The Hobby of Numismatics

By Kavan Ratnatunga

Numismatics, like some aspects of astronomy and natural history, remains a branch of learning in which the amateur can still do valuable work, and it is on the great collecting public, or rather on that part of which is interested in the subject at a scientific level, that the progress of numismatic science largely depends.
Philp Grierson - Prof of Numismatics, University of Cambridge

The hobby of Numismatics covers the collection and study of Coins, Tokens and Currency. Coins are some of the oldest artifacts that reveal the history of the past. Evidence that Coins have been collected since ancient times have been proved by the collection like composition of some ancient hoards found in Europe.

Lanka has a very rich and documented numismatic history of over 2300 years.

The earliest known coins mentioned in the Mahavamsa are Karshapana. These are small flat silver pieces about 3 grams in weight on which various marks have been punched. Some Numismatists have spent a lifetime recognizing and studying the various patterns and associating them with various periods of Indian history. Most came from India in trade, but some may have been manufactured in Lanka.

The first indigenous coins of Lanka issued during the early Anuradhapura period have the railed swastika which is found only on Lankan coins. The largest of these coins known as the Elephant & Swastika has multiple symbols. Smaller coins have the bo tree, or a lion, or Gaja Lakshmi on the reverse and the railed swastika on the obverse.

The Kahavanu which were issued in the 7th to 11th century have about half sovereign of Gold and are also found as fractions Pala (Quarter) and Aka (Eighth) of a Kahavanu. Similar sized copper coins known as Massa issued from 9th to 13th centuries had the name of the king written in Deva Nagri text.

Coins were also issued by the Colonial Rulers of Lanka, the Portuguese, Dutch and British for use in Lanka. During the British period from about 1840 to 1880, tokens were used in Coffee and Tea estates as payment for labour, The tokens were redeemable only at the company shop for goods creating a closed economy.

The first Rupees and Cents coins are dated 1870 and have the head of Queen Victoria. Similar coins in copper and Silver were issued with the heads of Edward VII, George V, George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. Coins with the Ceylon Armorial emblem were issued from 1963 to 1972, and the Sri Lanka Armorial Emblem since 1972. The Central Bank has also issued commemorative coins since 1957, some of which circulated, and can be found among the change you get. Others were issued in limited number and are sold above face value and called Non circulating Legal tender (NCLT). They should never be taken out of there protective capsules and touched by hand.

Lankan Currency notes have a rich history of over 200 years. The oldest notes issued by the Dutch in 1785 were known as Kredit Brieven. The British issued Sterling currency from 1827 and many International banks operating Lanka issued currency as well. From 1885 there were Rupee Currency from Ceylon Government, and since 1951 from Central Bank. Some of the more recent currency are very colorful. Some like the 1979 Flora and Fauna series in uncirculated condition have become highly valued collector items.

In general coins should never be cleaned except with soap and water. Some ancient coins may require conservation but that should only be done with expert knowledge, Currency notes should never be washed or ironed to make them look better. These actions can easily be detected and will reduce the value of the numismatic item.

The market value of a coin or currency is based on it's rarity and condition. Punch Mark coins about 2000 years old may sell for their weight in Silver. Most copper Massa coins which are over 800 years old and VOC duits which are over 200 years old may be obtained for under Rs100/- since they are found in very large numbers. There are however few Lankan copper coins that are worth lot more than their weight in Gold.

It is legal to own ancient Lankan coins, however antiquity Laws make it is illegal to take any Lankan coin or currency older than 100 years out of the country.

As in any hobby one should study the publications and learn about the coins and currency before spending a significant amount of money on them. There will always be forgers who want to exploit the ignorant and make a fast buck. With return of Tourists to the island there has been an increased number of these fake coins, sold as souvenirs.

When collecting coins and currency one must try to get the best specimen you can afford. There is a big difference in the market value of a coin based on its condition. This is particularly true for currency which get folded and creased. When you get a better specimen particularly of a rare item you should not hoard them but put your extras back in to the market, so that other starting to collect may have an opportunity to own it.

Coin collecting as a hobby is done for just the joy of collecting. Some also collect with a motive to sell the coins for a profit. Then it is not a hobby but Investment. Ancient and medieval coins are also collected for Numismatic research.

The Sri Lanka Numismatic Society (SLNS) was founded in 1976 to serve the coin collectors in Lanka. It has many of the leading collectors of coins and currency as members. It meets once a month on the 3rd Sunday of each month at 2PM at the Royal Asiatic Society in the Mahawali Center in Colombo 7. SLNS will have an exhibition booth at the Hobbyfair 2010 organized by SLANA and the Rotary club of Colombo from 2nd to 4th July at Sri Lanka Exhibition and Convention Center.

The writer maintains an educational website on Lankan coins at http://coins.lakdiva.org , and is the President of the SLNS.