What do people with heaps of old coins — especially if they don’t know its value — do? They take it to the scrap-shop of course, and sell it for a pittance. If one of the coins happened to be a ‘bull 2 annas’ minted in 1955, well, they would’ve lost about Rs. 30,000 right there. I double-check that figure with Sanjeev Kumar — he, along with his brother Sripal Rathod, runs the S.S. Hobby Centre in Elephant Gate Street, Sowcarpet — and he confirms its current market value. “Around the year 2000, we sold some for less than Rs. 500. But its value has appreciated substantially,” he says, explaining that its price is because only a small quantity was minted that year, making it among Republic India’s rarest and most coveted coins.
Surrounded by currency notes and coins from various countries, Sanjeev tells me that their store specialises in British India and Republic India coins and notes. There are stacks of (now discontinued) Re 1 and Rs. 2 notes; coins of various sizes and shapes sorted by an assistant, and packed into plastic covers; and behind Sanjeev, the shelves heave with reference books, and coin collections. “This hobby does not necessarily have to be expensive,” says Sanjeev, as he frames a ten-rupee note and hands it over to a customer. (That ten-rupee note had the serial number of a birthday; that is, if somebody’s birthday is 17-10-87, then, it’s possible to gift a note with 171087 in the top right hand corner, making it a very unusual memento). Some numismatists take their missing coins seriously, and they’re happy to fork out large sums to fill the gaps in their collections; but the amateur can always start with, say, a coin each for 100 countries, or the more affordable Republic India coins.
Sanjeev in fact, started that way. When his father travelled on work, he brought back a lot of coins from North India, and their personal collection grew. In 2006, the brothers moved from running a stationery shop, to a full-time hobby store. Today, the business is doing well, and Sripal has brought out a comprehensive book about coins from British to Republic India. Collecting coins is also an excellent way of being in touch with history, says Sanjeev. “It is sad that people sell old ones as scrap metal. Old coins deserve to be preserved; otherwise, how will we know that there used to be 3 paisa coins?” he asks, advising against cleaning old copper coins at home, as it reduces its value.
The coins and currency notes from abroad are interesting for many reasons — some come in incredible sizes (Sanjeev shows me a square Thai note that’s as big as a small handkerchief, at 16x16 cm), and others have beautiful watermarks, which, when held against the light look like paintings. They also show you that there’s a world out there that you know nothing about. “You wouldn’t have even heard of some countries, until you see the names on the coins and notes. Naturally, you’ll want to find out more about the place.”
But besides just geography, currency notes and coins are a lesson in global economy. Sanjeev points to a note from Zimbabwe, pinned to the display board; minted three years ago, it has ‘one hundred trillion dollars’ printed on it; and its exchange rate then in Indian money was Rs.100! Still more staggering is a coin from Turkey. Its denomination then was 100,000 liras. And its approximate value in Indian rupees was Rs. 3. “Just imagine the number of ‘high value’ coins you need to take with you to the market!” laughs Sanjeev.
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)