On special occasions in ancient times, Chinese mints would cast an unusually large, thick, heavy and well-made coin.
The coin was known as a “vault protector” (zhen ku qian 镇库钱).
The coin was not for circulation but occupied a special place at the treasury.
The treasury had a spirit hall where offerings could be made to various gods including the God of Wealth (财神). The special coin would sometimes be hung with red silk and tassels above the incense table in the spirit hall.
The vault protector coin was believed to have charm-like powers that provided protection from disaster and evil while ensuring good fortune and wealth.
Shown at the left is the earliest vault protector coin know to exist, and also the most famous.
The inscription da tang zhen ku (大唐镇库) translates as “Vault Protector of the Tang Dynasty”.
The translation is a little misleading, however, because the coin was not produced during the great Tang Dynasty (618-907).
The coin was cast during the baoda period (保大 943-957) of the reign of Yuanzong (元宗), also known as Li Jing (李景 or 李璟), of the Southern Tang.
In addition to the da tang tong bao (大唐通宝) coins, he also had cast this large vault protector coin with the inscription da tang zhen ku (大唐镇库).
The coin retains the characteristics of Southern Tang coins.
The diameter is 6 cm, the thickness is 0.6 cm, the diameter of the hole is 1.24 cm and the coin weighs 93.7 grams.
It is the only authentic specimen known to exist.
The obverse side (not shown) of the coin has the inscription xian feng tong bao (咸丰通宝) which means the coin was cast during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor (咸丰帝), 1850-1861.
The inscription on the reverse side, seen above, is da qing zhen ku (大清镇库) which means “Vault Protector of the Qing Dynasty”.
According to this article, there were a total of five of these special vault protector coins cast. In the early years of the Republic (1912-1949), a eunuch stole the coins. Three of the coins were sold to an Englishman for “a large amount of money”. One of the remaining coins is at the Leizhou City Museum and the other is at The Palace Museum (故宫博物院) in Beijing.
The coin has a diameter of 14 cm. The square hole is 2.5 cm. The coin weighs 1050 grams.
Shown at the left is another vault protector coin from the Qing Dynasty.
The inscription reads bao yuan ju zao (宝源局造) which means “made by the Board of Works”.
The reverse side has the Chinese inscription zhen ku (镇库) which means “vault protector”.
According to Mr. Ma Dingxiang (马定祥), one of the most famous Chinese numismatists of the 20th century, this vault protector is consistent with the style of coins cast during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor.
This very large coin has a diameter of 11.52 cm and weighs 837.3 grams. The center hole is 1.8 cm.
According to “Coins in China’s History” published in 1936 by Arthur B. Coole (邱文明), only 4 or 5 of these vault protector coins from the Board of Works (宝源局) exist. Mr. Ma Dingxiang states in his book on the coins of Xianfeng (咸丰泉汇), that there exists just one specimen of a companion vault protector coin that was cast at the same time at the Board of Revenue (宝泉局).
In 1861 during the last days of his life, the Xianfeng emperor made arrangements for his son, Zaiqun, to succeed him as emperor.
The new emperor was to take the reign title of Qixiang (祺祥).
With the passing of Xianfeng, however, a coup took place resulting in a change of the reign title. The new reign title was to be Tongzhi (同治).
Displayed above is a rare Qixiang vault protector coin.
The inscription reads qi xiang zhong bao (祺祥重宝).
The inscription on the reverse side is da qing zhen ku (大请镇库) which translates as “Vault Protector of the Qing Dynasty”.
This coin is 10.1 cm in diameter and has a thickness of 0.47 cm.
The coin does not indicate the mint that produced it.
This very large and rare Qixiang vault protector coin sold at auction in 2013 for $745,755 (HK$5,750,000).
Another vault protector coin from the Qing dynasty is shown at the left.
The inscription reads guang xu tong bao (光绪通宝).
The coin was cast as a vault protector during the reign of the Guangxu Emperor (光绪帝) 1875-1908.
The coin is very well cast and the bronze is exquisite.
The reverse side, shown at the left, has the inscription bao yuan (宝源) meaning it was cast at the Board of Works in Beijing.
The diameter is 6.2 cm.
The thickness is a remarkable 1 cm.
This coin sold at auction in 2010 for $51,485 (RMB 319,200).
According to Mr. Ma Dingxiang (马定祥), this is a vault protector coin cast during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).
The inscription on the obverse reads tai ping tian guo (太平天国) which translates as the “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace”.
The coin has a diameter of 7.6 cm.
The reverse side of the coin has the inscription sheng bao (圣宝) which translates as “Sacred Currency”.
Mr. Ma discusses the coin in his book “Coins of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom” (太平天国钱币).
These large, well-crafted vault protector coins were produced during the later period of the Taiping Rebellion in Hunan, Suzhou and Hangzhou.
This specimen was in the collection of Mr. Ma and sold at auction in 2011 for $111,286 (RMB 690,000).
There are only five or six of these coins known to exist and they all display very slight differences.
The description in the exhibit reads “A Taiping Sample Coin Permanently Placed in the Heavenly Treasury as a Symbol of Wealth”.
It can be clearly seen in this image just how thick these vault protector coins really are.
There is some speculation that a very large and heavy banliang coin (半两) made of silver was cast by the State of Qin (秦) in 336 BC to serve as a vault protector. Please see “State of Qin Silver Banliang Coin” for a detailed discussion.
Because vault protector coins are so rare, there is no shortage of fakes appearing on the market. In doing research for this article, I found several coins described as vault protectors which I found questionable. Collectors of these special coins therefore need to be especially careful.
China nowadays issues on a regular basis a large variety of special commemorative coins made of precious metals such as gold or silver. These coins are not meant for circulation. They are popular as collectables and investments.
Some of these modern coins are modeled after the vault protector coins of ancient times.
In 1998, a gold coin modeled after the “Vault Protector of the Tang Dynasty” discussed above was issued. A gold version of the Emperor Xianfeng vault protector discussed above was minted in 1990. Finally, a gold coin based on a different Emperor Xianfeng vault protector was produced in 1982.