The crowd near the stage consists mostly of middle-aged and older men, with just a few women here and there and a couple of children weaving in and out. The atmosphere on the second day of this auction of coins, currency and stamps in the city by Marudhar Arts is relaxed, even convivial, and the bidding sometimes slips into the desultory.
That changes when Lot 1433 comes up for bidding. This is a gold King William IV Two Mohurs, minted in 1835 in Calcutta, with a bust of the king on one side, and a lion in front of a palm tree with the legend “East India Company” on the other. Only 1,300 of these coins were minted, and the crowd seems to know it. The coin sells for an eye-popping Rs 11.5 lakh.
The action is even more furious for a silver rupee minted in 1940, with bidders across the room raising their paddles swiftly, and auctioneers Rajender Maru and his son Archie keeping close track by pointing at each accepted bid while calling out the new amount. It’s all over in a couple of minutes but that is all the time it takes to drive the coin’s price from Rs 20,000 to Rs 90,000. The highest price paid at the auction is Rs 12 lakh, for a 1917 bundle of 25 Re 1 notes with a rare sequence — which Maru estimates to be the among the highest bids in the country for paper notes, though he declines to reveal the identity of the buyer and seller.
“Coin and note collectors are a passionate lot,” Maru says later. They are also a diverse lot. There is simply dressed Sridhar Kolegal, who has travelled from Kollegal village, 140 km from Bangalore, to pick up notes and coins. Kolegal is a collector and dealer who has been in the trade for three years, after his business “flopped”.
Sixty-six-year-old V Ravinder Kumar has been collecting coins for 35 years, aided in his hobby by his wife Jignasa. The businessman, who has an air of prosperity owed not least to his girth, says his house in Chennai is like a museum.
There is Rafeeque Kuttikkakam, a Marxist sympathiser and member of the Kannur Philatelic Club in north Kerala, who is keen on Haj currency, printed by the government soon after Independence for pilgrims to spend in Saudi Arabia in accordance with an agreement with the Saudi government. These notes, he points out, are in different colours.
The exhibitors, 29 in all, are also from all over the county, from metros like Kolkata and Mumbai to towns like Nagpur, Navsari and Alleppey.
Sitting in his office in Basavangudi, Maru says he is mostly satisfied with the auction, the second he has conducted. Of the 629 lots of coins, stamps, notes, dice, autographs and medals, his firm was able to sell 375. The original plan was to have an auction where there would be simultaneous floor and online bidding, but this had to be shelved because of Internet connectivity. Instead, online bids remained open till 4 pm, while floor bidding took place after that. Maru is hopeful he will be able to pull off a simultaneous auction sometime, though his immediate focus is a live online auction in May.
Maru’s establishment, Marudhar Arts, was started in 1966 by his father, who developed an interest in stamps thanks to his job at the post office. Maru considers himself a pioneer, emphasing that he was the first in India to launch a website for coin, note and stamp collectors, and the first in Asia to have a 100 per cent online auction.
He is not a collector, though he has met plenty of passionate collectors. One of them, he says, came all the way from Chennai to buy a coin but would not pay for it immediately. Instead he insisted that Maru travel with him to Chennai the same night so that he could pay him there. The reason? “He was afraid that if I travelled alone to Chennai, I might end up selling it to someone on the train!”
But he rues that he is seeing fewer young collectors these days. “And that’s a pity because this is such an educational hobby. A child collecting coins or stamps will learn much more history than he does in school,” he says, blaming the apathy on Internet and “chatting”.