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This coin collector is no penny pincher

From 'pig mouths' money to 'tiger tongues,' numismatist Ronald Cristal sheds new light on history.

By Tibor KrauszContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 2007

Bangkok , Thailand

Cupped in Ronald Cristal's palm is a tangerine-size orb of the kind that artillerymen of the American Civil War might have used for their breech-loading cannons. It dates from that era, too, so you might think it a nice antique paperweight.

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Tell that to Mr. Cristal, and he'll gasp at your ignorance.

What the American-born Thai numismatist is holding isn't artillery ammunition at all. It's a "bullet coin" issued by the Siamese king Rama IV (known abroad as the volatile monarch played by Yul Brynner in "The King and I").

Engraved with the king's own seal of a tapering Siamese crown, the bullet coin (the largest item of indigenous weight-based currency) was denominated as 80 baht. That may not sound like much these days (just over $2), but back in the mid-19th century, it was worth a fortune.

It still is.

Cristal bought the coin at a Bangkok auction for more than 30,000 times its denominational mark – 2.5 million baht ($80,000), to be precise. He could sell it for several times that amount to well-off foreign collectors, he says, but he won't. Carefully wiping fingertip smudges from his cherished acquisition's surface, he replaces it in its thick velvet pouch and tucks it inside the safe.

Obsessive? Certainly.

Yet Cristal, one of Southeast Asia's preeminent numismatists, belies the stereotype of coin collectors as reclusive oddballs hunched over their treasures with monocles or a watchmaker's eyepiece, brows furrowed in scrutiny.

Despite spearheading a well-established law firm in Bangkok, Cristal seems to spend most of his time on the Internet comparing notes with fellow collectors worldwide – retired postal workers, computer programmers, high-flying executives, and everyone in between.

Whatever one may have thought of that elusive, nickel-crazed schoolmate, it turns out that serious coin collecting isn't just a namby-pamby pastime; it's a spirited undertaking fueled by competitive zeal. Or, as Cristal puts it: "It's about owning something no one else in the world has."

And he does. Lots of it.

• • •

If you showed up at your local grocery store with a human head or two in exchange for necessities, you'd hardly be welcome. Not so among ancient headhunters on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, for whom the trophies were valuable mediums of exchange.

Such monetary relics, Cristal concedes, would be extreme even by the flamboyant standards of his own collection. Yet for the most part, if ancient Thais, Laotians, or Burmese ever used it, Cristal wants it, too – and will pay handsomely for a specimen.

"Have a look at these!" he invites, pulling golf-ball-sized curios from one of his two top-of-the-line, drill- and fire-proof safes, in which lie the 2,000-plus prized items of his coin collection, minutely catalogued and arrayed meticulously in plastic trays.

"They're pig-mouth money," he says – so named because, turned upside down, the hollow balls resemble a porker's gaping mouth (minus the teeth). These items of "a premodern metallic monetary system" worked alongside cowrie shells as more or less standardized tender. They date back 700 years to the Lan Na Kingdom in what is now northern Thailand.

"They may look crude," Cristal says, "but no counterfeiter can exactly duplicate them." And he, of course, should know: He also collects modern and contemporary counterfeits. "See these [distinct] flow lines on the silver?"

Even within the rarefied world of numismatics, Cristal's specialty – Southeast Asian "curious money" (with Thailand a special trove of treasures) – counts as wildly exotic fare. True, the Aztecs paid in cocoa beans, and gaudy parrot feathers once fetched quite a bit among certain tribes in Africa and Oceania. But genitalia-shaped currency? Or how about "bracelet money" (copper, silver, or gold), obviating the need for banks by making wrists into portable safety depositories?