Chinese Coins: The Panda's Tale

Posted on 10/10/2017

The first Show Panda created quite the “Pandamania” in the late 1980s.

As hundreds of collectors, dealers, flippers and even scholars swirled past me at the Hong Kong Coin Fair, I stared attentively across the showcase. Robert Mish stood there, dressed in sport shirt and slacks, his wavy hair now grayish, as a little smile creased his face. We had just been talking about China Hong Kong typhoons and their affect on coin shows. Mr. Mish remembered his first one, the vast, slow-moving typhoon “Ellen” in 1983. He was trapped in the Holiday Inn, the site of a coin show, for three days. Quite a few other dealers and collectors were, too. There was nothing else to do but buy, sell and trade coins. Even a typhoon can have a silver lining.

We moved on to a favorite subject; Pandas on coins. “Did I ever tell you how the first gold show Panda came about? It was made for a show in San Francisco. It started the entire gold show “Pandamania” of the late 1980s. It was the springboard for the ten issues of one oz. gold show Pandas that collectors now make into sets.”

“At the time, I was active in the California Coin Dealers Association. As a group we were trying to discourage attempts by certain interests in the state government to sunset the sales tax exemption for legal tender coins and bullion. Not every dealer agreed it was a worthwhile effort. Some said we could sue after the bill became law, but most understood it would be better to stop it cold. The effort ate up time and money. We really needed a professional lobbyist and a budget.”

“I recruited an established show manager, Rudy Christians. We rallied our colleagues to support an international coin show in San Francisco, with part of the proceeds to fund the political defense. I then teamed with China Hong Kong dealer Mr. Choi Leung Chor to contract the China Mint to produce the first gold show Panda, as well as attend the inaugural San Francisco International Coin Exposition.”

“We were even involved in the design and packaging concept. It was based on a design by the renowned Shanghai Mint artist Mr. Chen Jian. The result was the most successful show Panda issue to date. On one face it resembled the popular 1982 gold Panda. On the other were two famous landmarks: the Great Wall of China and the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. This was also the bridge’s 50th anniversary year. Together these symbolized the long-standing ties of friendship between the two countries. San Francisco and Shanghai already had a sister city relationship, which helped us arrange pre-show publicity and official receptions at the San Francisco Mint, The Golden Gate Bridge Authority and the Mayor’s office. The result was the most successful show panda issue ever, as measured by initial demand and excitement.”

Mr. Chen Jian with one of his designs, the gold 1987 San Francisco Show Panda

“When the news of the show Panda issue got out, dealer tables sold out in a week. With each table came a coupon to buy up to two of the show Pandas from the show’s allotment of 800. It was amazing. The public had started lining up outside the night before. By the opening time the line outside was two blocks long. People were selling their places in line while dealers traded coupons as if they were stocks.”

“Within a few hours, it was a sell-out. The $800 issue price proved to be a bargain. By the next day, the show Pandas had more than doubled to as high as $2,100. All this transpired despite the original mintage of 1,500 also being doubled — to 3,000. When the “Panda Pool” got wind of the show issue, they complained that they would have none for their own customers. So it was agreed to double the mintage. This resulted in added promotion and support to raise funds and awareness of the political threat to the numismatic hobby.”

“Yes, it all did end well. The proposed legislation was defeated, the law in California is unchanged to this day and collectors have a beautiful show Panda to enjoy and appreciate.”

As Mr. Mish and I talked about the first gold show Panda, it was just before the second of a pair of typhoons hit Hong Kong, China within four days. The most recent silver show Panda had been released for the very successful Hong Kong Coin Show. That was just before Typhoon Hato slammed the city and cancelled all flights out. So there we stood a few days later in that very same Holiday Inn that hosted the first Hong Kong coin fair in China. As we waited for the second storm to arrive, Mr. Mish and I had the time to chat about Pandas and the joy of collecting them – or even making them. There is always a silver lining, sometimes even a gold one.

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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