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.