Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A token with strange script

Four months ago a user on the forum /r/coins posted a machine-struck token or coin with an unusual inscription.

I cannot identify the script. It seems like each letter (or syllable) is made up of one or two parts of a square plus a curve. That's unusual. It doesn't show up in any of the examples my browser can render in Wikipedias list of writing systems. Because of the lines+curve nature of the script I was thinking an alphasyllabary script or the 'Phags-pa Mongolian script. I thought it looks a little like Tamil but not really.

One side depicts what appears to be a club. The other sign shows a bird, probably a falcon, carrying something odd-shaped. The shape in the eagle's talons could just represent a rock or something but I am thinking perhaps an outline of an island or province. The style of art used to depict the bird is unusual. No coin relief, no feathers. Just a line drawing with simplified wings really. That's unusual … most coin artists like to show off by doing really detailed feathers.

I do not have the item in-hand and I don't know the size, weight, or composition.

I don't believe this is a real coin. For a while I thought it might be a fantasy coin or micro-nation. Maybe it is just designed to confuse. I am posting it here because we all love a mystery once in a while.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Colouring, Bronzing and Patination of Metals

An impressive book on finishing metals is Richard Hughes and Michael Rowe's 1982 The Colouring, Bronzing, and Patination of Metals.

It's a big book. It begins with a 13 page Historical Introduction which covers metal finishing in ancient China, Greece, and Rome, throughout history up to the present day. The surface enrichment of coins is briefly mentioned. There is an extensive bibliography.

The next section is a 23 page discussion of how to actually color metal objects. This is followed by 16 color plates. The plates are quite beautiful in the 1991 Watson-Guptill edition that I borrowed from the New York Public Library. (I have not seen the other editions.)

The bulk of the book is a 250-page section of chemical recipes to get the various color effects. These are historical recipes, which the authors personally carried out “with the exception of a few potentially very hazardous recipes”. Modern chemical names are used for the ingredients. The recipes are dense, four or five to a page, arranged by the desired color of the finished product. For anyone carrying out the recipes, there is an 18 page section on Safety.

The patination technique used by Italian antiquities forgers that I mentioned in March that used Copper Sulfate, Nitric Acid, and Ammonium Choride did not appear in the book (or if it did, I missed it in the hundreds of recipes). Recipe 3.213 (the 213th recipe in the Copper section includes Copper Sulfate and Ammonium Chloride, but used Ferrous Sulfate instead of Nitric Acid. There were several recipes with Nitric acid, such as 1.40, 1.120, 2.29, and 3.132, but not many (perhaps because of its poisonous and corrosive nature). The recipes that did include Nitric Acid combined it with Copper Nitrate rather than Copper Sulfate.

It would be fun to experiment with the patina recipes, perhaps on modern copper coins, but I lack the time to embark on such a project and it probably isn't a good idea to keep such chemicals around the house. If anyone reading the blog has skill in this field and would like my to link to their site or to guest-post here on the topic of producing patinas just let me know.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Form CN 22

This is a completed form CN 22. It is supposed to be attached to the outside of international envelopes containing anything other than letters. This one was attached to an envelope which contained an Indian token I won for ₹220 (about US$3.46) in an auction.

I've noticed that coins sent from India always have such a declaration. I recently received a 2013 coin from Poland of similar value which did not have a declaration. About half of the low-value coins I receive from Europe seem to lack it.

According to the US Customs web site, a customs duty must be paid for all merchandise worth above $200. (Gold coins have an exception and there is no duty on them but they still need the forms). According to, you must pick up goods worth more than $2,500 in person. I have never imported coins at that level.

Sellers generally don't want to attach the declarations to packages with no duty, as the declarations themselves are believed to encourage theft. If there is no Customs Duty to be paid or high-value reporting requirement it seems a pointless theft risk to affix a declaration. US Customs x-rays the envelops and will open them if it looks like duty might be needed. Yet the web site warns that the forms must be present accurate.

I was surprised to learn from that the weight of the item is expected. The form I show here does include it, but this is unusual in my limited experience. An this case the weight was not accurate: the token I received was about 1/3 the weight listed.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mailing coins to and from Europe

The United States Customs Service sometimes seizes ancient coins sent through the mail.

My friend the Cultural Property Observer has been blogging about the legal issues around Customs seizures. I became curious about the statistical properties: how often are the coins seized, does it make a difference what is written on the Customs Declaration, and do the particular source and destination cities make a difference.

My hope had been to send a few coins with sub-$10 market value back and forth with a reader living in Poland to see what happens. It might be interesting to learn if MOU restrictions are being enforced uniformly or are biased.

Surprisingly, my correspondent's Polish Post Office told him US Customs doesn't accept coins sent through the mail. Even more surprisingly, the US Post Office's web site says coin shipments to Poland coins are prohibited by Poland.

I'm not talking about ancient coins. I mean coins and money in general, “including currency in circulation in the Polish Republic”, and silver.

I am curious to see how it this prohibition works in practice. I was unable to convince my Polish archeo-blogger correspondent to enter into an exchange of modern coins with me. Instead I purchased a 2 Złote commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Polish Society for the Mentally Handicapped on eBay for $1.65 plus $3 shipping.

I purchased the coin on March 21st. It was postmarked March 25th. eBay expected it would arrive by April 24th to May 1st. The coin arrived a week early on April 13th. The seller did not declare the coin, so we didn't learn anything about shipping declared coins. I did learn it takes about three weeks for a thick coin-sized object in a Priorytet envelope with 360 Grozy of postage (about US 0.95) to reach New York.

My hope is that I didn't engage in smuggling through this transaction. I did everything above-board: I bought it publicly on eBay, paid with a credit card, received it at my legal residence via the US Postal Service. It was just an undeclared coin with a face value of US $0.53 and a collector value of $1.65. If anyone with a legal background knows otherwise please contact me via email.

If anyone with a Polish address is interested in receiving a few recent US coins from me, with full customs declaration, email me and tell me what kind of US coins you want. No charge. The coins might not arrive. My intention is to fill out declarations with variations of 'coins / gift / value ~$2' and 'numismatic / gift / value ~$2' and just see what gets refused and what gets seized. Anyone in?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Photo Certification from NGC Ancients

Numismatic Guaranty Corporation has been offering Third Party Grading of ancient coins for six years. Usually the company slabs the coins. I recently acquired two NGC-graded ancients that couldn't be slabbed. They came with laminated Photo Certificates.

The certificates are huge: 195mm x 120mm. I don't collect anything else this size and had no idea how to store the certificates with the coins. I finally found Supersafe 2 Pocket pages for Graded Currency which hold them and integrate well with a collection stored in a three-ring binder. Unfortunately these 2 Pocket pages don't have any kind of clasp or door and I will be nervous traveling with certificates in this kind of container.

Although the certificates are huge my smaller coin, a 1/64th stater weighing 0.14g, is exceptionally tiny. This coin is supposedly on good metal, with surfaces graded 4/5 by NGC, but blown up to the vast size of the photo certificate it looks painfully rough. I would have preferred a baseball-card sized photo certificate that could be stored in a safety deposit box. (If I had very large coins I expect large photo certificates, and it does make sense to standardize on a size. Just note that tiny coins that look good in hand may appear hideous when 6mm is blown up to 70mm).

As far as I can tell from the web site, photo certificates are only available for coins NGC is unwilling to slab. The web site authors seem not to have considered collectors who prefer the flexibility of certificates over the finality of slabs. I have no clue if it is possible to request only the certificate.

Each coin is given a unique serial number. Entering the number into a form on NGC's web site brings up photographs of the coin and the certificate. For example, my 1/64 stater can be seen at This part of NGC's web site seems poor. There is no population data. The 'Pedigree' listed for my coin is 'rv eagle head r.', which is of course the reverse description, not the pedigree. (So far I have been unable to trace the pedigree of this particular coin myself beyond the auction I purchased it in.)

Laminated with the photograph is a hologram and a 'photo-certificate.' I would have expected the certificate to be intaglio printed but it looks computer printed.

The 1/64 stater came with tiny slip of paper saying 'NGC has not certified this coin' because of 'other' with 'size' written by hand. This paper is wrong: the coin was certified by NGC. The certificate team seems to lack slips saying 'NGC has not encapsulated this coin' and is repurposing 'reject' slips.

My other photo-certified coin, a plated obol, should be visible at but it seems NGC did not upload the picture. The plated obol's photo-certificate includes the annotation 'ancient forgery' and this important information is not present on the verification page. I was happily surprised to learn the ancient counterfeits can be certified, as the web site claims 'NGC Ancients will only grade coins it believes to be genuine.' Leaving the forgery annotation off the web verification page seems like a major omission. It is also confusing to have a certificate that says 'ancient forgery' on one side and 'genuine, original' on the other, even though all serious collectors will understand what is meant.

I have been impressed with NGC's creation of the numerical ratings for Strike and Surface as distinct from wear grade. Acquiring a few NGC-graded coins changed the way I think about a coin's condition. Although I still struggle to understand all the nuances of 'Surface' I find NGC does a good job grading ancient coins.

It is unfortunate the industry hasn't come up with a reclosable slab yet, but NGC's photo certificate has a lot of potential until such a slab is invented.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Kushano-Sasanian coins are kind of interesting

Last week I posted on import restrictions on Roman coins. That post got 13 replies -- a much higher volume than my usual posts. Looking over my earlier posts, I see 16 posts that received zero comments and then one on import restrictions on Egyptian coins that somehow got 12 replies. It seems my readership is mostly interested in Customs issues.

When I started this blog I had hoped to write about computers and ancient coins, but those posts seem to attract little interest. In the past I have asked readers what they want to see here, but have gotten merely generic encouragement.

Wayne Sayles recently blogged about collecting coins that others ignore. I think Wayne is on to something so I will write about that. Lately I have been interested in pre-Islamic coins and have applied to join the Oriental Numismatic Society.

My latest coin is a Kushano-Sasanian bronze of Peroz I from Balkh circa 245-270 AD. The obverse is said to read ΠIPΩZO OOZOPKO KOÞANO ÞOYO (Peroz the great, Kushan king) and depicts king Peroz standing facing, head left, sacrificing over altar and holding a trident in his left hand.

The reverse is said to read OOPZAOANΔO IAZAΔO (Exhalted God) but I don't know how they get that — I can't make out a single letter on any of the examples I've seen! It depicts the Exhalted God (Siva?) standing facing, holding diadem and trident, before the bull Nandi. The bull has very odd feet on this coin and several other specimens that I have seen.

For those interested in provenance and import issues this coin comes from the collection of Robert N. Cook, Jr. of Graham, North Carolina. The collection was largely assembled 50 years ago in Indian and Afghanistan. Unfortunately I have no documentation for this particular coin before a February 2015 auction.

Wayne's post advises you to collect what others are not interested in. This particular coin sold, unattributed, in a lot of 24 Kushan coins that went for $2 each at auction. They buyer flipped it on eBay for 10x that, misattributed as the Kushan ruler Vasudeva. It is likely that these coins will be more appreciated in a few years after dealers start using the new reference, Kushan, Kushano-Sasanian, and Kidarite Coins: A Catalogue of Coins from the American Numismatic Society, by David Jongeward and Joe Cribb with Peter Donovan. I have not seen that work yet but eagerly anticipate publication.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

False patinas

In Classical Deception (page 54) Wayne Sayles mentions the excellent patinas on Sicilian fake coins starting in the 1990s. After his book was published I noticed copies of the coin Sayles used as an example appearing in the printed catalogs of several dealers.

I was wondering recently if hand-held XRF guns could be used to identify real and false patinas and a web search lead me to a five-year-old post on FORVM by Lloyd Taylor referencing a 2009 paper in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry. The paper is “Ancient Coins and their Modern Fakes: an Attempt of Physico-Chemical Unmasking” by A. M. Mezzasalma, G. Mondio, T. Serafino, G. De Fulvio, M. Romeo, and A. Salici.

They analyze five fake bronze coins. This is the recipe the forger confessed to:

“…one of the most used recipes for fakes artificial ageing utilizes a solution composed by penthydrated CuSO4 [Copper Sulfate] together with HNO3 [Nitric Acid] and NH4Cl [Ammonium Chloride] in distilled H2O [Water]. In this solution, warmed up until 80‐90°C, the just produced fakes (at about 100 °C) are immersed. Such a bath gives them an artificial patina with an “antique green” colour and a deceptive antiquity appearance. Drops of the above CuSO4 solution on clean bronze surfaces may form dendritic structures with the same characteristics of those observed in our fakes.”

Note: the fake BR02, which the authors couldn't identify, is a Himera gorgoneion / pellets.