Inspiration: Opium Dollars

I have worked in a coin store for about 4 1/2 years. The job came about after I jokingly mentioned to a friend, “Hey, you need someone to photograph all those coins, right?” A couple weeks later I was offered the position. For the first few years, my sole mission was to photograph various coins for our eBay store and then ship out said coins. Last year, I started working the retail side in front of the store as well. It has been an interesting experience, and there are days I come across something I never even knew existed.

The first jarring experience came from holding a roman coin from AD 330 in my hand. Yes, you read that right. AD 330. The second most jarring was how inexpensive a 1,686 year old coin actually was to buy. Aside from that, I have discovered that from a collector’s perspective I prefer old currency, though I loath it from an imaging/sales perspective. Same goes for foreign coinage. I came across some coins from Norway once that were made from iron. I thought they were pretty neat, so I bought them from my husband. Still, I am not a huge fan of coins in general. I may or may not feel a slight animosity towards specific USA coin types due to the difficulties that arise when trying to photograph them efficiently and attractively. My favorite coins are Franklin halves, which are universally accepted as probably most lame coin variety to have an interest in. I like them because they almost always photograph beautifully. The way a coin photographs is about as complex as my interest in numismatics gets. It photographs nicely? Cool, I like it. It’s a pain to photograph? Burn in a fire. 

That being said, every once in a while something truly interesting comes into the store. We buy a lot off the public, and you never know what you are going to get when a customer pulls a little felt bag out of their pocket with a handful of coins they inherited. Most of the time the coins are common, worth a few cents or even a few dollars. Most of them come in with a story: a father fought in this war and brought these home from overseas; a grandmother has been collecting since she was a child; grandparents lived during the Great Depression, etc. etc.  Usually, whoever brings in the coins has no idea what they have inherited which leads to low, or occasionally very high expectations.

A gentleman came in recently with the usual, “These were my dad’s, I have no idea what they are, etc.” leading into a small felt bag with a handful of assorted coins. At this point, I can’t even remember what else he had save two particular items of curiosity. First, he had a small handful of sales tax tokens. These were interesting because I had never seen them before, but as tokens they fell quickly into the “these are neat but they aren’t worthy anything” category. Next, he pulled out what looked like an old trade dollar. Trade dollars are the predecessors to the silver dollars that most people are familiar with today, and also a type a coin I know very little about, aside from having some numismatic value. More interesting than the type of coin itself, however, was what had been done to it. In my experience, when coins are used for something other than a coin, it typically involves turning said coin into a piece of jewelry – often necklaces or bolo ties, occasionally rings. In other cases, people turn the coin into art such as hobo nickels or recently discovered (for me) some beautiful engraved coins like these.

This particular dollar had been cut open, hollowed out, hinged and made into a box that with a little compartment just big enough to fit a quarter. When closed up, the thing looked just like a normal trade dollar, which was the entire point. My analysis immediately gravitated to, “This is fake.” But as I looked at the coin itself, there were no immediate giveaways to an untrained eye to signify that this was not a genuine coin, despite it being able to open up like a box. Having never seen or heard of such a thing, I showed it to my co-worker who said we would have to wait for Boss-man to take a look at it before we could buy it. I took down the man’s phone number and sent him away with the coin and a promise to let him know what we found out about it, though not before taking a few pictures.

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While waiting for Boss-Man to return from lunch I started googling this strange little coin that had come across the counter. It turned out that it used to be common practice for people to hollow out the insides of old silver dollars and turn them into boxes. Today, they are known most commonly as “Opium Dollars,” an alleged smuggling device for small stashes of opium. I was immediately intrigued. It turned out that the “Opium” part of the history was mostly false, as the pocket inside the coin would barely hold enough opium to do any good. Instead, the coins were most often used to hide away a trinket of picture of a loved one. Like a locket hidden in your pocket. The stories instantly started brewing.

Unfortunately, the coin them man brought in turned out to be a fake. Which saddened me because I wanted to buy it, fake or not, but my measly personal offer wasn’t enough to bring the coin back to the store. However, Boss-man happened to have the real deal.

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While I had a hard time picking up the differences between the two, the interior of the coin sold me on the lack of authenticity on the first coin. In the end, despite that fact that I didn’t own even a fake one, I still found myself daydreaming about such a piece’s history. I still think about it, honestly.

I suppose that is one great thing about working in a coin store: you never know what you are going to find and what stories may lie hidden inside it.

 

 

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