By anybody's yardstick, that's quite a coin! Indeed, it's said to be the largest gold coin ever made.
This minting marvel, a 1,000-mohur coin, was struck in 1613 in Hindustan (present-day northern India) at the direction of a wealthy potentate named Shah Jahangir, possibly as a diplomatic gift. What happened after that remains a mystery. All we really know is that about 11 years ago, the coin - and a smaller companion piece weighing a "mere" three pounds - turned up in the possession of a European auction house which planned to put these treasures under the gavel.
The company, Habsburg, Feldman S.A. of Geneva, Switzerland, calculated that the large piece would fetch about $10 million and the "small" one maybe $4 million, give or take a few hundred thousand dollars.
As things turned out, neither coin changed hands (or handcarts, as the case might have been, considering their rather remarkable size). The auction house told us that when they came up for sale on Nov. 9, 1987, both attracted very substantial bids - $8 million for the 32-pounder and $2.8 million for its smaller sidekick. But, in each instance, the unidentified owner decided the price wasn't right and held on to the merchandise (perhaps with the help of a forklift).
I don't mean to make light of these coins' importance. (Lord knows, they weigh too much to be taken lightly!) Still, their appearance on the numismatic scene at that particular moment did suggest some wry observations.
At a time when so much attention was being paid to gold and silver bullion coins, just one year after the launching of the American Eagles, these throwbacks to an earlier age (indeed, discus-sized throwbacks) emerged as the ultimate bullion coins - not just stores of precious metal, but veritable storehouses. To give you some idea what I mean, with gold selling at $300 per troy ounce the larger coin would be worth more than $100,000 - and the smaller coin more than $10,000 - just as metal.
And if you think a 5-ounce silver round is hefty, try picking up one of THESE babies! True, you don't get portraits of Dopey, Darth Vader and Garfield the Cat; all you get is intricate Arabic lettering - some of which, I'm told, takes the form of high-flown verses composed by the shah's court poets. Keep in mind, however, that these coins were produced more than 300 years ago - without benefit of the modern sophistication we tend to take for granted in the numismatic marketplace today.
It's interesting, too, to ponder the problems these pieces would pose for the coin-grading services. They might use up a week's supply of plastic on the smaller piece alone - and maybe a whole month's worth on the big one.
And just imagine the complicated process of GRADING something this big! You'd practically need a road map to pinpoint all the surface characteristics. By the time you got through, you'd be dealing more with Route 66 than with Mint State-65. Then again, this might be a perfect opportunity to use all 11 Mint-State grades. On coins this big, you probably could find all 11 different grades at one spot or another on the surface.
In a way, Habsburg, Feldman encouraged the kind of levity in which I'm now engaging. Dr. Geza von Habsburg, chairman of the company, reduced these great works of numismatic art almost to the level of caricatures by appearing with them on television's "Today Show" - and looking on bemusedly as co-host Bryant Gumbel flipped the larger coin in the air much like an oversized slug.
This made for marvelous "theater," I suppose; here was impish Bryant coyly playing catch with an object said to be worth a cool $10 million. But it didn't do a thing for the dignity of the coin - not to mention the condition of its surface, which presumably emerged with at least a few new fingerprints and could have acquired a very costly ding had Gumbel dropped this plaything on the floor.
Somehow, I just can't visualize an art auctioneer sitting by silently - even smilingly - while Gumbel did a tracing on the surface of a painting by Van Gogh.
I was actually sort of relieved that these coins remained unsold. They may very well be worth the kind of money Habsburg, Feldman claimed - but somehow I wouldn't feel comfortable with either of these two pieces sitting on the throne as the highest-priced coin ever sold. There are too many unanswered questions regarding their past; they burst upon the scene too quickly and much too slickly.
Where had they been for the previous three centuries? Where had they reposed most recently? And who consigned them to Habsburg, Feldman for sale? The auction firm either couldn't or wouldn't provide us with substantive answers. Nor were we likely to learn the identity of the buyer or buyers if a sale had in fact taken place. Indeed, the firm intended to hold what it calls a "private auction" until Swiss authorities intervened and insisted that the bidding take place in public.
A private auction? That kind of practice is - quite literally - foreign to me and foreign to my experience in covering major numismatic sales. As for the unanswered questions and lingering mysteries, I find these more a source of frustration than fascination.
All things considered, huge gold coins are great conversation pieces. But I, for one, am more at home with smaller, simpler fare.
Give me a 1913 Liberty Head nickel any day!