This year enthusiastic coin collectors around the world took notice of a freshly-minted, shiny 3-ounce silver Cook Islands coin.
There’s little imagery one would commonly associate with Polynesia on this coin. There’s an immaculately detailed three-dimensional portrait of a modern fighter pilot on one side. On the opposite side – known as the obverse side - is an image of two fighter pilots walking side by side, sitting directly above the words “Only the brave are free”.
This $20 coin is minted by B. H. Mayer’s Kunstprägeanstalt, a mint based in Munich, Germany. And only 499 of them are said to exist.
These coins are legal tender, although one might get a strange look from the clerk at the shop if they tried to buy their weekly groceries with one.
You can’t buy them in Cook Islands. They’re created for people interested in numismatics, which is the study or collection of coins, banknotes, and medals. Production of these coins brings in some revenue for the government.
The official distributor is a company called CIT Coin Invest AG based in Liechtenstein - a landlocked country sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria and known for its medieval castles, alpine landscapes and quaint villages.
The company is regarded as one of the finest producers of coins in the world, and they work directly with the Cook Islands government to market them to serious collectors.
“We were overwhelmed by the feedback from the markets on this coin,” says Falk Liebnitzky, CIT’s head of marketing, adding they received four times more orders than the number produced.
The government is expecting to earn $350,000 in the coming financial year from the circulation of collector coins – it’s not a fortune, but in the time of Covid-19 it is surely welcomed revenue.
Yet unlike the coins we use every day, depictions of Atua Tangaroa on these collector coins are rare. At least one prominent cultural expert asks if the money earned is worth it.
“Our country doesn’t have a fighter jet, and we don’t even have an air force,” says master carver Mike Tavioni.
“This isn’t relevant to us. When the Cook Islands name appears on something, it becomes part of the Cook Islands.”
While commending the government for establishing a relatively reliable source of revenue, Tavioni says the coins could be an opportunity to showcase indigenous culture.
“We should be promoting ourselves,” he says. “Why don’t they give the artists here an opportunity to use their images on these coins?”
While Tavioni’s opinion of the fighter pilot coin can be described as muted, the numismatic community is exuberant about them.
“I think the fighter pilot coin has been popular because the subject is rarely seen on coins, and the actual design is a superb one,” says Mik Woodgate of AgAuNews.com – one of the most widely-read news blogs serving the interests of the numismatic community.
“As for being issued for the Cook Islands specifically, the honest truth is that it is largely irrelevant. If this had been issued for Niue or Tokelau, it would have been equally popular.”
The fighter pilot coin is just one of a diverse range of collector coins bearing the name of this island nation that have been minted over the years.
On these coins you can find engravings featuring Eastern Orthodox Christian depictions of the Assumption of Mary and a depiction of a powerful Norse Goddess named Frigg - a deity of Germanic mythology associated with clairvoyance and wisdom.
A decade and a half ago, a Cook Islands coin minted by a US firm marking the September 11 terrorist attacks was said to have been crafted using silver found in a bank vault at the site where the twin towers once stood. Collectors and US government officials called into the question the dubious claims of the coin’s marketers.
In 2007, a two-coin collector set was produced to mark the 60th anniversary of the invention of the Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifle.
There’s also a 2012 coin with an image of a golfer in mid-swing, the PGA tour logo in colour, and fairways painted in different hues of green. The words “Heritage, Sportsmanship, Respect”, are emblazoned just above the artwork.
And in 2014, Kunstprägeanstalt released the “Shades of Nature” coin with a remarkably detailed honey bee devouring the nectar from a flour, as well as the “First Love” coin, showcasing a depiction of two young lovebirds holding balloons.
In a review of the fighter pilot coin, Coinupdate.com writer Michael Alexander writes glowingly:
“The government and treasury of the Cook Islands have released new impressively designed silver Proof coins which utilise ‘smartminting’ technology to create a three-dimensional design which is dedicated to the real heroes of our time.”
“Just who exactly are the real heroes of our time?” he asks. “They are those who make our everyday life a little bit safer, secure, and a great deal better.”
Whatever opinion one might have of missile-carrying fighter jets and those who pilot them, there is high demand for this coin. One is currently for sale by a UK-based re-seller for over $600, well above its stated $20 denomination. Mintages of Cook Islands coins are kept low, there’s often strong demand for them amongst collectors.
Mints such as the Royal Mint, United States Mint, and Royal Australian Mint often only issue coins with their own national interests on them with governmental oversight, says Woodgate.
As a result, he says there has been tremendous growth in coins issued from countries like Cook Islands that give permission and in-turn, receive royalties. However, these countries “have little input in design … although they are approved to make sure there’s nothing untoward”.
“It does raise the profile of the country as well,” he says.