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Panda Chosen For Its 'Rock Star' Status
By Peter Anthony, World Coin News
June 20, 2011

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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“Whether a cat is black or white makes no difference. As long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.” While pandas don’t catch mice, the Chinese still consider them a kind of cat. The word “panda” translates to “bear cat” and collectors and dealers often refer to pandas as cats. So, speaking of felines, why do bear cats appear on the most famous series of coins minted by China? Interestingly, the adage about black cats and white cats is part of the answer.

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After the Communist Party took control of China 62 years ago, it made every effort to root out any trace of capitalist leanings in the country. The circulating coins of that era (more about them another time) reflect the low level of economic activity. Precious metal coins for collectors were out of the question. It wasn’t until the country’s supreme leader Mao ZeDung was an old man that the first tentative steps to open the economy were taken.

One of the politicians who pushed for modernization was a clever fellow named Deng Xiaoping. He had suffered quite a bit under Maoism but each time managed to rise toward the top again. Three years after Mao died, Deng Xiaoping became China’s leader. “As long as it catches mice it is a good cat,” was Deng’s way of saying that China was open to whatever policies were needed, including capitalism, to get the country growing again. Given the opportunity, the country’s economy was soon off like a rocket and the Chinese Mint with it. The mint quickly entered the profitable field of collector coins.

The first numismatic fruit of the new freedom arrived in 1979: a coin celebrating the UNICEF Year of the Child. It was an interesting choice of subject with hints of politics as well as commerce to it. On the one hand the coin is a charming tribute to childhood. On the other, its subject reflected China’s desire to engage the outside world and to be part of international organizations, the most important of which was the World Trade Organization. Demonstrating its support for the UN and UNICEF was one small step on the road to full WTO membership.

In 1982 the mint released a series of gold coins with purely commercial intentions: the Panda. Why pandas? After all, their place in Chinese culture and lore is minor. Why not use an important symbol like a dragon instead? Pandas were given the nod because the coins were meant to attract foreign buyers, and they are the rock stars of the animal world.

How popular are pandas? According to surveys, the panda is the world’s most beloved animal, and there are product endorsements to prove it. There is a Panda car, a Panda Bank, Panda pots and pans, a chain of Panda restaurants, a Panda telecommunications company, a Panda TV show, a chain of Panda kitchen and bath stores, Panda security software, Panda florists, Panda cabinets, a type of fiber optic (Panda=polarization-maintaining and absorption-reducing), countless panda toys, panda movies and sequels, plus the panda is the symbol of the World Wildlife Federation. Even the latest update to Google’s search engine is called Panda.

By the way, I can’t resist adding that Panda cars are Italian, not Chinese. The Italians snagged the name first. When a Chinese car company tried to market a Panda car they were sued by Fiat and had to quit selling them outside of China. Luckily for the mint, no one had thought to trademark pandas on coins before.

So when China decided to develop a new export coin series, the ever-popular bear cat was a natural subject choice. The 1982 gold Pandas were minted in 1-ounce, 1/2-ounce, 1/4-ounce and 1/10-ounce sizes. The Chinese Mint initially targeted Pandas to jewelry buyers and gold investors, so that’s what their earliest brochures focused on.

Surprise! The image of a seated Panda peacefully munching on bamboo shoots enchanted coin collectors and the entire supply was quickly gobbled up. Prices leapt to $4,000 for a coin with just $300-$400 of gold in it. The bear cat was out of the bag and the rest is history.

Last month I pointed out that Pandas often make the switch from bullion coins to numismatic items when the original supply from the Mint runs out. What difference does that make? Here’s an example: recently, while the price of silver dropped from $49 an ounce to $35 an ounce, the price of a 2009 1-ounce silver Panda went up from $90 to $100.

The 2010 silver Pandas may be inching toward numismatic status, too. They now sell for a 5 percent premium over the 2011 coins and are a year ahead of the 2011 on the curve. The 2010’s mintage is less than the 2011’s, yet it still sells at prices relatively close to its silver content. This one looks like another attractive Panda for silver fans.



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