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South Korean Mint Set Primer for Western Collectors

South Korean Mint Set Primer

By Mark Lovmo for …..
The Bank of Korea (BOK) has sanctioned the release of yearly six-coin mint sets for the past three decades. Although various kinds of coin sets featuring South Korean coins can be found dating back to the 1970s, their connection to the Bank of Korea may be tenuous at best. Bank of Korea mint sets are believed to date from at least 1983, and with the exception of two years (1984 and 1986), these annual coin sets have been made available for sale to collectors in the thousands of sets every year since. Along with the annual BOK mint sets, the Bank has also occasionally sanctioned special six-coin sets to commemorate various events.

The mint sets that the author of this article considers to be “official” BOK sets all have these main distinguishing features:

  1. The inclusion of the label, “The Bank of Korea”, in either English and/or Korean writing on the cases.
  2. The inclusion of the Bank of Korea emblem on the cases.
  3. All coins in the set have the same date, although a few BOK mint sets are notable exceptions.
  4. The inclusion of all six South Korean won coins minted for circulation to date and, in some years, a medallion that the South Korean Mint made specifically for that mint set.
  5. The set is listed in at least one of the major yearly South Korean coin catalogs.

The literature on this topic states that most Bank of Korea mint sets were made as sale items for collectors or to visitors of the Bank, while other sets have been cited as “gifts” or as promotional items that BOK staff presented to foreign hosts on overseas trips.

Most of South Korea’s annual mint sets appear to have been thoughtfully assembled with informative titles and pertinent information about the coins and their designs. Arguably as important are the designs of the cases and slipcovers for these sets, which have often benefited from tasteful art direction over the years.

For many coin collectors, probably the most important appeal of these sets is that they have been a source of the highest mint state grade South Korean circulation coins ever made. The coins in many of the mint sets produced from 1989 to the mid-2000s appear as particularly well-struck examples, and the South Korean Mint (Komsco) obviously utilized special dies and handling procedures.

As they include higher-grade coins that usually appear in a decent state of preservation, many coin enthusiasts collect and appreciate these sets as they are. Some collectors have also been contributing to the attrition in the existing numbers of BOK mint sets by removing the coins from the sets’ plastic blisters, often for third-party grading, or perhaps as an effort to better maintain the condition of the coins inside.

The main condition problem that collectors face with these sets is unattractive toning. The copper-based 10-Won and Five-Won coins in them often suffer from the toning issues that often plagues South Korean brass coins. Ten-Won and Five-Won coins with the typical “brown spots” or overall dark toning are common in BOK mint sets, while the other cupronickel coins from the same set will often appear pristine. This toning most likely results from inadequate storage that has exposed the set to the kind of atmospheric conditions or sudden temperature swings to which South Korean copper seems especially sensitive. Despite this problem, one can still find early 1980s and later BOK sets with bright, untarnished brass coins in them.

The reader will notice that the following explanation of BOK mint sets contains many necessary caveats and questions. One of the main problems with making pronouncements about BOK mint sets, as with most other topics on South Korean numismatics, is that the literature on the subject is still sparse and the amount of data therein is exceedingly limited.

Early “Unofficial” Mint Sets

Coin sets with all six South Korean won circulation coins with dates prior to 1982 are indeed to be found in the collector market; the numismatic literature, however, has yet to reveal their exact origin. Did the Bank assemble these sets, or perhaps officially sanction them on contract? Or did third parties make these sets on their own? Some of them do feature the names of third-party businesses. Were they distributed for the Bank’s promotional or commemorative purposes? Perhaps the sets were given as gifts to employees and clients, or sold as gift shop items to visitors at tourist attractions? Very little is known about these pre-1982 South Korean mint sets.

A compilation of early "unofficial" South Korean Mint Sets

Possibly the earliest of these coin sets appears as a crude, clear cast-resin block that entombs the three first-year (1966) won coins. However, the majority of these early sets were constructed out of supple, vinyl-plastic “shower curtain” material. Many of the examples offered at South Korean auctions over the last few years were obviously patterned off the Bank of Japan’s official mint set case designs of the 1970s. The coins in all of these sets appear to be business strikes pulled from mint rolls or even from circulation. Another feature of these sets is that they often contain coins of various dates, and even the occasional hwan coin or commemorative coin thrown in for good measure. Some of these ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s sets seem to have been assembled in various quantities to commemorate certain events; sometimes artfully produced, sometimes haphazardly so.

Similarities between 1974? Bank of Korea Mint Set and 1969 Japanese Mint Set

These older sets have not been listed by the main South Korean coin catalogs and price guides. Many people who are active in the South Korean collector market do not consider them to be “official” mint sets, and therefore they do not actively seek them out. However, none of this entirely negates their collectibility and value in South Korea, as some of these South Korean mint sets made prior to 1982 have been listed in 2012 O-Sung K&C and Hwadong coin auctions with starting bids at 100,000 to 200,000 KRW (approx. $87 – $174 USD; all valuations in U.S. dollars current at the time of publication).

1982 Proof Set

현행주화 6종 프루프 세트 1982년
(1982 Contemporary Six-Coin Proof Set)

The 1982 six-coin proof set is probably the most highly prized South Korean six-coin set for collectors. It is very clearly considered to be an official BOK product; indeed it is the first coin set listed in the ‘mint sets’ section of the two major Korean catalogs, and the sets themselves originally came with a “certificate of authenticity” signed by the Bank’s issuing director. The coins in the set consist of the then-new 500-Won coin dated 1982, along with the other Five-Won coins dated 1982–the last year that these five coins were minted with their first-generation designs. All six coins inside were originally encased in coin capsules.

These proof coins were presented in the same red-velvet, hinged jewel case in which other BOK special commemorative proof coin sets appear. This set also came in a unique, yellow BOK cardboard slipcase. These proof coins originally appeared together as a set, and were not distributed individually.

South Korea 1982 Proof Set - Rare

The most important distinction of this 1982 proof set is that the individual coins in it certainly qualify as ‘absolute rarities’, since they are the only South Korean proof coins with frosted devices and mirror-like fields that have been patterned off of the country’s six circulating coins. The existing literature on these coins states that only 2,000 of these proof sets were assembled, with the implication that the mintage for each of the individual coins is the same. This total number makes it the rarest of all official BOK six-coin sets.

These proof sets are cited as “gift sets” that were not originally meant for sale. Just exactly who distributed these proof sets as “gifts”, and to whom, is the subject of some speculation. Did Bank employees hand these out to foreign hosts on overseas trips, or was it to foreign visitors of their facilities? Perhaps Korean diplomats gave them as gifts? Such is the chatter surrounding this beautifully-struck proof set.

Another, rather interesting sidenote about this proof set is that although they are arguably some of the most attractive South Korean coins ever minted, their production is barely mentioned in any of the literature produced by South Korean numismatic ‘insider’ sources. However limited these sources are, the accomplishment of producing such an amazing set of proof coins in the early 1980s should have merited a mention in the writings of former Komsco currency designer Jo Byeong-soo, who wrote the seminal (if not singular) book on coin production in South Korea in this period. As for the Bank of Korea and Komsco, they have provided no other information beyond what is available in a coin catalog. This proof sets’ almost complete omission in the existing literature on the subject of South Korean numismatics is rather curious.

Whenever it has come up for bid in South Korea’s premier numismatic auctions held by Poongsan Hwadong and O-Sung auction houses, the 1982 proof set has always been a prominently featured item in the catalogs. At Hwadong auctions, the set has sold for 2,400,000 KRW in 2015 and 2,850,000 KRW in 2016 ($2,088 and $2,475.90 USD, respectively), and the author of this article has seen this proof set listed as high as $3,000 to $5,000 USD at online sites outside of Korea over the previous 10 years.

An online NarAuction listing from South Korea was offering these six coins in individual NGC-graded holders (and graded either PF-68 or PF-69) for the colossal price of 8,700,000 KRW in June 2017. The Standard Catalog of World Coins even devotes a sentence to this set, stating that “original, intact sets” are worth much more than the individual coins from the set.

1982 and 1983 Mint Sets

현행주화6종 증정용 민트 세트 1982년, 1983년
(1982, 1983 Contemporary Six-coin Presentation Mint Set)

These coin sets feature circulation coins of mixed dates pressed into green (1982) or blue (1983) hard cardboard cores that are encased in hard plastic, and had originally included green cardboard slipcases. Of the examples known, the green sets may feature some mix of 1979, 1981 and 1982-dated coins, while the blue sets feature either a mix of 1982 and 1983-dated coins, or all coins with 1983 dates. All of them include the new 500-Won coin that was first released in 1982. A prominent South Korean coin retailer added these two sets to a 31-count, all inclusive year-set bundle of BOK mint sets that he sold in 2015, giving some credence to the idea that such mint sets based on this pattern are suitable as authentic Bank of Korea products.

Still, the two main Korean coin catalogs, Daegwangsa and O-Sung, do not list these sets.

1982 and 1983 South Korean Mint Sets

With their mix of different-dated coins, and an overall lower-quality presentation compared to later BOK sets, there is some question as to whether these can be considered as some of the first “official” BOK mint sets. In any case, both Hwadong and O-Sung K&C auction catalogs have listed pristine examples of these 1982 and 1983 sets at 100,000 to 200,000 KRW back in 2012. However, a seller at the South Korean online marketplace G-Market listed a green 1982 mint set along with its damaged slipcover for an incredible 850,000(!) KRW ($739.50) in 2017.

And yet one sold in an eBay auction from Britain for 80.00 GBP ($100.00) in June 2017. Such extremes in asking and realized prices will be a recurring theme that the reader will notice about the prices of the Bank of Korea mint sets below; and it should also alert the reader to the fact that sale prices for these sets outside of South Korea are much lower than what sellers ask, and what buyers pay, in South Korea. The total number of these 1982 and 1983 sets is unknown.

1983 Bank of Korea Mint Set

현행주화6종 증정용 민트 세트 1983년
(1983 Bank of Korea Contemporary Six-coin Presentation Mint Set)

1983 Bank of Korea Mint SetThe overall appearance of the hard-case 1983 BOK mint set is a radically different presentation from any other annual BOK mint set, and appears to be a clone of the United States Mint proof sets from the 1970s and early ’80s. The coins are pressed into a hard-plastic red core that is permanently covered in a clear, hard-plastic case that slips into a removable black case cover labeled with the Bank of Korea symbol on one side and the lettering, “THE BANK OF KOREA COIN SET” in raised, gilded letters on the other. The cover functions as a “stand” that can support the mint set for upright display.

The set also originally came with a black slipcover, completing its almost exact similarity to the U.S. proof sets of the time. The coins inside are all dated 1983, and feature the new design in which the Five-Won coins in the denominations of 100, 50, 10, Five, and One were all redesigned in 1983 to correspond to the design scheme of the new 500-Won coin. Although the coins inside these sets do not appear to be special strikes, the sets that the author has seen so far all seem to have nicely struck coins.

This 1983 mint set is the first non-proof coin set that is listed in the Daegwangsa yearly Korean coin catalog, although it is not listed in O-Sung K&C’s yearly catalog. With its overall higher-quality presentation and its listing with Daegwangsa, it seems as if this one is considered an “official” mint set; one that comes off as sort of an experiment in case design and packaging that the Bank may have been contemplating for future yearly sets. The set is normally listed in auction catalogs and online for around 100,000 to 125,000 KRW depending on condition and whether or not it comes complete with black case and slipcover, although a March 2017 Hwadong auction saw one go as high as 260,000 KRW ($226.20).

Perhaps the realized price for this set will soon start to approach the Daegwangsa catalog’s rather hopeful listed price of 400,000(!) KRW. The total number of sets assembled is unknown.

1985 IBRD/IMF Mint Set

1985 IBRD South Korean Mint SetIBRD/IMF 민트 세트 1985년

World Bank officials gathered in Seoul for the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) meeting in October 1985. The Bank of Korea assembled this presentation mint set to commemorate the event. The coins in this set are a mix of dates (1980, 1983 and 1984), with maybe one of the coins dated 1985; some sets none at all. The set itself has a blue velvet case that hinges open to reveal a somewhat substandard presentation of the six coins inserted into a plastic-coated blue cardboard core. It originally appeared in a white slipcase featuring the event’s logo. A 2012 Hwadong auction saw this set sell for 50,000 KRW ($43.50).

This set marks the last of the Bank of Korea’s rather low-quality and seemingly ‘thrown together’ mint sets. The total number of sets assembled is unknown.

1987 and 1988 Bank of Korea Mint Set

현행주화6종 증정용 민트 세트 1987년, 1988년
(1987 and 1988 Bank of Korea Contemporary six-coin Presentation Mint Sets)

Many collectors of South Korean mint sets consider the 1987 BOK mint set as the first real BOK annual mint set. All of the criteria for an “official” mint set enumerated at the beginning of this article are met with this, and all subsequent, BOK annual mint sets. The 1987 set was the first BOK mint set to utilize clear-plastic blisters to contain the coins inside, starting a trend in South Korean mint sets that was to last for the next 27 years, until 2014.

1987 & 1988 South Korean Mint Sets

These vinyl blisters are embedded into a cardboard page that is blue on one side, and red on the other. This square coin page is attached on one side to the front and back cardboard covers of the set, forming a folio-style flip case. The set then fits into a slipcase of the same square design. For the next 10 years, BOK mint sets were made in this same folio-style case design, although over time changes were made to the size and interior colors of the cases, along with the accompanying information about the coins.

The 1987 and 1988 sets also inaugurated the elegant use of a classic Korean arabesque pattern on the covers, one that was then used as the cover and slipcase artwork for later BOK mint sets until 1993. Also notable are the interior graphics and (grammatically correct!) English-language text briefly explaining the historical background of Korean coinage. All of this gives the two sets the appearance of a slick, contemporary print advertisement–a sharp contrast to the rather uninspiring efforts put into previous South Korean coin set designs. The quality of the overall presentation indicates a concerted effort on the part of the Bank of Korea to produce promotional mint sets befitting the Bank’s status as a major financial institution, and consequently making them coin sets that appeal to collectors.

As a collector item, the 1987 mint set is among the more valued BOK sets due to its lower-mintage 500-Won coin; Komsco minted only one million 500-Won coins that year, the second-lowest mintage so far. Many 1987-dated 500-Won coins also heavily circulated as change, unlike other South Korean coins of low mintage that resided in the vaults over the years, such as the 1981 100-Won coin.

A single 1987 BOK mint set sold for 530,000 KRW ($461.10) at a Hwadong auction in March 2017. Around the same time, the online retailer Sujipbank was selling pristine examples of this mint set for 650,000 KRW. A total of 20,000 1987 mint set were assembled.

The 1988 BOK mint set is almost exactly similar in appearance to the 1987 mint set, except for a slightly narrower case size and a slightly darker shade of cream color for the exterior covers and slipcase. As an older set, the 1988 mint set currently commands a higher price compared to most of the newer six-coin sets. A Hwadong auction in 2012 saw one go for 130,000 KRW ($113.10), while Sujipbank listed one for 145,000 KRW in 2017.

Only 10,000 of the 1988 mint sets were assembled. This became the standard number of sets made for each of the yearly mint sets for the following nine years.

1989 ~ 1992 Bank of Korea Mint Sets

현행주화6종 증정용 민트 세트 1989년 ~ 1992년
(1989 ~ 1992 Bank of Korea Contemporary six-coin Presentation Mint Sets)

From their outer appearance, the BOK mint sets made for these four years look like 1987 mint sets that had been shrunk vertically to half their size. These sets have the same exterior design of cream-colored arabesque patterns, gilded borders and cover titles that were carried over from the 1987 and 1988 sets. The interiors of the 1989 and 1990 mint sets retain the same graphics and text as the previous two year-sets, but starting in 1991 the sets were adorned with new interior graphics and explanatory text that better describes the contemporary South Korean coins in the set.

The placement of the coins in the cardboard center of the folio is also different from the previous two years, with the 500-Won coin and 100-Won coin on either side of the other, four smaller-denomination coins laid out on a diagonal. Also different is the greenish-blue field on both sides of the coin page against which all six coins stand out in contrast. The main titles on the front covers also changed over time to emphasize the name of the Bank of Korea.

1989 to 1992 South Korea Mint Sets

Another noticeable change in these BOK mint sets after 1989 is the quality of the surfaces of the coins inside them. In pristine sets, the coins look very cleanly stuck, with almost no hint of mint damage or bag marks. This gives one reason to believe that the coins in these annual mint sets began to receive special handling after they came off the presses. The Mint might have even used special dies to strike the coins for these sets.

After 1991, the Bank of Korea halted production of the Five-Won and One-Won coins in response to inflation that priced more and more goods and services well above five-won increments by the late ’80s, making these smaller-value coins increasingly superfluous. Instead of issuing only four coins in their mint sets, the Bank adjusted by simply placing Five-Won and One-Won coins from previous years in the annual mint sets. Therefore, the 1992 BOK mint sets (and all later sets with dissimilar-dated Five- and One-Won coins) include an extra line of text helpfully explaining why 1991 Five-Won and One-Won coins were included to fill out this particular set.

Recent Prices for 1989 to 1992 Korean Mint SetsIt can be difficult to find pristine sets from these years without excessively toned Five-Won and 10-Won coins in them, and sets with good-condition coins in them are sold at a premium. Ten thousand mint sets were assembled for each year.

1993 Bank of Korea Mint Set

현행주화6종 증정용 민트 세트 1993년
(1993 Bank of Korea Contemporary six-coin Presentation Mint Set)

1993 Bank of Korea Mint SetThis BOK mint set is almost identical to the mint sets produced during the previous four years, except that the placement of the six coins in the set had changed to an arrangement of two curved rows of three coins each, all against a blue field. This new arrangement was used in the next four annual BOK mint sets as well. Like the 1992 mint set, the 1993 mint set utilized Five-Won and One-Won coins dated 1991. Ten thousand 1993 BOK mint sets were assembled.

1994 ~ 1997 Bank of Korea Mint Sets

현행주화6종 증정용 민트 세트 1994년 ~ 1997년
(1994 ~ 1997 Bank of Korea Contemporary six-coin Presentation Mint Sets)

The interior design, text, and arrangement of the coins in the 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997 BOK mint sets are identical to the 1993 mint set; however, the designs of the exterior covers and slipcases were revamped. They appear with the same light cream color as the previous sets, but the front of the cases and slipcovers are adorned with an image of the iconic Seoul landmark, Sungnyemun, also known as “Namdaemun,” or “Great South Gate”. The gate is one of the four original main gates that were built in the early 15th century for the walled capital city, Hanseong (Seoul), during the Joseon Dynasty (1392 ~ 1897).

1994-1997 South Korean Mint Sets

Like the previous two mint sets, the 1994 mint set features 1991-dated Five Won and One-Won coins. However, the South Korean Mint, Komsco, re-started the minting of Five-Won and One-Won coins in 1995. Komsco struck 15,000 of both of these coins during the three years of 1995, 1996 and 1997. Ten thousand of both coins were placed in the 10,000 mint sets assembled for these three years. The limited production of these coins seems to have been resumed so that Five-Won and One-Won coins marked with contemporaneous dates would match the dates of the annual mint sets in which they would appear.

As with the previous four yearly mint sets, the coins in these four annual sets appear beautifully struck, with the cupronickel coins exhibiting an almost satin-like finish.

For some time after the 1995, 1996 and 1997 mint sets were released, the collector market in South Korea priced these three sets much higher than other annual BOK sets due to the relatively rarer Five-Won and One-Won coins inside them. Later, this price difference narrowed significantly when demand increased for all the rest of the annual mint sets after more coin collectors in South Korea had started taking up collecting BOK mint sets.

1994-1997 South Korean Mint Set PricesThe brass coins in these sets also suffer from the typical toning problems, with the 1996 BOK mint sets particularly affected by spotting and toning on their brass coins for some reason. Premiums are steep for any sets without toned brass coins, but particularly for this set.

The online retailer Sujipbank priced a “B-grade” 1996 BOK mint set (i.e., a set with unattractively-toned brass coins) at 185,000 KRW in 2017, while selling another 1996 set with slightly-toned brass coins for 245,000 KRW ($213.15). Ten thousand sets were assembled for each year in this date range.

1998 and 1999 Bank of Korea Mint Sets

현행주화6종 증정용 민트 세트 1998년, 1999년
(1998 and 1999 Bank of Korea Contemporary six-coin Presentation Mint Sets)

The 1998 BOK mint set is probably the most recognized of all BOK mint sets in South Korea – possibly even the world.

Although most South Korea collectors have been well aware of its rarity for years, the spotlight that has shined recently on the 1998 BOK mint set has helped to propel it (and the rest of South Korean numismatics) out of relative obscurity and into the national news. With attention-grabbing headlines such as “The 500-Won coin that is worth a million won!”, the 1998 mint set had been ‘burning up the wires’ as an entertainment news feature on practically every media platform in South Korea. In the five or so years prior to 2017, untold numbers of people in South Korea have been exposed to the existence of the 1998 BOK mint set, as well as other higher-priced Korean numismatic items, thanks to the mimetic nature of South Korea’s myriad TV shows, online videos, and talk-radio shows that have highlighted “rare Korean coins”.

The exposure that the 1998 mint set has gotten is most certainly responsible for the surge in numismatic interest in Korea as of 2017; as well as the (rather predictable) corresponding hike in South Korean retailers’ asking prices for key-date Korean coins and sets.

The 1998 and 1999 BOK mint sets are the rarest of all ‘regular’ BOK mint sets, at only 8,000 sets assembled for both years. Due to funding constraints that the government imposed on it during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, Komsco made two thousand fewer mint sets than usual. The Mint also did not strike any One-Won or Five-Won coins to place in the mint sets made in 1998, nor any One-Won coins for 1999. The Bank of Korea completed the six-coin sets by placing 1991-dated Five-Won and One-Won coins in the 1998 mint set, and a 1990-dated One-Won coin in the 1999 mint set.

The Mint Set-Only 500 Won Coin

Komsco also did not strike any new 500-Won coins for general circulation in 1998. However, the Mint did strike 8,000 pieces exclusively for inclusion in the 1998 BOK mint set, thereby making this 1998-dated coin the rarest 500-Won coin minted as a business strike. Considering that each of the previous four years had seen production of this coin at over 100 million pieces, a mintage of only 8,000 was quite a radical reduction. The 100-Won and 50-Won coins dated 1998 also had rather low mintages in the millions of pieces each, qualifying these two coins as ‘minor’ key-dates for collectors. The 1998 mint set quickly became one of the more desired mint sets among collectors of South Korean coins, and simply for the fact that it contained the only 500-Won coin dated 1998. The author even suspects that mint set collecting may have only begun to take hold among collectors of South Korean coins because of the buzz created by this particular mint set.

South Korea also minted a limited number of Five-Won coins in 1999. The 1999 BOK mint set includes the lowest-mintage Five-Won coin yet made; eight-thousand 1999 Five-Won coins were placed in the 1999 BOK mint sets out of a total mintage of 10,000. Although this set not as well-known as the 1998 mint set, it is also a highly-prized set among South Korea collectors for its Five-Won coin. As with other mint sets from the ’90s, it can be difficult to find 1999 BOK mint sets with bright, completely untoned Five-Won coins in them.

Bank of Korea 1999 Mint Set

The cases for the 1998 and 1999 mint sets are a big departure in appearance from the previous BOK mint sets. Perhaps as an attempt to lower costs, the Bank tossed out the folio flip-case design and replaced it with an overall dark blue cardboard trifold of slightly flimsier construction. The 1998 mint sets were not issued with slipcovers, while the 1999 mint sets did come with them. The coins appear at the end of the trifold, arranged in two straight rows of blisters, with the four larger-denomination coins in one row and the Five-Won and One-Won coins in the other row.

The coins in these sets might have been struck and handled carefully, but the surfaces of the cupronickel coins in them do not have that same satin-quality finish as did some of these same coins in the mint sets from the previous four years.

The graphics on the cases were also mostly new, with the Sungnyemun gate and the Bank of Korea building graphics as the only carryover images from previous sets. The explanatory text was also new, comprising of a brief overview of Korean coinage along with two captions that go with photos of the Sorak mountain range and a traditional agricultural competition. Overall, the design of the 1998 and 1999 mint sets are of a rather mundane appearance compared to most other BOK mint sets.

Retail prices for the 1998 mint set have spiraled upwards since the mid-2000s. The online retailer Sujipbank provides the following information in their 1998 mint set listings in order to drive home the message to potential buyers.

As for auction prices, O-Sung K&C listed a 1998 mint set with a starting bid of 1,300,00 KRW in April 2015, while a Hwadong auction in March 2015 sold one for this same amount. A 1999 BOK mint set (with a dark-toned Five-Won coin) was being offered at Sujipbank in June 2017 for 325,000 KRW, while a Hwadong auction saw a realized price of 300,000 KRW ($261) for a 1999 set with a Five-Won coin in better condition in March 2017.

The number of intact 1998 mint sets must have dwindled by some amount by now. Collectors have been removing the 500-Won coins from the sets, as evidenced by the numerous examples of 1998 500-Won coins appearing online in graded holders. Some collectors in Korea have also claimed that a few 1998 500-Won coins have circulated there, and others have claimed the coin’s discovery in vending machines at South Korea’s main international airport. The story goes that the responsible parties were foreign visitors to Korea who removed the rare 500-Won coins out of 1998 BOK mint sets because they needed some South Korean coins to purchase a can of “Milkis” or “Pocari Sweat” while waiting for their next flight.

2000 ~ 2014 Bank of Korea Mint Sets

현행주화6종 증정용 민트 세트 2000년 ~ 2014년
(2000 ~ 2014 Bank of Korea Contemporary Six-Coin Presentation Mint Sets)

The mint sets that the Bank of Korea produced for the 15 years of 2000 to 2014 all share three main distinguishing features:

  1. A square-shaped case design reminiscent of the 1987 mint set;
  2. All six coins arranged in a circle in the middle of the set; and
  3. Case and slipcover artwork that is more elaborate, colorful, and has a more stylish aesthetic than previous sets.

Year 2000 BOK Mint Set

The first BOK mint set with this refurbished design was the set produced for the year 2000. Marking a significant change in quality and appearance from the two previous annual mint sets, the Year 2000 BOK mint set was made as a special proof set for the Bank of Korea’s 50th anniversary, the commemoration of which is prominently featured in the graphics of the case and slipcover. The case itself is a cardboard trifold that allows for the set to stand upright to display the coins, and the titles and interior text of the case was printed in English. A few of these Year 2000 mint sets have shown up for sale in a white-paper envelope. There is writing on this envelope that is printed in a mixed orthography of Korean hangul (한글) and Chinese characters and explains this mint set as a commemorative item for the Bank’s 50th anniversary. Sets with this unusual extra feature have sold for a premium in South Korean retail venues.

2000 South Korean Mint Set

The coins in the 2000 BOK set were minted with a faint, reverse-proof finish — the first South Korean coins to be minted in reverse proof. The surfaces of the coins in these sets are often just barely proof in appearance, and look more like “matte proof” coins, with slightly frosted fields and barely shiny devices. The 2000 BOK mint set also includes contemporaneously-dated Five-Won and One-Won coins; half of the total 30,000 mintage of both the Five-Won and One-Won coins for the year 2000 were placed in this set. This was also the first mint set to feature a unique medallion nestled in its own blister and placed in the center of the circle of six coins, and was exclusive to this mint set. This 11-sided, bimetallic medal goes along with the Bank’s 50th Anniversary theme. The medal features the (old) Bank of Korea symbol and the Korean legend “물가 안정” (“Price Stability”).

Although there were thousands more of these proof sets made than for any of the later six-coin proof sets, they are still popular with collectors. Hwadong sold a 2000 BOK mint set at auction for 260,000 KRW ($226.20) in March 2017, while around the same time Sujipbank was offering these for 325,000 to 440,000 KRW. A total of 15,000 sets were assembled.

2001 ~ 2004 “Foreign” Proof Gift Sets

The production of these proof gift sets, made for the four years of 2001 to 2004, were obviously inspired by the Year 2000 BOK mint set and its reverse proof coins. In online listings and auction catalogs these sets are referred to as “overseas promotional presentation gift sets,” (in Korean, “해외 홍보용 증정품 세트”), or “foreign proof gift sets” (“해외 홍보용 프루프 세트”). The Bank of Korea did not distribute these “foreign” sets via retail sales; rather, Bank staff presented them as gifts to counterparts of foreign institutions during visits overseas (which may explain why such sets found online are often sold from Britain and other countries in Europe). The Bank also gave these proof sets as gifts locally to citizens who turned in counterfeit South Korean banknotes.

2001-2004 South Korean Regular and Overseas Sets

The coins in these foreign proof sets were struck in reverse proof, and often have a more distinct reverse-proof finish than the coins in the Year 2000 sets. Between 3,000 and 5,000 of the foreign proof sets were assembled, and the proof coins from these four years only appear in these sets. The cases and covers for the foreign proof sets have the same designs and colors as the more numerous “regular” mint sets issued in those same years. The 2001 foreign proof set has the same trifold case layout as the 2000 mint set, whereas the 2002, 2003 and 2004 foreign sets are all comprised of a three-page folio case design. These foreign sets all come with an additional, loose-leaf card that provides information about the coins in the set.

Although they are almost exactly similar in outer appearance to the “regular” mint sets, the foreign proof sets have a slight difference in their titles on the covers and with the writing on the insides: The regular mint sets have a bilingual Korean-English text, while the foreign mint sets have an English-only text. This is a key distinguishing feature for collectors to look for when coming upon 2001 to 2004 BOK mint sets. Due to a significant difference in collector value between the regular and foreign sets, but an almost exact similarity in their appearance, one can chance upon an opportunity for a nice cherrypick. Sellers of BOK foreign proof sets may not be aware that they were selling a special, “foreign” set, or might not even know of the existence of the two varieties of BOK mint sets and their difference in price.

South Korean Proof Finish Side-by-Side Comparison

The foreign proof sets made from 2001 to 2004 are highly prized in South Korea for their rarer proof coins, and for the fact that these sets were mostly distributed outside of the country and are rather difficult to come upon. Over the past five years, the foreign proof sets have seen some of the steepest increases in listed prices and realized auction prices in South Korean numismatics. Here are a few examples of the range of prices from recent auctions and sales in South Korea:

A March 2017 Hwadong auction saw a 2001 foreign proof set sell for 360,000 KRW ($313.20); which was twice as much as a 2001 “regular” mint set’s final price at the same auction. The online auction site, Mirinemall had a 2001 foreign set sell for 550,000 KRW ($478.50) the year before. The online retail arm of O-Sung K&C listed 2001 foreign sets at prices between 780,000 KRW and a whopping 900,000 KRW in 2017.

A 2002 foreign set sold online at Mirinemall for 450,000 KRW ($391.50) in 2016.

A 2003 foreign set sold online at NarAuction for 520,000 KRW ($452.40) in April 2016, while just three years earlier one sold for 200,000 KRW ($174) at Hwadong. O-Sung also listed a 2003 foreign set for 580,000 KRW in 2017.

A 2004 foreign set sold online at Mirinemall for 380,000 KRW ($330.60) in 2016, while Sujipbank was selling a 2004 foreign set for 585,000 KRW in June 2017.

The prices shown here are approximately double the price that foreign proof sets commanded just seven years before. Also note the rather wildly varying pricing here, too.

2001 ~ 2014 “Regular-Issue” Mint Sets

2001-Present South Korean Mint SetsThe regular-issue BOK mint sets made during this period have the same shape and construction as the square, three-page folio flip-case with matching slipcover that first appeared in 1987. These sets include mint-strike coins and bilingual Korean-and-English titles and writing. The writing on the insides of these sets no longer addressed the history of Korean coinage, but rather the Bank of Korea’s role in helping provide stable prices and a sound economy. Starting with the 2007 mint sets, this paragraph had changed over to a Korean-only text, with no corresponding English translation. The sets made for 2001 to 2004 included a two-sided bilingual loose-leaf card that provides information about the coins in the set, while the later mint sets did not include such cards.

These regular-issue mint sets were distributed from branch offices of the Bank of Korea and its museum gift shop in the Myeongdong neighborhood of Seoul. With few exceptions, the basic description above applies to all of the 14 mint sets issued in this date range.

The most distinguishing feature of these sets is the more elaborate Korea-themed artwork that graces their exteriors. One can even detect distinct periods of art direction and decorative themes that appear over time on these BOK mint sets. The first period is the artwork of the stylized cranes and turtle boat on the 2001 to 2004 mint sets; the other design periods are 2005 and 2006; 2007 to 2009; and 2010 to 2014. With the attractive and changing artwork on the cases and covers, many collectors looked forward to seeing the design for each new annual mint set upon its release.

Another thing to notice about the regular mint sets in this date range are the fluctuations in the numbers of sets assembled for the years 2001 to 2005. The 2003 mint sets are the fewest in number, at 17,000 total. Starting in 2006, the Bank standardized the total number for each year’s regular mint set at 50,000 sets made (see production chart below).

Collectors of BOK mint sets have also noticed the relative rarity of the 2001 BOK regular mint set and its higher asking price compared to the other 14 regular mint sets from these years. The casual observer of the South Korean collector market will notice that many Year 2000 proof sets that can be found for sale at any given time, but rarely does a 2001 regular mint set ever show up, even though 10,000 more of them were made. The explanation bandied about among collectors in Korea is that when the Bank of Korea museum finished renovation in 2001, its gift shop opened and began selling the mint set for that year before collectors had caught onto the fact. As it was a new attraction in downtown Seoul, the Bank of Korea museum was frequented by large groups of people, comprising mostly of local middle-school and high-school students on field trips. Before the collectors could acquire the new mint sets, crowds of these tourists visited the gift shop, and in short order they had drained it of almost all of the 2001 mint sets. This resulted in most of that year’s sets ending up in the hands of non-collectors, and not into the small, closed-circuit loop of South Korean coin collectors and dealers that usually get to these sets first.

The coins in these regular mint sets issued after 2000 seem to have decently-struck coins, with few noticeable surface marks up until 2009. This is especially the case for the coins in the regular-issue sets from 2001 to 2005. The 2010 mint sets seemed to have included coins with quite noticeable surface marks, as if they had been taken out of mint bags and plugged into the sets. Rather telling, perhaps, was the fact that the 2010 regular mint set was the only BOK mint set not issued with a slipcase.

2001 and 2002 South Korean Mint Sets

After 2010, the surfaces of the coins in BOK mint sets are sort of hit or miss, and none of the coins in the regular sets issued after 2009 seem to be much better than coins found in mint rolls from those same years. The circulation coins issued from the mid-2000s (if not before) appear to suffer from an overall lowered quality in regard to the sharpness of the strikes, which is especially noticeable on the 100-Won coin. The bust of Admiral Yi Soon-sin looks like a mushy, washed-out ghost on these coins compared to the superior rendering on the sharp, nicely struck examples from the 1980s and early ’90s.

Mintages for South Korean Mint Sets 2000-2014

2005 ~ 2014 “Foreign” Gift Sets

The foreign gift sets issued from 2005 until 2014 are exactly similar in description to the foreign proof sets issued from 2001 to 2004 (above), except that these later sets do not include reverse proof coins. The manner of their distribution, however, was the same: Bank of Korea staff gave the sets as gifts overseas, or in Korea. The artwork on the cases of these foreign gift sets is almost exactly the same as the regular-issue mint set versions.

The coins in the foreign gift sets in this date range seem to have received somewhat better handling than the regular-issue sets of the same dates, but there is often not a big difference in the quality and appearance of the coins inside them. As with the foreign proof sets, the cases and covers on these sets have only English writing on them. And while the 2010 regular mint set did not come with a slipcover, the 2010 foreign set does have one. Also apparent are the sometimes larger graphics, and/or brighter colors on the cases and covers of the foreign sets compared to the regular sets in this date range.

2005-2014 South Korean "Foreign" Mint Sets

Retailers in Korea sell these sets at much higher prices over the regular-issue mint sets from the same years. However, these foreign sets made from 2005 to 2014 do not command the incredible prices of that the earlier foreign proof sets often do. One would imagine that although mint set collecting is currently trending with coin collectors in South Korea, not too many of these people would really want to spend the equivalent of multiple hundreds of dollars on a coin set that has nothing special about it beyond the absence of Korean writing on its case and a claim that fewer of them were assembled.

Well, Korean retailers are asking quite a bit for one anyway!

The preeminent South Korean coin retailer Sujipbank offered these 2005 to 2014 foreign gift sets for 165,000 KRW to 195,000 KRW in 2017, while a NarAuction sales from March 2016 show that a 2013 Foreign set went for 138,000 KRW ($120.06), and a few 2014 foreign sets went for 138,000 to 165,000 KRW ($120.06 to $143.55). The 500-Won coin in the 2014 set is a lower-mintage year, which may explain the price. Three-thousand sets were assembled for each year.

FIFA World Cup Mint Sets, and the “Wedding Day” Mint Sets (2001 ~ 2004)

While South Korea geared up for one of the most anticipated sporting events in its history, the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the Bank of Korea got to work cranking out extra circulation coins to place into six-coin mint sets commemorating the World Cup; not to mention thousands of new NCLT commemorative coins for the event.

The Bank of Korea issued two six-coin World Cup sets; one with a green case and cover with coins dated 2001, and another one with a blue case and cover with coins dated 2002. These cases for these two World Cup mint sets were of the same cardboard trifold that was used for the Year 2000 proof sets and the 2001 foreign proof sets. The World Cup sets also have a cut-out in the center of the slipcover to reveal one of the new 1,000-Won World Cup commemorative coins, which was placed in the center blister of the set. These World Cup six-coin sets are not listed with the two main South Korean coin catalogs.

The Korean Mint produced a huge number of Five-Won and One-Won coins in 2001 (130,000 pieces each) and 2002 (122,000 pieces each). This was done, ostensibly, to fill out the commemorative coin sets for the World Cup. Collectors will notice that all of the coins placed in these 2001 and 2002 World Cup mint sets look to be very sharp strikes, with excellent surfaces that are free of marks. Thanks to the fact that these two World Cup sets are much less-expensive and easier to find than the regular mint sets issued in 2001 and 2002, collectors of Five-Won and One-Won coins can obtain these two dates rather easily. There is no published number of sets assembled, but the Bank of Korea must have sanctioned at least tens of thousands for each coin set.

In 2004, Komsco authorized two different “Wedding Day” six-coin mint sets, (no mention of the Bank of Korea on the covers or cases). Like the World Cup sets, the coins are placed into a cardboard ‘standing’ trifold and come with a slipcover that has a square cut-out to reveal either a brass 19th-century Sang pyong tong bo coin in the central blister, or a bimetallic medal featuring two Mandarin ducks (원앙새), a symbol of marriage in Korea. These sets come with either a blue slipcase labeled “bridegroom’s day”, or a red slipcase labeled “bride’s day”. It seems implied that these are intended as engagement or wedding gifts.

All of the coins in these two sets have coins with 2002 dates in them, although the sets were released in 2004. There is some speculation as to why these sets were assembled. Perhaps they were made for the purpose of exhausting large numbers of leftover 2002-dated coins? In any case, the coins inside are another source of some very nicely-struck circulation pieces, with the Five-Won and One-Won coins included. The inclusion of either a Sang pyong tong bo or a bimetallic medal is also somewhat of a mystery. Did the mint run out of the Mandarin duck medals when producing these sets, and simply threw in some old yeopjeon (brass coins) to complete the sets; or was it the other way around? These Wedding Day coin sets are also not listed in the catalogs. The total number of sets assembled is unknown.

2015 ~ Current Bank of Korea Mint Sets

현행주화6종 증정용 민트 세트 2015 ~현재
(Bank of Korea Contemporary Six-Coin Mint Sets, 2015 ~ Date)

In 2015, the mint set was again redesigned and presented in a hard plastic case. This was the first hard case design since 1983, reversing the 28-year trend of using blisters to encase the coins. These new mint sets released from 2015 to 2017 all have the same overall design and appearance. The case is comprised of two hard-plastic shells that friction-fit together along the seams of the case and enclose a soft, plastic-coated brown foam core with holes bored into it to accommodate the coins. Cracking open these sets to get at the coins inside is rather easy compared to earlier sets, with their stiff-plastic blisters embedded firmly into cardboard pages.

2015 to 2017 South Korean Mint Sets

The artwork for these newer mint sets is found on the slipcovers, which are adorned with pastel-colored images of the national flower, the mugunghwa (a native-variety hibiscus flower). A closer look reveals this artwork to be a picture mosaic comprised of pixelated designs. The titles are in Korean only, and simply state “한국의 주화” (Coins of Korea). Year-to-year, these sets have only really changed in the shade of color and placement of the flowers. One upside to this coin set is its utility as a source of the current-date Five-Won and One-Won coins. But by using commonplace coins and basic, off-the-shelf artwork, the Bank of Korea’s approach with these new mint sets appears to be a simple effort to make the yearly mint sets as cheap and easy as possible to produce until the planned final cessation of coin production in 2020.

Will the Bank of Korea continue to issue six-coin mint sets after 2020? It seems unlikely that Komsco would keep producing South Korea’s six circulating coins just to place into yearly mint sets. The rather uninteresting presentation of the current (2017) mint sets, along with the lack of any “foreign” gift set equivalent, seems to reinforce this notion. We will have to wait just a few more years to find out for sure.

South Korean Mint Sets in Graded Holders

NGC South Korean Mint Set Coins

Third-party grading companies have graded almost every Bank of Korea six-coin mint set and proof set, especially the more popular and expensive coin sets. Individual key-date coins that appear only in BOK sets have also appeared for sale in various venues. Since around the mid-2000s, increasing numbers of dealers and collectors in South Korea and the rest of East Asia have shown a keen interest in third party grading.

Growth in numismatic interest in this part of the world is one reason why the major U.S.-based third-party grading companies are performing their own “pivot to Asia,” with submission centers in Seoul, as well as in other cities in East Asia. Third-party grading has become a fixture of the numismatic scene in South Korea at a level not often seen outside of North America, and those BOK mint sets found in graded holders are usually bought and sold in South Korea. Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) has clearly cornered the market there, as the vast majority of all certified Korean coins found in South Korean retail and auction venues are graded by NGC.

One popular trend taking place with South Korean graded coin sets are their encapsulation in “multi-coin” holders. These holders can encapsulate all six coins into the same, oversize plastic core, with the grade of each coin listed together inside the holder. Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) has also graded South Korean coins that have originated from BOK mint sets, but officially stopped making such multi-coin holders in 2004. Both PCGS and NGC have also graded BOK mint sets by grading each individual coin and placing it in its own holder.

To show that the coins came from the same set, the six coins in their holders are given consecutive serial numbers.

Coin dealers in South Korea are mostly responsible for the multi-holder phenomenon when it comes to BOK mint sets. Multi-holders are no longer available to the average submitter to NGC, since, according to the company, “This was a very boutique service that saw low demand. It was not possible for us to align the work involved with the fees charged for the majority of our grading tiers. At this time it is available in combination with bulk services only.”

Whether or not one actually believes this explanation, NGC’s decision has obviously provided a windfall for Korean coin dealers, as the prices for multi-holder graded sets are well above the sale prices for sets in their original packaging in South Korea.

Coinweek is the top independent online media source for rare coin and currency news, with analysis and information contributed by leading experts across the numismatic spectrum.

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