The Howard F. Bowker Collection

Howard F. Bowker (1889–1970) was a passionate collector of historic East Asian coins and banknotes. Bowker became interested in East Asian artifacts while stationed as a U.S. naval officer in Hànkǒu, China, after World War I. Throughout his life, Bowker amassed a large numismatic collection and became a preeminent scholar in the field. In 2017, his family donated more than 380 monetary objects from his collection to the Smithsonian.

Howard F. Bowker in Hànkǒu, China, with his family 

Howard F. Bowker in Hànkǒu, China, with his family 

Courtesy of Howard F. Bowker Family 

Early Chinese Money

Howard Bowker’s collection included some of the earliest media of exchange in China—small bronze spades, knives, and bridge money. These objects were cast in metal molds and designed to look like small tools. They are some of the earliest pieces of metal money in world history.

Bridge Money, China, about 5th to 3rd Century BCE 

Bridge Money, China, about 5th to 3rd Century BCE

Ming Knife Money, China, about 5th to 1st Century BCE

Three and Five Character Knife Money, China, about 5th to 1st Century BCE

Modern Chinese Coinage

“Old Man” Dollar Coin, China (Taiwan), 1837

These are among the first silver and copper coins struck in China. The “Old Man” dollar and military ration coins are examples of China’s earliest silver coins. They feature a range of vibrant designs and were chopmarked to validate their use as currency. The copper alloy cash coin is the largest coin denomination ever minted in China.

Ju-I Military Ration Coin, China (Taiwan), 1853

Bi Pao Military Ration Coin, China (Taiwan), 1862

500 Cash Coin, China, 1927–28

American and Chinese Mint Connections

American coins circulated in East Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries, enabling the growth of trade and commercial connections. These connections also helped develop China’s modern currency system. Private American firms manufactured equipment for many of China’s mints and even engraved designs for some of its most iconic modern coins.

Chinese Coins Designed by Charles Barber

This set of pattern coins was struck in the United States in 1902 for the Sìchuān province of China. The American Ferracute Machine Company of Bridgeton, New Jersey, hired U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber to engrave the dies under a private contract. These coins are brass and feature a commanding dragon design.


Japanese and Korean Currencies

In addition to Howard Bowker’s Chinese holdings, his collection includes a wide range of Korean and Japanese coins that reflect both their regional connections and distinct cultural heritage. These Korean coins have a four-character design, a common motif amongst East Asian coinage. The 50 Sen Japanese coin features a wreath and chrysanthemum blossom, a symbol of the Empire of Japan.

5 Mun Coin, Korea, about 1883

100 Mun Coin, Korea, about 1866

2 Shu Gin Coin, Japan, 1824–1830

50 Sen Proof Coin, Japan, 1874

2 Bu Ban Kin Coin, Japan, 1830–43

Howard F. Bowker after his retirement from the U.S. Navy in 1946

Howard F. Bowker after his retirement from the U.S. Navy in 1946

Courtesy of Howard F. Bowker Family 

The Fang Collection of Chinese Ming Knife Money

Ming knife money is named for the large MING character imprinted on the front side and was produced between the 5th and 1st centuries BCE. There are two types of ming knives, which are distinguished by the shape of their spine. The first type has a curved or arched back while the second type features a sharper angled back. The greatest known collection of ming knives belonged to a Peking University professor named Fang. Fang’s collection of ming knives included 160 specimens, many in near-perfect condition. Howard Bowker purchased the Fang ming knife collection.

Selection of ming knife money 

Chinese Bridge Money

Bridge money originated as bronze imitations of jade charms. These curved metal objects have baffled numismatists and scholars for centuries. Some view bridge money as a form of burial gift, while others believe that these objects were regularly used as currency during the Bā and Shū states around the 4th century BCE. These mysterious artifacts were produced in large quantities and in a range of designs, including some with dragon and phoenix heads at the tips. The Howard Bowker family recently donated twenty pieces of bridge money to the National Numismatic Collection. 

Selection of bridge money 

Detail of dragon head on bridge money

Selection of bridge money