World Coins

‘Odd and curious’ money collection sells in Hong Kong auction

An unusual and extensive offering of money used throughout southeast Asia from the collection of researcher Charles J. Opitz was offered in Hong Kong at Heritage’s Dec. 5 to 6 World Coin auction. 

Opitz is well-known for his survey An Ethnographic Study of Traditional Money, a comprehensive collector’s guide of odd and curious money with more than 1,200 photographs that provides explanations on the usage and identification of ethnographic money. 

The author’s collection was especially strong in the money of Thailand and China. Opitz’s research highlighted the historical relationship between culture and money in its traditional forms, including money forms considered “primitive” or “odd and curious,” summarizing decades of research.  

The top lot was an “axe-head” type piece from China’s Southern Song Dynasty with a pedigree that traces back to 1929 when it was offered in a Thomas L. Elder auction. It was reportedly unearthed on the island of Poulou Campe in Sumatra in 1902.

The 50-tael piece, described more specifically as a “Fujian Tax Sycee of 50 Taels,” dates from 1127 to 1278, and was certified About Uncirculated 55 by Gong Bo Grading. While not entirely legible, the top five characters in the right column would read as “Sha Xian Jing Zhi Yin” (translating to “silver ingot from Sha County”). It measures 138 by 78 millimeters. 

This axe-head type of ingot was used throughout the Jing, Yuan, and Sung dynasties to pay taxes. 

Heritage describes the piece’s appearance, “This particular piece has a rich argent patination, and is highly original, with white ink or chalk applied to the characters to increase their visibility.” 

It sold for $50,400. 

Exceptional key money

Among the more recognizable shapes in the Opitz offering was a gold-inlaid “Key Money” knife from China’s Western Han Dynasty measuring 74 by 29 millimeters. 

Heritage wrote, “A very rare and fascinating piece of early Chinese monetary history, these gold-inlaid knives representing 5000 Wu Shu in value, or roughly 1/2 cattie (one cattie being equal to 120 grams) of gold, placing their face value (via fiat) at 2 ounces of pure gold.” 

The offered example is particularly well-preserved and shows an intact thin gold layer over the characters “Yi Dao” (meaning “one knife”) along with a deep apple-green patina and clean edges. It was also authenticated by Gong Bo Grading and has an old American Numismatic Association Authentication Bureau certificate. 

Dating from the reign of rebel Want Mang, A.D. 7 to 23, the “Key Money” sold for $12,000. 

Blocks of tea as money?

The Opitz Collection was particularly rich in what’s known as “Tea Money,” which provides material evidence of the robust trade between Russia and China that began in 1862 when Russian merchants were permitted to trade in the interior of China. 

Russian tea brick production largely took place at Russian factories in China for the Russian market. Heritage explained that the tea brick business thrived, especially with the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1907, but the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 stopped the trade. Heritage adds, “Due to its contemporary popularity, consumption, and use as currency, very few tea bricks have survived down to the present day, even fewer in superb condition.” 

The tea bricks enjoyed a status as a sort of currency and often had charming designs, like this one issued by Tokmakoff, Molotkoff & Co. measuring 242 by 186 by 20 millimeters.

A sturdy horse is depicted on the front, alongside the company’s trademark. The back is perforated into eight panels and while a definitive reading of the text on the brick has proven elusive to modern researchers, it was likely produced for consumption or circulation in Sinkiang or Mongolia, as suggested by the use of Uyghur script. 

The late 19th or early 20th century “Tea Money” brick weighing 37 ounces and graded About Uncirculated by Heritage sold for $5,760 on Dec. 5.

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