U.S. Coin Price Guide

Coin Collecting

Buy Coin Supplies

Early Russian Wire Money Considered Rare
By Bob Reis

I must respond to Robert Krill's letter to the editor in the January issue of World Coin News. He asks, if the symbol on the 10th century Kiev coins is now the Ukrainian national emblem, should they not be considered the first Ukrainian coins? I have no problem with that point of view. He claimed that the contention that they are first "Russian" coins as inaccurate and propagandistic.

Propagandistic is also OK with me. People do like to propagandize. But inaccurate? Kind of fuzzy. Back then, I submit, there were no "Russians" and "Ukrainians." They were all the same people, divided and united by ephemeral and local politics and military necessity, not the mutually disdainful separate ethnic groups of today. Russians consider those coins to be their first and Kievan Rus to be their first political state. Ukrainians do, too. When I get to Ukraine I will describe those coins again. Perhaps someone will yell at me then as well.

Like the "Holy Land." They will have to learn to share their history. The past belongs to everyone who lives today. The ancestors, I submit, do not care. They would look at their descendents - some become Russians, others Ukrainians - and shrug their shoulders. Eh, they tried. Kids think the strangest things. What can you do?

I had expected some push-back on various assertions I might make regarding Russian history. Some people have very significant emotional investments. Aside from Mr. Krill, there has only been one other. Anonymous, historically incorrect, raving, obscene, slightly threatening - sent from a bogus address in Ohio. I got two letters from that guy. Hey, if you send me another, I'll turn them over to the FBI. And I guess if you liked getting upset about what I've written so far, you'll just love it when I discuss the development of serfdom. But whatever you do, keep your subscription to World Coin News.

I might mention, purely as an aside, that no Mongols have ever complained about my treatment of their history.

This time I'm going to discuss "wire money." What's the main thing about wire money? Smallness. Accordingly, I'll start with a general discussion of the manufacture and use of tiny coins in Eurasia from about 600 B.C. to about 1400, when the Russian wire money began to be made.

The ratios between gold, silver and copper have until the last few decades varied within a certain range of, oh, say, 1 gold to 8-14 silvers. (Now, just to show how weird it is today, it's about 1:75.) Copper coinage was always based on the "who cares" principle. Base metal coinage was usually a purely local matter. Exceptions include the early coinage of Sicily and in China, where they were doing things a bit differently.

In most places there was this prejudice against base metal by both merchants (too heavy) and rulers (sheer hoity-toitiness). The urge to be using something of "real value" in one's small transactions tended to the production, early on, of teeny weeny silver and occasionally gold coins. They did that in Greece from at least the 5th century B.C. and in India (probably an independent development) possibly as early as the 3rd century B.C.

After a few hundred years the sheer inconvenience of tiny coins started getting to people. They got lost, they were expensive to make and it began to make sense to use that yucky token copper. Teensy coins died out in the Greek world. But they continued, more or less without a break, in parts of India. This was specifically in the west: Saurashtra (think Mumbai) to Karachi, perhaps. Many regional governments over several centuries put out tiny silver coins. Why? Because they worked; the people who used them liked them.

This is all way before the popularity of tiny coins in southern India. The last of the western Indian tiny silvers were issued by Muslim invaders in the 12th century.

Then came the Mongols. They, of course, messed up everything over a very large area. In southeastern Pakistan, for example, it seems they largely de-populated a region comprising a lot of the modern provinces of Sind and Baluchistan. When people came back about 100 years later, they brought their central Indian coins with them: the clunky "dump" stuff, not eensies.

Meanwhile, over west in the late 12th century, inflation, the Crusades, disruption of trade, exhaustion of silver mines and other factors had caused the authorities to cut the weight of the silver coins over and over again. Just before the Mongols came to Iraq and Syria, the dirham, which had started out essentially as a quarter, was about the size of a dime and getting smaller. The Mongols, including the Golden Horde in Russia/Ukraine, kept issuing that small module dirham, the coins getting cruder and a little smaller through time. When? Fourteenth century.

As the Mongol governments declined, the locals reasserted their interests. It happened in Russia and it happened in Anatolia and eventually it happened in Mesopotamia, etc. Anatolia is important for a discussion of tiny coins because as the locals (Turks at that time) took over, that's what they made.

In the world of Islam, when a dirham got too small they started feeling strange calling it that. Another name should be found. They called them "qirat," originally 1/6 of a dirham. The Turks called them akje. In the aftermath of the Mongols, akjes is what they struck. Akjes became a major presence in the general circulation of the Black Sea region, which included Ukraine/Russia.

They were conveniently mimicked by the Golden Horde they weighed more or less the same at first. And then later during the mid-15th century, when the Russian princes started making their wire coins and the Ottoman akjes were about 0.5 gram, what do you suppose was the average weight of those Russian coins?

Ivan Spassky, without clarifying anything, I think, rejected the thought that the coins of the Russian princes had anything to do with those of the Golden Horde, but elsewhere mentioned that there was a wide range of weights to the dengi (we're talking multiple tenths of a gram here!). Pure murk.

OK, somebody argue with me. Tell me the Russian wire coins were a purely de novo local development, nothing to do with the Turks.

So let's talk about those local Russian coins.

The Mongol governing style was to let the locals do what they wanted as long as they did exactly as they were told whenever the Mongols told them to do or not do something. To be fair, though, that was how almost all rulers behaved back then, but the Mongols were relatively more efficient about it. And the Mongols did not start out being possessive of the mint right, but when they became Muslim (in the west) and Chinesoid (in the east) they became quite control freaky about their coinage. So when the Russian cities started putting out coins, it was like a pie in the face to the Golden Horde. It was like telling them, "We're going to do what we want and you can't stop us.

At least in part. Actually, the city of Novgorod was at least sort of independent throughout the Mongol period. It had not been conquered, but rather had come to terms, and maintained a favored status: gateway to trade with the west. Spassky described a major silver import business from the 12th to the 14th centuries. It was largely of Bohemian pragergroschens, most of which were melted down and made into ingots.

By the way, the ingots were originally called "grivna," but in the late 12th century the term "rouble" started to come into use. The ingots were mostly for hoarding and major transactions. Occasionally they were cut in half in the course of transactions. None (?) are known cut smaller than that. Toward the end of their run, a practice developed of putting a validation stamp on or near the cut edge.

I will make a perhaps controversial proposal now, so get ready. It seems to me, looking at it from the outside, that perhaps the relationship between the Russians and the Mongols was a bit better than entirely one of miserable repression. Nevsky, after all, sought and received aid from his Mongol overlords in his struggle against the Teutonic knights. The Mongols saw the Russians doing business with the west, liked it, taxed it and let them do, within limits, their thing. When their thing became coinage, well, maybe they were too weak to do anything about it anyway.

The first of the Russian dengi, according to Spassky, were made in Moscow for Dmitri Ivanovich Donskoi, 1359-89, who won independence from the overlords, whom we will, following Russian usage, henceforth refer to as Tatars rather than Mongols. There is a historical joke in that phraseology. Want me to tell it? OK, I will.

The original Tatars were an independent tribe who allied with Chingis Khan and then turned against him. Chingis defeated them and proceeded to kill all of their males above a certain age. What was left of the Tatars was reconstituted as a military slave people, sent to do military dirty work like local policing/repression. Westerners took to the appellation because it reminded them of Tartarus, the Hell of the ancient Greeks, from which the fiendish Tatars could be imagined to have come. Ha ha.

Anyway, Dmitry Donskoi's dengi have western style figural types on one side while the other have Arabic legends and look extremely Golden Hordish. They are rare and very expensive these days. I've never had one.

Dmitry's son Vasily, 1389-1425, issued relatively prolifically with numerous types. Late in the reign he reduced the weight of the coinage by about 50 percent. I got a few while the Russians were exporting their coins in the late '90s, so according to my personal definition (if I have it ... ) they are not rare. I paid about $100 for them, and they are probably worth at least $300 today.

During Vasily's reign, mint right began to be licensed to subordinates. According to Spassky, those guys would say, essentially, "We need some coins over here. Commerce, you know." And Vasily would say, "OK, buy a license and give me a cut." Towns were Galich, Serpukhov, Uglich, Mozhaisk. Spassky described the issues as "extremely varied." To me that points to the probability of frequent recoinages as a means of taxation. You had to bring the old coins in and pay to get new ones, a very common practice in Europe at the time.

Varied they may be, but also rare. All of them.

Vasily's son, Vasily II, 1423-62 with interruptions, continued in a similar vein, but a counter trend emerged as he annexed territory in various ways. Where this happened the local independent coinage disappeared, replaced by Vasily coinage issued by what had become one of his branch mints.

The reign of Vasily II was twice interrupted by insurgencies conducted by princes of Galich. While briefly resident in Moscow the Galiches made coins, wrote Spassky, using Vasily's dies in combination with their own, thus producing coins with two names on them. One more numismatic curiosity.

The next prince of Moscow was Ivan III, who laid the foundation for the Russian empire to come and during whose reign the independence of the remaining great cities, and therefore their coinage, came to an end. We'll come back to him next time. For now let us discuss those principalities.

The towns in question were Novgorod, Yaroslavl, Ryazan (subcoinage for Pereyeslavl), Tver (subcoinage for Kashin), Pskov and Rostov. Distinguish these, and their coins, from above-mentioned Serpukhov, etc. The coinage of the latter began as Moscow dependencies and ended as they became political suburbs. The former were independent, though, in the larger scheme of things, not for long.

It used to be, for about a year in 1993 or so, that you could get wholesale wire money and sometimes find a few of these mixed in with the Ivan the Terribles and Mikhail Romanovs. That stopped pretty quick and all the good stuff got pulled out of the wholesale. Now the good stuff mostly goes to auction. And at this point the wholesale has pretty much disappeared, though who knows what the future might bring.

Anyway, similarly to the Moscow dependencies coins, there were many varieties. All rare today. They began often with Arabic or pseudo-Arabic legends on one side. Rostov, in fact, started its series with a sort of Miroesque ram's head tamgha countermarked on Golden Horde coins. And the coins ended smaller than they began, either more or less imitating Moscow coins or actually being Moscow coins after the Moscow takeover.

Late in the city coins series, copper coins appeared, called pul, just like the Golden Horde coppers (pul = fals by some linguistic evolution through Arabs, Turks, Mongols and finally Russians). The coppers typically did not have some ruler's name on them, this fact being taken as an indication that they were made by town councils or merchant guilds. And keep in mind please that typically some smith would be allowed to buy a license to make coins. There were no full-time "official mints," so to speak.

Let's talk about the "wire" part of "wire money." There are many ways to make planchets by hand. Islamic silver at that time tended to be, as far as I can tell, usually cast blanks. European silver was cut or punched out of sheets (this was the groschen period they hadn't gotten to shillings yet, let alone thalers).

So the coins of, say, the Golden Horde were made by taking a proper weight blob of silver, beating it flat, then striking it with the dies. And that's how the Russian coinage began as well. The early planchets of all of these princely city coins were, I think, made one at a time.

But at some point someone figured out that you could save time by cutting the blanks out of pieces of wire and it was off to the races.

I'm wondering, though. In Spassky, page 96, figure 70, there is a conceptual "reconstruction" of the manufacture of wire planchets that shows the wire bits hammered out "to shape" and ready for the dies. I'm thinking that I'd rather take the hot wire and the assistant runs it through the dies one coin after another, THEN cut them apart. It makes more sense to me than picking up a tiny planchet and placing it just so on the lower die. Am I nuts?

You know what is the strangest thing about this pre-Tsar series? No catalog. Not even a trial listing. Spassky, out of print catalogs of auctions and old collections. It is actually kind of ridiculous. It is not a major world coinage like, say, the Kushans (for whom there is also no catalog), but it is of major interest to many collectors, even though the coins are all rare. There is not much useful information on the Web either. What do you say, Russian Ministry of Culture?


? 1992-2018 DC2NET?, Inc. All Rights Reserved