dollars remain an outlier among U.S. coins, in that the large
silver coins were never intended to circulate in the United States.
They were first issued in 1873 in an effort to compete with
crown-sized world trade coins in trade with Asian countries.
Though slightly heavier than a U.S. standard silver dollar, Trade
dollars were still underweight relative to the world trade coins they
tried to compete with. Produced more to service Western U.S. silver
mining interests than to actually meet a commercial need, the whole
Trade dollar experiment can be viewed as a failure. But even failures
can have silver linings.
Asian merchants would punch a chop mark — often a Chinese character
— in the surface of a Trade dollar to both identify it and to test the
purity. Some Trade dollars have a single chop. Others have dozens,
providing evidence of a coin’s history in trade and conjuring up
exotic images of travel in the Far East.
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Perhaps a turning point in the marketplace for chop-marked Trade
dollars came when Professional Coin Grading Service and Numismatic
Guaranty Corp. began actively certifying chop-marked dollars.
An Aug. 28 auction conducted by GreatCollections offered a
collection of chop-marked Trade dollars that show the wider collector
acceptance these “damaged” dollars have received in the marketplace in
the past decade. Some collectors now often pay a premium for Trade
dollars with dramatic chop marks, something that would have been
unusual a generation ago.
PCGS even has a Registry Set for chop-marked circulation strike
Trade dollars, 1873 to 1878. The top set — the David Reimer Chop
Marked Trade Dollar Collection — is 100 percent complete, with an
average grade of About Uncirculated 55 (out of a possible finest set
grade of Mint State 61). His set provides useful information on the
relative rarity of chop-marked Trade dollars, and as more are
certified, collectors will have a better sense of relative rarity of
chop marks within the series.
It is a collecting area that even noncollectors appreciate and the
GreatCollections auction showed that even the most dramatic chop marks
on common-date coins can be found for less than $400. However,
collectors would be wise to be careful when buying these, as Trade
dollars are among the most counterfeited coins. In the past, the
existence of a chop mark on a Trade dollar would prove its
authenticity. However, as counterfeiters improve their skills, they
have placed fake chop marks on fake Trade dollars, muddying the waters.