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An Interview with Martin Weiss
MartinWeiss
Founder of Panda America
How did you get into the Panda coin business?

In the early 1980s, a friend offered me the distributorship of the coins of Macau. I approached a large New York marketing company to see if they were interested, but they were not. Instead they asked me if I was interested in distributing coins for China. Understand that at that time there was virtually no market for modern Chinese coins in the United States or anywhere else. And for good reasons. The People’s Republic of China had only issued small denomination coins for circulation before 1979. No commemoratives … no silver … no gold. At the time, we were still in the Cold War, and the idea of selling coins from a Communist country did not necessarily sound like a sure winner. But the New York marketing company did not follow through with their offer, and gave the rights to someone else.

 
1983 China Panda Gold Coins
What changes were made to the gold Pandas issued the following year?

As a result of requests from myself and others, China added denominations to the Panda gold coins in 1983. Since the Mint had to make new obverse dies in order to add the denominations, they decided to change the Panda design as well. They continued to change the design every year thereafter, which added greatly to the attractiveness and desirability of the Panda coins as a popular collectible series, in addition to their original purpose as bullion pieces.


So what happened?

I had prepared a marketing plan and had begun to execute it. When I was told that I could not purchase the new Panda gold coins in the United States, I arranged to buy them from an Asian source. That’s when I changed the name of my numismatic enterprise to Panda America, and became the first company to promote and sell the Panda gold coins in the United States. We were so successful, that the original marketing company that had turned me down, named Panda America as an official distributor, and now -- over 20 years later -- we are pleased to be one of the world’s leading market-makers of Panda coins.

How are Panda mintages determined?

The Chinese consider these as bullion issues, and their policy has been to produce enough coins to fill the orders received each year. Mintages are cut off at the end of each year. Only 15,815 1 oz. gold Pandas were made (and sold) in 1982, 22,470 in 1983, and 23,330 in 1984. Spurred on by the tremendous publicity generated by the loan of two Pandas to the Los Angeles Zoo during the 1984 Olympics, mintages skyrocketed beginning in 1985 through 1992, ranging from about 50,000 to over 150,000. The adorable 1985 design also encouraged many new purchasers, and continues to be a best-seller in the series. Mintages were reduced from 1993 through 1996, before mushrooming to over 100,000 per year thereafter.

What’s the story behind the 1982 gold Pandas?

When I was originally shown the proposed design, the denomination was indicated. But when the first coins came in, no face values were indicated on the 1, ½, ¼ or 1/10 oz. gold coins. It seems that someone over there thought that the coins looked better without the denomination. As a consequence, the 1982 gold Pandas are not listed in The Standard Catalog of World Coins, but are relegated to Unusual World Coins. But this is wrong. They are legal tender, as was attested to by a letter from the China Mint that allowed the coins to be imported duty free, which would not have been given the case if they had been medals or tokens. There is the precedence of other legal tender coins that have no denominations indicated that are listed in The Standard Catalog, like British Sovereigns or Mexican Libertads.

1982 China Panda Gold Coin

I coined the word “Pandamonium” for the exploding Panda coin market that witnessed the 1982 coin jumping to $2,000 in 1983, and then climbing to $4,000 within a few years. Unfortunately, the fact that the price had risen too quickly combined with a weakening gold market, resulted in the price falling back. But continued demand, especially from new collectors in China, is again causing shortages in supply and increasing prices – to about $2,000 right now and rising.

What is your relationship with the China Mint?

It has been a close, friendly relationship. I made 27 trips there -- sometimes three times in a single year – in order to coordinate new products and marketing efforts. I recall meeting Mr. Bien, Director of the Shanghai Mint, at the 1983 convention of the American Numismatic Association in San Diego. He was wearing an old fashioned hearing aid that didn’t work very well. I helped him get a new model. Mr. Bien was so delighted with the improvement that he offered to do us a favor. I suggested that they mint a 12 oz. pure gold Panda coin, and the Chinese officials quickly approved the production of 250 pieces.

What do you think the future holds for the Panda gold coin series?

In the past year, we sold more Panda coins than in the previous 5 years combined. I think that the future will be amazing. It reminds me of U.S. coin prices in the early 1950’s, when I started to collect coins. For instance, you could have bought an uncirculated 1909-S VDB Cent for about $25 that’s worth over $1,000 now … and that classic American rarity had a mintage of more than 30 times greater than the 1982 Panda 1 oz. gold coin! The Chinese now have both the opportunity and the money to collect their own coins. With well over a billion people, including over 250,000 millionaires, in China it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the future.

2005 China Panda Gold Coin
2005 China Panda Gold Coin

Coming next: The Lunar-Zodiac Series
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