Collecting Chopmarks

The third way, a path not often traveled, is to acquire one of each different trade dollar business strike, either by dates and mints (per collecting method No. 1 above) or by varieties (method No. 2 above), but with each coin having a chopmark. During the original time of use in the Orient, many trade dollars were chopmarked with Chinese characters. These marks, stamped into the obverse and/or reverse of the coins, signified approval as these pieces passed from hand to hand through bankers, merchants, and others. As chopmarked pieces actually circulated in China and served their intended purpose, they are especially interesting to collect.


Years ago, some numismatists paid a premium for chopmarked coins, considering them to be especially historical and valuable. Today, the general population of numismatists does not understand chopmarks, mention of them has been virtually absent from investment-oriented commentaries (which have constituted the bulk of information in newsletters and market reports issued since about 1977). By some, such coins are wrongly considered to be "damaged"—because at one time the government called them "mutilated," in an effort to avoid redeeming them. A more enlightened view would be to consider them to be "countermarked"—coins with an added bit of history—literally two coins in one.


The Meaning of Chopmarks

Chopmarks are an integral part of the history of the trade dollar, and for that reason I take a few more paragraphs to go into the subject more deeply. Very little original, useful information on these has appeared in print, an exception being F.M. Rose’s 1987 study appropriately titled Chopmarks.  Rose relates that the term chopmark is said to have been first used by the English in connection with India, where the term was chappa or choppa, meaning an official stamp or seal. From that point it was a short path to chop and chopmark.

Chopmarks, which consist of Chinese characters and/or designs, were imprinted (with ink) or stamped with punches on the surfaces of various silver (primarily) and gold coins to indicate that the stamper considered them to be genuine and of full weight. F.M. Rose lists the following basic types of chopmarks:

1 and 2. Test marks on a coin’s surface and cuts on the edges of coins. These are usually in the form of file marks or cuts which removed metal, either to expose the raw metal below or, less frequently, to provide metal for assay elsewhere. For the collector of trade dollars, a test mark on the edge of a coin is a negative situation not currently of numismatic interest.

3. Small chopmarks, often tiny symbols such as stars, crescents, circles, swastikas (an old-time emblem; not related to the later Nazi use of it), lines, etc., as well as Chinese words and pseudo characters.

4. Large chopmarks such as Chinese characters, pseudo characters, and symbols. Larger than the preceding.

5. Chopmarks in relief. This type of chopmark has letters raised in relief against a plain background, like a hallmark. Such chopmarks are rarely seen on trade dollars.

6. Assay chopmarks. A special chopmark of the No. 5 type, in raised relief, made by a banker or assayer. These are usually rectangular in shape and have two or more characters in relief. Seldom seen on trade dollars. F.M. Rose writes that these chopmarks often come in pairs or other multiples on a coin (coins in general; not specifically trade dollars), and that coins with assay chopmarks rarely have additional chopmarks of other types.

7. Letter chopmarks using letters of the Latin alphabet (sometimes appearing backward), with the letter S being the most common. If other chopmarks are found on a coin in addition to a letter chop, they will often be large chopmarks or a mixture of large and small.

8. Number chopmarks usually consisting of one Arabic number, with 5 being the most common and 8 next.

9. Manchu chopmarks have characters in Manchu script and are very rare.

10. Banker’s ink chopmarks applied in black, blue, red, and purple ink, a style not particularly relevant to trade dollars and, apparently, not used before the 1880s. (Other types of marks include applied paper and presentation chopmarks, the latter consisting of elaborate ink drawings; neither is relevant to trade dollars.)

Many symbols and characters are not translatable into English. Among those that are, F.M. Rose cited the following meanings, among many others (taken from a variety of coin types): academy, arrow, blue, Buddha, Chiang (family name), commodity, dollar, fat, forever, husband, immortal, Jen, master, scholar, silver, speech, star, tendon, Tung (family name), wealth, wood, and Yong Kim Hong (Siamese banker).

F.M. Rose points out the chopmarking was a time-honored tradition in China, particularly in Hong Kong, where it was legally recognized by a proclamation by the governor published in the Gazette of October 21, 1865, as Local Ordinance No. 10. Certain merchants were said to have chopmarked every coin coming into their possession, and would readily take back any coin bearing one of their earlier marks. However, some chicanery took place, and numerous counterfeit coins were chopmarked in addition to the genuine ones. Some coins, including United States trade dollars, were so heavily chopmarked that they became distended in shape, and the original designs were mostly obliterated.

Among F.M. Rose’s more interesting comments is this one (p. 23): "I believe that…many millions of United States trade dollars are still hidden in China, just waiting for the right time to come out of hiding." Among the illustrations in the Rose book is one of a Liberty Seated dollar, with this caption: "This 1849 has so many large chops on its obverse that they can’t be counted. Note [also] the many chops on the reverse [of this] battered poor old Liberty."

The same writer went on to rate the rarity of trade dollars with chopmarks, noting that rarest of all is the 1878-CC, followed in order by the 1873 (nearly as rare as the 1878-CC), 1874, and 1876. Further:

There are 17 combinations of date and mintmark for a full set of circulation strike trade dollars. Collecting a full set of chopmarked trade dollars will be a challenge, even to the wealthy collector, because the key and semi-key coins do not come on the market very often.

Interestingly, John M. Willem (life dates: November 1, 1909 - December 15, 1979), who rightfully can be called the father of trade dollar collecting, considered the chopmarked coin specialty to be the most challenging and worthwhile way to assemble a set of the series. Chopmarked specimens exist of all business strike dates and mintmarks 1873-1878. A complete set of these attracted attention at the 1985 ANA Convention held that year in Baltimore.

As of the early 1990s, collecting chopmarked trade dollars is a virtually untouched field, and I suspect that fewer than a dozen numismatists have this specialty. Much of the rarity/availability data on chopmarked coins is highly conjectural. Here is a field awaiting additional research.

For those interested in chopmarks, there is an associated club which can be contacted at:  Chopmark Collectors Club c/o Everett R. Jones, 1974 Gotham St, Chula Vista CA 91913