editorial icon

Chop Marks on Trade Dollars: Should We Avoid this Damage or Embrace it as Part of the Coin’s Journey?

by Chris Maisano

Published on April 2, 2021

There is one kind of coin damage that I, and many others, wrestle with to this day and that is the Chop Mark.
There is one kind of coin damage that I, and many others, wrestle with to this day and that is the Chop Mark.


Coins with damage or major detracting defects are avoided like the plague by collectors, investors and dealers alike.

Editorial Featured U.S. Coins



Coins with damage or major detracting defects are avoided like the plague by collectors, investors and dealers alike. This phenomenon is very much a reality for good reason. If a collector acquires a problem coin (deliberately or not), I am confident that when they later pull the coin out to admire it and reminisce about the buying experience, they will not look back on it as an exhilarating collecting experience nor feel that rush of endorphins while inspecting the piece. All they will be able to see and think about is that altered surface or other problem and their view of this prized possession will forever be tainted. This also goes for investors and dealers if their expectation is to profit on their coin purchase either tomorrow or in ten years, as any notable damage or cleaning to the coin will greatly diminish any potential profit margin. All numismatists know to stay away from problem coins. One of the strongest abilities or tools a numismatist can acquire is the aptitude for detecting issues in coinage from counterfeit detection to artificial toning to simple cleaning. Buy whatever coin you would like, I just highly advise against giving a problem coin the time of day.

With that said there is one kind of coin damage that I, and many others, wrestle with to this day and that is the Chop Mark. In numismatics, there is a fine line between original coins (coins that have not been altered since the time they were minted expect for genuine wear) and problem coins (coins that simply are not original in some form). Chop Marks for a long time have sat directly on this extremely fine line. There are people out there that hate them as they consider the Chop Mark as the ruination of a perfectly good coin. Then there are others who praise the Chop Marks as a historical part of the coins’ international journey. I find both arguments valid and had only made up my mind very recently as to where I stand on the subject. As much as I despise problem coins, I do not believe Chop Marks are a problem at all. I acknowledge that the Chop Mark itself is damage to the coin; but, as a collector myself, I enjoy a coin with a good, interesting story behind it. Is there a better story to tell others (even non-numismatists) than how your Trade Dollar traveled around the world and was authenticated and traded among Chinese merchants and is now a century and a half later in your possession? For the price these Chop Marked Trade Dollars go for, I do not think so.

All sorts of coinage have been chop marked across the world and throughout many centuries. The American Trade Dollar though is the most historically important, in my opinion, and certainly the most popular in numismatics today. These U.S. Trade Dollars were only minted in business strike format from 1873 to 1878 which is worth noting since I do not believe any proofs were used for the purpose of Chinese trade. China very much preferred silver to gold at the time. When merchants in China chop marked these Trade Dollars it was a process of confirming that the authenticity and silver content were correct and made it easier for the Chinese to trade them amongst themselves. The problem actually arose with Americans because when they received these marked up coins in return from China, they became suspicious. This suspicion actually resulted in Trade Dollars losing their value as legal tender in the U.S., making them the only circulating coin to trade at less than face value in our nation’s history.

The mutual distrust between the U.S. and China is well-known and nothing new, as even before Trade Dollars, China was extremely picky with what methods of trade or payment they would accept from America. This is why Trade Dollars are so large even compared to other silver dollars minted by the United States. Face value meant nothing overseas. The precious metal content was the key to opening up trade with China. The Trade Dollar was therefore created and named for its international use when trading with “silver loving” China. However, this idea was not flawless; most Chinese traders found these coins acceptable but a number did not. Overall the venture was successful resulting in $30 million worth of trade between the two nations. A fun fact is that $30 million dollars in the 1870’s would actually equate to nearly $600 million today. Every mintmark and date combination of these coins were sent to China over the six year period of business strike production out of Philadelphia, San Francisco and even Carson City. The event of American exportation and Chinese reception is where the chop mark took place. Each merchant had their own unique marking; and each time the Trade Dollar would change hands in China the next merchant would stamp the coin and so on.

Modern collecting of these Chop Marked Trade Dollars is especially intriguing, in my opinion, as these markings allow us, in a way, to trace the history and journey of the coin. That cannot be said for any other coin in the price range that you will find these Trade Dollars in. Which brings me to my next point. The price range on Chop Marked Trade Dollars is shockingly affordable, ranging from a couple of hundred to perhaps, a few thousand dollars for only the most rare and finest examples. The only caveat here for collectors is the 1878-CC Trade Dollar which is quite scarce and nearly impossible to locate with Chop Marks, for some reason. It is possible that this is because of the issue itself having a low mintage to begin with, along with a rumored melting of thousands of them. Overall, you can find deals on Chop Marked Trade Dollars just about anywhere you can find them. They are relatively inexpensive while at the same time being somewhat tough to locate both online and at coin shows (which I greatly miss due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Dare I say Chop Marked Trade Dollars may even be an entirely untapped market with potential for exponential growth in value and popularity at some point in the future. I am not recommending anyone to hoard them and invest substantial amounts of money in them. What I am saying is why not do some research, collect a couple and see what happens in the future. It is a small price to pay for a priceless story and journey. Some potential proof that things are starting to turn around for these historical pieces of coinage is how they have gone from being deemed ungradable to now receiving full numerical grades from at least one prominent grading service. One final point that boggles my mind, and I am sure you will agree, is that these common date Trade Dollars are selling for the same price with or without the Chop Marks. Acquiring a piece of numismatic history with such an extensive and important backstory and a somewhat traceable journey, for zero added premium, is something to get in on immediately (always exercise a fair amount of financial caution, of course, unless you have a money tree in the backyard). To all collectors out there who value U.S. and world history, international trade and an opportunity to spark a unique and interesting conversation with just about just about anyone, then I say go buy yourself a Chop Marked Trade Dollar now. Do it before dealers realize they can and should be asking a hefty premium for these very special coins.



Visit these great CDN Sponsors



Leave a comment

Please sign in or register to leave a comment.

Your identity will be restricted to first name/last initial, or a user ID you create.
Comment   

Comments (5)

  • avatar image
    Bob Jacobson Reply

    I have to admit that when I saw the title, I was expecting this excellent article to come out strongly "yes" or "no" for the worthiness of trade dollars having chop marks, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that it doesn't. I'm sufficiently "old school" (probably because I'm well on my way to getting old!) to believe almost anything can be collectible, so I believe the market will determine the value of these coins. I'm primarily a type-collector of coins and currency, and in the case of the latter, I've noticed that a banknote being somewhat off-center loses some value on account of its being less than perfect, but if it is even more off-center, then it starts gaining value as an "error" note--because the "defect" attracts collector interest. My own trade dollar has no chop marks, but if I were collecting a series of them, I would include at least one having them. It wouldn't surprise me if someone came out with a catalog translating and identifying the various chop marks (perhaps someone already has?), which would likely increase both collector interest and market prices. Market prices largely reflect appreciation--the latter term being used to refer to collector interest and enjoyment--and this will increase as more information becomes available about these coins and the history they preserve.

    Saturday, April 3, 2021 1:47 PM EST

    Please sign in or register to leave a comment.

    Your identity will be restricted to first name/last initial, or a user ID you create.
    Sign In/Register   

    • avatar image
      Chris Maisano

      Hello Bob, Thank you for this beautifully detailed comment and for recognizing the safer and somewhat unbiased approach I took when writing this article. I will be 23 next month, but I consider myself “old school,” for my age, as it comes to coins and the belief that anything can be collectible as well. I whole heartedly agree with you that the market will decide the fate of Chop Marked Trade Dollar values. I specialize in and collect U.S. coinage exclusively. However, I found your comments on currency very interesting currency. It certainly seems like something all currency collectors should be aware of. Here on Greysheet.com you can find pricing for Chop Marked Trade Dollars by using the following link: https://www.greysheet.com/coin-prices/series-landing/trade-dollars-chop-mark. You may then compare this pricing to pricing of regular Trade Dollars to really see the lack of a premium. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any full catalog or book written on Chop Marked Trade Dollars at this point in time. Once again, you are right. Such a publication would most certainly provide the attention these coins need and deserve. Your final comment really sums up the point I was trying to make. Thanks again for your input as it was very useful and insightful for me and insightful for me and, I am sure, many others.

      Monday, April 5, 2021 1:50 PM EST
  • avatar image
    Earl Higgins Reply

    If one were interested in such things, where would one turn to for more information? Are there any guides to actually reading, identifying and understanding individual chop marks? Is there rough idea of how many chop marks on a Trade Dollar is desirable? If a coin's design were so covered with chop marks that it is virtually unrecognizable, would that be too many? Does the location of the chop mark matter?

    Saturday, April 3, 2021 12:08 PM EST

    Please sign in or register to leave a comment.

    Your identity will be restricted to first name/last initial, or a user ID you create.
    Sign In/Register   

    • avatar image
      Chris Maisano

      Hello Earl, Thank you for reaching out with these questions. I am sure many others are wondering about much of the same. Sadly, when compiling information as part of my article writing, I was unable to locate any comprehensive guides or books on this subject matter. Through my own research I found other articles on Chop Marked Trade Dollars and a few price guides that slightly differ in the value between Trade Dollars with or without chop marks. In my opinion, and with what I see from the market, it is best to find a middle ground in terms of the number of chop marks. Just one chop mark is not overly desirable and one with countless chop marks can be too much that even I would view it as damaged. I would say a rough, desirable “sweet spot” for chop marks would certainly be 3 or more clear markings at a minimum, up to approximately 20 at most. Therefore, to answer your question about the coin’s design being unrecognizable by excessive amounts of chop marks I would say yes that would be too many. Any coin deemed unrecognizable or down right unattractive definitely loses both value and desirability. Finally, in terms of chop mark location, it does not really matter; but always keep in mind that with coins the obverse is always favored. Whether that be in grading, toning valuation and I suppose chop marks as well, the obverse is where you want them. Thanks again for your comment and I hope my answers were helpful to you and others.

      Monday, April 5, 2021 1:51 PM EST
    • avatar image
      Earl Higgins

      Thank you for your reply, Chris. I'm wondering if we are all missing a potential key resource. Even though Trade Dollars are clearly US coins, they were meant for circulation in China, and there certainly is an active Chinese numismatic community. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they have some resources, which perhaps haven't attracted the attention of US coin collectors because of language barriers, etc. At a minimum, a collector literate in Traditional Chinese script would be well-equipped to identify and perhaps catalog the myriad Chop Marks found on Trade Dollars. My father-in-law, who lives in China has at least an amateur interest in coin collecting. I will reach out to him to see if he has any ideas of who to reach out to in China regarding serious study Chop Marked US Trade Dollars.

      Tuesday, April 6, 2021 11:36 AM EST
  • avatar image
    Earl Higgins Reply

    Are there any guides to chop marks?

    Saturday, April 3, 2021 12:08 PM EST

    Please sign in or register to leave a comment.

    Your identity will be restricted to first name/last initial, or a user ID you create.
    Sign In/Register   

  • avatar image
    Michael Black Reply

    I really enjoyed this article..in my book, Chop Marks are cool and certainly worth collecting.

    Saturday, April 3, 2021 9:40 AM EST

    Please sign in or register to leave a comment.

    Your identity will be restricted to first name/last initial, or a user ID you create.
    Sign In/Register   

    • avatar image
      Chris Maisano

      Hello Michael, Thank you for reading. I am so glad you enjoyed the article. I am with you 100% that chop marks of all types are intriguing and collectible, especially those that appear on Trade Dollars. They are certainly an untapped portion of the market, for the most part, that deserve more consideration for their incredibly historic backstories.

      Monday, April 5, 2021 1:51 PM EST
  • avatar image
    Frank Feldt Reply

    A very good report on these coins. It gave me a education, appreciate your article!

    Saturday, April 3, 2021 9:24 AM EST

    Please sign in or register to leave a comment.

    Your identity will be restricted to first name/last initial, or a user ID you create.
    Sign In/Register   

    • avatar image
      Chris Maisano

      Hello Frank, Thank you so much. I am thrilled to know that you, and hopefully others, enjoyed and learned from the article. That was most certainly my primary goal and if I persuade anyone to consider collecting one or two of these coins, even better. I enjoy writing these types of articles and comments like yours keep me writing. Thanks again.

      Monday, April 5, 2021 1:51 PM EST