The Lost (and Found) Treasure Ships of Zhang Xianzhong


Sometimes a legend of hidden treasure turns out to be true. For hundreds of years, tales of a lost hoard of gold and silver circulated in the Sichuan Province of China. It was said to have belonged to Zhang Xianzhong, leader of a peasants’ uprising during the final years of the Ming Dynasty.



Shaanxi province

Zhang was born in Shaanxi province; even as a young man, he had an imposing figure and became known as the “Yellow Tiger.” Though he served for a time in the Imperial army that was engaged in keeping rioting peasants under control, he soon defected to the rebel forces, and soon became the leader of his own band of raiders.




Sichuan province

Zhang’s entire career is a fascinating story of military success, defeat, and recovery. He surrendered several times, only to rebel and amass an army again. Finally, in 1644, Zhang marched 100,000 men toward Sichuan province. His men blasted a hole through the city walls of Chongqing; some reports claim that Zhang cut the hands off those who defended the city and massacred many inside. Zhang sent word out to the rest of the province that no one else would be harmed if they turned over their officials and surrendered without resistance.


Initially, Zhang ruled Sichuan well. Local Jesuit missionaries reported that he “began his rule with such liberality, justice and magnificence by which he captivated all hearts that many mandarins, famous both in civic as in military affairs whom fear was keeping concealed, left their hideouts and flew to his side.” But there was continued resistance to Zhang’s rule; Chongqing fell to Ming loyalists in 1645, and Zhang began a bloody war to stamp out all resistance in the province. Reports of deaths caused by Zhang’s orders vary, but there is no doubt that he had a massive impact on the population. The 1578 census for Sichuan recorded 3,102,073. Less than a hundred years later, only 16,096 adult males were recorded in the province.



Qing army officer

When Qing dynasty forces began to invade, Zhang decided to leave Sichuan, and took the vast treasure he had accumulated with him. In January 1647, while Zhang was fleeing toward Shaanxi, his forces met the Qing forces in Xichong; Zhang was killed during the battle. Some reports say that a trusted lieutenant betrayed him by identifying Zhang to an archer, who shot him as he left his tent.






Gold ingot

For hundreds of years after Zhang’s defeat, stories of his lost treasure abounded. Legends were told of 1,000 ships, loaded with gold and silver, lying at the bottom of the river. Chinese researchers recently confirmed that a newly-discovered wreck is, in fact, one of Zhang’s ships, containing more than 10,000 pieces of precious metal coins and ingots. Seven silver ingots were found during a construction project in 2005, and the site was declared a protected location in 2010, but exploration was halted while experts debated whether there was any merit to the stories of sunken ships. During the interim, treasure hunters began looting the site; while some were caught, there is no doubt that some historic items have been lost.




Recovered coins

In January of 2017, excavation of the site began, with pumps working to keep the area as dry as possible. The project is expected to continue into April, and officials are hoping to build a museum nearby to display and preserve the items. Peking University archaeologist Li Boquian said, “The items are extremely valuable to science, history and art. They are of great significance for research into the political, economic, military and social lives of the Ming Dynasty.”

A Brief History of Irish Coins




Early Gallic coin

The earliest known coins in Ireland were British and European copies of Macedonian coinage from the reigns of Philip II and Alexander the Great. No coins were struck on Irish soil this early, but the copied coins do turn up in hoards and archaeological digs.




Some of this lack of coinage can be attributed to the fact that the Roman invasion of the area did not reach the Emerald Isle, save for a short-lived camp north of Dublin. Roman coins have been found, but only alongside decorative metals and hack silver; the first-century Irish did not use coins as a medium of exchange, but simply as another form of precious metal, similar to the early Vikings.



Silver dirham

After the Romans left Ireland and the British Isles, coins fell out of use for centuries. The Irish retained a high level of technical skill in metal-working, and many beautiful silver and gold ornaments have been founds in hoards dating to this period. Many historians believe that the majority of coins that made their way to the island were melted and used for jewelry and other ornaments. As Ireland began to be Christianized by St. Patrick and his followers, and accepted by “civilized” (usually meaning “formerly Roman”) nations, coins begin to reappear in the Irish historical record, though still mostly in terms of precious metal rather than currency. Coins found from this period include Anglo-Saxon pennies and dirhams from Islamic lands. (Dr. Caitlin Green often blogs about the spread of Islamic coins to Europe in the medieval period. Her blog is highly recommended.)


The Vikings brought an increase in the usage of coins (mostly Danish and Anglo-Saxon) when they settled in Dublin and Limerick, but it seems that the Irish usually melted these coins, or saved them for return trade with the Vikings.



The first coins struck in Ireland were the Hiberno-Norse coins produced in Dublin at the end of the 10th century, by Norse King Sithric III (also known as Sithric Silkbeard). These were copies of English king Aethelred II’s pennies. These coin designs quickly degraded until they were barely recognizable, the lettering represented by vertical strokes, and the production of coinage ceased by 1160.
It was the entrance of the Normans in 1169 that brought about the most dramatic change in the Irish use of coinage. When Henry II’s son, John, was Lord of Ireland, he struck silver farthings and halfpennies near the end of the 1100’s, followed by an increased run of coinage when he became king. Dublin housed the primary mint, though other provincial mints were used, as well. At least one purpose of this minting was to funnel silver out of Ireland and into the war efforts of the British king; Irish silver coins circulated in England and on the continent as “sterlings.”


Minting continued sporadically for several decades, still concentrated on putting Irish silver intro circulation in British lands. It was not until 1279 that Edward I struck Irish coins of comparable quality with English coins, in silver pennies, halfpennies, and farthings. Again, this silver quickly made its way away from Ireland, further impoverishing the country.



Richard of York, 3rd Duke of York

During the next 150 years, coins continued to be struck and sent away from the island, until the Irish authorities were granted permission by Richard of York to strike lower quality coins to an “Irish standard.” In return, the authorities pledged their support for his effort to gain the English crown. Richard died, and his son became King Edward IV of England. Until his death in 1483, the Irish battled constantly to keep their own coinage, while Edward wanted all coins bearing his name to meet the higher English standard (which would have resulted in still more Irish silver leaving the small island economy). There are 6 different coin designs from this period, and several different weight standards, as well as base metal and bullion issues; modern numismatists are still sorting this puzzle out.


Several subsequent monarchs revised the coinage over the next hundred years, occasionally opting for higher standard metal, but always ending up with base metal coins. Notably, Henry VIII instituted the use of the Irish harp on the country’s coins, a practice that would continue almost unbroken into the modern era.


gold-pistole-300x143By 1639, tensions in Irish were high, as the British crown and its auxiliaries made more and more demands, including an Irish army to fight a rebellion in Scotland, as well as conflict between Catholic Irish and Protestant England and Scotland. The Irish Rebellion began in 1641; during this time and the subsequent English Civil War, local coinages began to pop up in Ireland, particularly in Dublin. These were crude coins struck from silver plate, often including their weight or value as part of the design. The only gold coins struck in Ireland date to this period: the pistole and double pistole of 1646. The pistole is a Spanish denomination, and Spanish coinage was among the most stable and tradeable at the time.
Regular issuances of coins in Ireland did not resume until 1680; until then, local coinage and tokens were most common. Over 800 varieties are known, and they come from almost every town and village in the small country. The most significant of these are the St. Patrick’s tokens, in farthing and halfpenny denominations. They have no known attributed issuer, and are heavier and were produced in greater numbers than the others.



Gunmoney coin with portrait of James II

Irish halfpennies resumed production in 1680 after Charles II granted a patent to Sir William Armstrong and Colonel George Legg. James II continued the patent, but produced ceased in 1688 after his abdication. When James decided to reclaim his throne, he issued brass coinage (romantically said to be made from melted cannons, but in reality made from common items, such as church bells). These tokens were known as “gunmoney” and intended to be redeemed for real coins as soon as James attained his throne again. James’ campaign failed, though gunmoney was still issued for some time from a mint in Limerick. This issue was halted when William and Mary captured Limerick in 1691; copper halfpennies resumed production in 1692.




Irish banknote from the 1830’s

Near the end of the 1780’s, Ireland faced a coin shortage. King George III had become insane and was unable to sign any new coinage into effect; however, the English monarchy had insisted on such tight control of the production of coins that even Parliament could not legally create coinage. The only solution was the creation of tokens, and sometimes even counterfeit tokens. This period also saw the rise of banknotes in Ireland. The Irish bank tried to import Spanish and Mexican pesos, though the price of silver against gold varied too much to establish consistent value for the coins. The bank counterstruck the coins with a six shilling design; this was not a popular move, but did help to ease the economic tension for a little while. Production of tokens continued sporadically until 1813.


s-l1600 (1).jpgBy the early 1820’s, both Irish pennies and halfpennies as well as English currency were circulating in Ireland. In 1826, Irish currency was officially ended, and English currency alone was valid in Ireland until the founding of the Irish state in 1928. In 1926, the new Irish Free State established a coinage committee; famed poet William Butler Yeats served as chairman. The committee continued the use of the Irish harp as the symbol of the country, and the best choice for the obverse of the coin.


s-l1600The reverse of the coins would be dedicated to Irish animals, in tribute to the country’s largely agriculture. Some suggested Christian saints as the focus for the reverse designs, but it was feared that many coins would be turned into religious medals. Irish sculptors submitted designs to compete for a prize, with Percy Metcalf’s designs winning out. A very few designs by sculptor Publio Morbiducci were produced as well, before Metcalf’s designs became the standard. The coin reverses feature the woodcock (farthing), sow with piglets (halfpenny), hen with chicks (penny), hare (threepence), Irish wolfhound (sixpence), bull (shilling), salmon (florin), and horse (halfcrown). These coins are highly sought after by advanced and casual collectors, as their distinctive designs and charming animals are considered very attractive.


A ten shilling piece was introduced in 1966, and commemorates the Easter rising of 1916. It was not a popular coin, and all but 750,000 of the two million produced were melted. In 1969, Ireland adopted a decimal currency; the change was made to coincide with the decimalization of British coins, since both were in wide circulation in Ireland at the time. Both old and decimal currency circulated together for three days until the old coins were demonetized. The new decimal coins also adopted classic Irish designs and animals.


In 1999, Ireland adopted the Euro, and began to withdraw pound coins and notes in 2002.


Largest Celtic Coin Hoard Finally Separated


After nearly three years of intensive conservation efforts, the largest Celtic hoard discovered to date has been separated.


Conservation team lead Neil Mahrer said, “This is a significant milestone for the team. It has been painstaking but thoroughly intriguing work, which has delivered some very unexpected and amazing finds along the way. There is still plenty to do and I am sure the Hoard will continue to surprise us as we clean and record the material.”


coin_mass.jpg__1072x0_q85_upscaleAmateur metal detectorists Reg Mead and Richard Miles found the hoard in 2012, but it was not a surprise find. 30 years ago, a local woman mentioned that her father had found some Celtic silver in the field in Jersey, and the pair believed there was more to be found. According to Reg Mead, “She told me that in the bottom was an earthenware pot and it shattered all over the field on a very muddy winter’s day and there were silver coins everywhere. They filled a small potato sack up and the rest of the stuff they just ploughed into the ground. When she described them we knew they were Iron Age. I told Richard and we have been searching hard all that time.” However, the farmer who owned the field only let them detect in it once a year, for about 10-15 hours, after his harvest was finished.


Thirty years of patience paid off when the two found several coins, and upon digging deeper, came across a chunk of earth with several coins embedded in it. Rather than excavating it themselves, the two wanted to make sure the archaeological context remained intact, and called in the experts.


torc_coins_2.jpg__1072x0_q85_upscale.jpgNamed Catillon II, the hoard contained over 68,000 coins, far more than any other Celtic find to date. The collection also contains gold torcs, leather goods, glass beads, and many other non-numismatic items. Historians believe it was buried around 30-50 BCE, during the rule of Julius Caesar. It was probably buried by French Celts fleeing Roman invasion. The government of Jersey must now decide whether they will pay to keep the hoard on the island, or allow it to be sold. It is valued at around 10 million pounds.


(All photos copyright Jersey Heritage.)

International Coin Urban Legends


It’s not just the United States that has urban legends about its coins. Other countries have some pretty strange stories, too!


Singapore_1_dollar_coin_tail.jpgIn Singapore, a new dollar coin minted in 1987 featured an intriguing design: a bagua, or octagonal shape. This would normally make very little impact, but the coin was released only two months before the new Mass Rapid Transit system began to operate. The story spread that the new mass transit tunnels had ruined the feng shui of Singapore, and only drastic measures could avert disaster. To offset the feng shui effects, each Singaporean should carry an octagon at all times. What better way to ensure this than by incorporating the design into a coin?


Of course, the two events were unrelated, but it’s no wonder that the timing led to an urban legend!


Another Singaporean legend involves a banner with the words “Majulah Singapura” inscribed on it. When this design appeared in 1990, the downwards-curving banner made the design on the coin look like a frowning face to some Singaporeans. The coin was supposedly redesigned in 1997 due to the Asian currency crisis, and featured an upwards-curving banner. A story began circulating that this was done after consulting feng shui experts. The truth? According to the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the older design was due to limitations in the technology. The newer design is made with different technology that can properly display the upward-curving banner. And this design was actually introduced in 1992, not 1997.


This story, from South Korea, is probably the strangest yet. According to this urban legend, Kim Min-Ji, the daughter of the president of the Korean Mint, was kidnapped and murdered, and her body torn apart. The murderer was never found, and her father worried that his daughter’s spirit would never rest easy. In order to put her ghost to rest, the Mint began to place images of Kim Min-ji’s body in coins and currency. According to the legend, you can see her head with flowing hair in the beard of Admiral Yi on one coin, her arm in the crane’s legs on the 500 Won coin, her legs in the design of King Sejong the Great’s robe on the 10,000 Won banknote, and more. The Mint insists that the story is baseless, and that they do not have that kind of control over the intricate details on the coins and currency that the legend requires. It’s another case of pareidolia, the phenomenon when a person sees a face or other recognizable object in a pattern where none exists. For more of the details on this story, check out the extended post on this CoinTalk thread.


Coins also power a match-making site in Japan, according to the local legend. If you visit Yaegaki Shrine in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, Japan, you’ll hear the tale of the rescue of Princess Kushinada from an eight-headed dragon by her true love, the god Susanoo. Modern legend says that a visitor to the shrine can put a coin on top of a piece of paper, and set it adrift on the Mirror Pond. If the paper sinks rapidly, you will soon find the love you’ve been seeking. If it takes longer than half an hour, your dreams will be deferred.



Another Japanese urban legend has a less traditional spin. Most payphones in the country are green, sometimes gray, but for years there have been rumors of a gold payphone in the Yotsuya neighborhood of Tokyo. According to the story, the phone was painted gold in honor of a royal marriage parade; if you call your crush from the gold phone with a coin with a reeded edge, your feelings will be returned.
None of the legends here have any provable base in fact, but it’s incredible to see how such stories spread!

What To Do When You Inherit A Coin Collection


It’s one of the most frequent posts on coin forums: “I got this coin/collection from my relative, and I don’t know what to do with it or what it’s worth.” Since coin collecting has been the most popular hobby in the world for centuries, this is a common dilemma. Here are some basic things to help you preserve the value of any coins you may inherit and decide what to do with them.


First things first: NEVER clean a coin. Even using water and a cloth can cause tiny scratches that can reduce the value of the coin. Most collectors prefer the original surface on coins, and older coins will be more valuable if they still have their patina and toning.


s-l1600 (16).jpgSecondly, store the coins somewhere clean, dry, and smoke-free, with a moderate temperature (coins like the same temperatures that humans do.) If you can, put them in a safety deposit box at a bank. Some of the coins may be in holders that are damaging them; read our post here to get an idea of what to look for and which storage options will work best for you. If you do decide to change the holder a coin is in, be very careful when removing the coin, as some plastics can actually scratch the coin surface. If possible, use cotton gloves when handling a coin, and always hold a coin by the edges without touching the front or back surfaces.


Now that your coins are secure, you can begin to think about getting them appraised. (Most of the information in this post will be about U.S. coins, but the basic principles will be applicable to any collection.)



One of the most important things to do is to identify good sources of information about coins. The Whitman Official Red Book is your best guide to identifying your coins and giving you a basic idea of value. Naturally, the condition of the coins will affect the value, but some basic knowledge will help make sure that a dealer isn’t undervaluing the coin should you want to sell.


s-l1600 (17).jpg

Some of the coins may be in plastic “slabs,” which is good news. These are coins that have been graded by a third party, and guaranteed to be authentic and of the grade listed on the label. These have already been graded and identified for you. If the grading was done a long time ago, you may wish to have it re-graded with modern technology; however, this is only worthwhile on higher value coins.



Our new app, Lookzee, can help you identify and grade some of your coins! Read more about it here. However, you should know how to identify and grade coins manually, in case the app does not have your coin on record yet, and to be sure you understand the coins you’ve received.


The first things to look at when identifying and valuing a coin are the date and mintmark. Both should be easily visible on the face of the coin, unless there is extensive aging. It is not unusual for there to be addition varieties even within the same date and mintmark; the rarer the variety, in general, the more valuable the coin. Some of these varieties are only identifiable by a coin expert, but many can be detected even by an amateur. The Red Book (mentioned above) will have a listing of all varieties, as well as images to help you identify your coins.


Attractive-250.jpgThe grade of the coin refers to its condition, and is one of the major factors in determining the value of a given coin. The most common scale goes from 1 to 70, with 70 being a coin in perfect condition. Cleaning affects the grade of the coin as well, as most cleaning methods severely damage the surface of the coin. Some coins may have acquired a veneer of oxidation, known as “toning.” Many collectors prize coins with attractive toning, and will pay a higher price for them, beyond what the grade alone may indicate. (Don’t try to give coins a fake toning, however, as this is easily discovered and reduces the value of the coin.)


Make sure to examine your coins in good lighting, so you can see the details as clearly as possible. A magnifying glass will also help in determining which variety of a specific coin you have. Work by coin type, when you can, so you don’t have to flip back and forth in the Red Book. Keep in mind that the prices listed in the Red Book are not current market value of the coin: the coin market can change quickly, so a printed guide cannot be expected to keep up with these changes. Still, it will give you a good idea of how coins compare to each other in value. This grading tutorial from Heritage Auctions is a good resource.


A note on highly damaged coins: older coins tend to have more precious metal content, and some coins will still have value for their precious metal even when age and wear have removed all numismatic value. These coins can be sold as “junk silver.” They may also make good gifts for children who are beginning coin collections and will prize the coin for its age and uniqueness over the value.


It may seem like overkill to spend hours identifying and understanding what you’ve inherited, but it will give you a basic idea of what the collection is worth. This will give you an edge when getting the coins officially appraised, and protect you from unscrupulous dealers who may try to buy your coins far below their value. The odds of having a truly valuable coin in your collection are small, but it does happen. Just last year, a coin worth £250,000 was discovered in a child’s playset that had been passed down through generations.


s-l1600-18Once you’ve done the work to identify the coins and get a basic idea of their value, you may want to take the ones that appear to have the most value, and take good photos of them. By posting the photos to coin forums or Facebook groups, you may be able to get experienced collectors to help you refine the value of the coin prior to official appraisal. (Don’t do this before identifying the coin and doing the basic research, as these groups tend to be swamped with posts of low-value coins from people who haven’t done any research.)


Now that you’ve done your research and gotten an idea of which coins are likely to have the most value, it’s time to think about appraisal. If you have a local coin store, they are probably a good place to start, as most will be willing to take a look at your coins (some may charge a fee if you are only looking for an appraisal without giving them the chance to buy some of the coins.) Most will not want to buy the entire coin collection, as they will only be able to sell certain pieces, and will only buy them from you for less than their retail value. It’s up to you to decide if you want to sell the coins or not.
You may wish to send those coins that have potentially high value in to be graded by a third party. The top three in the coin industry are NGC, PCGS, and ANACS; all of these are industry-standard and highly regarded. Coins graded and put into plastic slabs by a third-party service are usually easier to sell and bring higher prices. (It’s often a good investment even if you plan to keep the coins.)


There are many things to be aware of if you want to sell the collection yourself, should it prove to be of value. This excellent post from the Collectors Society forums goes into further detail.


Of course, you may want to keep the collection and use it as the foundation of your own collection! In the process of studying the coins to identify and grade them, you will find that coins have a distinct beauty, and a greater variety than many people imagine. You might find yourself drawn to particular coins (like the 1920’s Peace Dollar) or certain eras (early 20th century coins are often quite striking.) You have an opportunity: make the most of it!

Imaging Changes Everything



acrylic-paints-174638_960_720.jpgThe tools we use to see the world change the kind of world we can see. In the latter half of the 19th century, two technological advances changed the world of imaging forever. First, the development of film photography, allowing more detail to be captured than had been possible with other imaging methods. Secondly, the development of pre-mixed artists’ paint in tubes, which allowed painters to leave their studios and paint what they saw in the world, instead of relying on sketches and models. The photographers began to focus on capturing the realities of the physical world in a way that paint never could, and the painters, through the Impressionist and Expressionist movements, began to focus on the experience of the world, in a way that photography could not capture.


agfa-682920_960_720.jpgThroughout the 20th century, photography became cheaper and more portable; more and more people were able to afford cameras and film, which led to greater experimentation with film. Films arrived, first the silent films, then “talkies,” and finally films with full color and sound, even experimental 3D effects.


selfie-465563_960_720And then, at the beginning of the 21st century, the digital revolution happened. Digital cameras were ubiquitous, and constantly improving in quality and size. When smartphones became de rigueur, most people had digital photography–in previous inaccessible quality–in their hands at all times. Selfie culture rose, as did the live-streaming of dramatic events, such as the rescue of the passengers aboard the famous plane that went down in the Hudson River. No matter event is happening, no matter where in the world, someone is covering it with the digital camera in their phone. That is what today’s world looks like.


The world of numismatics is not exempt from this story. As photography has improved, so have coin catalogs: instead of relying on descriptions of coins or artists’ depictions, collectors have photographs. On eBay, most prospective collectors can zoom in on any given coin in high detail. Purchases are more informed than ever. But something has been lacking. If a collector knew what coin she had, she could get a value on it. But what if she did not know? What if a treasure was sitting in her pocket change? Of course, there were occasional stories about such finds. Even this year, an extremely valuable coin turned up in a child’s pirate treasure playset. But this only happened when the coins chanced to make their way to experts.




There is no longer a need to rely on that chance. We’ve taken the next step, and paired digital imaging with machine learning. Our new Machine (read more about it here) can correctly identify and grade up to three coins a second…and we can put the power of that Machine on your phone. Our new app, Lookzee, is in development and has already identified many valuable coins simply by taking photos of unsorted coins from our stock. Right now, the image library is focused on wheat cents, though we will be growing from there, as we evaluate the needs of the numismatic community. Our goal is organic growth that collectors actually want and will use.






We are currently seeking testers for Lookzee: if you’d like to help us test the app before it is released to the public, please get in touch with us at

Holiday Coin Traditions



We’ve already talked about some of the history of chocolate coins at Christmas, but what about other holiday coin traditions?


800px-Gentile_da_Fabriano_063.jpgIn the original St. Nicholas myth, Nicholas learned of a local family who were extremely poor, but would not accept charity. (In some versions, the family had only daughters, who would be forced to work the streets since the family could not afford dowries for marriage.) Nicholas, a pious and generous man, climbed up on the roof of the family’s home and dropped gold coins down the chimney and into socks that were drying by the fire. Coins were the first “stocking stuffers” as the practice of leaving socks (or shoes) out for St. Nicholas spread around the world.



In many traditions, a coin is slipped into a dessert, pudding, or bread. In the UK, Stir-Up Sunday occurs on the last Sunday before Advent. While the name actually comes from the prayer used in Church of England parishes on that day (which begins with “Stir up, O Lord,”) the day has now become associated with the “stirring up” of Christmas puddings. A coin is dropped into the batter, and each family member gives the mix a stir while wishing on the coin (sneaky parents may use this as a way to find out what their children want for Christmas!) The pudding is stored until Christmas Day; whoever gets the sixpence in the pudding is said to receive good luck during the upcoming year.


1280px-Trutovsky_Kolyadki.jpgMany Eastern European countries celebrate a holiday called Koliada as well as Christmas. Koliada is a time when children go caroling at neighborhood houses, and are rewarded with coins and other small gifts. In Macedonia and Greece, a coin is baked into the Vasilopita cake, which is named in honor of St. Basil, whose celebration is on January 1. Finding the coin brings luck to the one who discovers it, much like the British tradition mentioned above.



During the days of Hanukkah, chocolate coins (though real coins are still used in some communities) are given as “gelt.” The tradition originally called for giving coins to teachers and to workers who might be overlooked the rest of the year, but are now mostly given to children.





Some families hide a pickle ornament on their tree, with a coin or other gift as the reward for finding it.





Whatever your holiday traditions, we wish you a happy holiday season!


The Future of Coin Grading is Here


Over the last few years, conversations in the numismatics would about the use of ever-improving optical and computer technology have been heated. Is it possible to create a machine that can accurately sort coins in a manner that is useful to collectors? Can machines be taught to spot and analyze aesthetic qualities of a coin, such as toning?
In short: yes.
1.jpgFor a better answer, allow us to introduce the numismatic world to our new achievement, simply called “The Machine.” The Machine was conceptualized by owner Tim Rathjen and built entirely in-house by  a small team at The Stamp and Coin Place. Rathjen, a polymath with an eclectic interest in collectibles, firmly believes in the power of emerging technology to enrich and enhance even the most traditional of hobbies. The Machine is the product of years of study and experiments with ever-improving imaging technology.
You can read about the technical specs and how The Machine works on The Coin Blog, but here are a few of the big numbers. At average speed, The Machine can accurately grade and sort 3 coins per second, which comes out to 10,800 coins per hour, or 86,400 coins in one 8-hour workday. This incarnation of The Machine can accurately grade coins up to XF, and we anticipate that future versions will be able to do even more as we refine the technology.
2We have taken the first step into a field that has been almost entirely theoretical until now: automatic computerized coin grading. The speculative coin grading technology of the future is here. Of course, it’s not perfect yet. No first attempt ever could be. We look forward to the challenges of creating even more accurate and capable Machines.


The big question of computerized grading still remains: will computers replace humans in evaluating coins? We can teach a computer to “see” like a human being, but we still cannot teach a computer to “feel” like a human. As long as a specific coin speaks to something in an individual collector, the human element will always be the most important one in coin collecting.

The Monetary Terrorism of the Holy Roman Empire


Mike Dash calls the “Kipper und Wipper” period of the Holy Roman Empire “arguably the most bizarre episode in all of economic history.” Not only was the currency in a state of increasing debasement, but many city-states actively participated in the debasement in an attempt to weaken their neighboring states.
This is actually considered “monetary terrorism,” and while uncommon today, was a standard practice for Germany in past centuries. The phrase “Kipper und Wipper” has debatable beginnings; kipper could be translated as “clipping” or “to tilt,” with wipper being “seesaw” or “to wag.” Either way, the phrase indicated dishonest practice with coinage: clipping the coins themselves, and unfair measuring practices that allowed debased coinage to be exchanged for precious metal coins.
page1-427px-Der_wartzke_mann.djvu.jpgThe coinage of Europe had already suffered a blow with the influx of precious metals from the New World. The city-states of Europe were already accustomed to having foreign currency circulate freely; this was possible largely due to the public’s faith in the value of the coinage. A reeding had not yet been invented, a precious metal coin could be easily clipped; in addition, the metal in a coin might have been mixed with lower-value metal. As the Thirty Years’ War got underway in the early half of the 17th century, Holy Roman city-states began to actively debase currency, hoping to raise revenue for the war coffers. When brought in for exchange, high-value coins were placed on rigged scales, or the exchangers would keep the scales moving so as to fool the eye. The high-value coinage was then swapped for debased currency.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, “The coins minted in the Empire reflected this barely suppressed chaos. In theory the currency was controlled and harmonized by the terms of the Imperial Mint Ordinance issued at Augsburg in 1559, which specified, on pain of death, that coins could be issued only by a select group of imperial princes via a limited number of mints that were subject to periodic inspections by officials known as Kreiswardeine. In practice, however, the Ordinance was never rigorously enforced, and because it […] cost more to mint low-denomination coins than larger ones, the imperial mints soon stopped producing many smaller coins.”
This vacuum of smaller coinage lead to a strong demand for smaller-denomination coins, since these were used in most daily transactions. Smaller coins began flooding into the states of the Holy Roman Empire, and unauthorized mints popped up frequently. As the number of mints increased, demand for coins rose, and the mints began to issue debased coinage, trying to stretch the precious metal further. Brunswick, for example, had 17 mints in 1620, and 40 by 1625.
saxony_60_kipper_groschen_1622_711919Most states did not debase their own coinage, hoping to maintain a reputation for high-value coins. Instead, the state would issue debased imitations of the coins of neighboring states, and spend them in states even farther away. Charles Kindleberger, an economic historian, writes, “Debasement was at first limited to one’s own territory. It was then found that one could do better by taking bad coins across the border of neighboring principalities and exchanging them for good with the ignorant common people, bringing back the good coins and debasing them again. The territorial unit on which the original injury had been inflicted would debase its own coin in defense, and turn to other neighbors to make good its losses and build its war chest. More and more mints were established, debasement accelerated in hyper-fashion.” This actually worked, for a little while, but soon the public realized what was happening; riots occurred, and in many places, soldiers refused to fight unless they were paid in verified non-debased currency.
The increasingly-corrupt mints constantly found new ways of sneaking debased coinage into circulation. Many kept a certain number of good coins in storage, to be brought out when investigators came poking around. Bad coins were coated in precious metal, or hidden in produce to be smuggled past city gates. Such mints could not stay in business long, of course; once their bad coinage was identified, the mint was forced to close. However, not only did the minters often open new mints, but even formerly-reliable mints were forced to issue debased coinage, as they could no longer afford to produce good coins at the current rate of inflation.
A pamphlet from the time reads, “As soon as one receives a penny or a groschen that is a bit better than another, he becomes a profiteer.… It follows that doctors leave the sick, and think more of their profits than of Hippocrates and Galenus, judges forget the law, hang their practices on the wall and let him who will read Bartholus and Baldus. The same is true of other learned folk, studying arithmetic more than rhetoric and philosophy; merchants, retailers and other trades—people push their businesses with short goods.”
In addition to civic unrest over the economic crisis, the states began to receive taxes and fees in debased coinage; the practice of coin debasement ended around 1623, but the damage was done. The low-value coins were now in circulation in Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary. It was common to see children in the streets playing with piles of worthless coins. The cost of food rose an estimated 800%, leaving the poor (and those in cities without the means of producing food) in dire straits. The rulers of the Empire eventually decided to go back to the terms of the 1559 Mint Ordinance, but it was many decades before the effects of the Kipper Und Wipper began to fade.

Silver Sixpence and Other Love Coin Traditions

Coins appear frequently in folklore, mythology, and superstition, and they feature heavily in legends about relationships.


img_4241The old phrase often recited to brides, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” used to have a final phrase: “and a silver sixpence in her shoe.” It is a custom in Great Britain (as well as other countries) for a father to place a sixpence or other coin into the shoe of a bride. (In Sweden, the bride’s mother puts a gold coin in her other shoe as well.) The coin is said to bring wealth, happiness, and luck. Wales has a slightly different version, in which a coin is put into the cork from the bottle of champagne served to the newly married couple; the cork then serves as a souvenir and good-luck charm. In Derbyshire, girls would put the silver sixpence under their pillows, with a sprig of rosemary, in hopes of dreaming of their future husband.


The “luck of the Irish” extends to coins and relationships, too. The old Irish custom of “luck money” paid to the family of the bride evolved into modern couples exchanging coins along with rings during the wedding ceremony. Some even say that if the coins clink during the exchange, it’s a sure sign that children will be added to the new family quickly. Traditionally, the groom would give his bride a new coin, as a symbol of sharing all of his possessions. The coin would become a family keepsake; when the couple’s eldest son came to be married, the coin would be passed to him as a good luck charm, and he would present his own bride with a new coin.




19th century English love token coin. Photo credit: Woody1778a on Flickr, used under CC by SA 2.0.

In Poland, instead of throwing confetti, wedding guests toss coins at the couple; the couple then gathers up all the coins, which is intended to be a bonding experience. Nearby Lithuania adds a coin with the couple’s initials on it: the bridesmaids and groomsmen collect the coins, and whoever ends up with the special coin gets to dance with the bride or groom. It’s said that this tradition sprang up around a poor young couple who were engaged to be married. Since he couldn’t buy a ring, the groom-to-be carved a design into a coin for his bride. Before the wedding could take place, he was sent off to war; for ten years, his fiancee waited for him to return. Return he did, but in the intervening years, the coin had been stolen. When the wedding finally occurred, the village collected coins so that the returning war hero and his bride could afford rings. One of the coins collected was the very same carved coin that had been lost; the ecstatic couple grabbed the villager who had contributed it, and all three began to dance with joy.



An old Roman custom of paying for broken pledges resulted in the Hispanic wedding tradition of giving the bride 13 gold coins, often in an ornate box, as a symbol of the husband’s pledge to care for her. This is called “las arras,” from the Latinate word “arrhae.” (Quite a few of these coin and box sets are posted on Pinterest.)
wedding-1404620_960_720India has many different cultural practices, as it is a large and diverse nation; one of the most poignant is a tradition known as “vidai,” in which the bride scatters coins behind her as she leaves her parents’ house; the coins are intended as acknowledgement and repayment of all the sacrifices they have made in raising her.



China also uses coins to mark and celebrate relationships, striking coins for engagements, wedding ceremonies, and the actual marriage. The Chinese philosophy of feng shui dictates that shiny coins must be displayed on bright red fabric, to enhance their good fortune.



As indicators of wealth and fortune, coins will always be popular subjects of folklore and superstition. And the next time you hear that little rhyme for the bride, you’ll know how it’s supposed to end!