Published on the November, 2011 issue of Numismatics (in China)
I. A Mystery that Puzzled Fans of Modern Chinese Coins
On September 28, 1984, the then Governor of the People's Bank of China (PBOC) Lu Peijian signed a public announcement for issuing commemorative coins for the 35th anniversary of the People's Republic of China (hereafter "35th Anniversary set"), starting on October 1, 1984.
The 35th Anniversary set was the first commemorative coin set issued by PRC. In this light, its importance can never be over-estimated. However, for a long time, coin collectors never saw the bank specimens for the 35th Anniversary set.
Now did PBOC ever mint bank specimens for the 35th Anniversary set?
Many coin collectors in and outside China discussed and explored this common question for a long time. For the all-powerful PBOC and its staffers, this might be a non-issue, or an issue that could be cleared up with one remark. But for private coin collectors who have little access to the information on bank specimens, it was as difficult as ascending to the sky to prove the existence of bank specimens for the first circulating commemorative coins. Doubts by private collectors on whether PBOC ever minted bank specimens for the 35th Anniversary set can be summarized into three questions:
1. Did PBOC ever mint bank specimens for the 35th Anniversary set with the characters 样币 (bank specimen) on them?
2. Are the 35th Anniversary bank specimens similar to the bank specimens of the commemorative coins for the 6th National Games, in that the characters 样币 (bank specimen) were missing from the coin itself, but printed on the package?
3. PBOC did nothing, i.e., the 35th Anniversary commemorative coins did not have bank specimens.
It was the first time to release modern Chinese commemorative coins. What did PBOC do, after all?
II. Belated Arrival: the Bank Specimens of the First Circulating Commemorative Coins Made Their First Appearance
On July 24, a rectangle plastic album showed up on coin001.com, which had the characters 票样 (sample banknote) printed on it. In the album were three coins of the 35th Anniversary commemorative set. The album was blue, with the characters 票样(sample banknote) printed on the cover. The font was big, in a golden color, arranged from left to right.
The three coins in the album, “Dancers”, “Speech” and “Cranes”, had no 样币 (bank specimen) on them. They were enclosed individually in three sealed clear plastic pouches.
The surface of the coins looked dark, but the conditions were superb. The album as a whole appeared aged. Afterwards, I examined the physical album closely, and found some additional details, for example the size and material of the album, which was made from polyethylene, widely used at that time.
Now the album I was staring at, with the characters 票样 (sample banknote) on it, was nothing else but the package with the bank specimens for the first modern Chinese circulating commemorative coins -- the 35th Anniversary!
When I first saw the album with 票样 (sample banknote) on it in the evening of July 24, I was absolutely exhilarated, because I had a glimpse of this album more than ten years ago. In December, 1992, I was transferred from the Public Security Bureau of Nanjing to Nanjing International Trust Co, a non-financial local institution in Nanjing. The Jiangsu Branch of the People’s Bank of China was just across the street from my office. Moreover, one of the directors of the Currency Release Department of the Jiangsu Branch was a senior officer in the Armed Police unit where I had served. As a result, the Jiangsu Branch of PBOC and the Jiangsu Provincial Society for Numismatics became my “secondary office”, till the branches of PBOC at the provincial and city level were replaced by regional branch centers. I would often run over to learn various numismatic news and information. One day in November, 1994, I paid a visit to a friend at the Currency Release Department. He opened a drawer in his desk for me, to show more than twenty boxes and albums, which contained what he called bank specimens. I saw bank specimens for the 40th Anniversary of PBOC, Xinjiang, Women's World Cup, Chinese Arbor Day, the 10th Anniversary of Constitution, Song Qingling, the 11th Asian Games and the “Three Flowers” (the third series of PRC circulating coins – translator). Among them I discovered a blue rectangle album, with 票样 (sample banknote) printed on it. He said that it was also a holder for bank specimens, but it struck me as a holder for coupon stubs in the past planned economy. He said to me, “You can only have a glance.” It was the first time I had faced so many rare and mysterious bank specimens. Although I had less than a minute to see them, it truly triggered my curiosity, which led me to the long journey of exploring bank specimens. I like challenges, though. They are hard to conquer, but they are fulfilling at the same time.
About six or seven years ago, when bank specimens started to be traded on the market and online, I consulted this friend specifically on this issue. He said, “Bank specimens are all registered. They are inventoried for handover, under strict management. None has gone missing in our province. Some organizations with loose management may have bank specimens missing.” In fact, PBOC has been very strict in the management of bank specimens. I know this well by studying PBOC’s rules and regulations on bank specimens. Now I have realized that China is much too big, with an enormous territory and numerous institutions of PBOC, and that the management of commercial banks is riddled with leaks. When people are driven by huge profits, even the best barrier will crack.
Although I did catch a glimpse of the album, the friend at PBOC did not reveal to me what was inside. When the consensus was that the 35th Anniversary commemorative set did not come with bank specimens, it would not be convincing just to argue with a verbal statement without proof. I knew well that the first challenge was to find out whether PBOC minted bank specimens for the 35th Anniversary set at all. After relentless pursuit, I managed to obtain the most authoritative evidence from PBOC.
III. Special PBOC Circular Mentions First Set of Bank Specimens of Circulating Commemorative Coins
From 1999 to 2007, I collected a number of documents on bank specimens of the Chinese Renminbi, among which was one issued by PBOC: “Bank Issued Circular 1996 10 - Notification on Consolidating the Management of Renminbi Sample Banknotes” (picture 4). This is a key piece of direct evidence, because only formal, official, authoritative evidence can be most convincing. After close examination of the documents, I was taken aback: we were so ignorant.
To start with, PBOC formally notified all the organizations involved that “sample banknotes of Renminbi include bank specimens.” This point was made emphatically, to guide the organizations involved in this consolidation endeavor how to position themselves.
Secondly, PBOC did “distribute” all the sample banknotes (bank specimens) to its branches, commercial banks, insurance companies, customs offices and other organizations. The circular mandated proper management of all the sample banknotes (bank specimens) distributed up to January 8, 1996, when the circular was signed and issued, and stated the scope of distribution and types of sample banknotes (bank specimens) distributed in the past.
Thirdly, the circular required all the organizations to register stolen, damaged and missing sample banknotes (bank specimens) and to report the real cause to PBOC.
Lastly, this circular emphasized that sample banknotes (bank specimens) “distributed over the years” were “physical objects”, among which were the physical bank specimens of the 35th Anniversary set.
An aside: If PBOC had never distributed sample banknotes (bank specimens) to banks, insurance companies, customs offices or public security agencies, this circular by PBOC would be a big joke. The Central Bank of the People’s Republic of China would be acting like a bluffer, creating much ado about nothing. But the reality falsified this hypothesis.
After this “imperial decree” was issued from PBOC, all the local branches of PBOC jumped to action, and circulated this document from PBOC with their own supplemental instructions customized to their own circumstances. The major points made by these supplemental instructions included: “The physical sample banknotes (bank specimens), the receipt for the sample banknotes (bank specimens) and the sample banknotes (bank specimens) register must all match”; “The sample banknotes (bank specimens) distribution list, the receipt of the sample banknotes (bank specimens) and physical objects must be itemized one by one.”
With the discovery of these important PBOC documents, the uncertainty over the bank specimens of the first series of circulating coins was cleared, among other findings:
First, PBOC started to issue the 1 fen, 2 fen and 5 fen coins on December 1, 1957, in the first release of coins by PRC. The document “Bank Issued Circular 1996 10” states that physical bank specimens for the 1 fen, 2 fen and 5 fen coins (hereafter “bank specimens for the fen coins”) were “distributed.” In the past, it was widely believed by private collectors that these 1 fen, 2 fen and 5 fen coins did not have bank specimens. Obviously this belief was wrong.
Secondly, PBOC issued the third series of Renminbi coins, the “four types of metal coins”, also known as “Great Wall coins.” Some coin collectors thought that the bank specimens of the 1980 Great Wall coin set (hereafter “Great Wall bank specimens”) were the first bank specimen set for circulating coins of PRC. This opinion looks wrong now, as the first bank specimen set for circulating coins of PRC was the fen coin bank specimens.
Probably because they do not have a chance to get in touch with the documents of PBOC, or they do not have the motivation or willpower to further research bank specimens, some coin collectors unanimously claimed that the 35th Anniversary set did not have corresponding bank specimens. There were other similar “claims.” Such claims prompted me to conclude that what was not or has not been discovered, or could not, cannot or will not be discovered in the future, would not necessarily guarantee their non-existence. Coin collectors who are interested in studying precious metal coins, circulating coins, circulating commemorative coins and bank specimens, myself included, must exercise caution and make factual statements based on reality after solid investigations and study. Logical, rational analysis and reasonable inferences based on such analysis can be made. Patience is needed before solid evidence is available, to avoid rushing to conclusions. Otherwise, in today’s world where information is more readily available, our motivation for making such claims may be questioned.
IV. The Simple Packaging Exactly Reflects the Manufacturing and Management Reality of Bank Specimens at That Time
As PBOC took the entire responsibility of distributing sample banknotes (bank specimens), we have specific and sufficient reasons to believe that the PBOC branches, state-owned commercial banks and local banks did not stand a chance to make sample banknotes (bank specimens) themselves. The chance was even more remote for insurance companies, customs offices or other organizations. We would assume that even if some organizations other than the PBOC headquarters or those outside the PBOC system made sample banknotes (bank specimens), they would have had the authorization and confirmation from PBOC. In that case, the sample banknotes (bank specimens) they made would be regarded as issued by PBOC. Mr. Sun Keqin wrote an article “Bank Specimens of the 1980 Great Wall Coins”, which was published in the late May, 2010 issue of Numismatics. It has the following descriptions: “…found a piece of paper hidden in a little black album. Opening it, I saw "Receipt for the Bank Specimens of Four Metal Coins of Renminbi"…The receipt was dated April 10, 1980, and the issue date of the Great Wall coins was April 15. That is to say, the PBOC Shandong Branch released the bank specimens 5 days in advance. The receipt had a seal on the perforation at the bottom, with the bottom stub torn out…” (Pictures 5 and 6, taken from “Bank Specimens of the 1980 Great Wall Coins”). There was a description on the distribution of the bank specimens. The PBOC Shandong Branch basically followed the regulations in PBOC circulars for new releases of banknotes and coins, which emphatically and repeatedly require all the organizations to abide by the rules of sample banknotes (bank specimens) releases, and to insist on strict handover procedures and their proper registration. How did such Great Wall coin bank specimens find their way onto the market even with such precautions? My guess is that the PBOC Shandong Branch ran into some issues, or some special circumstances happened.
It is a basic rule for an organization to receive sample banknotes (bank specimens) from its parent organization, because by law the subordinate organization is not allowed to make such sample banknotes (bank specimens). For a subordinate organization to make sample banknotes (bank specimens) on their own would go against common sense, against the management regulations on sample banknotes (bank specimens) which PBOC announced time and again, and against policies and regulations announced by the government later, such as Law of the People's Bank of China and Regulations of the People's Republic of China on the Administration of Renminbi.
Based on my observations, there were generally two stages in PBOC’s use of the terms “sample banknotes” and “bank specimens”:
The first stage dated from 1948 to 1998.
During this stage the bank specimens of RMB banknotes were called “sample banknotes.” In the official documents of PBOC, bank specimens of coins were also called “sample banknotes”, but it was repeatedly emphasized that “sample banknotes” included “bank specimens.” PBOC started to use the term “sample banknotes” from 1948, strictly in accordance with applicable regulations.
The second stage is from 1999 to now.
During this stage, the term for bank specimens gradually shifted from “sample banknotes” to “bank specimens”, till the latter was firmly adopted. In the Regulations of the People's Republic of China on the Administration of Renminbi put into effect on May 1, 2000, and in the Regulations of the People's Bank of China on the Administration of Renminbi Bank Specimens, which was included in the “Bank Issued Circular 2006 354" released on October 12, 2006, the term “sample banknotes” was finally phased out, and the term “bank specimens” started to be used consistently. I need to point out that the time from 1999 to 2006 was actually a transition period for the terminology of bank specimens. A major event occurred in 1999: the release of the fifth series of Renminbi. Bank specimens for the fifth series of Renminbi, the commemorative banknote for the 50th anniversary of PRC issued in 1999, the 2000 Dragon commemorative banknote and the 50 Yuan circulating banknote which are seen from time to time in recent years all adopted the term “bank specimen” instead of “sample banknotes.” “Bank specimens” rather than “sample banknotes” was used in Article 14, Chapter 2 and Article 28, Chapter 4 of the Regulations of the People's Republic of China on the Administration of Renminbi, and yet the Regulations of the People's Bank of China on the Administration of Renminbi Bank Specimens had not been officially announced for implementation. Regardless, PBOC was impatient to wait, and printed the term “bank specimen” on the banknotes, more or less against the regulations on sample banknote management which had been enacted and were still being enforced. This behavior of PBOC signified the subtle shift in terminology between the two stages.
From the discussions above, we can conclude that “sample banknotes” printed by PBOC on the album of the bank specimens of the 35th Anniversary set, and the packaging which looks primitive and bizarre today, well fit into the terminology used by PBOC in the first stage, and the manufacturing convention of that time. In these two stages, PBOC was consistent on the one hand, and changeable on the other. Of course we cannot exclude the possibility of impulsive decisions by the bureaucrats. I will write another article to focus on the understanding of Renminbi bank specimens.
V. Rarity on the Market and Late Arrival Should Be Attributed to Its Looks
After the July 24 appearance on the market of the first complete set of the bank specimens for the 35th Anniversary set, which was the first set of circulating commemorative coins of PRC, a collector in Wuxi displayed on September 9 a full set of the bank specimens for the 35th Anniversary set (Picture 10, taken from coin001.com).
How come these bank specimens are still this rare after more than 20 years?
Here are my speculations. First, only a small number of such bank specimens were distributed by PBOC to its branches at the provincial and local levels. When I had a chance to see bank specimens at the Jiangsu Branch of PBOC in November, 1994, I only saw one set of the 35th Anniversary bank specimens. Secondly, research by private coin collectors on bank specimens is still primitive, with minimal awareness and knowledge. Even if such bank specimens showed up, they might have been ignored with no recognition, or they might simply have been unrecognizable because the overall characteristics of the bank specimen package were stripped. The 35th Anniversary bank specimens bear distinctive features of that era, with its simple packaging and the term “sample banknotes”, which revealed the true conditions under which bank specimens of the early circulating commemorative coins were issued. Bank specimen collectors outside the banking system regard the characters 样币 (bank specimen) minted on both sides of the coin as the best indicator of such bank specimens. They would love to highlight and elaborate on the hallmark of bank specimens for promoting them. On the other hand, bank staff in charge of bank specimens or the staff in affiliated organizations would take a completely different attitude. As the characters 票样 (sample banknote) on the album of the 35th Anniversary bank specimens are much too eye-catching, those who intended to smuggle out the bank specimens would want to weaken or minimize such a distinctive feature. During the years when bank specimens fell out of the radar screen of the coin market, the characters票样 (sample banknote) printed only on the external packaging appeared unconvincing, and so might have escaped the immediate attention and recognition of collectors. Visually, bank specimens without the characters 样币 (bank specimen) on the coin do not give the impression as bank specimens. There is nothing unusual about them, and so they are not very interesting to the observer. It is likely that the 35th Anniversary bank specimens did show up in the past among private collectors, but not in one piece. They might have been “dismembered”, so to speak. The plastics pouches were cut open to retrieve the three coins in them. This may be the reason that nobody in the coin market ever saw a complete set of the bank specimens. This scenario is highly possible considering the 1980 Great Wall bank specimen albums and early coin albums which were cut open for trading on the coin market (Picture 11, taken from coin001.com on August 22, 2011; Picture 12, taken from coin001.com on August 11, 2011; Picture 13, taken from coin001.com on September 2, 2011). The outer packaging of initial coins from PBOC is highly important. The same goes for bank specimens. If the complete package is totally damaged, bank specimens without the characters 样币 (bank specimen) on the coin would lose much or all of their bank specimen marking. When this happens, we can only get some clues by comparing them with intact albums. The emergence of this complete set of the 35th Anniversary bank specimens, on the other hand, reflects the fact that the true value of bank specimens is being discovered by a handful of collectors with insight. I am deeply grateful to coin001.com and the collectors from Sichuan and Xinjiang who provided the physical bank specimens. If they had cut the packaging and taken out the coins because of their ignorance of bank specimens and their value, these bank specimens would mean nothing now. The fen bank specimens which nobody has caught a glimpse of might have been “dismembered”, too.
It can be predicted that the complete 35th Anniversary bank specimen sets will show up in the future, so will the fen bank specimens. It is only a matter of time, although this will also depend on the growth of the number of bank specimen collectors and PBOC’s bank specimen management.
What was the mintage of the 35th Anniversary bank specimens? The bank document did not give a specific number, and it is extremely difficult to learn the transactions between PBOC and its branches. What I am sure of is that there is a precise mintage number, which needs to be found out through further exploration.
V. The Numismatic Significance of the Discovery of the 35th Anniversary Bank Specimens
Based on the valuation of the currency market and the general circumstances, up to September 19, 2011, when I am writing this article, the market value of the 35th Anniversary bank specimens is relatively low, but its numismatic value is exceptional.
This 35th Anniversary bank specimen set embodies the characteristics of bank specimen packaging at that time. Before 2010, the consensus was that nobody had ever seen Great Wall coins with characters 样币 (bank specimen) on them. So could we conclude that PBOC never issued bank specimens for the Great Wall coins? Of course not. Through the research by Sun Keqin and Chen Zhihong, we now know that bank specimens were issued for the Great Wall coins. Their article “Bank Specimens for the 1980 Great Wall Coins” claims that PBOC issued the bank specimens in a small plastic album with 4 coins packed in it. The PBOC internal working “receipt” indicated their bank specimen status and their quantity. It should be pointed out that there was no information whatsoever on the inside or outside of the package which would characterize the coins as bank specimens. Without the “receipt”, they are hardly recognizable as bank specimens.
Between the years from the bank specimens for the Great Wall coins to the 35th Anniversary bank specimens, no new coins (circulating commemorative coins included) were released. In 1984, PBOC added the characters票样 (sample banknote) to the album of the 35th Anniversary bank specimens. Compared with the bank specimens for the Great Wall coins, this was a big step forward as there was a direct visual clue to their bank specimen status. In 1985, when the second circulating commemorative coin “Tibet” was issued, PBOC directly added the characters 样币 (bank specimen) to the coin (Picture 14), which provided even more direct visual clues. When the new “Three Flowers” coins were minted in 1991, PBOC also added the characters 样币 (bank specimen) to the three coins. As for why bank specimens for the 6th National Games only had the characters 样币 (bank specimen) printed on the plastic panel, I cannot make any speculations as I do not have any knowledge about the details.
In the above discussion, I did not make a distinction between circulating coins and circulating commemorative coins in the research of bank specimens. If we focus on the changing characteristics among bank specimens of circulating commemorative coins, the 35th Anniversary had the least prominent features as bank specimens, because PBOC employed such primitive packaging. Next come the bank specimens for the 6th National Games. It is no wonder that coin collectors complain that they have a hard time selling these bank specimens. On the other hand, the would-be buyers also remain agitated and hesitant, often complaining that buying these bank specimens amounts to acquiring a plastic panel fitted with coins. If the price of the 35th Anniversary bank specimens goes up in the future, we will be challenged with counterfeits as they are easy to make. This risk calls for vigilance by the collector community.
The 35th Anniversary bank specimens look very distant from the images of bank specimens our mind is accustomed to. They do not match the format of most bank specimens where we expect the characters 样币 (bank specimen) on the coin. We are more or less left with a feeling of loss. However, this is a cold fact, without fanfare but overpowering. This is the real way that PBOC marked out bank specimens in the early days. We must keep a clear mind on this real-life issue: PBOC will never be swayed by private opinions on how to make bank specimens. Nor will they be considerate for the sake of bank specimen collection, exchange and research by private collectors later on. We have to tackle all these issues on bank specimens with our own efforts, prepared for all the challenges. There is no alternative.
The discovery and research on the 35th Anniversary bank specimens marked a major breakthrough in the exploration of Renminbi bank specimens, with enormous practical significance: According to the definition by PBOC, Renminbi bank specimens are “the standard samples made for checking the printing quality and detecting counterfeits of Renminbi, based on the Renminbi approved by the People’s Bank of China; They are instruments for the operation of currency issuance and important physical references.” From the perspective of numismatics, I would like to position the Renminbi bank specimens as fitting in the scope of numismatic research. Bank specimens are an integral part of the broad Chinese numismatic culture system. Specialized research focused on bank specimens should never be ignored.
With the discovery of the 35th Anniversary bank specimens, we are now certain that all the circulating commemorative coins from PRC have their bank specimens, which ended the situation where the big family of circulating commemorative bank specimens was missing some members. The whole family of these bank specimens is now presented perfectly to the world.