Commemorative coins, and occasionally banknotes, are issued by the state-owned Reserve Bank and New Zealand Post to mark special occasions or to honour individuals. They are legal tender, but are mainly purchased by collectors.
New Zealand Post has been the only issuer of legal-tender commemorative coins since 2002. The private company New Zealand Mint also produces commemorative coins, though its New Zealand-themed coins are not legal tender.
British explorer James Cook presented Māori chiefs with medals in 1773, during his second Pacific voyage. Featuring King George III on one side and Cook’s ships the Resolution and Adventure on the other, they were struck by Matthew Boulton of Birmingham for Sir Joseph Banks, who was supposed to have accompanied Cook on the voyage, but did not after a disagreement. The medals were produced to commemorate the journey and to distribute to locals as proof of discovery, in an age where European countries were competing to find ‘new’ lands. The medals were distributed in the South Island and the known surviving ones were later found far from where they had been handed out. It is possible that they were traded by Māori as a form of currency.
The Waitangi crown, which was issued in 1935, is not strictly a commemorative coin, but because of the circumstances of its issue it functions like one. The issue was limited and the government charged more for each coin than its face value (five shillings), so the coins were purchased as souvenirs and did not circulate. They show Ngāpuhi chief Tāmati Wāka Nene and the first governor of New Zealand, William Hobson, shaking hands above the word ‘Waitangi’. The design was created by New Zealander James Berry and adapted by Englishman Percy Metcalfe.
The first true commemorative coin issued in New Zealand was the centennial half-crown of 1940, which was designed by Leonard Cornwall Mitchell. On the reverse side it featured a Māori woman standing in front of a traditional Māori village, and tall modern buildings surmounted by a shining sun. This was an unusual design for a coin, though it was representative of the modernist design of the period.
Other coins have commemorated occasions such as royal visits, major sporting events, national anniversaries as well as notable New Zealanders and endangered native wildlife.
A commemorative $10 banknote was issued in 1990 to mark the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. A $10 millennium banknote was issued for circulation in 2000 to mark the start of the 21st century. A commemorative version with more design features was also issued. In 2004 a limited-edition set of banknotes commemorated the first banknotes to feature the signature of Alan Bollard, Reserve Bank governor from 2002.
Too expensive to circulate
The truly commemorative banknotes issued in the 2000s could be used to buy goods and services, but because they were produced for souvenir purposes and cost more to buy than their face value, this did not happen. For example, the 2004 commemorative banknote set, of which 1,000 were issued, cost $295 to buy from New Zealand Post, but the notes’ face value was only $185.
Collecting and numismatics
People collect coins for a variety of reasons, including their artistic and historical qualities, and investment value. Banknotes are less commonly collected.
Coin collecting as a hobby came to New Zealand with European settlers in the 19th century, a time when it was rising in popularity in European and other countries. Collecting in New Zealand became more common after the first New Zealand coins were issued in 1933 and was even more popular after the change to decimal currency in 1967.
Numismatics is the study of currency – coins, banknotes, tokens and any other related items. The Royal Numismatic Society of New Zealand was founded in 1931. Professional coin dealers are represented by the New Zealand Numismatics Dealers Association.