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.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

American collectors should comment on the pending renewal of the MOU with Italy

Under Italian law, all antiquities must be registered with the government. Newly found antiquities belong to the government. So if Italians are digging a well and find some old coins, they must surrender them to the police.

Under US law, countries that have a serious problem with looting / grave-robbing / metal-detecting are allowed to ask for a "Memorandum of Understanding" which lists the kind of artifacts being looted. Currently the US and Italy have one and it covers, among other things, coins of Greek Sicily. So Americans can't just bid in British and German auctions for such coins, because without paperwork showing the coins have been on the collector market for years it is against the law to bring them to the US.

The Italians are asking for an extension. The extensions last for five years. The extension doesn't have to cover the same stuff. It could cover fewer coin types or more coin types. If it covered all Roman Imperial coins it would be frustrating, because these coins would be selling openly in many EU countries, but Americans wouldn't be able to buy them.

Some folks would like to see all ancient artifact sales banned. Others feel the sale of common objects like coins and rings is not a big deal. The purpose of filing comments is so that the US representatives don't just rubber-stamp whatever the Italian representatives ask for.

American collectors should read It's Not Too Late on Cultural Property Observer's blog and leave comments for the US Government's Advisory Committee.

Monday, February 09, 2015

You Thought It Was More

Louis Colavecchio with Franz Douskey and Andy Thibault 426 pages. $24.99, $9.99 on Kindle

Louis Colavecchio's book cover describes him as the "World's Greatest Counterfeiter". That seems to be a standard claim for the genre. Who would want to read a book about the 2nd or 3rd greatest counterfeiter?

Colavecchio counterfeited casino chips, not coins or paper money. He seems to have counterfeited a great deal of chips, enough that casinos have stopped using them.

When I read about counterfeiters I want to see a picture of their fake next to an original. As is typical in these accounts, Colavecchio's lacks coin photography or pictures and drawings of any kind. The cover collage depicts seven casino chips, two steel dies for $100 chips, Colavecchio himself, a slot machine, and a pile of gold-colored coins that look like 1 euro pieces. This is disappointing. Colavecchio claims drafting skills and kept a contraband ruler concealed for years while in prison. I would have liked some technical drawings included in the book.

Chapter 1 is about making and selling counterfeit sweaters in the early 1960s. Chapter 2 is making statuettes using lost wax casting. Chapters 4-6 are about managing jewelry stores. Chapter 8 is about making phone phreaker red boxes and telephone slugs. (The slugs were made around 1980.) 10 and 11 are about importing and modifying sports cars. 13 covers jewelry manufacturing. Chapters 14-17 discuss casino chip counterfeiting (70 pages). Chapters 18-21 discuss jail, court, and prison. The other chapters are about who got whacked in Rhode Island in the 1960s and 70s, and why. Actually all the chapters are about crime and women.

Colavecchio's telephone slugs are only mentioned briefly.

The casino chip dies were made using Electrical Discharge Machining, the process called "spark-erosion counterfeiting" in the numismatic trade. (See Max Spiegel's article on NGC to see an example of a collector coin created with spark eroded dies). A 320 ton Mario Di Maio press was used to strike the chips.

Colavecchio forged both metal and plastic chips. A lot of the counterfeiting discussion in the book concerns getting the correct weight and color out of plastic materials. These discussions may not appear important to the coin collector, but recall that the country or rebel province Transnistria recently started issuing circulating plastic coins.

Colavecchio's writing, or perhaps the writing of his two co-authors, is good. I found all the mob and crime stuff presented in an entertaining way. (The typesetting is poor and there are lots of bogus commas and line spacing issues, but that doesn't reflect on the writing.) The book is well worth reading if you like true crime or counterfeiting. Although Colavecchio brags about having secrets the US Mint needed to consult him on, most of the tips, and that he made amazing improvements to his EDM machine, this book does not go into more detail than other books on coin forgery. This is an entertaining story about criminals, not a technical manual.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Smithsonian now able to digitize 400 numismatic objects per hour

An article by Max Kutner in Smithsonian Magazine discusses efforts to digitize 250,000 bank notes, tax stamps, and war bonds from the National Numismatic Collection.

Twenty people are able to digitize 3500 items per day, suggesting the whole project will take 72 business days. They use a conveyor belt and 80 megapixel imaging system. The team previously had success digitizing 45,000 bumblebees in 40 days.

The cost per object is less than a dollar.