100 Greatest Modern World Coins Series: Great Britain 1921-B Silver Trade Dollar

The history of overseas relations between countries is expansive and perhaps too broad to truly know the extent of just how deep and intertwined it was. In fact, it is hard to see past anything that stretches past the North American borders. But the truth of the matter is that world trade and relations have been going on for thousands of years and those happenings have created the current status of affairs between world countries today. What is the point of establishing that fact? Coins and forms of currency were a part of all of it and sometimes even created to establish just how deep trade relations were between far east countries way before we existed.

In our next journey exploring Whitman Publishing’s 100 Greatest Modern World Coins publication, we take a look at a coin created just for trade in certain governed territories in Asia by the British. Authors Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker take us through the establishment of the coin but also the events that took place between the countries involved.

#53 - Great Britain 1921-B Silver Trade Dollar

As recent as 1997, the British controlled territories in China. Great Britain’s territory became evident after their victory in what is called the Opium Wars. Chinese tea, porcelain, and silk were of great importance to the British and they wanted them all the time. However, the Chinese had strict import policies and foreign merchants had a tough time exchanging their goods for those of the Chinese. In response to the strict policies under the Canton System (1757-1842), Britain made itself the world’s largest dealer of illegal drugs and started dumping millions of pounds of opium into the ports all along the coast of China. When Viceroy Lin Zexu learned of the acts and confiscated 20,000 chests filled with opium without offering payment, Britain took it as an act that would invoke justified pursuit of a large-scale military operation to gain control of the Chinese ports and the island of Hong Kong.

While the Qing dynasty was reluctant to open trade within its borders for British exports for a number of years, the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) opened a major gateway into trade expansion for not only European countries but also American. The Qing dynasty did not last much longer past the expansionist policies put in place in Asia and it would eventually lead to its demise. Opening up ports to western trade and goods would ultimately open up China as a country to Great Britain. This would also help lead to a civil war in the Chinese mainland that would be responsible for the institution of the Chinese communist government.

Between 1895 and 1935, the British trade dollar was struck to simplify and ease trade in British occupied territories along China’s coast. The series itself was struck in Bombay, Calcutta, and London during the reigns of three British monarchs: Queen Victoria, Edward VII, and George V. The concept behind the British trade dollar expressed the power and authority of Britain over the Chinese territories.

The obverse features a bold Britannia looking out over the sea from the land. She is holding a trident in her right hand and a shield featuring the Union Jack in her left hand. Britannia has been used on British coins since the late 1600s. She symbolizes a rallying point during times of crisis or celebration as she embodies national pride. The design around her on the trade dollar features denticles and a key pattern. “ONE DOLLAR” is inscribed along either side of her head representing the denomination and the date is featured just below her. A trade ship is featured in the background and a tiny “B” mintmark for Bombay is hidden in the center prong of the trident. The reverse of the British trade dollar depicts a Chinese symbol in the very center. The symbol is for longevity. The ornate design around it features a quatrefoil or a design that features four lobes or leaves. Denticles and a key pattern are seen around the outer edge of the coin as it is seen on the obverse. The denomination is featured in Chinese characters and Jawi script for “One Dollar.”

In the years that the British trade dollars were struck, their mintages would exceed a million coins annually. New coin production was put on hold in 1913 after 1.5 million coins were struck. However, the 1921-B dated coin would mark the continuation of the silver trade coin series. Only 50,211 examples are known of the 1921-B but the coin was never officially released into circulation.

Other comparisons to the 1921-B trade dollar rarity usually feature the 1935-B issue. Only 6,811,995 of those coins were struck but almost all of them were melted when the issue was deemed immaterial. By 1937, the British silver trade dollar was demonetized.

PCGS has graded, according to the 2020 Whitman Publishing publication, just two 1921-B British trade dollars out of the 5,000 they have struck between 1895-1935. One of the examples was an MS63+ and was purchased for $45,000 in an auction in March of 2014. At the time, it was still in an NGC holder. The other PCGS coin was sold in 2005 by Heritage Auctions. That MS63 condition coin brought $48,300.