Priceless Coin Collection Returns Home To China Relatives of a former U.S. sailor and coin collector have returned part of his massive and rare collection to the Shanghai Mint Museum. The coins reflect 2,000 years of Chinese history, and the bequest represents the start of a series of returns the family plans.

Priceless Coin Collection Returns Home To China

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Shanghai on how some small pieces of Chinese history returned home.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE DRILL)

LOUISA LIM: It was brought over by Gordon Bowker, one of the founders of Starbucks, and his cousin Carolyn Bowker. They decided to donate part of their grandfather's coin collection.

NORRIS: There really is no better place for the coins to be. They would have much less interest to scholars and to the public anywhere else in the world. So it's a natural thing for them to be in Shanghai where they originated.

LIM: Their grandfather, Howard Bowker, served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed in China in 1923. He taught himself Chinese, Japanese and Korean and began collecting coins as a hobby, which married two of his greatest passions.

NORRIS: He was fascinated by Chinese history. He had a big background in money. He was a purser, he was a paymaster, and he liked money. I think he just liked to count it.

LIM: Michael Chou is from the iAsure Group, which runs an auction house specializing in Asian coins. He's been researching the collection for two years, and he describes how the mold produces many coins at once.

NORRIS: They pour very hot metal into this mold, and then a coin tree comes out of this coin mold, and they break off the coin off the tree individually. So when someone tells you money doesn't grow on trees, it actually does in China.

LIM: I mean, something like that, how much would that be worth?

NORRIS: It's very hard to say because most of these things are never sold because in China, they're considered national treasures.

LIM: Zhang Yueqin from the museum is visibly emotional.

NORRIS: (Through translator) We had the mold, but we didn't have a coin. But the coin has finally come home. It's as if after 80 years, a mother is reunited with her child. It's a miracle. The friendship between China and America is embodied in this coin.

LIM: The restitution of valuables to their point of origin is an increasing trend, though in this case, the coins were bought legitimately, not looted. Carolyn Bowker says American institutions could lose out.

NORRIS: But I don't think there's a passion in the American history for learning about some of the ancient, whether it's coins or other artifacts. And so to have them returned to where the passion is, it just makes total sense to me.

LIM: Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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