Coin collectors from Chennai talk about how their hobby connects them to people and civilisations
Sit with Raman Sankaran for a spell-binding account of India’s coin history. “It is a 2,300-year-old saga,” he begins, and points out how our habit of throwing coins into rivers made riverbeds fertile land for coin harvests. “Archaeologists have excavated only a few Sangam Age coins, but found a huge quantity in river-beds.” He tells you how natural stones were polished and embellished to enhance their exchange value, how when Romans bought them off, silver was shaped into coins, group symbols punched on them gave birth to “punch-marked” coins. Copper came on the scene when silver went into short supply; coins were square-shaped with the popular animal elephant embossed on one side.
In peninsular India, Cheras marked coins with bow/arrow, Cholas with tiger, Pandyas with fish. Pallavas issued “Potin” coins of tin/silver/iron/copper alloy. These crumbled into layers, probably to prevent replication. The story goes on to the revival of “gold for coins” by Raja Raja Chola and Vijayanagar kings, Persians bringing gold dinars, the Nayaks putting deities on their coins, the Mughals issuing rupee coins, and the British minting coins for India in London. The Dutch, the French, the Portuguese left their legacy, adding to its rich tapestry. “After Independence, we minted our own, first in copper and nickel, now in stainless steel.” Raman fills his narrative with captivating details and sidelights: why there was a profusion of Chola coppers, what happened when a consignment of Madras Presidency coins was lost at sea, how one Nawab of Arcot minted coins with the face of a Hindu god on one side and Urdu calligraphy on the other, how coins had Tamil alphabets 400 years ago, the connection between Kundavai and Tamil Grantham on Rajaraja Narendra coins.
“My fascination for art and craft took me to collecting foreign coins,” says Harish Agarwal, whose journey into the foreign coins world began in school. As his collection grew, he began to surf the internet and came across Alok Goyal at www.coin-invest.li (Liechtenstein), referred to as the representative for SAARC countries. “I contacted him, purchased my first Tiffany neoclassicism 2oz coin a year-and-a-half back. I was delighted with this true piece of art with a green glass over it.” A great start, he felt, and with Goyal’s expert mentoring, gained knowledge and a small “kitty of these wonderful world coins.” His pursuit of the rich-and-famous coins took him (online) to renowned mints of the world like Perth-Mint, Royal Mint-UK, CIT, Alcollect and Mayer. There are private ones that fashion coins made to order, he says. “These are of great precision, high-relief, clarity, superlative finish and are despatched with certificates of authenticity in excellent packing.” The coins are on endless themes in solid silver/gold/copper or in plated form, for all ages — cartoon characters, superheroes, trains, space, wildlife, aeroplanes, vintage/modern cars, wonders of the world, zodiacs, maps, art, sculptures, personalities, puzzles. Nano-tech is used for striking masterpieces with murano glass, Swarovski crystals, meteorite particles, lenticular surface, 3D effect. “These beautifully etched coins changed my focus on my hobby,” he says. “It feels like having a masterpiece, a historical moment in a small piece of silver on your palm.” Yes, it is an expensive hobby, but don’t treat it as investment,” he appeals. “Be a passionate collector of the unusual.” And check out coins-n-coins.com.
“Coin collection is important in a way that it teaches us the history and culture around us,” says Thirumaran Shankarlingam, who has been a passionate chaser of those chroniclers for more than 30 years. His father pursued this expensive hobby and handed over his collection to him when he was a teen, and his dad-inspired enthusiasm hasn’t waned a bit, he says. His collection is eclectic, includes coins from Chola, Thiruvannamalai and British periods, world coins and odd ones with errors like double-struck, brokerage-mirror-image. He loves them all, but highlights as the rarest the half-poovaragan issued by Madras Presidency (1808), a Biafra (country for six months) coin, a PCGS (Public Coin Grading Service)-certified coin (one of 1440) recovered from ground zero of WTC, a 1996 commemorative of Crop Science Conference that never took place, another commemorative mistakenly issued in 1996 to mark Netaji Bose’s centenary (the correct year was 1997) and withdrawn, and a Thiruvannamalai Samasthanam gem. Appreciate coins for their rarity, he says, check for authenticity, preservation status and condition. “Coins with minting errors are collectors’ items.”
Basically I’m a philatelist, says 28-year-old Rajesh Kumar. “When I started attending philately shows overseas, I was fascinated by coins in the other booths. Once it struck me that my grandfather had a collection lying in our storeroom! As soon as I reached home, I took it out, started filling it with the missing pieces. I was now a numismatist!” He rarely misses exhibitions held across the world, and visits online stores searching for coin portfolios, he says. “Through this hobby I’ve met people of different ages and interest, I feel so proud.” In his collection, he counts as best British India (1835-1947) coins of King William/Queen Victoria/King Edward/King George V, VI. Numismatics is the easiest hobby, he says, because it’s a “daily transactional piece of collectible we all handle. But collect with passion and understanding, set aside a portion of your savings for it.” Coin collection is very popular in the city, he feels, the frequency of exhibitions is a proof of that. “It is an excellent way to educate oneself. I feel relaxed when I see my collection.”