Coins as an important source of History
The first time I decided that I should collect coins happened when the Imperial government of Ethiopia was overthrown by a Socialist Regime in 1975, and we came to know that the coins and paper currency that had long borne the symbol of the Lion of Judah would soon vanish as it was replaced by a newer form of currency although the names, Birr for the one dollar bill, and centime for the coins would stick and still does. This very fact is an indicator of how coins are an important source of History, and an indicator of upheavals and changes in dynasties, regimes and rulers. The images on coins have a lot of significance for the historian, and is also a source of pride for the collector of coins. The sudden disappearance of a symbol, motif, or even a logo is a clear indication of the end of an era.
The turbulent times of the 1975s and 1976 ended up with a lot of change in the way the country was run. Perhaps the greatest impact of Socialism was the influx of expatriates from the Soviet Bloc countries, and that was when I came across Kopecks, Pesos, and Centavos, and the Pfennigs from what was once The German Democratic Republic. I was given all sorts of coins from the East Bloc countries by close family friends, Vera and Pastukh.
A lot can be learned about a country from its coins and bills. Thus it became clear that the hammer and sickles, the plough, the wreath holding a star all became signs of a Socialist School of thought unlike the Imperial one that had ruled the country from the times of Queen Sheba, on to Emperor Menelik, Empress Zewditu, and ending in the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie. The proud Lion of Judah was forever banished, and all that was left were sentiments, wistful memories of times that were somehow different.
I started collecting coins in 1975 when I was still in Arbaminch, and it was in 1982, when my parents shifted to Addis Abeba that my classmates came to know about my hobby. They introduced me to a lady who lived in a hut, all alone and sold coins. I then bought coins from her that were within my budget, because as a student I had limited pocket money. These coins included coins from Kenya, coins from Emperor Haile Selassie’s early reign and a few others. I could not of course afford the silver coins and coins that she said belonged to the Mare Theresa reign. Initially, in those days, all that mattered to me as a young teenager was the date printed on the coin. I thought in those days that having Vittorio Emanuel coins of the early forties to the mid-forties qualified them as being ‘rare’, but then as I grew up I realised that sometimes there were a large number of coins belonging to a particular period, and the abundance of Lira of the 1940-1945 period made them as common as ever, and therefore not rare!
When I migrated to India for further studies in college, I came across people who were willing to sell me copper coins of India under British rule. I got lots of coins but then most of them were in bad condition. In many cases, corrosion had taken its toll on the coins. This reminds of how I once came into possession of a one pound coin which was being passed on to me in place of a five rupee coin close to Manish Bazaar in Mumbai, which incidentally is known for its counterfeit watches and small electronic gadgets. I had bought a lock from a street vendor who owed me five rupees change. He pressed the coin into my hand rather quickly, closing my fingers in the process as though to prevent me from seeing it. A few paces after I had walked away from him, I opened my palm and saw that the coin felt and looked strange. I turned around to confront him but, on looking closely realised that it was a one pound coin! Chuckling to myself, I followed the others. A note of caution while purchasing coins is that more often than not, you get to pay more for a coin than it is worth, and often you become so excited that the vendor know you are interested in a particular coin, so he will hike its price. If you are in Delhi, or close to the Capital City, then it would make good sense for you to head to the street side vendors in Chandni Chowk who sell coins. Some of the coins might be as old as the fifteen hundreds, belonging to the Moghul era. I have however not bought any coins from street side vendors especially in Chandni Chowk. The purchase of coins however has given me less excitement than acquiring them from friends, relatives or even as coins that have been forcefully thrust into my hands.
Caring for Coins
In the initial days when I began collecting coins, I went at the coins with tooth-brush and soap, tooth-brush and toothpaste, and vinegar and salt, and even Brasso. Later however I came to learn that one should never attempt to clean coins with strong detergents, caustic cleansers, and never ever acids like lemon juice or even vinegar! Given below are a few tips on taking care of coins and storing them too!
- Always keep your coins clean and dry.
- Coins must be held by the edges.
- Coins can be washed in warm water and mild soap.
- Wet coins should be gently wiped with a soft cloth and never rubbed!
- You must remember to never polish coins.
- Coins should be stored in such a way that they don’t damage each other.
- Coins can be kept in tubes, individual plastic pouches, or even albums that have custom made slots for them.
Coins have sentimental value
Often coins collected over a period of time have a sentimental value for the collector of coins. I got into Numismatics in the middle seventies, and whenever I look at my coins that belong to that time, they bring in sentimental, and fond memories of those times. Like stamps, coins too bridge the past with the present. When I look at a particular Kenyan coin minted in the early 1920s, I am reminded of that old lady I used to visit in Addis Abeba to purchase coins. And yes a sight of that one pound coin that I was fobbed with in Mumbai, well I just can’t help smiling, to think that that street vendor thought he was fooling me by giving me a coin that was not a five rupee coin, but something less valuable!
Why do we collect Coins?
It is clear that Numismatics is a fading hobby, what with the growing popularity of plastic money and the phasing away of coins with a decimal value of less than hundred points. I have seen how the five paisa, ten paisa, twenty-five paisa, fifty paisa coins have disappeared from scene. There was a time when you could board a bus in Delhi and buy a ticket for twenty-five paisa. Today, you don’t even keep coins! It is therefore even more important for Numismatists like me to explain why it is that we collect coins even when we know that they are soon going to fade away into the past! Well, I guess the first reason why we collect coins is because, as I mentioned earlier, they have a sentimental value! In many cases this might be because a particular coin has attained the status of a family heirloom, or for that matter, it was gifted by someone very close to you, your father, mother, or even grandparent! The second reason could be that they are part of one’s subject area. A historian or scholar of history might have a particular attachment with a particular dynasty or era, and so he or she takes it up as an obsession to collect memorabilia from a particular period of history. The third reason is that people collect rare coins as an investment knowing well that the value of a particular coin will appreciate and not depreciate in times to come. The fourth reason is that people collect coins of different eras and countries, unlike the historian I mentioned earlier because of their curiosity and desire to learn about the wider world. The fifth reason is a mix of all of the above mentioned reasons. I would go with the fifth reason as my reason for collecting coins. The sixth reason is completely disconnected from all the other reasons, and it is because some people simply like to collect stuff, whether it is scraps of leftover cloth, screws, washers, just because they believe these things will come in handy at some time or the other!
Is coin collecting good for you?
Sentimental value apart, there can be many compelling reasons for advising people to take up numismatics as a hobby. While no doubt counsellors and psychiatrists would advise taking up a hobby, any hobby as a stress-buster, I would advocate coin collecting because if stamp collecting is the King of all hobbies, then coin collecting is no less! The problem with stamps is that they are more delicate than coins being made of paper. Coin collecting does not require too much of effort as for example hiking in the mountains, and one can easily pursue this hobby from the comfort of one’s living room. Coin collecting is advantageous as a hobby also because it helps build a network of like-minded people. Expertise in the field will give the hobbyist a chance to mix with other experts, thus building up on one’s knowledge. Acquiring a new coin in the collection might also be a source of immense satisfaction especially if it is a unique or a special one. For a person who is interested in investing in coins made of precious metals, it would give unwonted joy to add up one more silver or gold coin to his or her collection. Taking time out of one’s hectic weekly schedule, just to look at one’s coins, or even clean them, will give the collector a healthy escape from the stress, trouble, and insecurity of everyday life.