Of Coins and Kings
Fellow Jewish residents in Bangkok know Brooklyn-born lawyer Ronachai Krisadaolarn as Ronald J. Cristal, and the bullet coin in his palm doesn’t look like a coin at all. It does resemble a bullet, though: the pellet kind once fired from muzzleloaders. It’s an antique two-baht piece – a handmade cowry shell-style silver ingot stamped with the hallmark of 19th-century Siamese monarch Rama IV (immortalized in the West by Yul Brynner in “The King and I”). Cristal is a voluble 62-year-old with the encyclopedic memory of a librarian married to the lithe gestures of a ballet dancer; on becoming a Thai citizen in 1998, he adopted a Thai name that rhymed with his original and translates grandly as Victorious Warrior with Majestic Power. “Although the top mark [imprint] is rather degraded,” Cristal explains, inspecting his new coin, “the bottom cuts [chisel marks] are excellent. There’s no rice mark [authenticating oval notch], but it’s definitely genuine.” This unique piece set back Thailand’s preeminent numismatist $7,000, but it was worth every copper penny of it. “A coin like this,” he offers, “is a part of history no one else owns.” Cristal owns plenty. His is the largest private collection of rare Thai coins: more than 2,000 items in all, worth as much as 2.5 million baht ($62,500) apiece. Even in the esoteric world of numismatics, Siamology counts as a wildly exotic field: Before Queen Victoria’s gift of a modern mint machine in the late 19th century, the Siamese had invented an inspired, unique array of “primitive” money. Few written records remain, so Cristal, who spends weekends scouring antique shops and flea markets for new specimens, often has to rely on intuition. He’s working hard to spare fellow collectors worldwide such nuisance. Bending over his desk in a roomy high-rise Bangkok office cluttered with prints of antique coins shuffled between files on legal cases, he’s finishing up “A History of Thailand through Its Coinage,” a comprehensive study of local currencies from prehistoric to modern times. It follows his two earlier books in English, “The Centenary of Thai Bank Notes” and “The Coins and Medals of the Rattanakosin Era” (1782 to date), both now standard volumes of Siamese numismatics. His work has earned him the notice of H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), who invited Cristal for a palace get-together, a rare honor accorded to a farang (white foreigner). “His Majesty’s face is on every Thai coin so it was nice to meet him, yes,” comments Cristal, who also counts as royalty in some circles. German numismatists have dubbed him “the king of opium weights,” courtesy of his much-envied collection of the tokens once used as currency in Burma and Laos. His grandmother would be proud. It was her jar of pennies that first inspired Cristal to collect “nickels, dimes and Indian-head pennies.” A poor Yiddish- speaking Polish immigrant to New York, she prized every penny she could save. A large sepia photo-graph of her, along with those of bearded great-grandfathers and their families in shtetl-style garb, occupies pride of place in his office. When he doesn’t deal with collector’s items, Cristal deals with very real money. He’s managing director of Bangkok International Associates, a leading firm specializing in corporate and commercial law, and is regarded as a legal fixer by local Jews. A few years back, when the Thai government wouldn’t accept Judaism as an officially recognized religion, and therefore denied chief Chabad Rabbi Yosef Kantor, special clerical status worth a resident’s permit, Cristal, now Chabad’s official legal representative in Bangkok, got the rabbi a work permit instead – by setting up a company issuing kashrut certificates to Thai canneries exporting pineapples, peanuts and tuna fish to Israel. Cristal, a coin enthusiast since childhood, arrived in Thailand in 1971, during the Vietnam War, as a military judge advocate dealing with local settlement claims against the U.S. military. “Say a B-52 crashed into an upcountry tapioca field,” he remembers. “I’d have to pay for the damaged crops – and for chickens the locals insisted also got killed – and for traumatized pigs that wouldn’t eat and for some enraged ghosts that had to be placated by expensive offerings.” Then one day he wandered into a small shop peddling Chinese sycee (silver ingots), and the next thing he knew he bought the shop’s entire collection. “Look at these: pig-mouth money!” From his massive safe he conjures a plastic trayful of golf ball-size silver bubbles whose inverse purportedly resembles a pig’s open mouth (minus the teeth). “They’re 700 years old, from the northern Lanna Kingdom.” Next, he produces spatula-like objects with the pimply texture of toad skin. Voila, tiger-tongue money: “They’re from the rural northeast and are now worth up to $600 each.” Then there’s flower money – silver beer- coasters bearing crystallized imprints of coriander blossoms. And on and on down to sesame seed-size pennies. “I bet,” he proposes, “that you’ve never seen shekels like these.”
Copyright c 2004. The Jerusalem Report
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