“This is Marty Weiss. Are you the guy that wrote this book about Pandas?” a gravelly Brooklyn voice asked over the phone. This was in 2010. To my relief what followed was a very pleasant conversation. It ended with an invitation to meet him in Rancho Mirage, California. During that first visit Marty needed to go to a hardware store. Did I mind? While there I liked a blank key with a painted design on it. When he noticed it in my hand he said, “Throw it in with my things,” and I had a little souvenir from our first meeting.
A Colorful Life
As we got to know each other better he filled me in on his life – his boyhood in New York and time as a pharmacist in the Navy. There were tales of personalities and places, deals and dealers and important events for which he was the last living witness. He described the ups and downs of business and how he honored his word even when it cost him dearly. That was how he lived his life. The world of modern Chinese coins benefitted tremendously from his participation as did many countries, Native American tribes and countless individuals. Whatever Marty set his mind to, he influenced – he had the Midas touch.
Speaking of gold, Marty became intrigued by it during his service years. He had some extra money. Gold cost $35 per oz. at the time and it looked cheap to him. He believed it would always have value so he started to buy gold coins.
After the service, Marty worked as a pharmacist, eventually owned several drug stores and got married to Ami Mukai from Japan. He always said there was no one else like her. Together they backpacked around the world and then opened a Japanese restaurant in Torrance, California. Marty once told me how he would hang out at the restaurant bar to chat with the customers. “Ami worked really hard while I stood around and schmoozed,” is how he put it.
Entering the Coin Business
One quiet afternoon a man named Mr. Masamichi Oka walked in. He and Marty got into a conversation. Mr. Oka was, at that time, the most important coin dealer in all of Asia and Martin was interested in gold. As he left Mr. Oka told Martin that if he ever wanted to go into the coin business to contact him.
Martin did enter the coin business in 1979. This happened to also be the year that China opened its doors and started to export coins. Marty wanted to be part of this market, but first he needed help. He hired Ellen Tutsch, who grew up in Hong Kong, as his first employee. She remembers, “I met Marty in 1981 when I had just graduated from USC with a degree in business finance. He had just opened the coin business. It was called L.C. Martin. L.C. stood for ‘Little Colonel.’ That was his nickname growing up, but no one really knew that and I thought it was hilarious.”
One morning in 1982, Ami saw a news item – China planned to issue a new series of coins with panda designs. She showed it to Martin and told him, “This will be big.”
There was already an official USA distributor for Panda coins in New York. When Martin contacted them about wholesale prices they quoted him insultingly high ones. So, Martin turned to Mr. Oka. Mr. Oka was keen to show the China Mint that he could move a large volume of coins and his Taisei company agreed to supply gold Pandas to Martin on extraordinarily generous terms. Martin was now in the Panda coin business.
Panda Coins Sold Like Hot Cakes
Before long he acquired an official license to distribute Panda coins. This occurred in a way that would be impossible to imagine, but that’s a story for another day.
Ellen continues, “Marty had such a creative mind that it was like non-stop ideas, ‘Let’s try this. Let’s try that.’ I had a big yellow pad and shortly after we got the Panda deal he looked up and said, ‘What do you think of the name Panda America?’ I said, ‘Awesome, I love it.’”
She wrote press releases and sent those out by fax to every news outlet they could think of. “Tons of articles were printed and interest from Americans was huge. Marty would send me to coin shows. I would go from table to table and say, ‘Hello, my name is Ellen from Panda America. I’d like to show you some new coins from China. Within a couple of hours, it would be all sold out. It was a lot of fun.”
Through Taisei Marty met and became friends with Mr. Oka’s then-assistant Mr. B.H. Lim. “To deal in gold coins you need cash, a lot of funds, but he (Martin) did not have so much funds.” Mr. Lim observed. “So, Taisei Tokyo consigned the coins to him. Taisei needed to sell the coins, but because the coins were very new in the market they were hard to sell. Marty could sell, so Mr. Oka was very happy to consign to him.”
A Lasting Effect on China’s Panda Coin Program
Martin’s instincts on how to sell soon had a major effect on the Panda program itself. He described how this happened, “In a meeting about the 1983 design, all three distributors asked the China Mint to cover their marketing expenses for Panda coins. The China Mint balked at this. The original plan for the 1983 Panda was for it to have the same design as the 1982. As the discussion continued, I proposed that the coins be redesigned each year. I thought that a new design would increase sales enough that it would cover the marketing expenses.” This idea was accepted and the yearly design change remains a wildly popular feature of the Panda coin program to this day.
After Ellen, one of the earliest employees at Panda America was Mel Wacks. “It was exciting. Pandas were zooming in value. Marty had the contract to sell the USA 1984 Olympics coins at stands at the Olympics and that was a great success. Marty was always doing all sorts of things.”
Martin made a deal with a home shopping network to sell Panda coin jewelry on TV. At one point he was shipping 10,000 gold pandas a month to the network. He even had to sue a jewelry store that copied his products (and won).
To which Mel added, “In 13 years at Panda America I never saw him angry, or lose his temper and I saw some things happen that would have upset me greatly. Marty just blew it off. He was really cool, the happy warrior.”
“The office grew from two people to twenty almost overnight,” his niece Orly Marmaur remembers. “It was the Olympics frenzy and I stayed with Marty and Ami for about five months. He was inundated with hundreds of orders and we really worked hard, all day long. Marty was one of the most original people I ever met in my life. At this time, it was the beginning of personal computers and he got a Macintosh computer (for the office). Marty figured out how to make it work overnight. There was a graphic designer in the office and within two days he was doing graphic design on the computer.”
Expanding the Business and Collaborating with the China Mint
Marty was interested in everything related to coins and that included grading. He actively supported the creation of NGC in 1987. According to Steve Eichenbaum, the CEO of the Certified Collectibles Group/NGC, “(Marty) truly believed in the Chinese numismatic marketplace. He wanted it to expand and thrive for all his friends in mainland China and throughout the world. He intuitively knew what grading would do for that marketplace. NGC would not be where we are in China without his generosity and spirit.”
After Ellen Tutsch left Panda America in 1986 Martin needed an office manager and a translator. The translator at that time did not keep his plans secret, it seemed like everyone in the business knew them. In January of 1988 he hired Kitty Quan and solved both problems. Kitty often traveled to Asia with Martin, in fact her first trip came after only one week on the job.
Kitty recalls a 1989 journey, “Martin was at the Hong Kong Airport. He went into a book shop where he came across a book called “China – Land of Discovery and Invention” about the genius of Chinese culture. He bought it and later picked out five of the inventions and discoveries. Then he hired the coin artist Alex Shagin to make sketches. We submitted these to the China Mint and it was immediately approved. The final designs were done at the Shenyang Mint.”
The Inventions and Discoveries of China series lasted from 1992-1996. It includes some of the rarest and most valuable coins minted by China in modern times. The series was paused in 1996 due to market conditions, but Martin planned to continue it later. That plan ended in 2000 when the People’s Republic of China changed its policy and ceased to make coins and medals for outside sponsors.
A Man With Many Talents
At one point, Panda America had a hundred employees and Martin finally felt he had enough. In 2005, he retired and sold the company to Kitty Quan and Peter Yeung. Ami passed away in 2007, but her memory was never far from him. In his home office he built a little shrine to her.
Martin had other interests besides coins. He was an avid and talented photographer. Some of his favorite subjects were people, travel – and coins. Marty had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of tools and gizmos that could be adapted to photography. Together, we ordered and tried out all sorts of mechanical and optical doodads and I was greatly influenced by him.
And, speaking of photography, some of my most enjoyable visits with Marty were when we would go out to take photos. One day he admitted that he had never been to Joshua Tree National Park. It is only an hour’s drive from his home. So, we packed his camera and some water bottles, climbed into my car and off we went. Marty was very impressed with the scenery and amazing rock formations and took lots of photos. In the evening we came across a Thai restaurant, had a wonderful meal and then drove home.
Marty never lost his love for making deals. He continued to quietly trade coins with the help of his stepson Henry (Rei Chen) Hung and daughter-in-law Eva (Tien Yu Tzu). He did get personally involved in the Chinese coin market once more. In 2016 he and I created a series of heart-shaped medals we called Valentine Pandas. These were designed and struck at the Shenyang Mint in China. Martin’s name is still legendary there and the designs were created by one of the country’s best-known coin artists, Ms. Chang Huan.
Through all this Sandy (Hungsheng Li Chen), his second wife, was rarely far away as he grappled with the health issues that ultimately took him. All in all, he left behind an incredible legacy of accomplishment, honor and friendships.
As he approached the end, Marty was very calm. Ever the businessman he told me more than once, “It’s not in the contract to live forever.” Like always, Marty, you kept your end of the deal. As for me, I still use that key from the first time we met. The paint wore off years ago, but it still is part of my life, just like our friendship. Thank you and may your name be a blessing.
From the Mind of Martin Weiss
1983 First silver Panda coin
1983 Marco Polo 10 Yuan, 1 gram gold coin; Marco Polo 5 jiao, 2 gram silver coin
1984 First large Panda coin — 1000 Yuan, 12 oz. gold coin
1985 1/10 oz. gold Vault Protector
1986 First Panda coin proof set
1988 Chinese Rare Animal series of 1 gold and 2 silver coins
1989 Hong Kong Coin Exposition ½ oz. gold and 1 oz. silver medals
1989 God of Wealth 3.3 oz. (one tael) gold and silver medals
1989 Unicorn coin series (minted for another company from 1994-1997)
1990 First bimetallic Chinese coin or medal for the Hong Kong Coin Exposition
1991 10th Anniversary of Panda issuance 10000 Yuan, 5 kg. gold coin; 10th Anniversary of Panda issuance 3 Yuan, 1 gram gold coin; 10th Anniversary of Panda issuance 3.3 oz. silver and gold-plated bronze medals
1992 Inventions and Discoveries of China coin series (through 1996)
1995 Ancient Maritime coin series
2016 Valentine Panda medal series (with Peter Anthony)
Tributes to Martin David Weiss
“I am grieved to hear of the passing of Mr. Martin Weiss. On behalf of China Gold Coin Inc., I would like to express my deepest sympathies to you and your family. Mr. Martin Weiss, the founder of Panda America, is such a significant person in the world coin industry as well as an old friend of our company. He was the pioneer in promoting Chinese coins, especially the Panda coins, in the international market. I can always remember his foresight, wisdom, humor and kindness. Though Mr. Weiss has passed away, he has left us a remarkable legacy and precious memories. If there is anything we can do for you, please feel free to let us know. With deepest sympathies and warm regards,”
Mr. Jing Jun, President of the China Gold Coin Incorporation
“Martin was a unique and talented person in the Chinese coin business. I worked with him for many years and it was a challenge. He would get new ideas so quickly and you had to keep up to meet his standard. He was willing to make the effort, do the work and the research to come up with his ideas. Martin was my mentor. When I started working for him I know nothing about the precious metal industry. He was also my friend. I really appreciate all he did and I will miss him a lot.”
Kitty Quan, CEO, Panda America
“The numismatic market in China, particularly for certified coins, is what it is solely based on his generosity and vision.”
Steve Eichenbaum, CEO of the Certified Collectibles Group and NGC
“Marty was an idea man. A master of timing. He would think big and put his money and reputation on the line. The success of all the early international distributors of China Mint products were due in part to his visions and marketing skills. He was the story behind so many China Mint coin series, among but not limited to the inventions & discovery, world cultural, unicorn, maritime, bronze age, silk road, and wildlife. Marty’s passion for coins was an extension of his scholastic interest in history, geography, economics, art and culture. A generous man, trusting, and seeing only the best in people sometimes led to his being taken advantage of. But it was easy for him to forgive. In his past few “retirement” years, he continued to enjoy the action of the precious metals and coin markets, doing a little trading to stay in the game. We would talk every couple of weeks to compare notes. All of us will miss him, his stories and reminisces. Fortunately, they were related and transcribed into the memories and journals of his friends in recent years. It is numismatic history for all to learn and enjoy.”
Robert Mish, President of Mish International Monetary Inc.
“I was with Martin a whole day during my last trip and I truly felt his kindness from his heart. He is truly a gentleman and good-hearted person. In my opinion, he not only helped to promote Chinese modern coins to the world, but provided much inspiration for the China Mint’s designs and marketing. He is one of the most important persons in modern Chinese coinage.”
King Chan Lam, Author and numismatist, Hong Kong
“Now’s the time the walrus said to speak of many things, of shoes and ships & sealing wax and cabbages and kings and why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings.”
Martin Weiss’ favorite quote on Facebook
Here you can watch an interview with Martin Weiss recorded in 2008 by Coin Television.
And here you can find the website of Panda America.
Kitty Quan now owner of Panda America is the organizer of the Singapore Coin Show, on which we reported in 2019.
You can find out more about Peter Anthony, the author of this article, in our Who’s Who section.
He recently covered the opening ceremony of China’s 2021 Panda design.