04 March, 2007

Roth's cabinet of curiosities

Since childhood, I've been a collector. At first it was costume jewellery, which delighted my magpie little eyes, then bits of junk metal and fragments of porcelain found in skips and in the road. When I was a bit older, it was paperknives and pocket dictionaries. Then I got into rocks, by which I mean semi-precious stones. That was my first serious collecting passion, and I acquired quite a wealth of them. My grandfather Tex, who had been a US ambassador, would bring back coins and ceremonial weaponry from around the world. In my prep-school days I started collecting fountain pens, and then art postcards, amassing several hundred of the latter, with a particular focus on Picasso. During adolescence I collected CDs; then, just before I lost my virginity, I stopped buying music and diverted all spare (and non-spare) funds towards the acquisition of books, from which I have not looked back. I never got into stamps, for whatever reason, though my parents own an album which might prove moderately valuable one day.

The upshot of all this is that I have a fair amount of odd stuff stored away in the parental home. While I'm back here I thought I'd give you a little tour of the early highlights—coins, rocks and weapons. The junk, pens and paperknives, sadly, I no longer have. (As for the books, well, what else are the Varieties?)

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The coins are as follows, except where I cannot follow the script: 1. France, 2 centimes (1856); 2. and 3. Nepal, 1 rupee, date unknown; 4. Austria, 25 schilling (1967); 5. Ireland, 1 penny (1964); 6. Australia, 20 cents (1966); 7. Italy, 100 lire (1969); 8. Australia, 50 cents (1966); 9. Mexico, 20 centavos (1968); 10. France, 5 francs (1945); 11. Tunisia, denomination unknown (1960); 12. Norway, 10 kroner (1985); 13. Bahamas, 10 cents (1975); 14. unknown (Arabic script); 15. Hong Kong, 2 dollars (1993); 16. Mauritius, 5 rupees (1987); 17. Ghana, 1 cedi (1979); 18. Kenya, 5 shllings (1985); 19. Denmark, 25 øre (1969); 20. unknown (Chinese); 21. Belgium, 25 centimes (1942); 22. Spain, 50 pesetas (1957); 23. Hungary, 2 forint (1948); 24. Morocco (?), denomination and date unknown; 25. Hungary, 20 forint (1982); 26. France, 10 francs (1948); 27. Iraq, 50 fils (1931); 28. Saudi Arabia, 50 hallalahs, date unknown; 29. Portugal, 50 centavos (1943); 30. Israel, 5 shekels, date unknown.

As you might have guessed, I've selected partly for the pleasure of some of my known foreign readers, who may well recognise some of these old duffers. (Update: indeed they have done, and some have kindly made identifications.) Mostly, however, I've chosen by aesthetics. My particular favourites are the Australian 50 cent piece, which has a lovely heft and sheen, and the hexagonal Arabic coin, which I've tentatively attributed to Morocco on the basis of the fez. By far the most valuable, I suspect, is the very first, from 1856, unfortunately a bit dark in the photograph. It makes one's hands filthy to rifle through these bits of metal—but it brings back memories of sitting at old Tex's knees and watching him pour out little velvet bags into the box.



If the coins were really my grandfather's collection, the rocks are unquestionably mine. I assembled them piece by piece over the years, though I have not acquired any new for over a decade. These are the most interesting and most beautiful specimens I own. The largest item is a stunning unpolished malachite that I picked up in New York; next to it on the right, haematite; in the centre, slivers of pink tourmaline set in a white slab of unknown material, bought in Florence; centre right, a large desert rose acquired in Paris (I believe); bottom right, an unusually handsome agate geode; bottom centre, lapis lazuli; bottom left, marcasite; as for the three smaller stones above it, the lowest is an opal, bought at a fair in London, above it an uncut ruby, given me by a friend of my grandfather's, and the top one I have no idea about, but it's a charming little thing nonetheless.



These, again, are all from my grandfather, who received them as gifts from various local ambassadors. I have left them unpolished, though someday I hope to buff them up and hang them on a wall. The spear and boomerang need no explanation. Unfortunately I have forgotten what the middle one is; perhaps someone can enlighten me. The top item is a kukri, or gurkha knife, from Nepal; I was told that the notch on the blade near the handle—called a kaura—was used to draw one's own blood in pre-combat ritual, but this is probably untrue. The fourth is a kris or serpentine dagger from Malaysia; its hilt is formed from what look like two dogs or other animals, and on the pommel is a mediaeval helmet. On one side of the blade is etched a scene of a man with a rifle hunting a rabbit; on the other the legend, Ay chivas que tienen padre pero esta ni madre tuvo, which my limited Spanish translates as: Oh, kids that have a father but this one had no mother. That sounds wrong, no doubt someone will help me here too.

Regular readers will have no trouble understanding that untotal comprehension is half the appeal of these myriad objects. The darkness more than makes up for the light.

24 comments:

Sprite said...

Aaah, the 50 hallallah coin! That looks pretty current to me. I don't think Saudi money has ever changed. I believe some of the paper notes were printed in the time of Mohammed.

Gawain said...

the rocks -- do you buy them, or do you venture out, spade in hand, into the field yourself?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Glad to hear that, Sprite! G: No, I bought them. Such is the plight of the bourgeois. I have found some of my own, but they don't measure up to these ones.

Teju said...

The devanagri unknown is a Nepali 1 rupee coin.

Lovely haul you've got here.

Shawn Thuris said...

Great stuff on parade!

When I was 10, a Japanese foreign exchange teacher gave me 1-, 10- and 100-Yen coins (not very different from the Chinese examples you have) that I stared at and fondled for years. I think they formed the kernel of my later interest in Japanese life.

The US Congress is introducing yet another 1-Dollar coin and considering the end of the penny. Our dear copper pennies are too dear, apparently, as the government desperately wants to make a few bucks on seignorage. Where's the romance in that?

Proserpine said...

What fun! I like the bubble malachite. Collecting was a lot more fun before ebay, wasn't it?

Hmm, "grandfather Tex," eh?

Gawain said...

the Chinese coin you have in your wunderkammer has an interesting history: it was the major Chinese export to South East Asia for over several hundred years. not because the metal was particularly valuable, but because money is useful and no one here knew how to make it. and since adequate coinage greases the economy the cities which had access to this import were able to become dominant trading centers. the interesting thing is that it didn't have to be "genuine" -- some local rulers began in time to strike Qian that looked just like this - and did the job as well.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks for the info, guys! I've updated the coin-list with Teju's identification. As for Ebay, I've never used it.

Deb said...

thank you for sharing...very interesting.

Robert said...

I too colleted coins Conrad and have some old notes as well. Before decimalization in 1971 we were using coins that were more than a 100 years old. I kept the older ones and still have them. The thought of carrying around “half a crown” these days is mind boggling they were huge!

This could be an excuse to catalogue them.

Herr Ziffer said...

then, just before I lost my virginity, I stopped buying music and diverted all spare (and non-spare) funds towards the acquisition of books

You seem to suggest a causal relation here. Good lord, man. Tell us all what you were reading.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ziff: Lawrence Durrell--a smash with the ladies.

Robert: I have plenty of old British money too--I particularly like threepenny bits--and I keep it separately.

The County Clerk said...

Love the stuff. I'm with you brother... keep it and get more. This is the GOOD stuff.

I like coins too. I don't know if you've seen these, but here are beautiful cufflinks made from coins of the world:

Ben Silver

Not realy an advertisement as I don't care one way or another if you buy any... but they are certainly worth a look. And since I wear links every day, they are a fun way of "collecting."

Steven Augustine said...

A tactile romp; that malachite looks irresistible and unearthly and needs to be locked in a cage at night. I had a nice enough collection myself...of pornographic postcards from Berlin. Until the day I wandered into an *Antiquariat* near Nollendorfplatz and inquired of the proprietor, discreetly, what he could offer along those lines. His eyes tightened and his voice went even lower than mine and he responded, in German, "How pornographic do you mean?" It was at that moment I realized that I was a fey dabbler and I lost the taste for it. All I have left of that collection now is one yellowing specimen postmarked '1938' and with a hakenkreuz stamped beside the postage(the interior of an egyptian tomb on the picture side)...that's pornographic enough, ja?

Erik said...

Measured with the number of responses, your collections collect much interest. I already suspected you to be a "collectionneur", you also collect ideas, thoughts, paragraphs, books etc. I like the absence of any systematic classification or ordering in sorts. I know somebody who collects "announcements of address changes", my father collected travel alarm clocks, I collect nothing, I only let things disappear, I'm really jealous.

Paul said...

I agree with Steven, that malachite is wonderful. Copper lends such beautiful shades to its compounds. Over the Christmas holidays I visited the Museum of Natural History in NYC, and I could have spent an entire day with the minerals.

eBay is the collector's dream, and collector's spouse's nightmare. My wife has a few peccadilloes along these lines, I'm afraid. The site hasn't been updated in a few years, but she's documented a portion of her collection.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Hank: good to see you here again! I don't wear cufflinks, although Tex did leave me a rather nice pair in case I ever want to use them.

Erik: thanks.

Steve and Paul: The malachite is my favourite too, I prefer it to the more common overpolished varieties used in jewellery. But the porn collection is a good story, maybe you could get something longer out of i?

Steven Augustine said...

"But the porn collection is a good story, maybe you could get something longer out of i(t)"?

If this wasn't a wonderful (intentional) joke, Conrad, I'm going to treat as such anyway...

Andrew West said...

Aaah, the thruppenny bit; now that was a real coin, and my favourite too. I always carry around with me a Welsh dragon pound coin, the Johnson's Dictionary 50 pence coin and a well caressed thruppenny bit.

The County Clerk said...

I never left brother.

bulbul said...

Coin #11 reads البنك المركزي التونسي i.e. Central Bank of Tunisia.

Coin #27 reads المملكة العراقية i.e. Kingdom of Iraq, 50 fils and the year is 1349 AH/1931 AD.

Those forints really take me back...

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks--now added.

hilllie said...

The Israeli coin is 5 Agorot, not Shekel.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Good to know; cheers.