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Trip showcases numismatic treasures

When my wife Kathy and I went to London in late July of 2008 for a cruise, we weren’t sure what the numismatic components were going to be, but they turned out to make it the best coin collecting trip.

Our itinerary: London, on to embarkation in Dover, then off to Oslo (Norway), Copenhagen (Denmark), Helsinki (Finland), St. Petersburg (Russia), then Tallinn (Estonia), Stockholm (Sweden), disembarkation and a flight to the Netherlands’ Schipol Airport outside Amsterdam and finally home.

Our original plans were to take a get acquainted tour of London so that Kathy would have a better handle on the city, and we signed with Crystal for a pre-boarding tour that was an all-day sightseeing event. It was cancelled and we were on our own.

With the Dorchester Hotel concierge, I booked a private driver for the day. John Blackall turned out to be a part-time writer (Macmillan publisher), married, no children. We needed about seven hours to get an overview; that way we would be back by the 5:30 join friends for dinner and the theater.

Off we went to see the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and a walk around historic London.

We passed the place where Sir Isaac Newton lived while serving as Royal Master of the Mint in the 1600s. Then we went into many rooms of the Abbey that I had never seen before. We traversed Tower Bridge and London Bridge, which crosses the River Thames, then went up to Tower Hill where the mint was once located. Here, murders or executions by the Crown occurred, including that of Anne Boleyn.

Sir Isaac Newton, then director of the Royal Mint, lived in residence at Tower Hill; his home is still in use at the site presumably by one of the Beefeaters who guard what is still considered a royal residence. Coinage is now produced in Wales.

A book about Henry’s wives that I recently read suggests that the River Thames was used as a barge highway in the 1600s. I see why. The river entrance (one of them) is called Traitor’s gate where two of Henry’s wives were brought after their trials for treason.

We visited Dover Castle on the coast before boarding ship. It was built by King Henry II some 800 years ago. Besieged nine times, it was never taken. Today, while restored, it is largely unfurnished.
The 30-foot walls at the base of the castle taper toward the top, and the height of the castle towering over the land. Kathy and I walked to the King’s bed chambers, then to the lower chapel, the higher chapel, and the area of feasting. We also saw the inner well that allowed the inhabitants of the castle to drink water during the siege.

The real reason that we went to Dover Castle was to see the secret tunnels 150 feet beneath the surface. There was a full hospital including surgical suites, dormitory, high command bunker offices, computers and switchboards. Kathy’s Palm handheld computer has more firepower than all of the combined computers used at this site, which was used by the military into the nuclear era.

The secret tunnels would have been used as replacement for London and south command after atomic bombs were dropped, our guide said. Even as the tunnels are now being shown to the public, they are still secret – no photography is allowed.

Several pieces of numismatic memorabilia – coins and medals – were acquired in the museum store.

From there, we drove five minutes to the docks. The Crystal Symphony would soon be ours.

Around 3 p.m. we headed for our cabin and the luggage was there – the stewardess introduced herself to us, and Kathy got ready to sail – she put the clothes away and went across the hall to do a pile of laundry that has been accumulating since we came.

Copenhagen, the city of Hans Christian Anderson and fantasy arrived after an easy overnight journey. Denmark is the world’s oldest kingdom; its palaces and architecture distinctive. The single symbol of this city on the Baltic is a statue located in the harbor, so close to land that you can walk in the shoals to sit in her lap: the Little Mermaid.

The Little Mermaid, cast in bronze a century ago after the fairy tale, has a story as well. Her head has been stolen twice, one of her arms reported missing. Present condition: suffers tourists gladly.

 Helsinki is the next port. It is a quaint town and our stop is not a long one. Indeed, we will depart for Oslo in late afternoon.

Our 3.5 mile walking tour begins at 9 a.m. There are two numismatic twists to the story. First, we pass the 1952 Olympic stadium. I tell Kathy that this is where the modern Olympic coin programs all began with a 1951 and 1952 500 markaa coin. This starts others on the trip talking about coin collecting.

I then asked a cashier at a souvenir store for some national currency. When she understood I was a coin collector, she gave me $5 worth of euro change. The booty: 2 euro, 1999, 1 euro 2001; 50 euro cents, 2000; 2001 20 euro cents; 1999 and 2000 10 euro cents; 1999 and 2001 5 euro cents. The coin series consists of eight denominations: €2 euro, €1 euro, 50-cent, 20-cent, 10-cent, 5-cent, 2-cent and 1 cent.

Finland observes rounding rules under which cash payments are rounded to the nearest 5 cents. Due to the rounding rules, 1 and t2-cent coins are not widely used in Finland. They are legal tender in Finland, but retailers are not bound to accept them.

The value side of each coin features a design common to all euro area countries, and has been designed by Luc Luycx of the Royal Belgian Mint. The reverse side reflects national identities, as chosen by Finland. As to the 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50-cent coins: these show the Finnish heraldic lion in a reproduction of a design by the sculptor Heikki Häiväoja.

The heraldic lion in a variety of designs has been used on several Finnish coins over the years, for example on the 1 markka coins between 1964 and 2001.

We have a three-day stay in St. Petersburg, Russia, and are going to devote it to visiting the Hermitage museum complex and state restored palaces with one of the world’s greatest numismatic collections.
The State Hermitage occupies six magnificent buildings situated along the River Neva in the heart of the city.

The museum today represents the collecting acquisitions of Catherine the Great and her successors. In just over 250 years, the Hermitage collections of art (now containing over three million items) also includes one of the world’s great numismatic collections. Numismatic items include more than a third of the entire museum inventory.

The Hermitage numismatic collection is one of the largest in the world. A summary shows inventory of ancients (some 120,000), Eastern (over 220,000), Russian (300,000) and Western (360,000). The collection also includes commemorative medals (some 75,000), orders and medals, badges and decorations (about 50,000).

Buzz for coin collectors: the Hermitage collection of ancient Greek coins numbers 63,360 items. Covering from the appearance of coins in the 7th century B.C. to the 5th century A.D., the coins were minted in practically all regions of the ancient world from Spain to Bactria.

The first gold Lydian staters attract attention. There is also a selection of electrum coins from the city of Cyzicus, the first international currency of ancient times.

St. Petersburg is a city of canals. At one, a coin drop is found for good luck, where people try and drop coins on a sculpture – like a video game. I notice the bottom of the canal where so many coins dropped actually wind up.

We took two separate trips to the Hermitage on two separate days. One trip was to see the fabulous gold room, where we had a guide from the museum, our own interpreter and Crystal staff.

In the midst of all this, an elderly couple with Crystal’s tour got lost in the Hermitage and could not be found. This was problematical because none of us had visa documents to freely enter. They allow cruise ship transients in without additional documentation (except for passports) but nowhere else –not even to walk 10 yards from the disembarkation point to get a souvenir. (It turns out that they also got lost at another museum, Peterhof’s Palace, the next day).

Fortunately, there was a gift shop starting point and some Russian medallions that I wanted to buy to add to my collection.

This shop accepted no credit cards, and Crystal had no bank on board with Russian currency (legal issue). The attendant spoke no English but motioned me to the side, about 50 feet away. And so with Kathy’s help, I used an ATM machine to acquire 3,000 rubles – all the instructions were in Russian. Soon, the medals were mine.

Tallinn, Estonia, is the next port of call. It is an 800-year-old medieval city that has had many conquerors, but retains all of its charm.

It’s a delightful place to visit. Before departing the ship, I exchanged some American dollars for local currency; always some numismatic souvenirs. The paper money was handy for dealing with street vendors, even though they were very conversant in dollars – but not at an especially good rate of exchange.

We had a lovely formal captain’s farewell dinner as we sailed overnight from Estonia to Stockholm.

We take two tours (a morning and afternoon) of the sights of Stockholm, which actually consists of 13 islands and over 50 bridges. Harbors are no problem in Stockholm, and our bus headed toward Old Town, which is one of the  oldest parts of Scandinavia’s oldest capital.

There we saw signs for the Money Museum, with advertisements and banners showing the “largest” coin in the  world (Swedish plate coppers are what they were advertising – though as events show they also had a Yap stone).

At 9 a.m., our group was called and we began a departure tour that turned out to be extraordinary. The transfer tour – from the Crystal to Stockholm’s Grand Hotel (established 1874) took from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and our guide was special.

A visit to City Hall revealed the site where the Nobel Prizes are announced, and presented each winter. This turned out to be a thrill, because we saw council chambers (where the Stockholm city council meets) and the anteroom where medallic gifts to the city are displayed.

They are numerous and these medals (generally) depict the donor city (or nation) in the design, not that of the  honoree.

Location where the Nobel Prizes are awarded includes the dance floor (second floor of City Hall) is also seen. The locations were originally reversed (dance floor downstairs), but as more Nobel laureates come back – they are always invited (at their own expense) – the  size of the room matters.

The numismatic museum at Old Town turned out to be magnificent and under appreciated. The most amazing museum, however, is not the numismatic museum (which is cool beyond belief) but the Museum to the Swedish warship Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, and then remained hidden in Stockholm harbor for 333 years.

The 1961 rescue of the vessel, and years of conservation, make it the only original boat or warship of its type – since most of the others would have been eliminated by sea worms. (The worms need salinity of 0.9; because of the  proximity to the nearby lake that is connected by locks to the Baltic harbor, the salinity is just 0.4 – and the boat survived in the  sand.

It seems Swedish King Gustav II Adolf commissioned the Vasa. Stockholm was a capital city of just 10,000 people – and Gustav II Adolf ordered design changes to add 32 more cannons– all of which were added to an entirely new deck, making the boat top heavy.

Family members of the crew went on board and the crew of 400 was to pick up the soldiers. As the boat with six of 10 sails up rounded a peninsula, the  wind gusted, the Vasa tipped, then righted itself. Minutes later another gust of wind hit the Vasa and it capsized and went to the  bottom of Stockholm harbor – too deep to salvage the boat but not the  cannons.

The 115-foot tall masts protruded from the  surface; they were cut, the location marked for the future when technology might allow for salvaging. These details were unfortunately lost when City Hall burned in 1697. With the rediscovery and salvage three centuries later came other problems; not until 1990 was the museum opened; in 2008, they have found that sulphuric acid naturally occurring from contact with the wood of the vessel is slowly destroying this only known intact 17th century war vessel.

I ask our guide about visiting the financial museum. “I know about it, but have never been in there,” is her reply. Then she said that all they have in there is money, and why would anyone want to see it? Well, this coin collector did, and the following day in the rain Kathy and I the  walked around the harbor from the  Grand Hotel to the money museum and spent three of the most fascinating hours I can imagine – and even my non-collector wife enjoyed it.

The museum is world class in every way and has ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine coinage and the finest collection of Swedish copper plate money. It also has an obligatory medium-sized Yap stone for odd and curious money buffs.

Swedish copper plate money is, well, weighty. It was issued when the country was broke after fighting many foreign wars. Copper was all they had left. The museum has an example to pick up and handle – heavy indeed. For kids, there’s a children’s numismatic museum with a floor map that allows you to connect money with a country’s actual location.

For me, what I enjoyed most was the old-fashioned dark-wood display cabinets filled out beautifully with medallic art and coin rarities. Digital photography is wonderful, and easily a couple of hundred shots were burned. Kathy’s the better photographer for close-up work – wildlife, too – so any of the accompanying illustrations are hers.

When we finished up, the book store and souvenir shop was a great place to spend some time and money; lots of books were in English, and the pricing guide (in Swedish) was easy to read. We stopped in the snack bar to have a cup of coffee (me) and beverage (Kathy) before stepping out into the monsoon.

The bad weather made me realize just how nice our cruise was. Nearly every guide, no matter what country, told jokes with a common variation on these being the nicest days of the entire summer – and if you are not careful, you can miss both of them; or summer is 300 days of waiting and two days of “where did it go,” found throughout the Baltic region.

At last we were ready to come home to Fair Lawn, N.J.

More Resources:

• Subscribe to our Coin Price Guide, buy Coin BooksCoin Folders and join the NumisMaster VIP Program

2010 U.S. Coin Digest, The Complete Guide to Current Market Values, 8th ed.

State Quarters Deluxe Folder By Warmans

Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money, 1928 to Date

Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition

 

 

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