This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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“Do you have any Chinese coins?” That’s what a Panda-collecting friend of mine asked each coin store and pawn shop owner in the small town where his family vacationed this summer. Most of the time the answer was no. Luck was with him one day, though, when he came across a couple of nice 1990s silver coins for less than their melt value in a pawn shop.
Then there was the coin shop owner who told him, “When we get gold Pandas in, if they don’t sell in a week we melt ’em. Been doing that for 20 years.”
That sounds like the black hole of the Panda world – the coins go in but they never come out again. It’s also a perfect example of the conditions that have made Pandas one of the most fascinating, frustrating and sometimes rewarding branches of numismatics.
Have you ever talked to a coin dealer who says that he regularly melts down gold Maple Leafs or Eagles or Krugerrands? I doubt it. All around the world, though, dealers and jewelers have been recasting Pandas into other things for decades. The result is that there are hundreds of Chinese coins with current populations that bear no resemblance to their original mintage.
For instance, back in the mid-’90s many coin dealers in Hong Kong found themselves loaded up with expensive, hard-to-sell Chinese platinum coins. The market for platinum metal was booming but each uptick in its price made the unpopular coins even more expensive and less attractive to buyers. That was a worry. If the price of platinum plunged, the coins could turn into big losers for store owners, yet no one wanted them. So what happened? The coins were melted down and sold for their metal content.
By 1997 the Chinese Mint was ready to toss in the towel and stop minting coins they couldn’t sell, but there was still a commitment to issue coins for that year. So just a few hundred 1997 1/10- and 1/20-ounce Pandas were struck (actually in Australia rather than China) even though the published mintage figures were in the thousands.
It took a long time, more than 10 years, for coin collectors to catch on to the potential of the platinum coins of this time period. If you could find one, the 1997 coins traded hands for $100 or $200 apiece until a few years ago. That is when the word of their rarity started to slowly, quietly spread. Lately, these little Pandas have been going for $5,000-$10,000. One spectacular sale saw a 10-yuan, 1/10-ounce MS-70 coin bring $30,000 at auction.
With more than 400 different kinds of coins, the Panda series offers a world of possibilities to profit from understanding what is scarce and what is not. So next time you visit a coin store, why not ask, “Do you have any Chinese coins?”