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Chinese Mintages Create 'Phantom Pandas'
By Peter Anthony, World Coin News
November 16, 2012

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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There are several things that affect a coin’s price: popularity, condition, melt value and rarity among them. The first three are pretty easy to determine, but what about rarity? How do we know if a coin is rare, or common?

The first thing most people ask is, “What’s the mintage?” The answer is usually easy to find because the issuing Mint publicly reports it. The reported mintage is generally a good indicator of a coin’s population. That doesn’t always hold true, especially for older coins that have suffered a good deal of attrition. For modern coins like the Chinese Panda, though, it ought to be a reliable guide.

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But is it? Can we rely on published mintage records as a guide to Panda scarcity? According to China Mint records, there were 25,363 1983 1-ounce gold Pandas minted. The Mint reports that there were also 24,438 1994 1-ounce gold Pandas struck. Those numbers are pretty close, and it would be reasonable for us to expect the two dates to sell for about the same price. But do they? In September, with gold trading at $1,780, a 1983 100-yuan gold Panda was worth about $2,000, while a 1994 cost around $2,600 (all prices taken from the October China Pricepedia). What’s going on?

The first thing to understand is that the word “mintage” means something else in China than it does in many other countries. In China the mintage figures tell us how many coins were authorized for the year; the maximum quantity. If fewer are shipped, that doesn’t change the reported mintage. So it’s not only possible, but commonplace, for fewer coins to have been struck than is reported. Over the years, this gap has created a horde of Phantom Pandas that can distort collector perceptions of how many Pandas exist.

The discrepancy between reported and actual mintages can help explain many price differences. Here’s another example. According to the Mint, there were 2,000 gold Panda proof sets issued in both 1992 and 1993. The reality is that the market for gold Pandas wasn’t strong in 1992. A set that contained nearly two ounces of gold was expensive, so barely 800 were sold and shipped. In 1993 the Mint replaced the 1-ounce gold Panda in the set with a bimetallic coin that contains 1/4 ounce of gold. This change reduced the price of the set and helped sales. The result is that today the 1993 set is easier to find and, consequently, is worth less, too. An ungraded 1993 set runs around $4,500 compared to more than $10,000 for a 1992 proof set in like condition.

A lesson in all this is that there is more to the market for Pandas than meets the eye. An inquisitive numismatist has many opportunities to discover valuable information and to get in ahead of the crowd to build his collection at reasonable prices. The truth often lies below the surface, and that’s part of the fun.

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