Chop Marked Coins

March 14, 2009

Spain 1807 8 Reale - Mexico Mint, Numerous Small Chopmarks

Chopmark : a stamped symbol or letter punched into a coin to signify that it has been assayed for weight or purity by an Asian bank or trader.

In my last entry I talked about trade coins, coins produced to make economic commerce between countries easier. China was the major trading partner in Asia for a large number of Western countries and a lot of the large silver trade coins were designed specifically for trade with China. The Chinese produced a large range of manufactured goods that were in demand in Europe but they were not interested in European goods, what they really wanted was silver. The 8 reale (in cob and milled form) was the trade coin of choice for hundreds of years until they stopped being minted in 1821 when Mexico declared it's independence.

France 1887 1 Piastre - Dish shaped due to heavy central chopmark

To understand chopmarks you must understand the Chinese attitude to silver coins in the 17th through to the early 20th centuries. The Chinese saw silver coins as round pieces of bullion, tradeable silver, not money at all. In fact a lot of the time they melted such silver coins down into ingots called sycee that traders had traditionally traded with. Being bullion, traders and customers needed to have confidence in it and thus chopmarks, symbols, letters or Chinese characters were stamped into the coins with metal punches to signify that a trader or bank had assayed the coin and determined it to be genuine. This is little different to the practice of hallmarking silver and gold in Western countries. The practice of applying chopmarks became especially important because of the circulation of debased counterfeit 8 reale coins or base metal counterfeits with a thin silver coating. The punch used to create the chopmark could penetrate the thin silver out coating of these counterfeits and reveal the coin to be the fraud it was!

In the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century a larger number of nations started producing 8 reale sized silver coins to assist their traders in doing business with Asia. For example, the US Trade Dollar was produced to stop American traders having to purchase Mexican 8 Reale coins at a premium. This influx of new and unknown silver coins into China lead to an increase in the size and number of chops applied to silver coins in trade. These coins could be very heavily chopped to the point of having the design almost obliterated and the coin itself being formed into a 'dish' shape due to the large force applied when the chopmarks were made by traders.

Mexico 1889 8 reale - Chinese character and Latin 'H' Chopmarks

Chop marked coins are (in my opinion) just bursting with character. The marks and resultant effect of the coin makes the coin itself a relic of another era where international trade depended on the quality of the silver rather than on electronic fund transfers. The chopmarks are exotic and strange an often completely at odds with the design of the coin they are on, providing an interesting contrast in the cultures of the time. One can only imagine English traders in the early 19th Century bartering for silk and porcelain from Chinese traders using Spanish colonial silver purchased with English silver or even stolen from Spanish ships by English privateers! These sorts of coins are, to me at least, part of what coin collecting is all about.

Posted by mnemtsas at March 14, 2009 7:34 AM
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