With only two specimens known to exist, the Yunnan Spring Dollar is considered among the very rarest of Chinese coins.
One coin sold for $1,035,000 at a Hong Kong auction in August 2010. The only other known specimen is scheduled to be auctioned in September 2011.
As you might expect, there is a great deal of excitement and publicity concerning this upcoming auction since it is not likely that either of these coins will be available again to collectors or museums for many years or perhaps even generations to come.
Besides their rarity, one of the main attractions of these coins has to do with the reference “spring” dollar. These are the only coins in Chinese history to include a season in the inscription and it has been considered a mystery as to why this was done.
At the left is the Yunnan Spring 1910 Silver Dragon Dollar which was auctioned last year. I personally consider this coin to be the more visually appealing of the two even though its “official” grade (“AU55 NGC”) is slightly below that of the coin (“AU58 NGC”) to be auctioned next month.
The four large Chinese characters at the center of the coin read xuan tong yuan bao (宣统元宝) which means it was minted during the reign of the Xuantong Emperor (1908-1912) also known as “The Last Emperor”.
The denomination of the coin is written at the very bottom as ku ping qi qian er fen (库平七钱二分) which is “Treasury Standard 7 Mace and 2 Candareens”. In English, the coin is usually called a “dollar”.
The Chinese inscription at the top reads geng xu qun ji yun nan zao (庚戌春季云南造) which translates as “made in Yunnan Province in the spring of the year geng xu (1910).”
The official announcement for the September auction emphasizes the mystery concerning the inclusion of “spring” in the coin’s inscription:
“This enigmatic issue, one of China’s rarest coins (and with only two genuine pieces known), has been a coin of mystery and legend since its discovery, around 1920. Although there has been constant research in Chinese numismatic circles, over time, no definite reason, or meaning of the term, “Spring 1910″, has yet been discovered.”
Unfortunately, this is not quite correct.
According to several Chinese websites including the “Baidu Library” (百度文库), which is the online encyclopedia maintained by China’s major search engine “Baidu” (百度), the reason that “spring” was included in the inscription is as follows.
The coin is intimately connected with the monetary reforms which were taking place in China at the time. On April 15, 1910, the Qing Dynasty government promulgated “Currency Regulations” (币制则例) in order to standardize the minting of the silver coinage of the country. The authority to mint silver coins was taken away from all provinces and consolidated at the mint in Tianjin. However, since China covers such a vast area, it was not considered practical to have all silver coins made at one mint and therefore branch mints were established at Hankou, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Yunnan.
The new regulations required the silver dollar coins to be of a uniform design, purity, weight and size. Since this was not the case with the coins that were being minted at the four branch mints, these mints were ordered to cease production and await further instructions from the Tianjin mint. The branch mints were also to wait until they received the new standardized dies before resuming production.
However, a few of the branch mints, for selfish reasons, refused to cease the minting of silver coins. The Yunnan branch took dies that had been used to make the 1909 coins and engraved at the top the additional inscription “made in the Spring of 1910”. According to the traditional Chinese calendar in use at the time, “spring” referred to the first three months of the year, namely, January, February and March. In this way, the Yunnan mint attempted to circumvent the new regulations by saying that the coins were made before April of that year.
The Chinese central government discovered the scheme at the Yunnan mint and ordered that all these new coins be withdrawn and melted down. However, a very very few of the coins escaped being destroyed and these are the specimens that are now known as the Yunnan Spring Dollars.
Thus, the “mystery” surrounding the appearance of the word “spring” on these coins is a mystery no more.