Chinese Coins: “A Panda Walks Into a Bar...”

Posted on 11/13/2018

Chinese silver and gold bars are quite popular in China but are rarely seen abroad.

Bars are popular in China, a friend there once told me — speaking about silver and gold bars, of course. “Chinese people like bars.” But, because there is little demand outside of the country for “art” bars, few ever make it to foreign shores. To the rest of the numismatic world, they are footnotes to be ignored.

For instance, in 2017 China Gold Coin issued three coins for the 35th Anniversary of Panda coins — 500 Yuan bimetallic, 80 Yuan gold hologram and 5 Yuan silver. These are widely known among dealers and collectors. A 90 mm round brass-cupronickel medal got some notice, too. Completely overshadowed was a set of seven 35th Anniversary 50 gram silver bars that China Gold Coin also released. When I send photos of these bars to dealers, they almost all ask, “What’s that?”

Each bar sports five gleaming mini gold-plated Panda coins. These represent five years of designs and are placed around a larger silver Panda image. The engravings for this set are by the important Chinese coin artist Liao Bo.

Coin engraving itself is an art that is not well understood. Far from being a simple mechanical process, it is akin to how a musician interprets a score. The engraver must translate the original concept on paper into a three-dimensional object. Simple sketches can turn into glorious final designs through the engraver’s skill.

Some engravers do double duty as artists/designers. This is true for Liao Bo, who not only designs coins, but public monuments. We met in his small studio at the Shenyang Mint. He is a strong, solid man, in his thirties with a friendly smile. On his desk was a book about vintage Chinese coins. Mr. Liao is one of the handful of coin artists I’ve met who actually collects coins and, interestingly, books about coins.

“Books teach us history and give us knowledge about coins,” he tells me. “When I began collecting, I started with a book.”

Liao Bo, a Shenyang Mint coin artist and engraver, with the silver bars
he engraved for the 2017 35th Anniversary of Panda Coins.

Besides a couple of computer screens, the office has several tables covered with sculpted clay figures. On one, a tumbling child catches my eye. Somehow, incredibly, this lump of clay captures the off-balance rolling motion so well, so naturally, that I half expect it to leap up and run away.

Mr. Liao is especially well known for his portrayals of Buddha and he brings up on a computer screen an exquisite series of four of his medals. While he has never designed a Panda coin, he has used his skill as an engraver on a series of heart-shaped Panda medals and, now, the 35th Panda Anniversary silver bar set.

“China has a tradition of issuing coins to reflect the culture,” Mr. Liao comments as he spreads out a glittering set of silver bars on the table. “For instance,” he continues, “in ancient times, coins were issued both for the reigning government and for important events.”

On each bar, little gold Panda coins float through bamboo forest scenes. I comment on the designs’ spirit and beauty. Mr. Liao smiles and modestly replies, “When I sculpt, I just try to show the cuteness and playfulness of the Panda.”

The early stage (above) and later stage (below) silver Panda bars.
These were minted in 2016 for the 120th Anniversary of the Shenyang Mint.

Across the hall from Mr. Liao’s studio is the office of another Panda bar artist, Ms. Chang Huan. Panda coins with her designs were minted in 2006 and 2012. In 2016, she created another Panda design, this time for a 500 gram silver bar. It celebrates the 120th Anniversary of the Shenyang Mint (which, by the way, is China’s oldest operating mint). A thousand bars were minted that feature the artwork of all the yearly Panda coins designed in Shenyang. These bars were not officially exported from China and, like the 35th Anniversary silver Panda bars, are not often seen abroad.

Incidentally, there are two versions of this bar, with one much, much scarcer than the other. The bars debuted at a Shenyang Mint press event in August of 2016. Only a handful of samples were complete before the media arrived. After the event, the design was further refined to add greater contrast. The early strikes have a noticeably softer luster than the balance of the mintage.

To “round out” this list of silver Panda bars, here is one very cute one. It was designed and first minted in the 1980s for Panda America, the American coin company. Martin Weiss, the company’s former owner, commissioned a California artist to design it. The result was so good that the artwork became the company’s logo and is found on silver bars to this day.

1980s design silver bar from Panda America.

That brings us to ... A panda walks into a bar and orders a sandwich. As soon as the bear finishes, he pulls out a pistol, fires one shot into the ceiling and then ambles out. The outraged bartender chases down the unruly ursine and demands, “Why did you do that?”

“Check the book. It’s my nature, I must do it,” says the Panda. He hands the bartender a dictionary that reads, “Panda: eats shoots and leaves.

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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