US Coins

The shifting values of chop-marked Trade dollars

An impressively chop marked 1877-S Trade dollar graded AU-50 sold for $377.30 at an Aug. 28 GreatCollections auction.

Original images courtesy of GreatCollections.

Trade 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. 

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