Error coins result from accidents during the minting process.
Unlike error coins, some coins and medals are flawed or confusing due
to their design before they ever see a die or planchet.
Whether due to faulty research, a weird topic or the obvious
gimmick, some world coins and medals are infamous instead of famous,
and more bizarre than unique. Call them “head scratchers” or oddities,
the reaction is often some version of the same question: “What were
The Chinese 20-cent coins of 1928 and 1929 definitely snuck by the
design police. The 20-cent coin is one of three different silver
denominations issued by Kwangtung province during that decade that
feature Sun Yat-sen, but just barely. The low relief, no-detail
portrait looks like a cartoon caricature. If it weren’t for the silver
content (and the well-defined rice plant on the reverse), these
20-cent coins would be dead ringers for the white metal counterfeits
pouring out of China today. Happily for collectors, certified examples
can remove any doubt about authenticity.
At the other extreme of design is an undated United Nations medal
depicting the theme “Life, Liberty and Security of Person.” This basic
entitlement was guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights and adopted by the UN in 1948. The Security of Person copper
medal shows a naked, terror-stricken man who appears to be in the
crushing grip of a giant, gnarled hand while standing in front of what
initially resembles a science-fiction-sized spider web. The high
relief makes the scene look more frightening. By depicting a positive
entitlement with an illustration of the utter lack of it, the design
doesn’t teach as much as it unsettles.
Oops! In 1972 the private Franklin Mint in Pennsylvania issued a
series of medals made with silver flown in space, but forgot to use
the flown stuff. Worse, the bad recipe wasn’t caught until after 4,967
sets were shipped. Franklin Mint officials asked subscribers to return
their “Project Apollo Medal Collections” so that they could receive
replacements, but 1,269 error sets were never sent back. The FM Mint
mark with no line above it distinguishes the unflown medals from the
flown follow-ups bearing the Mint mark with a line above the FM.
For the last 25 years, the Isle of Man has issued a new cat breed
coin annually. Refusing to let research stand in the way of the third
installment of its popular series, the Isle of Man honored the “New
York City alley cat” on its 1990 crown. Never mind that no major cat
breed association anywhere recognizes the cats that happen to reside
in NYC alleys as a distinct breed — New Yorkers love this coin.
Our next example also caught the fact checker napping. Further, it
embodies a topic that is both obscure and devoid of any connection to
the issuing nation. This 1999 Liberian $5 coin commemorates a
Transrapid railway that was intended to be built in Germany, not
Africa. But wait, there’s more. The Transrapid line that was to
operate in Germany was never built because a totally different railway
design won the contract.
Liberia began issuing coins in 1937 with logical scenes featuring
its national crest and native elephants. In recent years, however,
frivolity appears to have overtaken its designs. One example among
many is the $50 coin issued in 1996 that commemorates an optical
illusion called the “The ‘Face’ on Mars” paired with the legend FIGHT
HUNGER THROUGH SPACE EXPLORATION. Incredibly, two variants can be
found of this forgettable issue — smooth textured and rough textured.
Niue is a dependent island state of New Zealand with about 2,000
residents. The government creates revenue issuing commemorative coins
that, sadly, often have nothing to do with island life. The 2001 Niue
dollar, for example, was one of several denominations issued that year
that paid homage to Snoopy, the comic strip beagle. Other Niue series
that pander to pop culture enthusiasts have honored Pokémon; events in
the life of Diana, Princess of Wales; professional tennis players; and
The Cook Islands, also near New Zealand, engaged in some pandering
in 2010 with a three-coin series that is more gimmick than numismatic
innovation. The “World’s Smallest Coins” set consists of a silver $1
coin, gold $2 coin and platinum $2 coin. Each coin is 4 millimeters in
size and weighs 0.12 gram. This beats the miniscule 6-millimeter to
10-millimeter coins minted by India, Guatemala and Panama more than a
century ago. As if to remove any doubt that the Cook Islands set is a
novelty, the three coins were sold packaged inside a clear acrylic
cube with a magnifier lid.
“What were they thinking?” When it comes to head-scratcher coins
and medals, maybe a better question is, “Why were they not thinking?” ■