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Unusual group of counters

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Chinese gaming counters are generally fairly predictable items. Whenever a new one comes in there are plenty of clues to the  date: shape, border type, style of engraving and so on. Yes, there are a few rather nebulous areas such as the early counters and some unusual styles of which there were few sets made.  Had the first round counter shown come in on its own, I doubt if I would have given it too much thought - apart from being a new addition to my collection, which is always a very pleasing occurence. This counter has a coat of arms which may be continental; a bird with wings expanded where a crest would normally be seen but it seems to be standing on a a ball where the torse would have been if it were a recorded crest; single-line border and the reverse with the 'whispy flower' type design which was used in Canton very typically in around 1760. The mother-of-pearl is of fairly standard quality for this period, and the counter is well-finished and is not out of place among similar counters from this period in collections.

But this counter did not arrive alone. It came in a group of fourteen counters in two shapes and this is where the plot starts to thicken. First there is a shape which I have never seem before on Chinese gaming counters: it is shaped like a tombstone and has the same style of decoration as the first counter shown; the first one I looked at has the same 'whispy flower' decoration to the revers. Had it been blank I would have assumed that it was a decorative panel the lid of a wooden box or perhaps an inlay for the cover of a book. However this one has the reverse decorated; the next two of similar shape do not have decoration to the reverse, which is strange. One of them has a variation to the coat of arms which shows the three blank shields inverted; the third one has a rather different bird and several other variations in the size of the arnms etc. The group of rounds all show the same types of variation: some of them are almost relief-carved; the birds vary a lot in size and shape; some of the roundels with the coat of arms are larger and there are also variations in the mantling to the sides of the arms. I have never seen such variation in a set of Chinese gaming counters. Normally they are made with such precision that they almost appear to have come off a production line despite the fact that they were made at a time when there was no electricity, let alone a computer. The whispy flower design to the reverse suggests a date of around 1760 but by that date the Chinese were capable of producing sets of gaming counters of the highest quality and consistency with artwork that is quite beautiful. So what are these counters?

There are several possible explanations. First of all, it is possible that these counters date from 1700 and that they represent some of the earliest examples produced. This would perhaps account for the variations. The rare shape could be a prototype which was not repeated and was replaced in later groups by the long-oblong. The one thing that does not easily fit with this explanation is the presence of the 'whispy flower' reverse; but it has to be said that some very early counters have rather hurried-looking reverse decoration which is not dissimilar to the style here. I would not consider it likely or even possible that these were later 'forgeries'. It is known that there was an attempt to reproduce a very small number of armorial gaming counters in the 20th. century using computer technology. This was unsuccesful in terms of the quality of the finished product, and there is no similarity to these counters which are very variable. The only other possible explanation I have to offer is that some or all were produced in Europe in the 18th. century. It is known that there was a thriving industry in France in producing buttons from mother-of-pearl; we know that it was extremely expensive to order ganming counters from Canton and that it took several years to receive your set of counters. Could it be that a set was commissioned from Canton which was then copied in France? Unfortunately - as is too often the case with gaming counters-  I suspect that we will never know the answer. If only there were some records or even eye-witness accounts of the trade in counters in Canton. There are none - so we have to settle for a rather unsatisfactory acceptance of this gaping gap in our knowledge. Is it just sour grapes to suggest that in a very perverse way this mystery may even add to the pleasure to be had from gaming counters???

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