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Asian Coins

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We have already seen in an earlier chapter how, on the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.c. his empire was broken up and divided between his generals. The resultant liberation of this part of south-west Asia eventually gave rise to the Seleucid empire and the two kingdoms of Parthia and Bactria, that of Parthia being an area roughly equivalent to the old Persian empire. The excellence of the portraiture on the Parthian coins is a remarkable testimony to the ability of the artists employed; a typical example of their work. The Greek kings of Bactria and later of India were eventually driven out and their country overrun by the Kushans : the history of the country then becomes merged with that of the rest of India.

The Seleucid empire under Seleucus I included what is now Iraq with its capital Baghdad, the latter, after the Muhammadan rise to power, becoming an independent caliphate under the Abbasid caliphs. One of the best known of the caliphs is Haroun Er-Rashid (A.D. 786-809) of `Arabian Nights' fame, is a silver dirhem struck at the town of Shash.

India, during the second century A.D., was divided into several kingdoms, the principal of which was the Kushan empire which was formed about A.D. 120 and extended from China to Persia. In the third century the empire was broken up into smaller states, the principal of which was the Gupta empire. Eventually the Guptas were destroyed in the fifth century by the White Huns (the Ephthalites) their supremacy in India lasting for nearly a century. From this time on, there arose in India, many kingdoms who in turn assumed importance during the succeeding centuries. A catalogue of these is not of importance to this book and we may therefore next turn to the fourteenth century when the Mughals began to infiltrate their way into the provinces. Timur (called in Europe Tamerlane the Great) occupied India in 1399 after his Mongol invaders had crushed all resistance and following his withdrawal the empire was left in a state of some confusion.

Eventually, however, the empire was returned to Mughal rule in 1526 under Babar, a descendant of Tamerlane and Jinghis Khan whose vast empire had extended from the Black Sea to the Pacific.

The long list of Mughal emperors of India provides collectors with an extensive series of coins in gold, silver and copper. ThIS coin is of one of India's more enlightened rulers, Akbar I (1556-1605) struck at the Lahore mint; this silver rupee is unusual in that it is square, most of the rupees of the Mughals being circular. The might of the Mughal emperors increased considerably in succeeding years under the guidance of Akbar's son Jahangir (1605-28) and Shah Jahan (1628-58). The former was responsible for an interesting series of twelve gold coins known as zodiacal mohurs, so named because of the various signs of the zodiac that are depicted on them; these coins, together with a similar series of zodiacal rupees, are some of the rarest coins in the Indian series.

At this point it would be convenient to retrace our steps some two centuries to 1498 when Vasco da Gama sighted the shores of India on 17 May of that year. From this date British interest in the continent begins and Indian commodities begin to find their way to the European markets by way of Portuguese and Venetian traders. In September 1599 a number of London merchants held a meeting with a view to forming a company for the purpose of trading with India. In the following year a charter was granted to the `Governors and Company of the Merchants trading unto the East Indies' which entitled them to exclusive trading rights with countries between the Cape of Good Hope and the Straits of Magellan. That same year a series of coins was produced for the company which, it is thought, were intended for the use of those trading in the East Indies. Four denominations only were struck -the dollar and its fractions, the half, quarter and eighth. The design is the same for each; on the obverse a crowned English shield dividing the letters E.R. each with a crown above, together with the legend ELIZABETH D:G:ANG:FR:ET.HIB:REGINA. The reverse is devoted to a crowned portcullis and the legend rosvl. DEVM.ADIVTOREM.MEVM. At the beginning of the reverse legend there appears the letter o and this is generally taken to indicate the date of striking (1600). Because of the portcullis design the coins are commonly known as `portcullis' money although the correct title of the crown is an eight testernes or one dollar. The quarter dollar of the series.

In subsequent years both the Portuguese and Dutch became bitter enemies of the British over trading rights in India, the Portuguese in particular having established trading centres at Diu, Damao, Bassein and Goa on the west coast of India. Coins produced by the Portuguese for circulation in these colonies during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were only struck in comparatively small numbers and are now rare-later issues are much commoner. Usually, the earliest issues turn up in rather bad condition with only part of the design on the flan due to their having been held in a pair of tongs whilst being struck.

The portcullis coins circulated little, if at all, in the Indies and it was not until the reign of Charles II that the first coins were produced in India for the East India Company. In 1671 the directors of the company ordered a mint to be established at Bombay and in 1677 this was sanctioned by the crown. The coins so ordered were struck in the following year and were in the form of silver rupees; the legend runs THE RUPEE OF BOMBAIM ... BY AUTHORITY OF CHARLES THE SECOND 1678.

At about this time, or perhaps slightly earlier, coins were produced for the East India Company at the Madras mint. There is some confusion as to the exact date of the first strikings but various public records seem to point to a mint being in existence there at least as early as 1661. The unit of currency at the Bombay Presidency was, as we have already seen, the rupee and this system was also retained at the Bengal Presidency. At Madras, however, the company's accounts were reckoned in pagodas and fractions, the fanam, faluce and cash. This system was maintained until 1818 when the rupee was taken for the unit of currency, the relation between the two systems being 1 pagoda equalling 3-91 rupees and 1 rupee equalling 12 fanams.

During the reign of William IV a number of patterns bearing the head of the king were produced for the East India Company. In 1835 the first of these coins was struck for circulation; two gold coins were issued, the double mohur and the mohur. They are attractive coins bearing the head of William facing right together with WILLIAM irII KING 1835. The reverse depicts a lion beneath a palm-tree and EAST INDIA COMPANY ONE MOHUR (or TWO MOHURS). Silver rupees, together with halves and quarters and two-anna pieces were also struck, the obverse being similar to that of the gold coins with the exception of the date which appears on the reverse below a wreath encircling the value. The copper coins of this issue consist of the half and quarter anna, the half pice and one-twelfth anna.

The new coins of the East India Company achieved an almost universal circulation in India, but in 1858 the company ceded all its rights to the Crown and from that date on, the coinage refers only to the Queen. In 1876 Victoria became empress of India and the legend on the obverse of the coins was changed to read VICTORIA EMPRESS instead Of VICTORIA QUEEN.

Throughout the succeeding reigns of Edward VII, George V and George VI the coinage remained basically the same. Several innovations were, however, made and include the introduction of a circular one anna with a scalloped edge in 1907, a square two annas in 1918 and a bronze one pice with a centre hole in 1943. Like the coinages of many other countries, silver coins gave way to nickel and in 1946 the rupee was introduced as a nickel coin.

At this point some mention must be made of the sovereign and native states of India, the former during the reign of Victoria depicted her bust and title on the obverse of the coinage whilst the reverse named the denomination and state in both English and Persian. Many of the states-the so-called native states-were granted the right to strike their own coins in gold, silver and copper, often bearing the head of their rulers even though they still owed allegiance to the British crown; they frequently bear the name of the British sovereign in native script. The largest of these states was Hyderabad whose rulers issued an extensive series of coins in all three metals.

In 1947 the Indian empire was divided into the dominions of India and Pakistan who issued their own coins based on the system of the rupee of sixteen annas, twelve pies to the anna and three pies to the pice. Ten years later, on 1 April 1957, India went over to the decimal system for her currency, the rupee being now divided into one hundred Naya Paisa.


South-east across the Gulf of Manaar from India lies the island of Ceylon. Many indications of ancient civilizations have been found there, but briefly, it was well known to the Macedonians, and traders during the sixth century A.D. visited it many times. The Portuguese established a trading station at Colombo early in the sixteenth century and just over a hundred years later they were expelled by the Dutch who were in turn driven out by the British in 1795, the Peace of Amiens (1802) confirming the country as a British possession.

Brief mention has already been made of the coins issued by the Portuguese for their possessions on the west coast of India and a somewhat similar series of equal rarity was produced for Ceylon. Silver coins known as tangas and double tangas were struck; the earliest, under Philip II (1598-1621) bear the crowned shield of Portugal on the obverse and either a TA monogram or grid-iron of St Lawrence on the reverse. They have neither legends nor dates.

During the Dutch occupation a wide variety of coins were struck in gold, silver and copper, but two of these types are sufficiently unusual to be worthy of individual mention. Silver larins or in Sinhalese koku ridi, meaning hook silver, had first been struck in the Persian town of Lar, whence they derive their name. The Dutch, during their occupation of Ceylon, made use of these Persian larins and bent them before passing them into circulation. `Hook silver' describes these pieces exactly for in shape they are thin strips of silver wire folded in the middle and then bent so that they somewhat resemble a fish-hook; the inscriptions vary considerably.

The other unusual coins are flat bars of copper varying in length between approximately three and five inches, depending on their value (either 41 or 6 stivers), and are stamped at the ends with the value. The 41 stiver bars were rated at half a larin and are also stamped with the monogram of the United East India Company. Both the larins and copper bars are very rare.

The first coins to be struck during the British occupation were circa 1801 when copper coins of 1/12, 1/24, 1/96 and 1/192 rupees were produced. In 1803 the first silver coins were issued and were rated at ninety-six, forty-eight and twenty-four stivers. These were struck .on a very thick flan and bear on the obverse the value within a beaded circle surrounded by CEYLON GOVERNMENT. The reverse is devoted to an elephant standing left with the date below.

During the reign of George III the bust of the king appears on the obverse with the elephant motif retained for the reverse of the coins which are now called rix dollars (silver) and stivers (copper).

In succeeding reigns copper half and quarter-farthings were struck for the colony as were also silver three-halfpence.

The year 1870 saw the introduction of the first regular colonial coinage. Copper one, half, and quarter-cents were struck and in 1892 the first silver appeared valued at fifty, twenty-five and ten cents. These denominations are still in current use.

British Colonies in Asia

Apart from the two major Commonwealth countries mentioned above, a number of other areas in Asia have at one time or another come under British rule. For more detailed information on these colonies and, indeed, on British colonies anywhere in the world, the reader is advised to consult some of the more comprehensive works such as those written by J. Atkins or Howard Linecar. Suffice it to say here, that a study of the British Asiatic colonies will be most rewarding, both historically and numismatically and many hours of pleasure may be obtained from studying coins of such places as Sarawak under the white rajahs of the Brooke family, the island of Sultana or Labuan and the Cocos-Keeling islands belonging to the Clunies Ross family.


To present even a reasonably comprehensive study of the numismatic history of one of the world's oldest civilizations is a task that is unfortunately not possible in these pages. It has only been found possible to highlight some of the periods and issues to indicate the general evolution of the coinage and it must be said here that the dating of these early Chinese issues is a matter that is still much in doubt. The dates and opinions given here are those of Terrien de Lacouperie in his Catalogue of Chinese Coins from the 7th century B.C. to the 7th century A.D.

As in other civilizations, the earliest form of trade was conducted by means of barter. Tch'eng, second king of the Tchou dynasty, laid down certain rules in 1032 B.C. decreeing that henceforth metal objects should be exchangeable according to their weight. Many pieces, including those in the form of a hoe, passed as currency at this time. By the seventh century E.c. bronze knives had appeared and began to be inscribed with the name of the city of origin, the production of these continuing until about the second century E.c. The familiar round cash coin with the square hole in the centre had its origin in a similar type of coin that began to circulate about 950 B.C., the earliest having no marks of any kind, but later issues bear such inscriptions as `Tchou Tung' (eastern tchou) and later, under the Han dynasty `Tcheh peh wu tchu' (value 100 five tchou). The range of bronze cash is enormous and spans many centuries; they were still being produced in the nineteenth century.

It was not until the nineteenth century that gold and silver coins were introduced to China's currency, the latter being mainly only used as proofs, patterns and souvenir pieces. It was in 1889 that the first large quantities of silver coins began to be produced, although some isolated issues of silver had occurred at intervals since 1837.

By 1889 the modern coining presses which had been imported into the country were ready to strike coins, the first issues being from Kwantung province consisting of dollar or crown sized coins and fifty-, twenty-, ten- and five-cent pieces.

Until 1912 China was ruled by a succession of emperors; the two that we are immediately concerned with are Kuang Hsu (1875-1908) and Hsuen Tung (1909-12). During this imperial period the various provinces struck their own coins and almost without exception the designs for all these areas are very similar. The obverse bears four Chinese characters in the centre meaning Valuable Coin (of the) Kuang Hsu (regime). In the centre of this there is the same inscription in Manchu script. The reverse bears the imperial emblem of a flying dragon and around this the name of the province in English, together with the weight, thus: FUNG-TIEN PROVINCE 7 MACE AND 2 CANDAREENS. Half dollars read 3 MACE AND 6 CANDAREENS arid so on.

During this period also, a large series of pieces known as sycee were issued. These are in the form of bullion silver of varying denominations from a fraction of a tael to one hundred taels; the tael weighing approximately 565 grains or 1 oz. 31 dwt. troy. These were not coins in the true sense of the word, but were bullion used for the settlement of debts as from one bank to another. Two shapes were normally used, the commonest being formed rather like an old fashioned hip-bath; they are cast and often bear some stamp or inscription, perhaps dating the specimen to a certain year in the reign of the emperor.

In 1912 the emperor abdicated in the face of a revolution and a republican government was set up under Dr Sun Yat Sen. Thus the Chinese republic was established; it lasted until 1950 when the Nationalist Government assumed power. During the republican period the coinage continued on the same lines as previously, but the obverse of the coins now depict the busts of Sun Yat Sen, Li Yuan Hung or Yuan Shi Kai as presidents of the republic. The reverse is usually devoted to stating the denomination in some form or other. An interesting anomaly occurred on a dollar of 1932 bearing the bust of Sun Yat Sen, when the reverse design of a junk at sea was altered to include wild geese above and the rising sun in the background. Because of the possible allusion to Japan, the rising sun being its emblem and the geese being possible war planes, only 51,000 coins out of 2,260,000 were put into circulation, the rest being melted up.

Although the republican government had aimed at a national currency, due to the troubled times this proved to be impossible and many provinces retained their independence regarding the currency and struck their own coins.

Both the Nationalist and Communist governments have issued a series of coins in base metals, the former issuing them from the island of Formosa (they bear a map of the island on the reverse) and the latter from the mainland.

Apart from the regular coinage a large number of so-called `fantasy' coins abound bearing the portraits of generals or governors of some of the provinces. These were intended primarily for collectors and strictly speaking have no place in the regular series of coins; the designs are, however, often pleasing.


In many respects the monetary history of Japan is not unlike that of China. Barter played a considerable part in the early history of the country and metal coins are not mentioned in Japanese historical literature until circa A.n. 700. This reference is to coins which are supposed to have been issued in the fifth century A.n. No great reliance should be placed on this statement, however, and in all probability the earliest coins struck in Japan date from A.D. 708 following the discovery of large copper deposits in the Musaki province. In the same year the Empress Gemmyo succeeded to the throne and following the practice of naming a new era on these occasions, the name `Wa-Do' (Japan Copper) was devised. This, of course, makes reference to the copper deposits which were to result in a new wave of prosperity for the country. Over the next two hundred and fifty years copper coins known as sen formed the basis for the coinage. There were twelve dynasties lasting from the Wa-Do Kaiho circa A.D. 708 until Kengen Taiho circa 958. In appearance the coins are similar to the Chinese cash with which we are familiar, the obverse bearing a four-character inscription and the reverse being blank. By and large, copper is the usual medium for the coinage at this period, the more precious metals being somewhat in the nature of `proofs'.

The Japanese, like the Chinese, pride themselves on the elegance of their calligraphy and it was not an uncommon occurrence for the most famous artists of the time, or even for the emperor himself, to have written the original inscriptions for the coins. By the time of the Kengen Taiho period, however, the coinage had become so degraded that famous men no longer considered it a medium worthy of their art.

During the last years of the Kengen Taiho period, the Wa-Do copper began to run out and some difficulty was experienced in finding another source of supply. This, combined with a wave of Buddhism that was sweeping the country, led to large quantities of coins being melted up for the casting of statues of the Buddha. So critical did the situation become that for the next six hundred years, i.e. until 1587, hardly any coins were minted in the four main islands of Japan. During this period many Chinese and Korean coins circulated as well as gold dust, silver plates and silk. Gold plates cast from dust also date from this period and are known as obans, the largest weighing nearly 5 1/4 oz.

For nearly three hundred years prior to the introduction of the modern Japanese coinage in 1868 a variety of metals were used for the coinage. Gold obans, silver Ichibubans (valued at a quarter of an oban) and other pieces with equally delightful names were coined. Copper coins of varying denominations were also issued, one of those most frequently met with being the Tenpo Tsuho (current treasure of Tenpo). This piece was produced in copper and brass between 1835 and 1870 and is oval in appearance, bearing Japanese characters above and below the square centre hole.

In 1868 the Emperor Mutsuhito succeeded to the throne, the era of the reign (1868-1912) being called `Meiji'. The entire coinage was revised and a mint established at Osaka which began to strike coins in gold, silver, cupro-nickel and bronze. Silver dollar-sized pieces of one yen bearing the denomination and fineness of the metal in English were produced in large numbers, together with fifty (half dollar), twenty and ten sen pieces. Yoshihito, who succeeded Mutsuhito in 1912 introduced the bronze five rin (value half sen) to the coinage and also made more use of cupro-nickel. Under the present emperor, Hirohito, cupronickel has again been used and aluminium too is used for the first time in the Japanese coinage.