What a boar?
Volume 44, Number 2, February 2007
February 18 will see the start of the Chinese Lunar year of the pig/boar/swine (delete as you feel appropriate!) and as well as the shelves of Chinese ready meals in all the major supermarkets and the party shops selling fireworks, there is the usual plethora of coinage new issues to mark this annual event. Whilst our own Royal Mint sticks to more traditional “historic” events for its new coin series others as far afield as Australia and Canada are happy to jump on the bandwagon (indeed many of them are driving it) and celebrate with a whole variety of designs that range from the sober to the outrageous. Anyone interested in the Chinese New Year theme can’t have helped but notice how the coins become more elaborate year on year, with bi-metallics, tri-metallics, holographic images, colours and a whole host of other unusual features turning up. It seems that the mints use the occasion as an excuse to practise the latest coining and marketing techniques and each year the offerings become more weird and wonderful than ever – this year for example we have coloured bats, pigs with diamond eyes, walking pigs (thanks to 24 “lenticular” frames on a Perth Mint coin) , huge coins, tiny coins and coin sets with such limited mintages that we’ll be lucky ever to see one let alone own one! No one can blame the mints of course: there’s obviously a market for such things, otherwise such vast sums wouldn’t be spent on their development, but one wonders just how far down the road they are prepared to go. In this day and age minting isn’t just about making coins of the realm: the mints have to be self sufficient at the very least and most have to be profitable businesses in their own right; to this end all coin manufacturers are constantly looking for new ways to maximise profit – but at what cost to the core business? The British Royal Mint has branched off in a different direction from others: instead of looking at ways of enhancing their coins with modern technology (although there have been dalliances – look at the 1999 World Cup silver £2 with its hologram centre), they have decided to trade on their brand and history and launch other products, some coin-related some patently not, believing that amongst their huge database of customers there is bound to be a market for items other than coins. This hasn’t necessarily gone down too well in all quarters and we understand that certain products in the range, those that seem to have no relevance to the Mint or its traditions, have now been dropped. Other worldwide mints may have stuck with coins (although there are numerous other products that seem to be appearing these days) but when we see what is being produced the question has to be asked whether “coin” is necessarily the right term. Does a coin with coloured “moving” images of a pig walking across the foreground bear any relation to a long-cross penny? Does a coin bearing a pig with a diamond eye surrounded by purple and yellow clouds have any connection at all with a Petition Crown? Does simply sticking a denomination on a metal disc give it the right to be branded a coin, with all that that name encompasses? Some will say “yes, of course” ,citing the inevitable march of progress and, rightly, pointing out that if new technologies in minting had not been embraced throughout the ages then milled coins like the Petition Crown and beautiful engravings like Una and the Lion or the Gothic florin simply wouldn’t exist. However there will also be many who believe that technology has gone too far, that the “gimmicks” that many mints are employing simply serve to make their products lurid and garish and that they are using technology not to improve their coins but simply because it’s there. The problem lies with the fact that whether we “numismatists” like it or not there is a market for these items, just as there is a market for the Royal Mint’s “Classics” range which has in the past contained more teddy bears and commemorative plates than coins. Coloured coins, holographic coins, coins with diamonds in, coins with “gimmicks” do sell and whilst we might bemoan the passing of “tradition” there is no escaping the fact that any mint in the twenty-first century has to make money any way it can and just manufacturing coins for us to spend isn’t always going to be enough. Whether certain mints have gone too far or not remains to be seen but we can’t say we’ll be too sorry to see a return to more “traditional” styles of minting should they come and are delighted to hear that the Royal Mint, whilst not turning its back on other products completely, is going to take a fresh look at just what’s in its “Classics” range and return to more traditional, quality products. Minting coins of the realm might not be enough for 21st century mints but that doesn’t mean they have to go too far the other way either!
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