Want to be a coin collector?

As the Hobby Fair opens this week, Kavan Ratnatunga looks at a hobby of numismatics that has fascinated many down the years

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 three 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 and 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 was rupee currency from the Ceylon Government, and since 1951 from the Central Bank.

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 its 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 Rs 100 since they are found in very large numbers. There are, however, a few Lankan copper coins that are worth a lot more than their weight in gold.

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.

Numismatic Society (SLNS: Its activities

The Sri Lanka Numismatic Society (SLNS) was founded in 1976 to serve the coin collectors in Lanka and counts many leading collectors of coins and currency as members.

It meets on the third Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. at the Royal Asiatic Society in the Mahawali Centre in Colombo 7. SLNS will have an exhibition booth at the Hobby Fair 2010 organized by SLANA and the Rotary Club of Colombo from June 2nd to 4th at the Sri Lanka Exhibition and Convention Centre.

(The writer maintains an educational website on Lankan coins at , and is the President of the SLNS.)

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