Sheep worth their weight in silver and gold for 2015

Sheep worth their weight in silver and gold for 2015
An employee at the Royal Mint shows the lunar coin with the Chinese zodiac's sheep sign.

The Royal Mint, UK's official coin manufacturer, has launched its second legal tender lunar coin to woo wealthy Chinese collectors, riding on high sales of its first lunar coin a year ago.

To coincide with 2015, the Year of the Sheep, the new coin features the animal, the second of the Chinese zodiac.

Fergus Feeney, the mint's programme director, says it will continue with the coins every year to cover all 12 animals. The series is among the top five commemorative coins for the mint, he says.

"The lunar coins are one of our most important commemorative coins not just in terms of revenue, but it is building a foundation for the future and serving our customers."

The mint decided to launch the series after the success of its commemorative coins for the London Olympics in 2012, for which China was the largest market, even bigger than the domestic market in the UK. To reach out to its Chinese buyers, the mint has also established an account on weibo, the Chinese answer to Twitter.

Such popularity has encouraged the mint to produce a China-focused coin, hence the Year of the Horse commemorative coin launched at the end of last year. Feeney says the horse coins achieved tremendous sales, which encouraged his team to work on the Year-of-the-Sheep coin with great enthusiasm.

Many of the lunar coins are sold to Chinese living in the UK, as well as coin collectors in China. In China, the Royal Mint sells coins through local partners, one of which is China Gold Coin, with which it has had ties for more than 10 years.

The sheep coin, like the horse coin, is designed by Wuon-Gean Ho, a British Chinese artist whose understanding of Chinese and British cultures allowed her to create a design attractive to both Chinese and international coin collectors.

The coin's foreground features two sheep facing each other, their heads curled close to their bodies, and eyes full of energy. Their wool is presented in neat curly patterns and their horns are big and strong.

The sheep in the design are of the Swaledale breed, a hardy animal named after a Yorkshire valley and well suited to the often harsh British climate.

Swaledales are known for their smooth, curled horns, seen on both ewes and rams, which contrast with the swirls of the sheep's wool coat, Ho says.

The background of the face of the coin features a woodland, with a few trees clearly visible. The trees are in the shape of the Chinese character yang, which means sheep. In the middle of the face of the coin is also a distinctly inscribed yang character.

Ho, who was born and grew up in Oxford of Malaysian and Singaporean parents, graduated with a bachelor's in art history and as a veterinary surgeon at Cambridge University before taking up a Japanese government scholarship in 1998 to study woodblock printmaking in Japan.

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