Here is a spread of early 20th century silver piastre trade coins from the colony of French Indo-China. Prices for these silver trade dollars, and others like them, have steadily risen over the past 10 years - particularly for problem free specimens in good condition.
In 1865 U.S. journalist Horace Greeley popularized the rallying cry "Go west, young man". The phrase was originally meant to encourage the enterprising and ambitious to strike out for fortune in the rugged expanses of the Western United States. And yet, if you travel far enough west, you inevitably find yourself in the exotic and mysterious Far East.
In the 19th century, China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia were not only sources of exotic philosophies and bizarre plants and animals, but also luxury goods of all descriptions. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the unfamiliar, yet beguiling, cultures of the Far East fascinated the West. Antique silver trade dollars - large coins minted to promote commerce in the region - perfectly exemplified this Western obsession with all things East Asian.
During the mid 19th century European trade with the Far East grew dramatically. Europe imported massive quantities of Chinese silk, porcelain and tea, along with many other East Asian luxury goods. However, the merchants of the Far East - and China in particular - would only accept silver bullion in exchange for their wares.
As the 19th century progressed and the European powers established colonial territories in East Asia, the need for standardized silver trade coins to facilitate commerce became acute. As a result, the greatest empires and nations of the age - France, Great Britain, Japan and the U.S. - all minted impressively heavy silver trade dollars for exclusive use in the distant Far East trade.
Although I use the phrase "silver trade dollars" as a catchall term in this guide, calling these coins silver trade crowns would be more technically accurate. A "crown" in coin collecting traditionally referred to an old British 5 shilling silver coin. However, the term has also been adopted by the collecting community to refer to any silver coin that is similarly large in size.
Foreign silver crowns are avidly sought by coin collectors due to their imposing dimensions and captivating designs. Silver trade dollars of the Far East are no exception to this rule. With diameters generally varying between 38 and 39 millimeters (1.5 to 1.54 inches), they are similar in size to the venerable U.S. silver dollar.
In addition, these East Asian trade coins were struck from high purity, 900 fine (90%) silver. They were among the largest, most splendid coins ever intended for general circulation. Nothing impresses a potential trade partner like a massive hunk of almost pure silver.
Tragically, these historic silver trade dollars were usually treated as common bullion. Although originally minted by the tens of millions, over the decades vast quantities have been damaged, excessively worn or melted down. Consequently, these artistically crafted treasures of a bygone era are not nearly as plentiful as official mintage figures would indicate, particularly for examples in better condition.
One of the most beautiful and iconic of these silver trade dollars is the French Indo-China piastre. Over a period of about 30 years in the late 19 century, France accumulated several territories that it eventually consolidated into French Indo-China. The present-day countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were all part of this colony. At the time, the French Empire was second only to the British Empire in terms of prestige.
In order to facilitate trade in French Indo-China, France introduced a new currency unit called the piastre de commerce. The piastre was minted to a standard of 24.49 grams (0.7875 troy ounces) of pure silver. The series ran from 1885 to 1928 and featured the personification of Liberty seated on the front.
The figure of seated Liberty on the coin looks uncannily like the Statue of Liberty in New York City's harbor. This isn't just a coincidence. France gave the famous landmark to the United States in 1886 as a gift for its (belated) 100th anniversary. The reverse has a simple, yet elegant, wreath surrounded by a legend with the coin's weight and fineness.
In 1895 the weight of the French Indo-China piastre was slightly reduced to 24.30 grams (0.7812 troy ounces) of fine silver. However, the purity and design of the coin was left unaltered. The French Indo-China piastre was minted primarily in Paris, but coins dated 1921 and 1922 were struck in Birmingham, Osaka or Hanoi.
French Indo-China Silver Piastre Coins For Sale
Another silver trade dollar that is extremely popular with collectors today is the British trade dollar. In the early 1890s, the British began looking for a new currency to promote commerce with China, as well as Britain's expansive East Asian possessions. As a result, the British trade dollar was minted from 1895 to 1935. This coveted coin saw heavy circulation in Burma, British Malaya, British Borneo, Singapore and Hong Kong.
This attractive silver trade dollar shows Britannia - the personification of the mighty British Empire - standing proudly with her trident and shield on the obverse while the reverse displays the denomination in both the Chinese and Malay languages. The British trade dollar contained 24.26 grams (0.7800 troy ounces) of fine silver and was minted in both Bombay (present day Mumbai) and Calcutta (present day Kolkata).
British Silver Trade Dollars For Sale
The Japanese also felt the need to maintain their commercial interests by striking a silver trade dollar. In 1897 Japan pulled over 20 million of its silver one yen coins from circulation and countermarked them with the Japanese word "gin" or silver. These demonetized coins were then exported as bullion pieces to the Imperial Japanese possessions of Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria. The "gin" countermark denoting these as special trade pieces was stamped on the reverse of the coins, to either the left of the denomination (indicating the Osaka mint) or the right (indicating the Tokyo mint).
The Japanese silver one yen coin contained 24.26 grams (0.7800 troy ounces) of fine silver and was struck from 1874 to 1897. It featured an Asian-style dragon on the obverse and the stately Japanese imperial crest, along with a wreath and the denomination on the reverse. These remarkable Japanese silver trade dollars were a far cry from the feudal-style, "samurai money" the Tokugawa shogunate had struck just a few decades before.
Japanese Countermarked Silver One Yen Coins For Sale
Not to be outdone by its trade rivals, the United States also minted an East Asian silver trade dollar that is extremely popular with collectors today. But this silver trade coin had a story behind it.
In the early 1870s the United States had two problems. First, it needed to find a way to off-load massive quantities of silver that had been discovered in Nevada's famous Comstock Lode. Second, the U.S. was worried about the competitiveness of its existing silver dollar in the Far East trade versus the preeminent coin of Chinese commerce at the time, the silver Mexican 8 reales. Foreign silver coins other than the Mexican 8 reales - like the U.S. dollar - were often significantly discounted in transactions.
As a way to address both problems at once, the U.S. authorized the striking of a special, slightly heavier version of the silver dollar. This resulted in the U.S. trade dollar, a coin struck from 1873 to 1885 that was intended to circulate solely in China and the Far East. The U.S. trade dollar showed Liberty seated on the front and an eagle with wings spread on the back of the coin. The coin was struck in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Carson City (in Nevada) to a standard of 24.49 grams (0.7874 troy ounces) of pure silver.
U.S. Silver Trade Dollars For Sale
An ambitious connoisseur could assemble a very impressive traditional collection of these large, enticing silver coins by date and mint. Alternatively, one could assemble a good "short set" by acquiring a single example of each type of trade crown - a French Indo-China piastre de commerce, a British trade dollar, a "gin" countermarked Japanese yen and a U.S. trade dollar.
Another fine set would be a French Indo-China piastre from every decade of its production run - one from the 1880s, 1890s, 1900s, 1910s and finally the 1920s. This type of abbreviated set would work well with the British trade dollar as well.
Yet another variant would be collecting every different date of a U.S. trade dollar struck at a particular mint. A San Francisco U.S. trade dollar set would consist of six common-date coins and be eminently achievable. On the other hand, a Carson City set - although the same number of coins - would be substantially more challenging and expensive to assemble due to their lower mintages and high collector demand.
When purchasing silver trade dollars it is important to acquire coins in Very Fine (VF) or better condition. Coins in VF condition will retain most details on figures and devices, although the exact grading varies by the coin series. One potential exception to this rule is key date coins, where a lower grade may be acceptable.
For example, the 1878 Carson City U.S. trade dollar only had a mintage of 97,000 pieces. But according to U.S. mint records, 44,148 trade dollars were melted in that year. Almost all of these were undoubtedly 1878 issues from the Carson City mint. So it is likely that net issuance was only around 50,000 specimens, with many of those subsequently destroyed or heavily damaged. Therefore, unless your budget is unlimited, acquiring an 1878 Carson City trade dollar below VF condition may not only be acceptable, but your only realistic option.
The other primary consideration when choosing silver trade dollars is ensuring the coins are problem free. It is imperative to avoid pieces that are scratched, holed or damaged in any way. It is also wise to bypass coins that have been harshly cleaned at some point in their lives. A well-worn coin that is brilliantly lustrous is suspect and highly likely to have been cleaned. Instead, look for examples with original surfaces even if it means the coin is toned, dark or slightly tarnished.
Some trade pieces have chopmarks. These are Chinese characters stamped onto the coin by private Chinese banks or moneychangers to guarantee their silver content. In years past, chopmarked coins were considered damaged and thus traded at a discount to non-chopmarked examples.
However, this outdated opinion may be changing as the market for these attractive coins matures and becomes more sophisticated. At a minimum, chopmarks on a silver trade crown prove that the coin in question definitely circulated in the Far East - and more specifically the Chinese market.
With their impressive size, precious metal content and historical significance, silver trade dollars are highly desirable investments. In fact, as of early 2018, prices for these stunning coins have risen by almost 50% in just the last few years alone!
In spite of these rising prices, good examples of common date French Indo-China piastre and British silver trade dollars are still available in the $50 to $250 range. Countermarked Japanese one yen pieces run slightly more, with pricing starting at around $100. U.S. trade dollars are the most expensive of the group with common date varieties in reasonable condition trading for over $200.
Scarce or key dates of any of the series can cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to several thousands of dollars, depending on condition. Key dates of the U.S. trade dollar in particular are difficult to find and correspondingly expensive. However, even an abridged set of these celebrated Far East silver trade coins would constitute a magnificent and compelling tangible asset.
It has been more than 150 years since Horace Greely's famous pronouncement to "Go west, young man". With the rise of China in the modern age, Horace Greeley's illustrious advice to seek fortune on the edges of the globe has stood the test of time. And there are few finer ways of honoring the spirit of that astute motto than by investing in the silver trade dollars of East Asia.