World Coins

Forget what you’ve heard: In China, money did grow on ‘trees’

In China, money really did “grow” on trees, in this case a money tree retaining 59 cash coins created circa 1901 to 1911.

Coin image courtesy of Stephen Album Rare Coins.

Though the old axiom states that “money doesn’t grow on trees,” in China, that wasn’t exactly true.

A highlight from Stephen Album Rare Coins’ Sept. 10 to 12 auction — the firm’s most successful to date — turns that notion on its head.

The circa 1909 to 1911 “money tree” of 59 cast bronze Chinese cash coins, issued by the last Qing Dynasty emperor, Xuan Tong (Puyi) and the Board of Revenue, gives a rebuttal to those who would cite the old maxim. Though it is missing one coin, the “tree” realized $38,350, including the 18 percent buyer’s fee, against an estimate of $10,000 to $14,000. 

Cash coins were introduced in China as early as 618, and were still being made about a century ago in virtually the same form. These round coins include a hole at the center that was created in the minting process, according to The MacMillan Encyclopedic Dictionary of Numismatics by Richard G. Doty. 

“Most often cash were cast in a two-piece mold; the center of each mold had a deep channel, running from the top almost to the bottom,” Doty wrote. “Side channels branched out from the central one. ...”

Molds (usually made of clay) were joined together so that molten metal could be poured into the mold and allowed to cool, at which point the sides were unstrapped and individual coins could be broken off the “tree.”

By 1900, China’s new monetary system (which valued cash at 1,000 per dollar) required fewer cash coins, as machine-struck multiple-cash coins became more popular. 

The sale, the firm’s 23rd auction, set a new record for the firm, realizing an estimated $1.57 million. The firm’s next auction is scheduled for Jan. 14 and 15, 2016.

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