This coin collector is no penny pincher

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

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.

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?

Then there's "flower money" (coaster-shape silver tokens imprinted with the petal-like patterns of coriander blossoms) and "leaf money" (copper currency decorated with the motif of radiating veins on leafs). Both were once widely in use in the northern regions of today's Thailand and Burma (Myanmar).

Yet this numismatist's paradise, the American Numismatic Society notes, has been "almost entirely ignored by scholars and collectors."

Cristal agrees. "Most coin people," he laments, "only look at flat round coins with regular shapes and stamps [imprints]."

To remedy that situation, he's just finishing a definitive reference book on Thailand's premodern coinage, a Yellow Pages-size magnum opus with color plates listing over 900 unique specimens (most from his own collection). Although the book is still in draft form, Kusik Manodham, chairman of the Numismatic Association of Thailand, is already heaping praise on "this momentous work."

The book follows such earlier tomes by Cristal as "The Centenary of Thai Banknotes" and "The Coins and Medals of the Rattanakosin Era" (Thailand's current monarchic dynasty which started in 1782).

Grandma Leah would be proud. It was, after all, Cristal's grandmother's jar of "nickels, dimes, and Indian-head pennies" that sparked the interest of her Brooklyn-born grandson. A Polish immigrant to the New World, she also taught him the value of every last penny.

Cristal first set foot in Thailand (now his adoptive home) in 1971 during the Vietnam War. A military judge advocate, he was handling local settlement claims filed against the US Army.

Then one day he wandered into a small shop peddling Chinese sycee (silver ingots), and, next thing he knew, he'd bought the entire collection. It was a nascent numismatist's epiphany – and he was hooked. Ever since, Cristal has been a constant presence at Bangkok auctions and flea markets, squinting at the wares of amulet merchants and old-coin sellers.

"Amazing things show up at these places," he notes with relish while navigating narrow alleys, his sizable frame carried along on swift, choppy steps, a winded reporter in full pursuit. Having gobbled down a curbside rice-dish lunch, Cristal is racing back to his coins.

• • •

Unlocking another chest of his treasures, Cristal produces flat, elongated silver objects with the pimply texture of toad skin. No, they aren't from the bag of an ancient witchdoctor. Behold: "tiger-tongue money."

At least that's what romantically inclined collectors label this ancient Laotian currency, which locals simply called lat. The technology for replicating the old coins has been lost, but folklore attributes their spotty surface to the death throes of fire ants thrown into molten silver.

Such peculiar coinages flourished locally until the mid-19th century, when the Kingdom of Siam, although a regional merchant power for centuries, finally began to use the flat coins favored by Europeans, courtesy of a man-powered screw press donated by Queen Victoria.

That's why, for people like Cristal, numismatics is more than an idle hobby. Trends and changes in primitive monetary systems, when painstakingly decoded, can chronicle the trajectories of preliterate cultures and explain the cultural underpinnings of modern societies. "For one interested in the evolution of history," he explains, "it's interesting to see coinage as [tokens in the phases of] a historical evolution."

Enamored of the country's peculiar money, Cristal took Thai citizenship a few years ago, adopting the name Ronachai Krisadaolarn in a distant echo of his original. (His new alias translates grandly as "Victorious Combatant [with] Majestic Power.") At his citizenship test, Cristal says, he whipped out the snapshot he carries in his wallet of himself with the country's revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has a keen interest in old Siamese coins; Cristal boasts that he was granted citizenship without further ado.

But the numismatist cherishes his rapport with King Bhumibol for other reasons, too. "It's been a privilege," he notes, "to meet the man whose face is on every current note and coin."

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