Cao Kun (1862-1938), or Tsao Kun, was President of the Republic of China between 10th October 1923 and 30th October 1924, holding office for little over a year. He was a prominent figure during the Warlord Period of Chinese history, and was a military commander in the Zhili clique – one of the anti-Japanese factions of the Beiyang Government – which subsequently came into conflict with another of the factions, the Fengtian clique (which had policies favouring Japan).
Cao Kun rose to power by forcing the previous incumbent, Li Yuanhong, to resign from office. Cao then proceeded to openly bribe the National Assembly to vote him in, overtly giving each member who would vote for him 5,000 silver dollars. He managed to win the support of the National Assembly despite a counter, and equally open, bribery attempt to not elect him.
Once Cao had assumed the office of President of the Republic of China, he rushed through the 1923 constitution of China, which, although it was thought of as one of the most democratic and forward-thinking constitutions enacted up to that time, was proved to be largely ineffective.
Cao was betrayed and held captive by one of his generals, Feng Yuxiang, who was sympathetic towards the rival Fengtian clique, partly because of his loyalties to Sun Yat-Sen’s KMT government, and undoubtedly due in no small part to the 1.5 million yen bribe from the Japanese government, who were hoping to oust Cao Kun’s anti-Japanese Zhili clique from power. Cao was taken to Beijing by Feng, and forced to step down.
When Cao came to office in 1923, he commissioned a series of commemorative coins celebrating both the beginning of his rule, and the passing of the 1923 constitution. There are two main varieties: one featuring Cao Kun in military uniform (Kann-678); the other featuring Cao Kun in his civilian uniform (Kann-677). These coins are very scarce with high numismatic value. Most examples are silver dollars, although on a very rare occasion gold strike variations may be found. The coins were struck between 1923 and 1924, with most dating from 1923. Their rarity is largely down to the short period of time during which these coins were minted. Of these commemorative dollars, struck at the Tianjin Mint, the variety of most interest to the majority of collectors would be the Cao Kun silver dollar – a round coin weighing 26.93g, containing 0.900 pure silver, and measuring 39 mm in diameter. None of these coins bear their date or denomination.
Civilian Uniform: Kann 677
The obverse face of this variety features the bust of Cao Kun, facing ¾ to the front, dressed in his civilian uniform worn while performing his duties associated with the office of President of the Republic. The reverse face shows two crossed flags: the army flag of the Republic of China (or flag of the Wuchang Uprising) to the left, and the five-coloured flag of the Republic of China to the right. Above is the inscription in traditional Chinese characters, reading right to left: 憲法成立紀念 (commemorating the founding of the constitution). A dollar of this variety in relatively good condition (about uncirculated, AU) might be expected to sell at auction for $2,500 to $3,500. Mint state (MS) coins might fetch more than double this sum.
Military Uniform: Kann 678
This variety features on its obverse face a similar ¾ front-facing bust of Cao Kun, although this time wearing his military uniform, easily distinguishable from the civilian uniform by the epaulettes, medals, and sash. The reverse again features the two crossed flags. On this variety the flags are surrounded by 6 five-pointed stars. The inscription in Chinese seal script reading top to bottom translates as “commemoration”. The character ji appears above, while nian is inscribed below the flags. In uncirculated condition (UNC), a realistic estimate for this variety at auction would be $3,500 to $4,500; in about uncirculated (AU) condition, $2,500 to $3,000 might be expected.
Aside from the two major varieties detailed above, other varieties of these Cao Kun dollars do exist. Notable examples include: a milled or plain edge; and the sash of the military uniform over either the right or left shoulder.
As previously stated, if you’re lucky enough you might stumble across one of these coins in gold. Such coins, especially in good condition, can attract bids at auction in the tens of thousands of dollars.
In the Baldwin’s August 2014 Hong Kong auction, a gold coin featuring Cao in civilian uniform (Kann 1572) and in remarkable condition, graded at ANACS MS64, sold for $75,000 (far outstripping the estimated $20,000).
Similarly in August 2014, Heritage auctioneers presided over the sale of a gold Cao Kun dollar featuring Cao, this time in military uniform (Kann 1573). This coin which was also in a similar condition (graded at NGC MS63) and drew a final bid of $82,250.