Many of the key dates and most valuable pieces of modern Chinese coinage are survivors of the turbulence that accompanied Hong Kong’s reunification with China.
“This is 1996. One day a couple of guys walk into the shop.” Peter Yeung, President of Panda America leans forward on the conference table as he speaks. “They want to buy Silver Pandas, so I sell them some for $15 each. Then the phone starts ringing. Everybody wants to buy silver Pandas. I sold mine too cheap; I found out that they were going for double that in Hong Kong.”
All of Hong Kong was alive with anticipation of the day when Hong Kong would return to China after 156 years of foreign rule. Everyone also tried to figure out what the transfer will mean for them. People wondered what would happen to their bank deposits under a new regime. Would the currency be devalued? Weekends were especially worrisome; what if the banks didn’t open on Monday?
Coins looked like a good store of value. The China Mint had struck three sets of coins to celebrate the transfer in 1995, 1996 and 1997. These were strongly bid up by collectors and speculators. The same was true for the yearly Panda coins. Demand for the 1996 and 1997 Silver Pandas zoomed. Prices climbed as high as $100 a coin.
Peter Yeung continues, “It wasn’t just coins. Everyone wanted the last Hong Kong stamps with Queen Elizabeth on them. Customers lined up outside post offices. At one post office the line was so long it stretched from one subway station to the next. One man died in line. Even the criminals got into it. Outside post offices there were gang members holding up signs that read, ‘We Buy Coins and Stamps.’ It was crazy.”
On July 1, 1997 screaming crowds jammed the streets, fireworks lit the sky, trumpets blared, soldiers marched and British Prime Minister Tony Blair watched as Hong Kong returned to China.
It was also the end of the road for the numismatic bubble. The currency kept its value so the driving force of the speculation had been a phantom fear. As Peter Yeung puts it, “Of course, a mania like that can’t last, but a lot of people couldn’t see it coming. After the handover to China the market crashed. People who didn’t get out in time got burned. After that nobody wanted to buy coins.”
A pall settled over the numismatic scene. Many speculators went bankrupt. Sales collapsed and coin dealers wiled away the time playing cards as they waited for the infrequent customer. The Kuan Yin series nearly expired. The run of 1/10 and 1/20 oz. Platinum Panda series ended with a final mintage of just hundreds. 1998 was the final year for the 1/2 oz. Silver Pandas.
Many individual coins met their end in the melting pot during this time because there was no market for them beyond their bullion value. Gold Pandas became gold chains as jewelers turned them into more popular products. Other coins, both gold and silver, which had been used as collateral for loans were melted down when the loans defaulted. The widespread destruction left many mysteries for later collectors to solve as the surviving populations often bear little relationship to the original mintages.
The memories of the crash that followed the transfer of Hong Kong are so bad that to this day some collectors shun coins of this period. But there is a silver lining. Many of the key dates and most valuable of modern Chinese coinage are the survivors of the turbulence that accompanied Hong Kong’s reunification with China. Today they are often the most prized items in a collection and even worth standing in line for.
Peter Anthony is an expert on Chinese modern coins with a particular focus on Panda coins. He is an analyst for the NGC Chinese Modern Coin Price Guide as well as a consultant on Chinese modern coins.