Antique Chinese coins are a popular collector's item, but real ones can be tricky to find. Forgeries and misidentified coins are common sights on the market. Often, sellers aren't even aware that the coins they're offering are fakes. Collectors interested in obtaining the real thing need a strong background in old Chinese coinage to determine the true value of each coin.
Chinese coins were some of the first metal coins in the world; this civilization has one of the longest monetary histories of any culture on Earth. Collectors interested in Chinese coins have a significant variety to choose from. Some rare and unusual coins can be worth significant amounts of money--$50 to $75 for some specimens--but others are quite common.
Old Chinese coins come in several basic types. The earliest coins date from 600 B.C.E. to 250 B.C.E. and come in a variety of shapes. They look more like small metal tablets than modern coins, and their value varies significantly. By 265 B.C.E., Chinese coins had developed a familiar round shape with a square hole in the middle. Coins of this type appear up through the modern era, and generally sell for $1 to $4. The last ones were produced in the early to mid 20th century. Later coins resemble Western coins in shape and include "silver dollars." These may be worth anywhere from a few dollars to $15 or so.
Most counterfeit antique coins are produced to look like the best and rarest coins. Collectors interested in avoiding problems with counterfeit Chinese coins may wish to stick to coins under $10 until they're certain of their ability to judge the rarer and more valuable varieties. Since most Chinese dynasties produced an enormous number of coins, old Chinese money is usually quite inexpensive. Coins in better condition, with a more detailed history of ownership, are more likely to be valuable.
Be suspicious of rare antiques in pristine condition. Even patinas in bright colors often indicate an imitation. Real coins are usually crusty, have some characters obscured or have impressions of adjacent coins in their patinas. Most coins that saw actual circulation are brownish and worn. Higher-quality coins are worth more, but few real antiques are pristine.
Collectors who are serious about Chinese coins must take the time to learn the probable value of all the types they're interested in. The majority of antique Chinese coins are worth less than a dollar, with many specimens coming in between $5 and $10. Investigating the provenance of any rare coin before buying is also a good choice. Archaeological resources and coin comparison guides are good places to start an investigation.