Chinese Coins: Pandas Tip the Rarity Scale

Posted on 4/11/2017

There are more than a dozen Chinese Panda coins and medals, including Show Pandas, that — by published mintage — rank from uncommon to very scarce.

How rare is rare? Many people talk about rarity the way they do coin grades: very rare, extremely rare, etc. Is there something more precise? Yes, there is a well-established scale to measure rarity. I first came across it many, many years ago in some little brown booklets about USA gold coins written by Walter Breen. These were probably the earliest publications to estimate US gold coin populations. Long before the Internet and online forums, it was big news to a young collector that mintages are not always the best indicator of rarity.

Breen was one of the great authors and numismatic researchers of the last century. He was, not entirely by design, a pure researcher. One coin dealer who knew him told me, “Walter could never figure out how to make money from his own research, even though his work was excellent.” My closest brush with Breen was to see him in a coin shop one time while I was in high school.

In 1958, together with Dr. William Sheldon, Breen published a rarity scale that, in slightly revised form, is still in widespread usage today. There are nine levels of rarity. The scale runs like this:

R-1: At least 1,251 examples extant (This covers everything up into the millions)
R-2: 501 to 1,250 examples, uncommon
R-3: 201 to 500 examples, scarce
R-4: 76 to 200 examples, very scarce
R-5: 31 to 75 examples, rare
R-6: 13-30 examples, very rare
R-7: 4-12 examples extremely rare
R-8: 2-3 examples, exceptionally rare
R-9: A unique example; only 1 extant

Sticking with American coins for one more moment, the 1804 Silver Dollar—often called the “King of American Coins”—is a Rarity-6. All of these, by the way, are restrikes. The dollar coins that were actually struck in the year 1804 used 1803 dies.

A couple of weeks ago my friend Martin Weiss and I were batting around ideas about modern Chinese coins and the rarity scale popped up. How would modern Chinese coins, medals and show Pandas rank on the rarity scale? We both started naming coins and medals that would shine on it. As food for thought, here is a partial list of one ounce and smaller Pandas with their rarity ranking according to published mintage:

1984 Silver 1 oz. Hong Kong (China) Int’l Coin Expo Show Panda Rarity 2
1985 Brass 12.7 gm. 1 Yuan Panda Rarity 2
1988 Palladium 1 oz. 17th New York Int’l Show Panda Rarity 2
1988 Gold 1 oz. 97th ANA Convention (Cincinnati) Rarity 2
1988 Gold 1 oz. 1st Hong Kong (China) Coin Expo Show Panda Rarity 3
1988 Brass 14 gm. 1st Hong Kong (China) Coin Expo Show Panda Rarity 4
1989 Palladium 1 oz. 98th ANA Convention show panda Rarity 2
1997 Gold ½ oz. Munich Coin Fair Show Panda Rarity 2
2014 Silver 30 gm. Shanghai Mint Lunar Year medal Rarity 4
2016 Gold 1 oz. 2016 ANA Show Panda, Anaheim Rarity 4
2016 Gold 1 oz. Hawaii State Numismatic Assn. Show Panda Rarity 4
2016 Silver 1 oz. Heart-shaped Panda medal Rarity 2
2017 Bimetallic Shenyang Mint Lunar Panda, two versions, both: Rarity 2

From a rarity standpoint, there are more than a dozen Chinese Panda coins, medals and show Pandas that—by published mintage—are uncommon to very scarce. If we consider actual mintages, or populations, some rank even higher. A 1988 Cincinnati is a Rarity-3 and a 1985 brass 1 Yuan Panda is a Rarity-4. A couple of these still sell for less than a hundred dollars, while others are worth several thousands. Only the 1985 brass 1 Yuan Panda commands a price anywhere near what a rare US coin would.

More than a dozen 1 oz. or smaller Pandas are Rarity-2 or higher on the Breen-Sheldon Scale.

The Breen-Sheldon scale offers perspective and insights into a key area of numismatics. For anyone interested in modern Chinese coins, this is essential knowledge.

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.

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