Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Some Fun Facts about Gold and Silver Lunar Coins from the PRC

by Huang Ruiyong
Source: http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_503fb35b010084bl.html

(Poem omitted)

The topic today is kind of big, making it challenging to write about.

As we all know, lunars are the biggest theme among gold and silver coins from the PRC. In addition, we all have our own lunar animal. This theme is an eternal one among the Chinese.

Since I am going to talk about fun facts, I will not pull a long face and discuss lunar coins in dead seriousness. Instead, it is better to get a pot of old wine or a nice cup of Longjing tea, and comment on them leisurely in the night breeze.

It was a quarter century back when the first set of lunar coins made their appearance: 8 gram gold Rooster and 15 gram silver Rooster. Since then, lunar coins have been released year after year. We feel that coins from some years leave a relatively deeper impression in our memory.

From the 1981 Rooster onwards, the convention was an 8 gram gold coin matched by a 15 gram silver coin, which remained undisrupted till the 1987 5oz silver Rabbit came on the scene. The rabbit couple by Liu Jiyou is truly gorgeous, leaving a lingering impression on us.

In 1988, with the official incorporation of China Gold Coins Co., lunar coins were expanded dramatically both in breeds and mintage, like the opening of flood gates of a reservoir.

This very year, 5oz and 12oz gold coins were launched with fanfare, and each had a mintage of 3,000 and 500 respectively;

The same year, 5oz and 12oz silver coins also made their appearance;

The same year, 1oz platinum, 1oz gold and 1oz silver coins were all released, like colorful flowers dazzling to human eyes.

Of course, the little brothers of 8 gram gold and 15 gram silver coins were dwarfed in the huge family now, watching their cousins in fear, not understanding how come so many powerful members had been added to the family overnight.

But the family of lunar coins without birth control ran into a stone wall in 1989. Due to diminished demand, as well as the political turmoil of the year, the 1989 Snake coins saw drastic cuts in mintage. This, as I said before, unexpectedly boosted the luck of the 12oz silver Snake, 5oz silver Snake and 1oz piedfort Snake, making them the undisputed star in their respective category.

Fast forward to 1992: Monkey coins of this year were all scaled down in mintage, and, starting from this year, 5oz and 12oz large size gold coins  stabilized at the mintage of 99 pieces each, while 1oz platinum coins stabilized at 300 minted pieces. The 12oz silver coins were settling down at 500 pieces, while 5oz silver coins stayed at the release mintage of 1,000. It looked as if lunar coins were buckling down, in an effort to restore their past glory.

Then came 1993. The second round of lunar coins made it to the stage. The 8 gram and 15 gram lunars completed their historical mission, and retired in glory. But, to maintain the diversity of the lunar coins, the plum flower coins were launched to the market in splendor.

Afterwards, big chunks of gold were released to add more weight to the lunar family, in order to impress collectors. So in 1995, the kilo Pig gold coin ascended the stage. It is plum flower shaped, and is simply called "big fat plum pig". This kilo lunar gold coin has a tiny mintage of 15, an extreme rarity.

The 1996 and 1997 mass craze over stamps, bank notes, coins, and cards aroused the interest of the issuing authorities, which expanded the product lines. Some of the 1997 Ox coins were issued in 1996, and 1/10oz gold coins as well as 1oz BU silver coins were added, too. The more breeds the better? I beg to differ.

After that, the 1998 colored gold Tiger and colored silver Tiger were released in late 1997, unveiling colored gold and silver coins in Mainland China.

The millennium happened to be the year of Dragon. Of course the King of All would not let go of this grand opportunity. This Dragon was as creative as its elder brother in 1988. 5oz rectangular gold and silver coins replaced their round shaped predecessors, and, lo and behold, fan shaped lunar coins were brought to the market, too.

The next year was the year of Horse. We all know the phrase "vigor of a dragon or a horse." This shows how closely they are related. The Horse was pondering: If you Dragon could add to the breed, why can't I make a big name for myself in history? Why not? And so the kilo silver Horse came out of the blue, adding a new member to the lunar family.

But both Dragon and Horse were totally overshadowed by the upcoming third generation Pig. The kilo Horse was the top coin among lunar silver coins, but before the 10 kilo gold Pig, it was pathetic besides being tragic. Starting from the third generation Pig, lunar coins would send a chill down our spine.

So much for the genealogy of the lunar coins. Next, let's pick out some of their fun facts.

We notice that the expertise in the design of lunar coins has been widely varied and perplexing. Not only the early coins, but many new coins are jaw-dropping in the consistency of their design. Here are a few examples:

Take the lunar kilo silver coins. The big brother is the kilo silver Horse, which made quite a sensation when it was launched. I took a few careful looks at it. The obverse is the Great Administration Hall of the Shenyang Imperial Palace, a great historical building. Good choice!

But the following Sheep perplexed me. How come the obverse changed to stone figures on the eaves tile of the Han Dynasty? Where did the historical building go?

The year after, paper-cut patterns magically made it to the obverse of the Monkey coins, which continued to the year of Dog. This got me into thinking: too bad for the committees who review the designs and patterns of Chinese gold and silver commemorative coins. There are no real gold and silver collectors among them for sure. Otherwise, how could any true collector approve these inconsistent designs? In analogy, a truly great painter has to be a top collector first. If Zhang Daqian had not collected paintings by Dong Yuan and Shi Tao, his ink and color paintings could not have been this sharp.

Let's go back to the first round of plum flower lunar coins. Alas, the onset of the second round of plum flower coins got their elder brothers into trouble.

Among the first round of 1/2oz plum flower gold coins, the 1993 Rooster was made in 24k gold. But from Dog on, Pig, Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit and Dragon were all 22k gold. It would be OK if this spec continued. But the naughty plum flower gold coins had their own mind. So from Snake on, till Monkey, the coins reverted to 24k gold. OK then. As if by design, this family is split into two teams: the 24k team has 7 members, and the 22k team has 5 members. They are basically balanced in force. Discipline does not apply where there are too many violators.

If the first round of plum flower gold coins still exercised some professional discipline, their silver little brothers acted just on their own free will, without any sense of shame.

There was nothing extraordinary from the 1993 plum flower silver Rooster to the 2000 plum flower silver Dragon. They were all 2/3oz, 90% silver. When it came to Snake, the little brother of Dragon, there was a dramatic change in nature, even in the technical specs. From Snake up to Horse, Sheep and Monkey, all were 1oz 99.9% silver, which is extremely disturbing. The poor collector's exquisite ready-made coin box now became the unbearable lightness of being.

Equally puzzling are the 1oz platinum series. Platinum is too expensive to be used for commemorative coins. It is possible that the existing series of platinum lunar coins will become rarities with no successors.

Among the platinum lunar coins, the 1oz platinum Dragon has the Great Wall on its obverse, but from the 1oz platinum Snake on to the platinum Rabbit, the obverse changed to the national emblem. The series would look harmonious enough if we treated the 1oz platinum Dragon as an exception.

But if we look into the details, things turn out to be messy, because we find that the national emblem has both the frosted and non-frosted versions. They become an eye sore when placed together. Snake has no frosting, while coins from Horse to Pig are frosted. But frosting is missing on Rat to Rabbit. What can I say? Just a sigh.

As for the release mintage, the changes are gut-wrenching. Here are some examples:

The 1/10oz gold lunars started in 1997, with Ox at 48,000 minted pieces.  Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse and Sheep followed closely, for fear of being left behind. But the second generation Monkey thought well of its own IQ, and, taking advantage of human weakness, boosted its mintage to 60,000.

1oz BU silver Monkey was as undisciplined. Its elder brothers all had a mintage of 50,000. But this guy self-promoted its mintage to 80,000, making our blood boil.

As for the 12oz and 5oz gold lunars, as well as 12oz and 5oz silver lunars, why did the initial disorder finally get sorted out? The credit goes to the 1992 Monkey. Its position among lunar coins can be compared to the feat of reviving prosperity in the mid Han Dynasty, keeping the upcoming releases in good order. 

The 12oz and 5oz round lunar gold coins are very elusive as a complete set. Starting from the gold Monkey, their release mintage stabilized at 99 pieces. The actual mintage fluctuated between 102-105 pieces. But there were exceptions. For example, due to the market collapse in 1997, the actual mintage of the 12oz gold Ox was a mere 64, the smallest number among 12oz lunar gold coins.

Of course, there are some embarrassing facts that we have to mention. I am not sure whether we should laugh or weep over them.

If anyone wants to collect the whole series of 5oz round lunar silver coins, the following fact looks puzzling: the 5oz silver luars started with the 1987 Rabbit, and ended with the 1999 Rabbit. Contrary to expectation, the whole series consisted of 13 pieces of 5oz round silver coins.

The crafty Rabbit dug two holes leading to his burrow. What a heck! This leaves us collectors scratching our head. Should we collect the series from 87 to 98, or from 88 to 99? It will be long before anyone can come up with a good answer.

The first round of plum flower lunar coins also went awry in the end, wrecking their reputation. From the 1993 Rooster, the obverse was well-known historical buildings, such as Wangjianglou in Chengdu on the plum flower Rat, Mingyuanlou in Nanjing on Ox, and Guanquelou on Snake. But then we have eaves tile figures on Sheep and paper-cut patterns on Monkey. The reputation previously built was totally wrecked in the end. Sad. A sigh.

I asked a lot of people in private for their ranking of the lunars. Here are the results:

Gold coins:
1.  8 gram lunars
2.  5oz round gold coins
3.  12oz round coins
4.  1oz round coins
5.  First round of plum flower gold coins

It should be specially noted that the 5oz round gold coins are actually enlarged 8 gram lunar coins. They all have Chinese paintings on them, and were exquisitely made. The only pity is that few people have the luck to see them now. We can only enjoy them in catalogs.

The ranking of silver lunar coins is:

1.  15 gram lunars
2.  12oz lunars
3.  5oz lunars
4.  1oz piedfort lunars
5.  Plum flower lunars

Platinum lunars have their own place, and they are all gorgeous coins.

Careful readers may ask: Why are 12oz coins ranked higher than 5oz coins among silver lunars? It is because among round gold coins, the 5oz ones are almost as rare as the 12oz ones. But silver lunars have a different story. The 12oz lunars are rarer than the 5oz ones. Naturally their overall ranking should be higher.

I will give two more fun facts.

1.  Large size coins have a smaller denomination than that small size coins on the same theme, in the same year. This goes against logic, but the lunar coins managed to pull it off, from 1988 to 1992. The 8 gram gold Dragon is 150 Yuan, but the 1oz gold Dragon is 100 Yuan; similarly, the 8 gram gold Monkey is 150 Yuan, but the 1oz gold Monkey is 100 Yuan. Unique.

2.  In general, gold and silver coins share the same design for the same theme in the same year. The difference is the denomination. The lunar coins basically followed this convention, with the following exceptions: 8 gram Ox and 15 gram Ox, 8 gram Dragon and 15 gram Dragon, 8 gram Horse and 15 gram Horse, 8 gram Sheep and 15 gram Sheep, 8 gram Monkey and 15 gram Monkey. That's all.

Now how do we collect lunar coins?

1.  In sets: for example, if one is to collect 5oz gold lunars, 12oz gold lunars, 12oz silver lunars, or platinum lunars, it is very difficult to buy individual coins to build a set. It is much better to bite the bullet and buy the complete set. It is cost-effective, too.

2.  Build sets from individual coins: this is good for 8 gram lunars, 15 gram lunars, 1oz gold and silver lunars and plum flower lunars. Building a set brings back the fun of stamp collection when we were young. As the collection grows, we gain a sense of success and satisfaction.

3.  Collect one's own lunar animals: Those born in the year of Rat will have a relatively tougher time, while those born in the year of Snake will find it easier. But this toughness and easiness are dynamic, because it is the supply and demand relation that determines the price.

4.   Collect the first coin in the series: for example the 8 gram gold Rooster, 5oz round gold Monkey, 12oz silver Snake, the kilo silver Horse, and so on.

5.  Collect award winners: for example the 15 gram silver Dog (World Best Crown Coin), 8 gram gold Rooster to 8 gram gold Ox (Gold Cup Winners in the Hundred-Flower Awards for Arts and Crafts), and the 12oz silver Dragon (World Best Silver Coin).

There are two series that I have to mention, for collectors focusing on particular features.

1.  The first round of 1oz piedfort lunar silver coins (1988 silver Dragon to 1999 silver Rabbit) belongs to the piedfort sector. Thumbs up. (I have a dedicated article on piedfort coins.)

2.  1/10oz colored gold coin series (from colored gold Tiger to Dog) belongs to the coin alignment sector. (I will have a dedicated article on coin alignment later on.) What is amazing is that the 1/10oz colored gold lunars have both the coin alignment and medal alignment types, adding to our fun of collection.

The problem with the 1oz gold lunars is that the mirror fields were not well struck. Dragon, Snake and Horse are all subpar.

Similarly, the first round of plum flower coins is a regret. Due to issues in the technological process (Dog, Ox, Tiger and Rabbit are very crude, looking like BU coins), the wonderful theme was just wasted. From that perspective, each and every one of the 8 gram lunars is a gem.

Why do we say that the 8 gram lunars are superior to other lunar coins? Let's take the example of Snake, the animal most difficult to depict. The 8 gram gold Snake is a masterpiece from the venerable master Qi Baishi, selected from several hundred snake paintings. It looks casually painted, but in fact it embodies profound mastery of art. The Snake by Ma Jin in 1989 lags by a big margin. But if we look at the snake painting from a group of designers in 2001 (Fu Lili, He Jun, Bai Limei, He Jie, Liu Tao, Yu Xiawei), Ma's Snake is obviously better.

Similarly, the 8 gram Rooster is from Xu Beihong, and is the most expressive one among rooster paintings by Master Xu, because the 1993 plum flower gold Rooster also from Xu Beihong is not on a par with the 8 gram Rooster, not to mention Roosters from Bai Ming and Liu Kuiling.

As there are too many lunar coins, we will just pick a few packages and COAs to talk about.

The China Gold Coin Co. made awesome coin set boxes for 1oz gold, platinum and silver lunar coins, which were distributed by Taisei Coin Corporation of Japan. The outside is a yellow silk box, and the inside is a red wooden box. It is said that the packaging, although a little crude, was made in Wenzhou. There are 12 cells around the red box, for holding 12 coins clockwise or counter-clockwise. In the middle of the 12 coins, a round cell is ingeniously created, for holding a bronze medal for the 12 lunar coins, which was designed by Zeng Chenghu and Chen Jian. Very interesting. In addition, there is a drawer at the bottom of the box, for storing COAs. This box is well worth collecting.

Also, Taisei, the distributor of 8 gram lunars and 15 gram lunars in those years, placed an order for teak wood boxes with Thailand. There are two layers in the box, the upper layer for coins and the lower layer for COAs. Very cute.

Packages for 5oz and 12oz round gold and silver lunar coins should be mentioned, too. The wooden box (for Dragon) is unique with a printed image of two dragons playing with a ball. Other coins, like Snake, Horse, and Sheep, are all packaged in a crude outside paper box and an inside wooden box. Not appealing to eyes.

Platinum lunar coins deserve special attention. First, we find that the mint was changed, from Shanghai Mint to Australia minting for China. One of the reasons given was that since China did not have much platinum, minting the coins in Australia would save the trouble of importing the raw material. But this cannot be a serious reason, because we did have the capability to mint platinum lunar coins, unlike the early colored gold coins, which were outsourced because China did not have the technical process in place.

Platinum lunars minted in Australia were not placed in a capsule in an outside plastic pouch, like coins from the PRC. Instead, the platinum coins were sealed in a square plastic capsule, much like the slabs from US grading services. It is fun to look at. Or raw coins were packaged in soft pouches. This left the coins with no hard-shell protection. Truly worrying.

From 1988, platinum, gold and silver lunar coins were marketed together. As a result, 1oz platinum, gold and silver coins were sold in a set. Every year, 100 such sets should have been issued, but I have never see the sets starting from the 1993 Rooster. If any collector friend has information on them, please share. Thanks!

Talking about COAs, I am most impressed with those for the platinum and 1oz gold coins. COAs for these two series are very similar. Among them, COAs for the platinum and gold Dragon and Snake coins are large in size, with very exquisite wave-like luster. Beautiful and magnificent. The 5 smaller COAs for Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster and Dog are not bad either. The remaining 5 COAs for Pig, Rat, Ox, Tiger and Rabbit have nothing special, worse than before.

The commemorative gold and silver kilo coins for the issue of 8 gram lunars are both extreme rarity. They are hard to find. The silver kilo coin has two varieties, with obvious differences in the rocks on the Baita Hill and in the wave lines on Beihai. They were the first kilo silver coins from the PRC, which had little experience in minting large coins. It is said that the die broke during minting, and re-strikes were made in 1997.

The 1999 kilo silver coin commemorating the 1oz lunar coins (1988-1999) has totally disappeared from the market. A rarity to be treasured! There is an error in the coin design: it is supposed to commemorate the 1oz lunar coins, but the Dragon coin on it does not have the 1oz gold or platinum Dragon design. Instead, the design on the 12oz silver Dragon is used. Even though the 12oz silver Dragon was the winner of a world award, designers should not have given it a green light, allowing it to rank among 1oz gold and platinum coins, spoiling the pure breed!

There are too many facts to talk about on lunar coins. It is absolutely impossible to exhaust them all at once. I will end here. Thanks for your time, everyone.

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