Ignorance isn't bliss
Volume 43, Number 12, December 2006
A recent ruling at Croydon Crown Court has implications for all of us involved in numismatics. In short some dies, in this case those once used to mint certain Hong Kong coins, were being offered for sale through an internet auction site; it transpires that in fact this practice is actually illegal and a prosecution was brought by the Royal Mint against the vendor, in this case a well established and respected coin dealer but it could just have easily been a member of the public, an “ordinary collector”. Now the fact is that the vendor was indeed “in the wrong”, in as much that ignorance of the law is no defence, however if you ask 99% of dealers or collectors whether they knew that the owning of dies was illegal then I can guarantee that they would be as gobsmacked as I was when told of this. I, and most of the others in the trade I have spoken to were not aware that despite dies being regularly offered for sale in other parts of the world (particularly in the U.S) to own one used by the Royal Mint, either for British or Foreign coinage, is in fact illegal. The fact is it isn’t just dies that are illegal to own – the Forgery and Counterfeiting act of 1981 makes it perfectly clear that the possession of instruments that might be used for counterfeiting is illegal - so in effect that would include any dies, tools, plasters etc. indeed anything that could be used to make coins. Now it must be emphasised that in this case the vendor was not attempting to strike coins from these dies, they were in fact damaged and could not have been used, however that was not the issue, the very fact that they were owned at all was the problem – but that begs some very important questions, ones we must ask before someone else is caught out doing something that they had no idea was against the law. The purpose of my raising these questions now is not to pass judgement on either the Mint for bringing the prosecution nor the dealer for owning the dies in the first place but rather to ensure that this doesn’t happen again – none of us wish to break the law but as was seen recently the fact that we don’t know if something is illegal or not won’t help our case. The first question that needs to be addressed is one is one of common sense – were any of us to be offered a die for a decimal coin, a coin still in circulation today I suspect very few of us wouldn’t doubt the legality of the situation. However what if we were offered dies of coins from the time of Queen Victoria? Or of a pre-independence Commonwealth country or former colony? Would we then be so ready to reject them? Maybe not but it seems we should, any coinage die, at least those of the Royal Mint or it’s subsidiaries (and that includes any mints that sub-contracted from the Royal Mint – as had been the case with the dies in the recent court case) should not be in the hands of anyone who does not have the due authority to own it (in general this means in private hands, museums an such like usually being exempt). The second question relates to the restriking of coins in the first place – most coin collectors would, I suspect, balk at the idea of restriking any coins, seeing the results as little more than forgeries, even if sold as restrikes, however anyone with any knowledge of the Soho Mint of the mid 19th century will have heard of how medallist W. J. Taylor bought up dies for scrap value and proceeded to restrike certain coins from those dies, “coins” that are now quite eagerly sought after! There is it seems a place in some collections for such coinage, even if the majority of us would be horrified by such things! With this in mind should restrikes ever be sanctioned? Should there be a change in the law to allow such things? After all there is a precedent! I suspect the answer will be a resounding no but it’s worth asking. Of course this case had nothing to do with the actual coins themselves simply ownership of coining materials – which brings me to the third question, that of dies that are seen as antiquities rather than anything else – what of dies, should any of us be lucky enough to come across them, of the middle ages, of medieval times? Do they fall under this same banner of illegality? It seems that yes they do. Initially it was thought that only dies of coins post the re-coinage of 1816 would come under this ruling but it appears that any die, of any era is affected. Of course in practice the older the die the less likelihood of any action being taken but the fact remains that any collector in possession of any die that has been used to strike a British coin, or a coin struck on behalf of another nation by the Royal Mint, is breaking the law – and that’s something we should all be aware of. Personally I feel that the law is there for a reason and whilst it is a great shame that these pieces of numismatic history can never legitimately find their way into collections I do understand the theory behind it – after all they may be in a collection of a passionate numismatist today but tomorrow they could well fall into less scrupulous hands. The law is the law and must be upheld – what a shame though that that same law that prevents bona fide pieces of numismatica being privately owned can do nothing about the plethora of “replicas” that abound at the moment. Sadly it seems it is fine to make your own dies and strike coins that can and do deceive but to own original dies with no intention of striking coins is not tolerated. It’s a mixed up world sometimes!
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