An Imp For A Centime

Many of my literary tastes were forged in an 8th grade English literature class. I find myself going back to many of those short stories, fond memories of classic and modern literature in little bits with some analysis and language learning involved. One particular tale blew my mind, and planted a seed that has lasted decades — regarding international money systems. I know, I tend to grab on to the boring parts, but bear with me a bit, here.

The story is The Bottle Imp, a short horror-thriller by Robert Louis Stevenson. Keawe, the main character, buys a ‘genie in a bottle,’ so to speak: a bottle imp, a trapped magical being who grants wishes, but with the trope of there being tragedy in the reward. One of the rules of the bottle imp is if you die with it in your posession, your soul is lost. The only way to part with the imp is to sell it, in coin, for less than it was purchased for. Its original purchase was an immeasurable fortune; by the time Keawe gets it, the price is down to $50. Through the story, the price drops and drops, a game of hot potato with the immortal soul as its prize, until Keawe buys back the bottle for a penny.

Here’s the twist: Keawe learns that there are French Polynesian coins worth less than a penny. A centime, he hears, is worth a fifth of a cent, so the hot-potato game goes on until an unlucky sailor ends up with the imp for a single centime, and resigns himself to Hell with nary a complaint.

I believe my teacher explained the centime like a pre-decimal British half-penny, part of a monetary system with many more subdivisions than the U.S. dollar, but she was incorrect: just as there are a hundred pennies to a dollar, there are a hundred centimes in a franc. The truth has more to do with my last article. Keawe exploits the difference in value of international currencies — let’s do the math here. If you’ll remember, the Stella was set at $4 because 20 francs was worth about $3.92. That makes a franc worth about nineteen-and-a-half cents. So, you divide a franc into a hundred parts, and what do you get? Each centime is worth slightly under a fifth of a penny, just as Keawe discovers.

So, you have to give Robert Louis Stevenson a bit of credit for defeating an ancient horror through the vagaries of international currency conversion. Once Keawe is down to a penny, he sells the imp for five centimes — which doesn’t break the rules, because five centimes is ever so slightly less than a U.S. penny in value. Unable to break the currency down even further, and with an odd number of transactions to be made, Keawe is guaranteed to end with a single centime in his pocket and the bottle in the hands of another.

If you want an idea of just how worthless the centime was, fast-forward to 1960 and the introduction of the “new franc”. The nouveau franc was worth 100 of the deprecated franc, making the pre-1960 centime worth 1/100th of a new centime. By the time the 1980s rolled around, even the new centime was removed from circulation due to further devaluation making the coin useless. That centime was worth 0.15 of a eurocent at the time of conversion, or even less than the centime-to-penny conversion of the late 19th century.

If you held on to your centimes since the 1890s, you’d actually make a tidy profit in the collector’s market. 19th century centimes sell for a few dollars at sites like eBay, and are less common than the ten- or fifty-centime coins of the early 20th century. The progressive devaluation of the franc from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century resulted in a variety of changes in designs and metal content, making for a much more interesting collection compared to a complete set of U.S. pennies or quarter-dollars of the same time period. Just make sure you keep a handful of centimes handy: you never know when your eternal soul might be on the line in your international currency exchanges.

Stella?!? STELLA!

This Friday, Stack’s Bowers Galleries will be selling a rare gold coin that invites a strong Stanley Kowalski imitation to say its name. The “Stella” was a ‘pattern coin’, a sample design minted in its intended form for the purpose of evaluating its monetary usage. The Stella came out in 1879, in the unusual $4 denomination, as a hope of improving international commerce.

Through the 19th century, currency had been slowly evolving from being valued by a coin’s weight in precious metals, to simply the denomination stamped on the front. Coins were still made of precious metals, of course, but as the ease of international travel shrunk the world, the wide variety of international currencies made it difficult to take your U.S. gold coins with to Europe and trust an easy or reliable exchange into the local funds.

The time was also one of other changes. The Metric Act of 1866 authorized the metric system as a legal system of measurement for transactions in the U.S., following the lead of many European countries. Ounces, rather than grams, were still how American money was measured, complicating things. About that same time, European countries were attempting to standardize their currencies in the proto-Euro Latin Monetary Union. Each country’s coins were close, but not quite a even trade, and some were silver, some gold, so the hopes were that a single common currency could help facilitate inter-country transactions.

The U.S. hoped to get in the game as well, by producing its own coins that overlap with the standardized European money. Through the 1860s and 1870s, a few varieties of coins were proposed, but in the mid 1870s Iowan John A Kasson, one of the promoters of the Metric Act of 1866, found a reasonable overlap between a European coin and the American dollar. The eight florin Austrian gold coin, the equivalent of twenty francs, was just under $4 U.S. in value. Kasson’s plan was to mint a $4 coin, whose value in precious metals would be listed on the coin’s face in metric weight, for the purpose of international trade.

Two designs were made of the Stella: a “flowing hair” version, like the one in the Stack’s Bowers auction, and the “coiled hair” design, which is rarer. The “flowing hair” Stella was designed by mint artist Charles E. Barber; the “coiled” by George T. Morgan. Both designs were quite similar, and both shared the same reverse. The reverse design is what gives the coin its name: the center of the coin is filled with a large star — a “stella” — thus giving the coin a casual name, like the “eagle” gold coins which came as portions of $10.  Being worth $4 means it could be divided in fourths into smaller denominations, like a dollar and the $10 gold eagle were.

The Stella started out as a small mint run to show the size and weight of the coin to the officials who would evaluate approving the coin. The Stella never made it into production, in either design, but as was the custom of the time it was possible to request the U.S. Mint to produce pretty much any design it had dies for, for the cost of precious metals and seignorage. The Flowing Hair Stella was used to produce about another four hundred coins at the request of various politicians, and those are the most commonly seen Stellas today.

Identifying the difference between the pattern Stellas and the collectible-run Stellas is difficult for the non-expert, but there are a few clues. The pattern Stellas are much more exact in weight, and are of a much higher quality striking than the second run of coins. The second run coins vary in weight a bit, and many have some visible striations, a ‘grain’ in the metal, left from the manufacturing process of the original planchette that was struck. The Flowing Hair Stellas also often have a bit more wear, because they were passed around by the politicians who purchased them (and legend has it that many of the coins found their way into the jewelry boxes of D.C. madames). The Stack’s Bowers coin is of very high quality, but they do not specifically say whether it was one of the original pattern strikes or a later minting.

The Little Brass Box

A few months ago I was driving down I-94, on my way back into town after a work assignment, and I got a call from The Wifey. She had gone to the Fine Arts Club‘s semi-annual rummage sale, and wanted to know when I would be home. She wanted to make sure I’d be back in time to go to the sale before they close, because my expertise and obscure knowledge was required. Never one to back down from a challenge, I knew I had better be back in time.

I made it with plenty of time to spare, and we got to the sale a few minutes before they were about to close. When I arrived, the lovely ladies of the Fine Arts Club, who had already briefed on my talents by my wife, were excited to hear what I could tell them. I was shown this small metal canister:

Everyone was all abuzz about this fabled expert in strangeness, and I wasn’t one to disappoint. I picked up the little container, turned it around in my hands, slid the little door open and closed, and made my assessment.

“I believe it’s a container that held nibs for fountain pens,” I proclaimed. ” See, they eventually wore out — you wanted to keep them sharp — so you had to replace them regularly. You bought a bunch of them at once and these came in this little tin. Usually the tin got tossed out I’ll bet, but this one managed to survive somehow.”

This revelation brought about gasps of “AHA!” and compliments to my wife on the accuracy of her claims of my ability to identify the little box. It had been brought in by a member to be sold, and it had been placed on the antiques table. Many customers had attempted to identify the little canister, but none had reached such a satisfactory description.

Of course, now that I had properly identified the artifact, I was, by their standards, the best possible customer to purchase the tin as well. I could certainly have declined, but I also felt the same curiosity and intrigue that the tin brought everyone else, so I negotiated the price down to $10, and took my new mysterious prize home.

Now, I may have shown an unshakable certainty at the rummage sale, but I wasn’t entirely certain of my answer. Nib packaging is still the best answer I have, but the name of the product made me more interested in the actual origins of the tin.

According to the tin, this belongs to the Atlantic Cable Pen, manufactured by Cutter Tower and Co. of Boston. It was patented in October 1856, and it’s identified as a No. 29 E.F., whatever that might be. It doesn’t give enough information to say whether the pen or just the tin was what the patent was for, and being such an early patent I could find no relevant patent from October 1856 in the online patent records. Cutter Tower and Co was an office supply and stationery distributor, who sold all sorts of writing implements, paper products, and other office equipment, often rebranded as their own. Still, the Atlantic Cable Pen eluded discovery.

The key to the tin came when I connected the 1850s with the atlantic cable — the Trans-Atlantic Cable, that is. Through the 1850s and 1860s several attempts to run a communications cable across the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean were made, with final success arriving in 1867. As a communications revolution, a cable connecting Europe to North America was a big deal, and, well, if I were running a company whose products revolved around interpersonal communication, I’d try to capitalize on it, too.

So, the tin remains a mystery, but here’s what I think it is: With the coming of trans-Atlantic communications, Cutter-Tower Company decided to capitalize on the new technology by branding one of their pens as the “Atlantic Cable” Pen, evoking the future of communications. Just as “HD” is used inappropriately or 7-segment displays were added to analog equipment to call them “digital”, piggybacking your product on the buzzwords of cutting-edge technology is a tried-and-true road to success. Had the 1857 attempt to run a cable succeeded, Cutter-Tower might have had a big-seller on their hands, but it was ten years before a cable made it from one end to the other intact. I’d also guess that the patent is on the unique and charming container design, but was displayed prominently to encourage the idea that somehow the Atlantic Cable Pen was a new technology. In the end, it was an average pen, needing new tips, and the tin, and all it’s fancy design, was to sell a rather commonplace pen to the masses.

As a bonus, here’s what was inside:

This tin one belonged to Bessie Bayless, from Pennsylvania and Ohio. From the Atlantic telegraph lines, to Pennsylvania and Ohio, to the Fine Arts Club in Fargo, North Dakota, and finally into the hands of someone who obsesses over trivial mysteries, this tin is more than just a holder of nibs: it’s a world traveller and a mystery for the ages — and it’s mine.

Wire Money of Earth and Elsewhere

All I know of A Game of Thrones is that the series, which I cannot watch due to a lack of HBO and/or time to devote, looks totally awesome. As with most stories with a devoted set of followers, the replica-makers come up with some pretty amazing stuff. A small mint has produced a set of Game of Thrones money, and I was particularly taken by the Dothraki Puli. This is a “chain” of coins, minted from a single strip of precious metal and designed to be left together as one piece of money, or cut off smaller denominations as needed. I was surprised to see the note from the maker, which says these coins were based on a Russian coin style that was used for nearly a millennium.

The common method for minting a coin is to start with a planchet or flan. This is a disk of the right size and weight for the intended coin, punched from a rolled-flat sheet of precious metals or cast from a blank mold. The disk is then placed between two dies, and are pressed or pounded to leave an impression of the obverse and reverse on each side of the blank. This tends to be more accurate for creating uniform size and weight of coins, although sometimes in the past the coins were cast with their fronts and reverses from the start, but that varied and depended on the material. Bronze, for instance, was a bit too hard for die striking and were cast entirely.

Beginning around 980AD, minters in Russia came upon a novel method of minting coins. They found that it was easier to control the uniformity of thickness and quality by starting with a wire of the precious metal, then cut it into lengths of the right weight, and then strike the coin from those wire chunks. Although the wire was flattened before the die striking, it gave the ‘wire money’ a unique look, oblong with obvious blunt ends were the wire had been cut off. This unique shape earned these coins the name ‘fish scales’ in the Russian language. The simplicity of the process kept it in use until the 17th century and the introduction of modern minting processes, and the last of these coins were made in the early 1700s.

You’ll note that this is quite a bit different than the fanciful Game of Thrones coins above, which retained their wire-like form. Actual minters and financiers would realize a large flaw in the Thrones money quite readily if it were ever used in practice. The weight of a coin in precious metals is something that requires uniformity to ensure that the coin can be trusted to be an accurate payment. “Reeded” edges on coins are designed to foil coin-shavers, people who cut off small amounts off the edges of coins to collect the precious metal and then spend the now-smaller coins at face value. Now, take a look at the Game of Thrones coins. If you were to pull out your string of wire money, you could snip off the requested denomination slightly smaller than needed, and hope that the merchant doesn’t check the weight. Then, you take the extra-long end you just made, and trim it off a little smaller than it should be, too. Do that enough, you get to keep a bunch of the copper or silver while shortchanging the people you do business with. Even the ‘pieces of eight’ were not commonly actually cut into eight pieces, at least not in common money dealings. I suppose, on far-off Westeros, they may have a different way of dealing with these fancy currency, but here on Earth we’re less trusting of hand-cut coins. Although the Shire Post website doesn’t currently have any of their wire coins for sale, real antique Russian wire coins are actually quite plentiful, and can be purchased many places for just a few dollars each.

Be A Reality-Show Collector!

Have you been collecting long enough and have decided you’re finally ready to make the move to television like everyone else?   There’s two casting calls out right now looking for people with a taste for old things.

First is an unusual venue:  VH1 wants people who collect pop culture, so you can finally justify to your mom that the 150 boxes of C3PO cereal in your closet are actually going to get you somewhere in life.  They’re just looking for people within driving distance of New York, so you’re outta luck, Mama’s Family freak from Sioux Falls.

The other is from the History Channel, looking for “energetic trademen, collectors, and restorers” to appear as guests on American Restoration.   They, too, say Las Vegas is the place to be, but they’ll put up with you if you’re willing to travel.  By “guests” my guess is they’re looking for people to pose as clients, as other shows by Leftfield may not be completely truthful, but, hey, what do you care – you’ll be on TV!

Mercury Stamps: Then and Now

Fifty years ago last week, John Glenn orbited the Earth three times and splashed down five hours later…which was the signal for the US Post Office to release their commemorative stamp.  When the stamp was announced, Will Black got his mom to drive to the post office to get some of his own, and that got him in the newspaper:

Fifty years later, Mr Black still has those stamps…well, four of the block of six he originally got.   He parted ways with two of the stamps over the years, but the newspaper shows the proof of his original purchase.

$7.4 Million Brasher Doubloon

18th Century US coins are quite difficult to find. The Mint wasn’t even established until the 1790s, and until that time coins were minted from precious metals by foreign countries or private mints, and valued based on weight. Ephraim Brasher was one of those early minters, and in 1787 he created what we call today the “Brasher Doubloon”. Weighing at about an ounce, just the gold in a Brasher Doubloon would be worth over a thousand dollars just by weight, but the rarity of coins from that era drives the value up. Just last month, one of Brasher’s Doubloons was sold by Blanchard & Co for a record-setting $7.4 million dollars.

This particular Brasher Doubloon is the rarest of the seven known to exist. The other six Doubloons are marked with Brasher’s ‘chop-mark’ on the wing, but this coin, known as the DuPont Specimen, was stamped in the center of the coin, over the eagle’s shield. Aside from being one of the rarest gold American coins know, this particular coin has had an adventurous life of its own. On October 6th, 1967, thieves stole the Doubloon, along with many other valuable coins, from the collection of millionaire Willis DuPont. Although many of the coins were not recovered for many years, the DuPont Brasher’s Doubloon was recovered only a year later during a sting operation in Miami.

Since then, this Brasher Doubloon has been living a quiet life, exchanging hands a few times, and increasing in value with each sale. It doesn’t make it the rarest or most valuable of Brasher’s coins, though: Brasher also made a Half-Doubloon, of which only one known example exists.

American Pickers Guide to Picking

American Pickers debuted on the History Channel last year and turned the wheeling and dealing of pickers Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz into the biggest new cable television show of 2010. Mike and Frank, along with Danielle and author Libby Callaway, now bring their expertise on rusty gold and antiques dealing to your bookshelf in American Pickers Guide to Picking, released today by Hyperion.

The Guide is a no-nonsense book on the basics of the Pickers’ business model.   As shown on the show, Mike and Frank are antique and collectibles middle-men who try and find sources, usually collectors and original owners, to buy from in order to resell to antique dealers and collectors.  Aside from their dense Rolodex of existing sellers, the pair cold-call potential customers and mine other interesting ‘honey-holes’ for their wares.  After decades in the business, the Pickers have their business down to a science and this book breaks it down into its simplest components.  Picking is a specific facet of the antique and collectibles industry, and Guide to Picking does a good job of making the differences clear.  A picker is like a gold miner rather than a coin dealer; picking gets down and dirty with the abandoned or forgotten collectibles.

Although the book is full of anecdotes, it uses them as part of the teaching process.  It is fun to hear stories about Mike and Frank’s adventures, but the book sticks to business throughout.  I particularly like that anecdotes from the show assume you’ve seen the show, rather than repeating the entire story in the book.   From finding sources, to making the deal, to turning a profit by selling to a customer, the Guide gives tips and tricks for making the deals go as smoothly as possible.  It doesn’t promise making millionaires, though; they’re clear about the amount of work it takes and the amount of risk involved, so it may, possibly for the better, scare off people hoping for easy money.   The book comes right from the mouths of people doing the work every day, which makes it feel more trusted than a more traditional antique dealer guide.

The most approachable aspect of the book is that conversational tone, but this also contributes to the weakest part of the Guide.  As i mentioned above, the book cover credits four writers, and the acknowledgments thank several other contributors for their part.   Having a lot of cooks in the kitchen makes the Guide difficult to follow at some points, because the conversational tone uses a lot of “I” and “me” without being clear about who’s doing the speaking at the time.  This difficulty becomes more manageable once the reader gets a little ways into the book, so once that hump is over the Guide feels like sitting in a southern-Minnesota Perkins restaurant, eating a piece of the pie of the day and shooting the shit with two dusty guys who just got done climbing in the rafters of a slowly disintegrating barn.

Every antique dealer has their own business philosophy, a fact that the Guide addresses multiple times, but I have to say that the American Pickers Guide to Picking has a pretty firm grasp on the uncertainty and fluidity of antiques and collectibles dealing.   Much of the time, the book doesn’t just have the One Right Way to do things; each chapter covers a variety of options, based on benefits and drawbacks, to put in a toolbox of skills for making a go of the picking industry.   The last chapter, too, covers the future of picking — and the entire industry of collecting, by extension — by acknowledging the huge impact of the ever-changing internet and how the collectors of the future are the kids of today.

At a little over 200 pages, the Guide to Picking is an easy read, but it crams a lot of information into those pages.  A lot may feel old-hat to other antique dealers, but the personal voice makes it a fun read, in line with the tone of the show, and there might be something still to be learned hidden in the pages.   American Pickers Guide to Picking is a fun how-to book, full of tips and tales of the picking world, ready to make a picker out of anyone willing to pull on the gloves and get a little dirty.


American Pickers Guide to Picking
By Libby Callaway, with Mike Wolfe, Frank Fritz, and Danielle Colby
ISBN 978-1401324483
Approx 206 pages, 6″x9″ hardcover
Hyperion, 2011