Chinese Lunar Calendar Coins
An ample assortment of different variants, shapes, and sizes await the collector who decides to wade into the Chinese Silver Lunar coins series. These coins are highly collectible, and often come to have a price much higher than spot, so they are most useful to you as an investment rather than as a store of value and/or inflation hedge. Their high price makes them ill suited to serve as a hedge – at best, you are likely to be unable to resist selling them if you acquire them cheaply, and then their price shoots up to a hundred dollars or more above spot after a year or two goes by!
Chinese Lunar Coins cannot be easily obtained directly from the Chinese mint, but can be found in many of the excellent online coin dealers who handle international coin sales, including Panda USA and APMEX (the American Precious Metals Exchange). It should be noted that Chinese coins are especially likely to be counterfeited, so it is probably best to purchase through one of these highly established online dealers when possible, rather than risking purchases on eBay and similar sites.
History of Chinese Lunar Coins
Chinese Silver Lunar coins have as strange and complex a history as the rest of the silver coinage issued by the government of this nation, with its strange mix of wildcat capitalism and dictatorial communism. The desire of the Chinese government to produce a number of collectible and bullion coin series both for domestic purchase and sale to foreign collectors is evident, but for a number of years, the minting decisions were chaotic, not in line with generally accepted bullion coin minting practices, and occasionally illogical.
Studying the history of Chinese Lunar coin releases reveals the evolution of the Chinese mint’s practices over time. The first series, which ran from 1981 to 1992, was riddled with oddities. The series started out with small coins based on the metric system, with no regard to the standard 1 troy ounce that all collectible coins are issued in by every other nation of the world, regardless of whether they use the Imperial or metric system of measurement.
Partway through the minting, a five ounce version of the coin was added. Then, a 1 troy ounce version was finally added – but the original 15 gram coin was still struck, and an idiosyncratic 12 ounce coin was added to the mix at the same time. These four sizes of silver bullion coins were produced until the end of the first Lunar series.
More recently, the standard 1 troy ounce silver coin has become usual for Chinese Lunar coins, as the mint finally realized what most international collectors are looking for. Yet, during one series of these coins, the weight dropped back to 2/3 of an ounce, for reasons known only to the mint officials. This is yet another example of how quirky the silver coin production of the Chinese government is.
Regardless of the odd weights occasionally chosen, the Chinese lunar calendar and the zodiacal symbols that accompany it are well suited to series of coins. Some nations have groups of related concepts that lend themselves well to numismatic design – for example, the fifty states of the United States. The dozen year cycle of the Chinese calendar is another of these, and the Chinese have made good use of it to produce a number of highly distinctive coin series.
The suitability of the concept for coins is shown by the fact that the Australians have also entered the market with their own lunar coin series. The Chinese have also made some extremely unusual and attractive shapes for coins, which make some of their series eminently collectible.
First Chinese Silver Lunar Series (1981 to 1992)
Beginning with the Year of the Rooster and ending with the Year of the Monkey, the first lunar series was marked by fairly simple – occasionally almost crude – imagery on the coins, as well as irregular sizing and odd weight choices. All of the Lunar Series are produced by the Shenyang Mint unless they actually bear a mintmark – coins marked “SH” are Shanghai Mint coins, and the first lunar series is no exception to this rule.
The first six coins in the series – rooster, dog, pig, rat, ox, and tiger – were minted only in a 15 gram size, which is slightly less than ½ troy ounce. The seventh, for the Year of the Rabbit, was minted in a 15 gram size and a 5 troy ounce size. The last five coins – dragon, snake, horse, goat, and monkey – were each minted in four different weights, 15 grams, 1 troy ounce, 5 troy ounces, and 12 troy ounces.
Second Chinese Silver Lunar Series (1988 to 1999)
The second series of Chinese Silver Lunar coins overlapped for several years with the first, starting in the Year of the Dragon, 1988. These coins were apparently made in response to the realization that the first series was partly underweight, since all of the coins in this series are 1 full troy ounce of .999 fine silver. However, there is still an unusual fact that sets them apart from most other troy ounce bullion coins, and which makes them instantly distinguishable from all other Chinese lunar series.
These coins were struck with the same diameter as the 15 gram coins – 33 millimeters, or 1 1/3 inches. In order to make up the difference in weight, they are twice as thick as the 15 gram coins of the First Lunar Series, almost like a piedfort coin (“heavy foot”, which are special double-thick coins minted by some mints), though they were not technically supposed to be piedforts – one might say that they are de facto piedforts rather than de jure.
Several of the coins had very low mintage, though this appears to be largely random rather than following any systematic approach to quantities. The series ended in 1999 with the Year of the Rabbit.
Third Chinese Silver Lunar Series (1997 to 2008)
The third Chinese Lunar series overlapped with the second, beginning in 1997 with the Year of the Ox and ending in 2008 with the Year of the Rat. This coin series is fairly unremarkable, with international standards carefully observed – 1.6 inch (40 mm) coins, weighing one troy ounce, and made up of 99.9% pure silver – and nothing particularly extraordinary in their design.
First Chinese Silver Lunar Flower Series (1993 to 2004)
The famous Chinese Silver Flowers were first released in an eccentric 2/3 ounce weight – apparently to avoid striking a coin with a maximum diameter greater than 1.6 inches (40 mm) despite the scalloping of the edge. In effect, 1/3 of an ounce of silver was “lost” due to the dents in the scalloping. These coins are exquisitely beautiful, however, and are extremely popular among collectors.
Most of them have a premium high above the actual melt value of their constituent silver. They were minted in a very limited run of 6,800 coins apiece, all of them apparently of proof quality.
First Chinese Silver Fan Series (2000 to 2011)
The enthusiastically received Chinese Silver Fan coin series, featuring some of the world’s most individual coins with their curving rectangular design (which also, incidentally, leaves an extraordinarily large amount of space for beautifully etched imagery), began in 2000 with the Year of the Dragon and culminated this year, 2011, with the release of the Year of the Rabbit. The mintage for each year is exactly 66,000 coins struck, indicating the burgeoning professionalism of the Chinese mint. The second series is planned, but the first coin will not be released until 2012.
Second Chinese Lunar Flower Series (2005 to Present)
The second Chinese Lunar Flower coin series rectifies the undersized design of the first series, and consists of 1 troy ounce coins, with the scalloping altered so as not to cause an underweight design. The series began with the Year of the Rooster in 2005, and is due to continue until 2017, ending in that year with the Year of the Monkey.