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Mankind's Long Relationship With Platinum
By Kerry Rodgers

In the late 19th century Hilaire Belloc penned immortal doggerel in his Bad Child's Book of Beasts:

I shoot the Hippopotamus
With bullets made of platinum,
Because if I use leaden ones
His hide is sure to flatten 'em.

For most Victorian children Belloc's platinum bullets would have been their first acquaintance with this exotic metal. It was, after all, not a name that popped-up in fairy stories. Gold and silver ruled the everyday pirate treasure of a child's world and for a good reason. Europeans were ignorant of platinum until the 17th century.

Yet platinum had a long and venerable association with mankind. Ancient Egyptians and pre-Columbian Native Americans knew it well. They valued it as an important metal.

The Spanish stumbled over it during their treasure-hunting conquests of South America. For them it had nuisance value. Specifically, it was admixed with alluvial gold in Colombia where its properties interfered with gold extraction. They called it "platina," meaning "little silver." When they took some home, those same properties fascinated Europe's scientists. Platina proved notably denser than gold and impossible to corrode with gases or chemicals. Nor would it "melt by fire or by any of the Spanish arts." In 1751 it was recognized as the seventh known element.

Raw platinum was commonly impure and tended to be brittle. In 1789 the French succeeded in rendering it malleable, and in the early 1800s the British produced the first sample of pure platinum. The techniques used laid the basis for modern platinum metallurgy.

By the end of the late eighteenth century platinum was finding industrial applications. It made resistant, durable laboratory containers. France introduced platinum crucibles for glass production and it proved the bee's knees for manufacturing caustic chemicals.

In the 19th century goldsmiths took a shine to it, particularly for expensive bling such as watch chains and coat buttons. For those from the top drawer, a full set of platinum flatware made the ultimate dinner party statement.

Nonetheless, much of the world saw the metal as simply scarce. It was not held to have any particular value when compared with gold.

Roubles to Go

But then in the early 19th century substantial amounts of alluvial platinum and platinum ore were located in the northern Urals a thousand or so miles northeast of Moscow. Quantities were sent to St. Petersburg where The Minister of Finance, Count Yegor Frantsevich Kankrin, proposed using the rare metal as a useful coinage alongside gold and silver.

Tsar Nicholas I duly approved and the Russian Government declared a State Monopoly on all platinum dealings. No export of the native metal was allowed. In theory both actions should have ensured the price of platinum remained stable. However, Kankrin was warned that cheap platinum was available from Colombia and that Russia could have difficulty in maintaining a controlled price structure. Kankrin brushed the advice aside and instructed the Imperial Mint to go ahead with preparation of platinum roubles.

The alluvial Russian metal needed to be refined and the ore processed. This was not simple. It had never been done before on an industrial scale. Native Russian platinum contained iron, copper and gold, as well as traces of the so-called platinum group elements such as iridium, osmium and rhodium.

General Sobolevsky set up the necessary processing plant at the St. Petersburg Mint.

His production line could accommodate around 10-15 kg of ore per day. Essentially the native metal was boiled with four times its weight of aqua regia. The dissolved platinum was then precipitated and the fine solid washed carefully, dried and brought to red heat to yield a metallic platinum sponge. The separation process was imperfect. Tiny inclusions rich in gold and copper are not uncommon in early roubles, most of which are also ferromagnetic, i.e., they attract a magnet as a result of their containing significant iron - up to 4 percent of the coins' weight (wt%).

The sponge was hammered, forged and annealed repeatedly to produce malleable bars or sheets that could be further worked to obtain coin and medal blanks. During this part of the process, the density of the metal increased to become slightly less than that of pure platinum that comes in at 21.46 g/cc.

The process proved technically successful and in 1828 the St. Petersburg Mint issued the first 3-rouble platinum coins and later 6 and 12 platinum roubles. Over the next 18 years, some 20 metric tons of platinum ore would produce 1,373,691 3 rouble coins, 14,847 6-roubles and 3,474 12-roubles. The total weight of platinum used was 485,505 troy ounces, or approximately 15.1 metric tons.

All minted coins bore the same inscription on the reverse: in the center of the face was the denomination, the date and the "SPB" mintmark of St. Petersburg. Imperial Russia's double-headed eagle dominated the obverse. The nominal mass of platinum used was given around the edge in zolotnik (zol) and dolya (dol). For example, the weight of a 3-rouble coin was 2 zol 41 dol (or 10.35 grams). Measured weights can vary somewhat from this and it is perhaps worth noting that densities of platinum roubles vary between 20.1 and 21.3 g/cc.

In 1846 the price of platinum fell outside Russia sufficiently for the order to be given for coining to cease. The entire platinum coinage was withdrawn and sold to various European concerns.

In With the New

In the later half of the 19th century further official mintings took place to produce coins for collectors. They are known as "Novodel" mintings and used the original dies. As such, they are numismatically identical to the original series.

These new mintings continued until 1890 although, thereafter, forgeries appeared in response to collector demand. In the 20th century further counterfeits surfaced, some apparently made in Lebanon but others elsewhere.

Forgeries aside, conventional numismatic procedures do not always provide unambiguous criteria to distinguish authentic, early- to mid-19th century circulation platinum roubles from later Novodel strikes. One difficulty arises in that the Novodel issues typically occur in as-struck mint condition and today feature widely in reference collections.

To make the distinction, the art of the platinum metallurgist has been called upon. Detailed examination of two small rouble collections has shown that non-destructive surface chemical analysis of the coins along with physical measurements can provide a good indication of what are restrikes and what is an original striking. Microscopic surface examinations prove ambiguous largely as the quality of the strikes varied over the 18 years of production and, regrettably, detailed metallographic examination requires destructive sampling of each coin.

The analyses show that the surfaces of the original coins contain 2-4 wt% of elements other than platinum with further impurities present as inclusions within the coin matrix. The results suggest that the Russian refining practice varied little throughout the entire original production. Coins had platinum contents of 95-97 wt%, with tolerable levels of impurities the norm. These included gold, iridium, copper, nickel and iron. Iron and iridium were particularly abundant.

In Novodel coins, total impurity levels are less than 1 percent and reflect the enhanced quality of late 19th century refining practices. Such coins have been found to be made of platinum with much higher purity levels than even the best of the original coins. Nonetheless, levels of all elements, other than platinum, in Novodel coins are considerably higher than in any modern platinum issue.

And care needs to be exercised in interpreting the results of non-destructive surface analysis. Original coins exist with small patches of high-grade platinum on their surfaces. These platinum-enriched zones possibly reflect some processing procedure, although whether they developed prior to or during striking is unknown.

The analytical results are consistent with physical measurements of both coin groups. In general, original 3-rouble coins are below the nominal 10.35 grams and have densities between 20 and 21 g/cc. The purer Novodel coins tend to be above 21 g/cc. A definite ferromagnetism is a good indicator, although not a prerequisite, that a coin is an original strike. It reflects the high level of iron remaining in platinum processed pre-1846.

All That Glisters

The influx of cheap Colombian platinum and the dumping of the Russian reserves on the European market caused the price of platinum to remain at about a quarter that of the then $20 per ounce price of gold throughout much of the third quarter of the 19th century. Enterprising forgers were quick to exploit the disparity, and platinum became the metal of choice with which to counterfeit British, French and Spanish gold coins. There is a certain irony in that the first use of platinum in Russian coinage was to make counterfeit gold roubles.

Unlike other metals, platinum has a high density and is resistant to most acids, just like gold. The two metals possibly ring the same. The only significant problem counterfeiters had with platinum was its silver color. Its density is somewhat higher than gold but this can be adjusted by adding a little copper or zinc.

Over the years Clark Smith has sold a number of such platinum counterfeits of common European gold through his Web site, www.coinvault.com. Examples are shown here. They are a popular collecting area. Similar counterfeits are illustrated on the French Web site Infonumis. (Go to www.infonumis.info and click on "Fausses monnaies." Google can translate the page for you.)

Commonly counterfeit coins were struck on a platinum core that was then washed or plated with gold. Ideally any plated coin should have sufficient gold to withstand being stroked on a touchstone, but over time the coatings became progressively thinner. Many of the counterfeits created of Napoleon III and Isabel II issues retain little if anything of their golden veneer. Some forgers were a little more generous. One French counterfeit consists of a platinum core worth about 3 francs sandwiched between two thin plates of gold. The profit on such a piece was about 80 percent.

Infonumis points out that the French may have pioneered the use of platinum for counterfeiting gold. Two fake gold double Louis d'or were seized from a sweatshop in 1804. This was not an isolated incidence. Another record of a platinum Louis d'or produced by a goldsmith named Troyes Gu�rin dates from 1805. A survey of historical French legal records shows the problem to have been widespread both through pre-revolutionary years but also post-revolution, despite the practice being ruthlessly suppressed. It is clear that few people at the time could recognize good quality fakes, making it very easy to introduce such currency.

In 1979 the then-archivist at the Royal Mint, G.P. Dyer, reported on 13 counterfeit sovereigns made from platinum. These bore dates of 1861, 1862, 1870 and 1872. All three examples of the 1872 date carried die number 29 on their reverses.

Spectrographic analysis of one coin showed 3.4 wt% copper present, consistent with densities ranging from 19.63 to 20.36 g/cc for 12 of the coins - against the 21.46 g/cc for pure platinum. One counterfeit, however, had a density of just 17.44 g/cc, closely matching the 17.5 g/cc of the .916 fine gold alloy used in sovereigns.

Dyer concluded that the coins were struck, probably by coin dies "- produced from a pair of matrices manufactured by forcing a genuine coin into a piece of hot steel." The crude nature of the dates pointed to their numerals having been struck by hand into the obverse dies.

And U.S. coinage was not exempt from the counterfeiters. Back in 1999 Heritage Auction Galleries sold an 1869 platinum counterfeit half eagle. As with other coins, the gold "plating" had been removed and each side showed evidence of tooling. It fetched $316.

There is little evidence to suggest that gold-plated platinum counterfeits continued to be made much after about 1880. Presumably the rising price of platinum made the practice no longer economic. But, of course, prior to the sudden dip in platinum prices in 2008, counterfeit platinum coins commonly fetched up to five times their golden equivalents!

The 20th Century Cometh

Regardless of the failure of platinum to succeed as a currency in Russia in the 19th century, that experiment established that the metal could provide a convenient store of wealth just like gold and silver. It would, however, be over a hundred years before this notion was taken up.

The metal came into its own in the aftermath of World War II. In 1941 President Roosevelt had declared it a strategic war metal and banned its use for non-military purposes. It had been found essential for manufacturing critical chemicals and key components. Post-war the new technologies helped transform industry across the globe such that today one of every five goods manufactured either contains platinum or it is used somewhere in the production.

The upshot is that the demand for and hence the price of platinum rose and rose again. Two applications alone led the price charge. One was the development of molecular conversion techniques for refining petroleum. The second was the introduction of automotive emission standards. Platinum provided the answer for the latter and at the beginning of the 21st century more than 35 percent of all newly mined platinum was going into car catalytic-converters.

Throughout the last quarter of the 20th century the price of that once unwanted and unloved "little silver" ramped to twice that of gold. In 1980 platinum had peaked at just under $800 an ounce. On June 24, 2008, it was selling for $2,032 and ounce, or approximately $65 per gram.

But last year came the chill winds of the global credit crunch. The consequential downturn in the automotive industry worldwide saw platinum's price plunge just as dramatically as it had once soared. By the beginning of January 2009 it was hovering just over $900 and ounce compared with $850 and ounce for gold.

In the aftermath of the 1970s oil shocks, small platinum bars were marketed to investors for the first time. They proved popular, particularly when a spike in the metal's price resulted from the increasing use of platinum by the car industry. In the late '70s and early '80s investment in platinum bullion became widespread in Europe and the U.S. Both Johnson Matthey and Engelhard produced 1- and 10-ounce platinum bars to supply the market demand.

Then in 1983 the Isle of Man emulated the 19th century Russians and issued a 1-ounce platinum Noble. The world's first platinum bullion coin was a humdinger of a success. Soon a platinum Aussie Koala and a corresponding Canadian Maple Leaf followed. These too were instant hits and in 1997 were joined by the platinum American Eagle.

Today a host of platinum collectors' coins is available around the world, matching those long available in gold and silver. But, my one regret is that platinum bullets are no longer fashionable, not even for shooting hippopotami.


Sincere thanks are due to both Clark Smith from www.coinvault.com and Heather Zachary Rogoff of Platinum Guild International USA (www.platinumguild.com)


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