely scarce and reach back to an era that produced the Hishi Oban (10 Ryo) ND Tensho Era piece minted circa 1588 that represents among the first Obans minted in Japan. Approximately a half dozen specimens are known to survive, and most of these are impounded in various institutions making them impossible for private collectors to own.

The rare circa 1588 Oban that went for nearly $2 million is considered a collectible of utmost importance as a national treasure, as an early example of one of Japan’s most important forms of money during the feudal era. The Ryo itself represents a unit of gold currency in Japan, however silver and bronze currencies also circulated alongside the gold Obans in what was a complex and colorful monetary system that lasted for well more than two centuries.

1870 Japan Modern Coin Pattern Set

With the demise of feudalism in Japan and the resurrection of formal imperialism with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 came many changes to the island nation, including a new form of money. The 1870 Japan pattern coin set that realized more than $1.5 million represents a new period not just for Japanese money but also for the nation, as any sovereign entity builds its identity among its people and on the global scene through coin of the realm.

(1870) M3 Japan 10 Yen Pattern cf. KM-Pn18, PCGS SP67+. Click image to enlarge.

The eight coins in the 1870 pattern set represent a major transition for Japan, one during which the nation reached beyond its own borders to form new geopolitical alliances and trading partners around the world. The 1870 Japan patterns were among the first of their kind under the leadership of the Meiji Emperor, which drew the curtain the ingot-style coinage long used in Japan and instead looked toward the future with standardized coins that are round in shape and more uniform in size.

The prototype coins showcase the talents of Japanese master engraver Natsuo Kano, artist Tomoo Masuda, and calligrapher Hyoka Ishii. Their designs were then shipped to the Royal Mint in London, and engraver Leonard Charles Wyon translated the raw artwork into a set of coinage dies that were used to strike pattern coins. No certain numbers give numismatists a precise mintage on the 1870 patterns struck by Wyon, but only two complete sets accounted for – one resides at the British Royal Mint, making this set the only one available to own. Stack’s Bowers Galleries Hong Kong Auction in April 2021 was pleased to have the honor of offering this set which became the most valuable Japanese coin set to trade at auction.

China Silver Dollar Pattern, Year 17 (1928)

Chinese silver dollars are extraordinarily popular with collectors around the world, and rare patterns always take large sums of money when they come up for auction. That was the case with the “Mukden Tiger” Silver Dollar Pattern, Year 17 (1928) that was graded PCGS SP64 and fetched an astonishing $2.28 million to become the most valuable Chinese coin sold at public auction.

(1928) Republic of China Pattern $1, PCGS SP64. Click image to enlarge.

What makes this piece so special? From the grading standpoint, it’s a simply outstanding specimen, with an extremely sharp strike and gorgeous, original surfaces bearing a satiny luster and stunning hues of rose, wine, and russet. On technical merits, the piece that traded hands at the Stack’s Bowers Galleries April 2021 Hong Kong Auction is just the second-finest certified by PCGS of the known handful around available, with only one other example grading slightly higher at PCGS SP64+.

The pattern coin itself tells its own interesting tale of Governor Chang Tso-lin, an influential Chinese military figure who helped unify the region in northeast China and was assassinated in 1928 by the Japanese Kwantung Army. The obverse of the coin that bears a bust of the fallen leader reads in Chinese characters, “Memorial Coin of the Commander-in-Chief” while the reverse depicts two crossed flags, which include a flag representing the Republic of China and Iron Blood flag symbolizing the Wuchang Uprising.

Asian Coins Are Taking the Spotlight

While these and many other coins that hammered at the April 2021 Hong Kong Auction held by Stack’s Bowers Galleries made international headlines, they represent only the tip of a numismatic iceberg when it comes to the depth, complexity, and richness of the Asian coin collecting scene. The world leader in third-party coin grading, PCGS continues to be the leader in Asian numismatics, and this was no less illustrated by the fact that these highlighted coins and many others that sell for record sums are in PCGS holders.

“We can’t underscore enough how happy we are to see these PCGS-graded rarities take the spotlight at the Stack’s Bowers Galleries Hong Kong Auction,” said PCGS President Brett Charville. “Good things are ahead for our hobby. PCGS has offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong that are serving numismatists in Asia with PCGS’ expertise and guarantees as the hobby continues growing by leaps and bounds.”

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