However, coin cleaning has not always been taboo. And in one case it led to the death of a prominent 20th-century numismatist.
It all happened on June 24, 1922. World-renowned numismatist J. Sanford Saltus was discovered in his room at London’s Hotel Metropole, lying on the floor, fully dressed. He was dead at age 69, but not from natural causes.
A coroner’s jury labeled Saltus’s passing as “death by misadventure,” according to an account in the August 1922 issue of the American Numismatic Association’s publication, The Numismatist.
The day prior to his death, Saltus purchased a small quantity of potassium cyanide for use in cleaning silver coins he had just purchased. The Numismatist noted, “Potassium cyanide, although one of the most deadly poisons, is frequently used by collectors in cleaning coins…”
Unfortunately, at some point after Saltus retired to his room, on the 24th, he ordered a bottle of ginger ale. “A glass containing the poison and another glass containing ginger ale were found side by side on the dressing table,” The Numismatist reported, “and it is believed that while interested in cleaning the coins he took a drink of the poison in mistake for the ginger ale.” Ouch!
At the time, Saltus, who hailed from the United States, was president of the British Numismatic Society as well as one of the major benefactors of the American Numismatic Society. A prestigious award for medallic art is still presented each year in his honor by the ANS.