Three Kingdoms History: Ancient Chinese Coins

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Ancient Chinese Coin Buyers Guide, by Adrian Loder

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After featuring all this wonderful information on ancient Chinese coins I wanted to start collecting some myself, and I imagine many of you might share my sentiments. To help us out, Adrian Loder has been kind enough to write this introduction to collecting ancient Chinese coins. As you can see, it is something that should be approached thoughtfully and carefully, but with some patience you can start a fine collection—and it will probably cost a little less than you were expecting!

Ancient Chinese Coin Collectors Guide

Authored by Adrian Loder

When dealing with ancient Chinese coins, there are two things to consider—the reputability of the dealer in question, and their skill in detecting forgeries. An honest dealer that cannot spot fakes—and there are some good ones—is eventually going to land you with some fake coins. It probably is impossible to be 100% free of fakes if you do it for long enough, although buying a “sampler” of inexpensive coins can be accomplished without much fear of fakes.

In years gone by it was once speculated that no one would bother to fake a $5 coin but it turns out that this is untrue, and is actually one of the reasons why ancient Chinese cash is often so inexpensive—the market for buyers has shrunk and when dealing with, say, Western Han Wu Zhu, of which something like 20 million were cast a year in the first century B.C., you get a high supply, low demand market.

Despite the fact that even cheap coins are faked, the best fakes are reserved for the rarest/most expensive coins, meaning it is easier to spot a fraudulent inexpensive coin in most cases, because in order to turn a profit on faking cheap coins an assembly line type production is required, and anyone familiar with the quality of mass-produced goods in any area—say, fast food—knows that you can’t get the kind of excellent quality that you would from forging a complex, small run forgery. Patinas especially, though capable of being convincingly faked on first glance, usually are detectable by careful observation in most cases. Truly authentic patinas made by fraud take an intimate knowledge of science as well as time and money.

So, the first lesson is go cheap to start. Also, look at as many photos online as possible and if possible handle as many real coins as possible, though this may not be possible if a coin show or major coin dealer is not readily available. You will learn to spot fakes of cheap stuff faster, and also will be able to spot the more amateurish fakes more quickly as well. On a site like eBay a good tool for a beginner is to look at the price—get a good working knowledge of what coin types are scarce, what are not, and look at prices. No one sells an $800 heavy-handled flat spade coin for $10. However, good fakes will usually sell near normal value. It is important to understand the process of marking up for profit, as well. Despite the fact that the Chinese market is overrun with fakes, there are a few legit Chinese dealers and sellers, some on eBay, some with their own websites. Because an American dealer has to pay a Chinese dealer for a coin, and that dealer had to pay a wholesaler for it, an American dealer is going to ask more for most coins. If an otherwise reputable and knowledgeable Chinese seller is selling for lower than an American dealer it is not in itself a reason for any kind of suspicion. Although crooked dealers sometimes reform and sell good coins later, honest sellers rarely collapse and begin selling fakes.

This site——is a good starting place for legitimate sellers. Some are more pricey than others, although all of them have some inexpensive coins for sale. Even the cheapest of the knife and spade type coins can be had for under $50 in very nice shape, so if you aren’t looking to be an in-depth collector but would like to have a few coins from your favorite period, for example, go for a cheap type, it will be far more likely to be real. It is important to note, however, that price cannot determine alone. A fake coin can have a real price and a real coin can have a low price.

It is a very good idea to join two Yahoo! groups—the CoinForgeryDiscussionList and the Ancient Chinese Coins lists. There are plenty of people there who, on being given a link to a coin image, will offer their opinion. Some people believe no coin can be judged a fake by photo alone. I do not subscribe to this view, indeed I believe that many fakes can be spotted from photos alone. On the other hand, there are coins that cannot be determined one way or another, or about which people are unsure. They may lean in a certain direction but add that they would need to have it in hand to be 100% sure. It is considered bad form to accuse a seller or dealer of fraud if they have not previously been exposed as doing so. Also, when a particular dealer has suspicious coin after suspicious coin pop up the odds that they are not dealing at least partly in fakes becomes questionable.

But again, do not flat out accuse people of fraud. Generally-speaking, if multiple people doubt a coin, despite the possibility that a physical examination may reveal it to be real, you must ask yourself if it is worth taking a chance to find out. Many dealers offer a lifetime guarantee on their coins, and although several of the Chinese dealers selling legit coins do not advertise this, if a coin is believed false they will accept a return and refund your money. A good return policy is therefore always a plus.

Another good website is which has a massive online archive of photos. Again, it is my opinion that someone will see a fake for what it is eventually in most cases, given a good enough photo or scan. This is not entirely true though so again, I repeat not to make unfounded accusations. Until you start getting experience of your own you will be relying entirely on the judgement of others and on the dealers you do business with to protect you.

One other tip is that most Chinese coins, especially from the early dynasties (roughly Shang through Sui) are not perfect. They have flaws, especially in Zhou times, where round coins were almost never perfectly round, where casting sprues usually were not filed off and where the edges of spade, knife and other coins again do not show a uniformly flush or even edge. That does not mean a coin can never have neater-than-usual casting, but perfection in these areas is rare. Many early round-holed round coins are faked and sold on eBay and are easily spotted because they have perfectly rounded holes and outer rims.

Also be aware of varieties. Some fakers will sell “fantasy” coins—meaning such coins never existed. Also try to learn how the calligraphy is supposed to look. These are things only experience can teach, but a good book like David Hartill’s Cast Chinese Coins or the Great Dictionary of Chinese Numismatics (in Chinese and available, to the best of my knowledge, only from Scott Semans in the U.S., at least easily) can help. If you decide you really like the large series of coins like Ban Liang or Wu Zhu it may be worthwhile to seek out more specialist works on these types as a more broad-based book such as Hartill’s does not have room for the countless types of these that exist.

Because of the efforts of forgers Chinese Coins are not readily collectable without good information and reliable dealers. More than half the coins on eBay are fakes, probably more, and not all dealers are of equal quality in sorting the wheat from the chaff, especially for recent forgeries. And always keep in mind that no dealer has a 100% success rate in avoiding forgeries—everyone inadvertently passes at least one. Given this, the best advice is:

  1. Buy cheap, and if you do decide, after some time, to venture into more pricey territory, do it with a dealer you’ve come to trust, whom others trust, and who sells good material.
  2. Learn how the coins are supposed to look, learn variations, study the calligraphy.
  3. Make sure you know who you are dealing with!
  4. Join the coin discussion lists on Yahoo! and ask. Most people are only too willing to help.
  5. There is going to be a lot of grey area for a beginner—use the other recommendations to help you decide.
  6. In general it is better to be cautious and end up losing a good coin than to be overconfident and end up buying a bad one.

A Word on Auction Sites

Authored by Adrian Loder

Although eBay touts their feedback system as an effective way for users to reward and/or condemn good and bad sellers, it is really only useful for weeding out people who never send the item you bought or who stiff on payment. In terms of fraud and fakery eBay feedback is useless in the form given by eBay. The number of people who get the idea that it would be cool to own some ancient coins but who know nothing about them is much, much greater than the number of informed, knowledgeable buyers. To that end, most people will buy fake items and leave glowing feedback, completely unaware that they have been duped. Furthermore, many of the prominent fake dealers have thousands of transactions completed – many over 4000. A dealer in fakes with 4000 completed transactions can have as many as 40 people lodge negative or neutral feedback due to being sold fakes and still maintain a 99% rating. Furthermore, with so many transactions it is often impossible to weed through the feedback as presented by eBay. houses a tool that sorts the negative and neutral feedback from a user’s entire body of feedback to make a true look at the seller’s dealings possible.

Other rules to follow on eBay are to avoid private auctions, where the userIDs are not disclosed, like the plague. Although some dealers in legitimate wares (in all areas of sales) will do this to protect good customers from spam or unwanted bid interference, the vast majority of sellers doing this use it to keep people like myself, who periodically scout eBay for fakes and forgeries, from warning those in the midst of being defrauded. Another red flag is a seller with private feedback – even the utility cannot penetrate private feedback and again, while a handful of people have legitimate reasons for doing this, most of these people are selling finished goods or items that are not forgeable. Coin dealers with private feedback are almost always looking to unload fakes. Many fakers will include long discourses on the history behind their wares in an attempt to draw attention away from the item itself. Authenticity disclaimers – I do not know if this is real or not, my grandfather gave it to me in his will, all sales as is/final, etc – these are all tip-offs that the seller has a fake or thinks he has a fake and is protecting himself from the inevitable discovery down the road.

Not all legit eBay dealers will specify their return agreements, so ask ahead of time. Most are willing to refund for authenticity reasons over an unlimited or at least very long period of time. If a dealer only gives you 7 days to return a coin, and you yourself know next to nothing about forgery detection, do you really think you’re going to catch on before the 7 days is up? The seller is aware of this too and is hoping you make that mistake. Do not confuse this with other refund periods, however – many dealers who offer unlimited returns in case of forgery will not offer unlimited returns in case of an item being damaged in transit, deciding you don’t like the item for other reasons, or because of some other non-legitimacy related issue. There are also some crooks who offer lifetime guarantees in hopes of blending in with the good dealers, although in Chinese coins I have not seen any of these; in Classical coins, however (read: Greek and Roman) this practice is more widely used.

Lastly, it is important to clarify my advice to start with cheap coins first. When I say to start cheap, I mean to start with inexpensive items, i.e. coins that, when legit, are cheap no matter who sells them. A great number of the fake Chinese coins on eBay are, in fact, very inexpensive – but the coins that they are faking are very pricey when legit. One dealer recently had a fake Wang Mang era spade coin of the Huo Bu type, which is usually between $40 and $80 depending on condition, seller, etc. It was being sold for $9.99 – this is the kind of cheap to avoid. On the other hand, Eastern Han Wu Zhu are quite possibly the most common coin from the ancient world, anywhere, period. Different varieties command different prices, but a plain jane example can sell as low as a $1.00 although on eBay typically it would run more along the lines of $5.00. However, this is exactly what such a coin is worth, monetarily speaking. That is the sort of cheap coin to go for.

Copyright © 2001–2010 James Peirce
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All coin photographs and instructive text © Copyright 2006 Adrian Loder (Website)
Primary sources: David Hartill’s Cast Chinese Coins (ISBN: 1-4120-5466-4), Robert Kokotailo’s Calgary Coins Website
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January 19, 2015