Valuation of Sycee
Aside from determining the authenticity of a piece of sycee, the source of greatest concern to a collector is often its price or value.
Valuation Before 1930s
Normally, any currency becomes a collectible from the day it is demonetized. Collectors then are able to gain a premium on its "antiquity value"; such was the case with sycee. In 1933, when the Chinese Nationalist Government announced silver coins would replace sycee, the "black market" for the trade of sycee immediately began. Dealers sold their sycee by adding a 20% markup on the value of the silver contained in the sycee; if buying, they added a 10% markup. In the case of an older specimen dating to Tong Ze (1862-1874) or earlier, the markup would become 100% and greater. Hence, a sycee was no longer valued a piece of silver, it began to be priced based on its antiquity.
In fact, since sycee had been circulated in China for more than 1,000 years, many sycee of earlier time had an "antiquity value" which was appreciated by some numismatists while sycee was still in use. There had been a silver ingot of 50 taels inscribed with "Wan Chang Yin Jiu" (Wan Chang Silver Bureau) whose age was debatable; excavated in Hubei during the 29th year of Kuang Hsu (1903), the sycee was cut into 4 pieces by the people who found it. It was first acquired by the Hubei governor Duan Fang; then in 1926, resold to a numismatist Fang Yiao Yu; later on, in 1934, it was acquired for the collection of another numismatist Chen Zen Tao. Reportedly, the average transfer price of these deals was 40 times the price of the silver contained in the ingot. Based on the recent price of silver, the transfer price would be more than US$9,000, and this even understates the likely cost since silver at that time was more valuable than nowadays.
Unfortunately, the sycee collecting hobby and the related trading activities in China had to be discontinued due to a series of wars- the anti-Japanese war (1937-1945) and the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. After the wars ended and following the foundation of the PRC in 1949, collecting sycee became a luxury which was officially frowned upon. It was not until the 1980s that some dealers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Mainland started buying sycee along with all kinds of antique silver from various sources in China. Some of their stock was resold in the collector's markets aimed at foreigners; the rest was melted down for silver bullion. At that time, those dealers usually added 10%-20% markup on the sycee's silver price as their acquisition price, and added 50%-100% or more as their selling price.
It's especially noteworthy that, during the turn of 1970s and 1980s, silver price rose to a peak of more than US$50 per ounce. As a result, the bullion content of a 50 tael sycee, without considering its historic value, made it worth more than US$2,800! Under such circumstances, there were few people who could afford to collect sycee, and, many sycee were consigned to furnaces by those seeking a quick profit.
It is my opinion that, starting in the 1990's, sycee began to be valued in the market as a type of collectible or antique currency.
In 1930s or earlier, at a time when most people were still using sycee in their daily lives, there were only few collectors who deemed them as collectibles. For the years prior to 1990, people either didn't have a chance to encounter sycee or treated them more like a piece of silver or souvenir than as a collectible; they were not ready to place a significant antique value on them. In these two early stages, sycee were not considered a numismatic collectible for two reasons: (1) No constant demand and supply, and (2) Lack of related knowledge. However, since 1990, the situation has changed, as more collectors and researchers are becoming involved, more international auctions are taking place, more related publications are appearing, and more coin dealers are expanding their business to cover sycee.
Based on my estimate, sycee collectors throughout the worldwide currently number less than 100 people, including 15-20 in Taiwan, the same number in China, less than 5 in Hong Kong and Singapore, 20-30 in the US and the European countries, 5-10 in Japan, and less than 5 elsewhere. The purchase power of the collectors, though small in number, together with occasional acquisitions from major museums in the world, is still great enough to drive the average price of all sycee to a level much higher than that of a decade ago. It seems that sycee is scarce enough that supply can not even meet such a limited demand.
Generally speaking, it may become more difficult for collectors to find desired sycee at attractive prices in the future. An advanced collector, however, will usually know that because all sycee were hand-made, basically no two specimens are the same, and any price setting will not necessarily do justice to all sycee of a similar type. Even if two sycee are from the same place, and made in the same shape and weight, their different stamps or inscriptions might result in completely different valuation. Stamps and inscriptions of a sycee always carry certain historical significance to the sycee collectors, they are one of the key factors for categorizing and valuing sycee. Currently, this could be the weakest part in many appraisals of sycee, and is why most, if not all, of the sycee publications can only catalogue, but not categorize, their sycee. This does mean that there is still room for all collectors to discover rare specimens which have not been noticed and categorized but have significant potential value. A real case happened in Taiwan in 1995, when a collector who found and bought a Tien-jin (of Hobei or Chili Province) 50 tael Boat in awful condition. The piece was holed and washed, and was purchased for a price of NT$30,000, but since its inscription of "Hua Bao" (Acting as a silver treasure in the purity of the regional standard), was an important historical message from historians' point of view, the sycee brought its owner a great fortune, when 2 years later this ugly piece was resold for a record breaking price of NT$650,000 (About US$20,000).
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