Ed Reiter -
October 26, 1998
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!